Following the Flow– Stop 5 Seneca River/ Montezuma/ Richmond Aqueduct

Sitting on the banks of the Seneca River just west of Montezuma are the remains of one of the most important structures on the Enlarged Erie Canal. At 894 feet in length, the Seneca River Aqueduct (aka the Montezuma or the Richmond) was the second longest aqueduct on the system. It was opened to traffic in 1856 and was in service until 1917. To understand why the building of the aqueduct was so important, we need to step back in time to 1820 and the first Erie Canal. When the builders of the canal reached the Seneca River, they were faced with the largest obstacle they had seen yet, the Seneca River and the Cayuga Marshes. The deep mucky river bottom, the slow moving river and the bugs all created a situation that they didn’t wish to deal with. Early plans called for the canal to enter the river and for boats to head upriver following the Seneca and Clyde Rivers to the west. But this plan was soon changed and a river crossing was devised. The plan was to build the canal in a manner that it connected with the river. In a sense, Lock 62 on the eastern bank of the river was the end of the canal. When the boat passed through the lock, it had left the artificial canal environment and entered into an environment that man had much less control over, the natural river. Crossing a river by floating upon its waters is called a “slack-water” crossing, and while it was not a desirable way to perform such a crossing, it was not unusual either. A small dam backed water up in the river, forming a pool of still water. The pulling animals walked over the river on a bridge and the boat was pulled through the river to the other side. This can be seen in this drawing made in 1825. (taken from the book, Bond of Union, Gerard Koeppel, 2009) The Seneca River intersects with the Clyde River at this place, creating a series of open channels. The canal had to cross over two miles of open waters and wetlands before it reached the western dry lands. The wooden bridge in the drawing was 1440 feet long. The problem with slack-water crossings is that rivers flood in wet seasons and get very low in dry seasons. In high water, the land and canal were under water, and during the dry months, boats had to be “lightened up” to make it across the river. For 30 years, the canal commissioners fought with the river, and most of the time they lost or at least fought to an uneasy truce. The only good solution was a bridge.

At the time, Van R. Richmond was the canal engineer in charge of the middle section of the canal. He made plans to radically change the canal by building a high embankment and aqueduct that would carry the canal over the river and wetlands, eliminating the troublesome crossing. The new embankment would raise the level of the canal to equal the elevation of Lock 51 at Port Byron. By doing this, it would also do away with four locks, saving time and construction dollars. At first, the plan was to build two smaller aqueducts, one for the Seneca River and one for the Clyde, and in 1849, work began on both aqueducts. Whether it was money, time, construction difficulties or all of these, the plans were changed to build one large aqueduct and then move the flow of the rivers to pass under it. The new aqueduct had a footprint that covered 2 acres. There were 4464 bearing piles driven into the muck, some as long as 30 feet long. On top of the piles a wooden floor was constructed. This floor created a level surface for the masons to work and build the stone arches, piers and towpath. The arches were 22 feet wide and 11 feet tall and there were 31 in total crossing the river. Once the stonework was finished, the wooden trunk, containing over a million board feet of wood, was built. When the work on the aqueduct was done, the Clyde River was turned to join the Seneca, and the rest of the canal embankment to the west was finished. By the spring of 1856, the aqueduct was ready for use. There were five of these long aqueducts built on the Erie. Two were over the Mohawk near Albany and Schenectady, one was over the Schoharie Creek near Amsterdam, one was over the Genesee in Rochester. Due to the high, fast water in the Genesee, the entire structure was built of stone. All the rest had wooden trunks. Of these, only the Rochester aqueduct remains intact, now being used as a road bridge. All the rest were removed to make way for the dredging of the barge canal or to allow high water and ice to flow.

Route 31

Kipp’s Island

Pre– 1854 route of the Clyde River

1862 Enlarged Canal

1917 Barge Canal

1820-1854 river crossing

Remains of Aqueduct

Let’s get back to the Montezuma Aqueduct. Here are the remaining 7 arches as seen from a boat in 2005. This part of the aqueduct was not in the way of dredging the barge canal, so it was not dismantled. An 8th arch has collapsed. Another 3 arches remain on the west side of the river. The middle photo shows the end of the aqueduct as seen head-on. The wooden trunk that carried the canal water was built to fit inside the U shape created by the stonework. The bottom period photo shows the towpath and canal. Note the tops of the piers and the Seneca River just beyond. Although it is difficult to see, the river is about 20 feet lower than the surface of the canal. No matter what the length of the aqueduct, they all serve the same purpose, to carry the canal over an stream, river or valley. There is only one aqueduct on the barge canal, that being the Medina Aqueduct in the western region of the state. The enlarged canal had 32 aqueducts of various sizes. Many aqueduct remains can still be found across the State along the route of the enlarged Erie Canal.