In the 1850’s, a battle of wills ensued in Port Byron over the route of the canal that led to great harm in the business district of the village. What is odd is that this battle seemed to be waged by local landowners with the support of State engineers. In the 1931 obituary of Mrs. Harriet Johnson, who died at the age of 102, the paper wrote, “[She] was 28 years of age when the Erie Canal was enlarged from 40 to 70 feet. She remembered the squabble that took place among the residents of her village about the enlargement of the waterway. Some advocated the enlargement along a circuitous route and others a new and direct route. The will of the latter finally prevailed and the channel was cut through the most beautiful part of the village.”
When the State decided to enlarge the canal in the mid 1830’s, it was understood that many mistakes had been made in the original construction of the canal and that the enlargement of the canal would allow for many of these mistakes to be corrected. One of the biggest problems with the old canal was the winding nature of the construction. It seemed that any obstacle that the original builders faced was simply bypassed by going around it. So in places the canal turned in ninety degree bends. This made it difficult for mule teams to pull the boats as they went around the tight bends and even more importantly, the twists even made it difficult for the water to flow and refill the canal. It was a mess. The rebuilding would give the State the chance to remove these curves as they enlarged the canal from 40 to 70 feet in width. In the end, so many bends were straightened that the canal was shortened by fifteen miles by the time the enlargement was complete between Albany and Buffalo.
Unfortunately for Port Byron, the village was located on a curve, and it seems that some in the community saw an opportunity to profit if they could convince the State Engineers to move the route of the canal from the business district to the “flats” slightly north of the settled area. This flew in the face of canal law, which forbade any movement of the canal away from business areas; even it meant leaving a problem area in place. The curve that Port Byron sat on was in reality quite small and if removed would only save about a third of a mile in distance. But some in the village wanted the canal moved and petitioned the State. They got Canal Commissioner Fitzhugh to agree to the change in the route even though it went against the canal law. The businessmen of the village, the men who needed the canal to keep the money flowing, protested and got the Canal Board to reverse this decision and put the route back to the old route. This move put the canal back in the business district. But then the contractors who were hired by the State to build the new route sued and got the route changed once again. After all was said and done, the new proponents of the new route won. To satisfy some in the community, mainly the large mill, a stub of the old canal was left intact, however, it was not enlarged. After the mill burned and no one used the stub, it was quickly abandoned and the businessmen were paid off for the loss of the canal.
It took eight years to settle this matter, and all through this time, shippers west of Syracuse had to continue to use the smaller “pre-enlargement” boats since the canal through Port Byron wasn’t deep or wide enough to use the bigger boats. Shippers then began to use the Oswego route, robbing businessmen from Port Byron west to Buffalo the chance to ship larger loads on the canal. Thus, the mess at Port Byron became a state wide concern as it dragged on through the years.
Once the enlarged canal was completed in 1858, the larger boats could be used to ship to Rochester and Buffalo, but they couldn’t reach the businesses of the village. The village didn’t die, but it was harmed by the loss.
This 1857 map shows the two routes along with the original canal, all laid over a image taken from Google Earth. We thank Bill Hecht for doing this.