The 1858 change in the route of the Erie Canal through Port Byron has always been of particular interest to me, and I have written about it in past columns. In brief, when the State was enlarging the canal from four feet deep and forty feet wide, to one that was seven feet deep and seventy feet wide, the engineers took advantage of the rebuilding to correct some mistakes that were made in the construction of the first canal. One of these corrections was to straighten out the many twists and turns that hampered the movement of boats and water in the canal channel. However, to protect the many businesses, stores, warehouses, and docks that had been built along the canal banks in the villages and cities, the State said that the canal was not to be rerouted in these heavily populated areas. So the State said, straighten all you want, just leave the villages and cities alone. For the most part, this law held true. But there are always exceptions and as it turns out, one of those exceptions was in Port Byron.
Port Byron sat on a small loop which added about a third of a mile to the overall length of the 350 mile long canal. The original route of the canal though the village paralleled Utica and Rochester Streets, and the enlarged canal would have continue to use this route. But as some pointed out, by drawing a straight line between was is today Schasel Park and the Old Erie Canal Park, the canal could be shortened by one third of a mile. Of course this alignment would by-pass the village center, greatly harming all those businesses along the canal banks. And it would plow through some great farm lands along the flats. So for years the two sides went back and forth, and meanwhile the State simply enlarged the canal to the east and west. Most of the written histories of the village reflect the great argument between those who wished to leave things alone and those who thought this was a grand idea. I have long kicked around the idea that perhaps some land speculators saw this shift to new and open land as a opportunity to sell lots along the new canal.
A map found in the files of the Lock 52 Historical Society seems to back up my notion. This undated map shows the section of the village between Church, Main, and Green Streets, and the Outlet, basically where the Town Park and ball fields are located today. What is now Sponable Street is named Beach St, named for John Beach, the businessman who built the large grain mill and purchased much of the village acreage from the Buck family. Main Street is shown as State Street, reflecting the State Street in Auburn. Neatly defined lots line the canal and a new street called Center Street divided the land between the canal and Green Street. It was a bold plan that would have reshaped how the village grew.
As it turns out, the people who wanted the new and shorter route won the day, and the canal was removed from the village center by 1858. And as it turns out, the winners were also losers as by the time all this was settled, the canal era had passed by. While the two sides fought out this minor reroute, the railroads had constructed a direct line between Syracuse and Rochester. Passengers opted for the faster travel of the trains. Instead of having a packet boat landing in the village, stages could run between the hotel and the passenger station on the New York Central. The large grain mill, once the pride of the state, burned or was burned, in 1857 as it had lost its connection to the canal. Certainly the canal still had a lot of life left in it, and it would continue to flow through the village for another fifty plus years, but the hoped land boom along the new route never materialized.