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Canastota

And the Erie Canal


Wherever there is a mode of transportation, civilization always has followed. So it was that Capt. Reuben Perkins, Revolutionary War soldier and founder of Canastota, came jogging along by stagecoach down the Seneca Trail from Litchfield, Conn., in the year of 1807.

The Seneca Trail, soon to be known as Seneca Turnpike and later Route 5, followed the Indian trails and waterways, enabling the early settlers to travel west on horseback and oxcart and later by stagecoach.

Capt. Perkins purchased 329.5 acres from the Oneida Indians in 1810. They called their land “Kniste-Stota”, meaning “cluster of pines near still waters.

The first settler brought his wife, two sons and eight daughters to live in a log cabin on their land. Because Canastota was only a small clearing in a low swampy forest traversed by Canastota Creek, it was much slower to develop than other nearby communities. It was not until Gov. DeWitt Clinton realized the beginning of his dreams of “The Big Ditch” as the Erie Canal was called, that new growth came to village.

When construction of the canal began in 1817, a great wheat field flourished upon the village site and only four houses graced the landscape. Two of these were the residences of Capt. Perkins and his son-in-law, Thomas Menzie.

The Canastota section of the Erie Canal was laid through at this time and Capt. Perkins was made superintendent of the operation. As this historic waterway was opened section by section, from 1819 to 1825, it gave the growth of the village an impetus unequaled in its history.

A host of workers and their employers descended upon the village. Stores of all kinds were opened and various craftsmen sought and found employment. Many of them built homes and brought their families to Canastota. The hardy and lusty settlers of that era were real “canal people” and there was a wild and rough period of adjustment.

However, it was there people who brought to Canastota municipal authority, churches and schools. Before long the countryside bustled with farmers, drummers, merchants and men of every profession and trade. About this time, in 1819, the first religious society was organized by the Baptists and interest in education increased.

The first school in vicinity had been a log cabin on Main Street and the second near the cabin of Capt. Reuben Perkins. In 1812 the New York State commissioner of common schools located a site for a school on a road than ran from James Street to the turnpike. The site cost $10 and the building $149.

One of the most outstanding early citizens of Canastota, Nathan S. Roberts, came to the village about this time. In the era of intensive Canal building, Nathan Roberts was a nationally known canal engineer, serving on state and national commissions which surveyed many of the famous canals of the time.

Roberts was assistant engineer on the Rome-Rochester stretch of the Erie Canal and built his home near the southwest corner of Canastota over a period of four years, from 1821 to 1825.

As soon as this section of the canal was opened, a line of packets was established, making regular trips between Syracuse and Utica, stopping at all intermediate towns. Trade sprang up at once between Canastota and other villages, making it one of the foremost villages in central New York. The first post office was established in 1829 with Ichabod S. Spencer as postmaster, and by 1831 there were three public houses, three stores and a hatter business in the village and the population tataled 406.

Canastota was incorporated as a village in 1835 and at that time had a population of about 425. As the canal brought a continued influx of new residents, the business section of the city grew proportionately.

Another form of transportation gave impetus to Canastota’s growth when on July 10, 1839, two bunting laden little engines puffed trough town with a tiny string of wooden cars, making the first run on the Syracuse-Utica railroad.

The Erie Canal at Canastota originally was about four feet deep and 40 feet wide. As traffic increased, Nathan Roberts was appointed chief engineer and in 1839 began the task of enlarging the canal. It was widened to 56 feet at the bottom and 70 feet at the top.

It was around this time that a high bridge was constructed over the canal at Main Street. It was a modern structure for its time, for the words “Patented in 1841” appeared on the metal arch that separated the vehicle and sidewalk tracks.

The first fire company was formed in 1863 and in 1886 its name was changed to Forbes Hook and Ladder Co. was formed in 1884 and DeLano Hose Co. in 1885. Forbes, DeLano, and the Patten Hook and Ladder Company make up the present Canastota Fire Department.

Canastota was host to the Madison County Firemen for a convention in 1887, the first meeting of its kind anywhere in the country. Many industries in Canastota had their beginning in the latter part of the 19th century and a number of new buildings were erected. One of the most remembered is the Bruce Opera House, famous in its day among central New York Theatres. It was built in 1888 by Hamilton Peckham and Alfred E. Dew.

A contribution to modern industry was the invention by Herman Casler of the Biograph, a pioneer motion picture machine. Although the Canastota man was deprived of some of the credit for the machine, the first showing of these movies was in the Bruce Opera House.

In about 1895 a million dollar appropriate was made for improving the canal. Included in the plans was walling in the banks of the canal between the Peterboro and Main Street bridges and huge cut slabs of stone were hauled in for that purpose. While the work was underway, the high bridge was the favorite spot for sidewalk superintendent to observe construction progress.

Destined to become another famous landmark was the hoist bridge built over the canal at Peterboro Street. There was great interest in its construction when it was installed, as a hydraulic lift bridge was a rare thing in 1900.

When the bridge was in operation an electric warning bell would begin to clang announcing the passing of a boat and children of the village would begin a man dash to get on the bridge for a rude up, or climb up the stairs to make the descent with the bridge after the boat had passed.

There were pleasant social activities connected with the Erie Canal in those days as boat trips, excursions and picnics were popular pastimes. Church societies and town organizations had numerous outings on canal streamers and privately owned boats made trips to nearby picnic resorts. Another innovation around the turn of the century was construction of the Canastota Public Library. Andrew Carnegie promised $10,000 toward the building if local taxpayers provided the lot and agreed to take responsibility for the maintenance.

Attracted by the fertile mucklands that lay to the north of the village, many immigrants began to settle in Canastota. In 1900 the population was relatively small, but 10 years later had increased to 3,237. From this point on, vegetable production of the region, dominated by the growing of onions, became a source of agricultural income for the village.

The historic and picturesque Erie Canal, affectionately called the “Big Ditch”, outlived its usefulness in the 1920’s, but still is acclaimed the mode of transportation that played the major role in the settlement of Canastota.