Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Odors of the Erie in Schenectady

A photo on our New York Heritage Digital Collections page prompted an interesting question, "What did the Erie Canal Smell Like?" The photo, seen below, shows part of the canal towards the end of its lifespan, probably in the late 1910s. The amount of trash and debris in the photo makes me think that it didn't smell all too great.

Photo of men on Dock Street by the Erie Canal. This photo gives a great idea of just how shallow the canal was, it was originally 4 feet deep and 7 feet after it was enlarged. Check out a zoom-able image on our NY Heritage page. Photo courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection. 
Former Schenectady City Historian William B. Efner wrote an account of his time as a cash boy in Barney's Department Store in the 1880s. Efner states that Canal would slow to a trickle in the fall as the water was let out. In the springtime, cleaners would go down into the canal and clear out any garbage, waste, and dead animals that had accumulated over the winter. Efner goes on to say that this was all thrown onto the towpath for days "until water was let into the canal and a scow could be run through on which the filth was deposited and hauled away, but the stench remained for days afterward."

Another photo of the drained canal. near the Union Street bridge Crossing. Check it out in our NY Heritage Collection.

No dock rats in sight in this picturesque postcard of Dock Street
and the Erie Canal. Check it out in our NY Heritage Collection.
Courtesy of the Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection.
Author Jeannette Niesuler wrote a six-part article on the Erie Canal from the Daily Gazette titled "When Schenectady and the Erie Canal Were Young Together." Niesuler describes the "out of sight, out of mind" philosophy that many canalers abided by when disposing of their waste. There were also sewers that let out into the canal. Neisuler goes into a bit more detail about the type of waste found by the so-called "dock rats" which was the name for the men who cleaned out the canal. Neisuler writes a very vivid description of the type of debris the dock rats would find, "Waste of all description, and some that would defy description, gathered there -- no excepting carcasses of long dead, putrefying animals, even on occasion, a horse. Lying there on the towpath, fermenting in the hot sun..." Mike Rowe would have had a field day joining the dock rats for a Dirty Jobs: Erie Canal Edition.  

Schenectadian Benedict R. Hatmaker had quite a few ideas on how to improve the city he writes that "The canal should cease to be a cesspool and a stench and turned into a crosstown street,"
Testimony of Francis Tauriello in the case of Michael Crage v.
the City of Buffalo in 1933. Courtesy of Google Books.
 which it eventually turned out to be a true prediction. Other cities were dealing with the same problem. An article in the May 6, 1913 issue of the Utica Herald Dispatch states "Neither bar spices, perfume, or chloride of lime will sweeten canal's breath." In Buffalo, a possible solution to the offending odor of the Erie was found in diverting the sewers underneath the canal and into the Buffalo River. Which solves the problem of a polluted Erie Canal, but creates the problem of a polluted river. There was even a lawsuit brought against the City of Buffalo in 1933 by a Michael Crage. Crage claimed that a lack of sewers while Buffalo was filling in the Erie Canal drove tenants away from his building.

Filling in the canal meant that many of the first floors of buildings on Dock Street were covered up. Check this image out on our NY Heritage page. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
Schenectady, like other cities in New York, found a solution to the stench by filling the canal in and creating a street. The canal in Schenectady was filled and paved in 1925, creating Erie Boulevard. The street that ran along the canal, Dock Street, is now the sidewalk of Erie Boulevard. Many of the remaining buildings along Erie Boulevard are reminders of the canal in the city although some have been demolished or destroyed over time (some very recently).

The Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives has many photos of what life was like on the Erie Canal and we have been working to digitize many of them on our New York Heritage Collection page. Images of the canal can be found in our Erie Canal Photograph Collection, Schenectady, NY Street Scenes Collection, and the Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection. For even more photos and information, stop by our library at Schenectady County Historical Society headquarters at 32 Washington Ave.