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The Cayuga-Seneca Canal

MelRussoBy Carmelo “Mel” Russo
A unique feature of Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake is the splendid canal which connects the two largest Finger Lakes. This amazing engineering feat of its time not only links the lakes to each other, but also allows access to the rest of the world’s waterways. A boat on Seneca Lake needs to descend approximately a mere 25 feet through the locks in Waterloo, then another 50 feet through two consecutive lock systems in Seneca Falls. The canal leads to the north end of Cayuga Lake where one may enter the rest of the Barge Canal system by descending about 11 feet at “Mud Lock”and pass by Montezuma Refuge into the Oswego River system to Lake Ontario and points beyond.
Prior to the building of this original part of the Barge (Erie) Canal system circa 1820, there was a natural waterway between the two lakes described by early explorers as a “babbling brook.” Settlers as late as the 18th century, record that the babbling brook was overflowing with Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar), originally a native of Seneca and Cayuga Lakes and their tributary streams, as well as Oneida Lake. Writings of early inhabitants of the Finger Lakes area report that the salmon were so plentiful that they were able to fill a boat in a short time by simply clubbing the fish with their paddles. The original stock population of this species was able to ascend the Oswego River from Lake Ontario and go as far west as Seneca Lake. Because of the rather severely vertical waterfalls of the Keuka Outlet, the species was unable to penetrate into Keuka Lake. The canal and the many mills constructed along the old waterways put an abrupt end to the to the copious and natural reproduction of salmon in our area.
According to early writings, the common eel (non-parasitic, Anguilla rostrata) was also exceedingly plentiful in the Finger Lakes prior to the construction of the canal. Waterloo was referred to by our “native” Cayuga Indians as “the place of the eel taking” as they sited the village in their land claim against New York State initiated in the early 1980’s. This, we assume, was a traditional location along the brook that the eels could be more easily captured by hand, as they ascended the face of the rock formation that created the falls.
The Cayuga-Seneca Canal was restructured around 1915*, leaving the remnants of the original canal bed still observable in the proximity of the banks of the existing canal banks. From an ecological standpoint, the canal systems spelled disaster for much of the existing, 10,000 year old ecosystems which had developed in the Finger Lakes Region. The fast flowing, highly oxygenated, clear waters of the rivers and brooks were transformed into more sluggish, cloudier, and less aerated water characteristic of our canals. Scores of more quiet water fishes including parasitic sea lampreys, the common carp, and other “invasive species” were able to access our waterways, disrupting an ancient ecosystem that was initiated and originated since the recession of the last glacier.
Nevertheless, much natural life continues to thrive in our Finger Lakes area; and it’s a great place to live.
• Where are the “Falls” in Seneca Falls? Answer: between the locks. Van Cleef Lake, a small man-made lake to the west of the locks in Seneca Falls, was created around 1915, prior to the restructuring and completion of the “piggyback” locks in Seneca Falls. The flooding of this area of the canal previously known as “the flats” is celebrated each year in August in Seneca Falls.
© Mel Russo All rights Reserved.