Natural History of the Finger Lakes Region, Part 3: Humans
First the ancient seabed, then the glaciers, and most recently, the physical transformation of the regional landscape by people
The present landscape of the Finger Lakes and Central New York has been molded by three major phases. The first was the formation of the underlying rocks when New York was part of a vast inland sea. The second phase was a protracted period of reshaping of those rocks by immense glaciers. And the third phase was the physical transformation of the landscape during and following the industrial revolution.
Remarkable influence of the Erie Canal
Looking at the landscape today, it is hard to believe that a little more than two hundred years ago this landscape was considered wilderness. After the Revolutionary War, veterans were given military plots to encourage settlement. But the region was vast and development came at a trickle due to the difficulty of transporting goods and materials over land from the cities along the east coast.
The burgeoning colonies were stifled in their westward expansion by the sprawling Appalachian Mountains. The expansion that did occur was tied to the waterways, namely the Hudson and Saint Lawrence Rivers and the Great Lakes –a circuitous route to reach the interior. Soon came the idea to create a new waterway: the Erie Canal. Other states also sought to blaze a path to the west but New York and its unique topography are what gave it an edge and helped contribute to its ultimate success.
Where the canal went, populations boomed and spread to the surrounding countryside. It is no coincidence that the major population centers of Upstate New York are found along I-90 which follows the canal. The canal literally connected the region, but the goods and travelers that floated through also bolstered the expansion of the nation as a whole. New York City, which acted as the port of call for goods that flowed east, grew exponentially and many believe that without the canal, the city would have seen growth more akin to Boston or even smaller cities along the Atlantic seaboard. Immigration accounted for much of the nation’s growth at the time, and New York soon became the most populous state in the union.
Nearly 80% of upstate New York’s population lives within 25 miles of the canal. And where population grows so does development.
Clinton’s ditch, as the canal was disparagingly called, was a massive undertaking and required extensive work to bypass some natural features. None was greater than the effort to pass through the Montezuma Swamp where it was rumored that over a thousand people died of malaria during the construction. The construction of the canal required more than just ditch digging and lock construction. In order to ensure reliable water levels, a vast network of lakes and newly constructed reservoirs were interconnected to feed the canal. These reservoirs dot the landscape and make up many of the lake communities situated on water bodies other than the actual Finger Lakes.
The cost of constructing the canal is estimated to have been 7 million dollars. An unheard-of sum for a public works project in the 19th century, but perhaps even more astonishing is that the initial investment was recouped within the first nine years of operation. The success of the canal inspired other communities to build their own, resulting in the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, Keuka Outlet, and the Chemung Canal in Watkins Glen. These branch canals were constructed to connect the Finger Lakes communities and as such, saw increased commerce and growth. Nearly 80% of Upstate New York’s population lives within 25 miles of the canal, and where population grows so does development.
Railways to highways
When the canals gave way to railroads, the railways were built on or beside the infrastructure of the canals. In time, sections of the Erie Canal were simply filled in or built over and as a result, the influence the canal had on the region is often overlooked. But much as the glaciers shaped the landscape, the canal ultimately laid the seeds where communities would grow for the next century.
Today, we are more likely to note the effects of suburban sprawl on the landscape, but sprawl does not develop on its own. A center must be present first, and as is usual in the course of history, the center is related to waterways. The lakes, rivers and canals were/are the centers from which the Central New York and Finger Lakes communities grow. And yet paradoxically, the focus around these water bodies actually endangers both the natural resources and the surrounding populations.
Therein lies one of the great benefits of conservation efforts. Even if you never set foot along a trail or dip a paddle into protected waters, the forests and other preserved lands purify your water, clean your air, mitigate flooding and dampen the effects of major storms.
Over-population and pollution threaten the very source of what led to growth and our modern societies are fraught with ever more complex problems. Chemicals, pesticides, and other pollutants (some with half-lives that will persist beyond the length of recorded human history) have a growing ability to damage our region’s bountiful water resources.
This is not simply a cautionary tale as Upstate New Yorkers need look no further than the legacy of Onondaga Lake. Industrial pollutants and persistent PCBs effectively made Onondaga a dead lake. In decades past, it was unsafe to merely come into contact with its water, let alone to drink or utilize it for any purpose. Thankfully, the lake is being cleaned and restored but its history is a dire warning that water is a fragile resource that can be easily spoiled. The cleanup is often far more costly and drastic than an ounce of prevention.
Therein lies one of the great benefits of conservation efforts. Even if you never set foot along a trail or dip a paddle into protected waters, the forests and other preserved lands purify your water, clean your air, mitigate flooding and dampen the effects of major storms. The wildlife habitat preserved will ensure sustainable levels of wildlife for sportsman, bolster wildlife viewing throughout the region, and even act as natural control over pests like mosquitoes and invasive species. These effects are not just local but regional and global.
Author Tim Starmer provided this natural history series for Go Finger Lakes in addition to writing 50 of the location descriptions. You can read more in his book 5-Star Trails: Finger Lakes and Central New York (Menasha Ridge Press).