Monday, June 21, 2010

Montezuma Viaduct Vigil Over Crimes in Swamp Comes to End

The Post Standard, Syracuse, N.Y., Dec. 30, 1917

New Barge Canal Construction Forces Removal of Score of Piers of Old
Erie Canal Bed - - Morass Refuge of Criminals for Years

Low Bridge, Everybody down;

Low Bridge we're coming near a town.

You can always tell your neighbor,

You can always tell your pal.

If he's ever navigated on the Erie Canal

Skippers on the boats which will ply the new barge canal must become
used in the new order of things, for there will be very few low
bridges along the route of the great inland waterway.

One of the busiest sections of the old route was the Cayuga and
Seneca canal, from Geneva, through the hills past Waterloo with its
malthouses and distilleries, and Seneca Falls, with its busy pump
works and fire engine factories.

When the new project was started the residents along the banks of the
old canal kept abreast of the times. They immediately petitioned for
the excavation of their old canal to keep pace with the new so for
the past three years sections of one entire side of the main streets
have been dismantled and condemned by the state and the owners have
not lost any money by the transaction.

When the contractors came to the old bridge over the Seneca river
just south and west of Montezuma they paused for here was a monument
to the enterprise of the pioneer canal builders.

The bridge is still considered a remarkable piece of engineering
skill. It was started in 1849 and finished in 1857 at a cost of
$200,000. Its thirty two arches rise ten feet above the high water
mark above the Seneca river, the outlet of Cayuga lake. Ice comes
down from the lake to the south in the spring in great masses, but
the sturdy old bridge has withstood the impact of the years and
remains today with not a stone out of plumb.

A desolate spot

The bridge is in the center of one of the most desolate spots in the
state. The Montezuma marsh has been the scene of many crimes as some
of the Western gold mining camps of he days of '49. Acre on acre of
marsh stretches away to the north to Lake Ontario, and from time
immemorial it has been the resort of duck hunters who very frequently
found their guns handy for other purposes beside winging birds.

Murders, robbers and other criminals infested the marsh for years.
They alone knew all the byways through the marshes. Its banks of
wooded thicket and its occasional island made a secure hiding place
from the game wardens and sheriff's posses which often were sent to
apprehend them.

Stories of girls being stolen and never found, rich men kidnaped and
held for ransom and raids on farms touching the marsh were common
property along its banks. Battles have fought between rival gangs who
made their headquarters there, and criminals who escaped from Auburn
prison have been known to have reached the marsh, to be lost as
surely as if they had gone into the dismal swamp or the Florida

Charles Higgins the veteran supervisor from Montezuma was a patrolman
on the old viaduct for years. For the past twenty years he has been a
justice of the peace of the town and had occasion to mete out
punishment to lawbreakers who lurked in the fastness of the marsh.

He was ambushed on the night of May 26, 1906 by two masked highwaymen
and while one robber flashed a light in his face the other, fired
pointblank at his head. The thieves secured between $60 and $70 from
him but overlooked a gold watch. Mr. Higgins crawled to his home and
on his recovery found he had a hole in his forehead half an inch
deep, a scar he carries to this day.

To Remove Piers

The old bridge has seen all of these things and now must make way for
the new order. Since 1857 the bridge has carried the waters of the
Erie Canal over the river.

Twenty of the piers are to be removed to make way for the new canal.
Each pier is five and a half by twelve feet at the top and twenty-
seven feet from center to center. This makes the bridge with its two
abutments, 895 feet long. The piers stand nine feet high on their
pedestals which are twelve feet high. Each pedestal stands on 120 oak
piles driven into the bed of the river a depth of from thirty to
fifty feet. A two inch planking rests on the piling and the granite
is laid on this.

The canal viaduct proper is made entirely of wood. There is a two-
inch flooring with fifty-three timbers running crossways of the
bridge. The lining is one inch boarding laid on three inch planking.
As an evidence of the durability of the wooden viaduct old settlers
in Montezuma state that very few repairs have ever been necessary.

The canal across the bridge is eight feet in depth. It was always
full and in times of flood the water flowed over the edge. The
towpath along the sides was twelve feet wide and the canal aqueduct
fifty-three feet wide.

Gates two feet by two were placed along the bottom of the viaduct
every thirty feet and were raised or lowered by hooks. This was to
regulate the surface of the canal if the water got too high and there
was danger of barges crashing against the sides.

The removal of the twenty piers will permit a clear span of over 500
feet for the new waterway. Efforts are now being made by persons
interested in preserving monument of the Empire State to have the
canal authorities leave several more piers as a testimonial to the
enterprise and engineering skill of the builders.

Submitted by Richard Palmer

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