How will you spend St. Patrick’s Day?

If you were in Rochester in 1865, it didn’t matter how you answered, because Mother Nature had other plans. Arch Merrill, in his Rochester Sketchbook, described it as follows:

“For seven days the rain had descended on the Valley of the Genesee after a long winter of extreme cold and heavy snows. The little tributary streams poured down the hills to swell the river torrent. Ice floes clogged the channel near Avon. On the windy night of March 16, 1865, the jam broke and the pent up waters were loosed on the hapless city.”

By the next morning, on that St. Patrick’s Day, the Genesee River overflowed to a height never before seen in its history. The Erie Canal and smaller feeder canals overflowed their banks as well.  The streets of downtown were inundated under six feet of water, as the flowing torrent destroyed bridges, offices, factories, and mills. Horses, sheep, cattle and other animals, trees, lumber, and parts of buildings were carried through the streets. Rescue efforts were carried out by boats.

Many photographs from this catastrophic event appear in the Library’s Rochester Images database, available through our website. The image below shows the flood waters on Main Street.  Note how many buildings are up to their entrance awnings in water.  The buildings lining the north side of the Main Street Bridge were in direct path of the floodwaters.1865 flood main st

The south side of Main Street is highlighted in the picture below. The steeples of the First Presbyterian Church and St. Luke’s Church, as well as the dome of the County Courthouse, are seen in the distance.1865 flood main st south side

State Street filled up quickly:1865 flood state street

The picture below shows how the Erie Canal Aqueduct had become one with the Genesee River, with debris caught between the aqueduct wall and the canal. The buildings on the north side of the Main Street Bridge can be seen in the background.1865 flood erie canal aqueduct

The floodwaters covered the railroad tracks, putting a halt to service. The New York Central railroad bridge was washed away, and the Genesee Valley and Erie Railroads suffered even greater damage.

The effects of the flood were long-reaching, as damage and devastation hit the whole Genesee Valley, leaving many without provisions and thousands with flooded homes. Amazingly, no lives were lost, but a great cleanup ensued.  See the picture below of Front Street in the flood’s aftermath.1865 flood front street

The flood was heavily reported in the newspapers of the day, often with great storytelling.  The April 25, 1865 issue of Moore’s Rural New Yorker (link below) includes an article on page 129: “The Great Freshet: The Great Flood of the Genesee, by one who took part in it.” It describes in dramatic detail, the coming of the flood from southern New York, as the waters worked their way northward and ultimately into the city of Rochester. Detailed etchings resembling many of the photographs of the day are featured.,no.16.pdf

The Rochester Union and Advertiser featured articles which appear in our newspaper index with the following summaries:

March 20, 1865:

  • “Central and business portion of Rochester wholly inundated by the Genesee; bridges destroyed; loss estimated by millions”
  • “Gas Works, street mains washed out by Genesee flood”
  • “Kind’s Foundry, Jones Foundry, Van Slyck’s, Richardson’s Foundry, Planing Mill on Brown’s Race, walls swept away by Genesee flood”

March 28, 1865: “Text of sermon delivered at Brick Church by Rev. Jas. B. Shaw, ‘The Voice of the Floods’ ”

April 10, 1865: “Residue from flood formed an island below the Upper Falls”

April 12, 1865: “The Senate Committee on Claims report that flood did $3,000,000 damages; Committee absolves state of all blame; Editorial contradicts findings of Committee and asks that claims be reinvestigated”

Other floods would hit Rochester over the years.  In 1915, the portion of the river flowing through downtown Rochester was deepened to alleviate further flood damage.  Finally, flooding in the area would be controlled by the Mount Morris Dam, completed in 1952.  But for those who lived through that 1865 flood, there would always be a story to tell.

Gabriel Pellegrino

Published in: on March 1, 2013 at 5:43 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Nice job, Gabe! Love the historical photographs from Rochester Images!

  2. The train carrying Abraham Lincoln’s body went through Rochester about a month after this. I wonder how the railroad tracks were repaired so quickly…

  3. Very nice article, Gabe.

  4. Thanks Gabe! Very interesting Nd I loved the pictures.

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