TOWN OF MONTEZUMA HISTORY
The Town of Montezuma is located at the great bend in the Seneca River in Cayuga County, New York. It is believed that Montezuma was named for the Aztec chieftain. The area was first settled by Dr. Peter Clarke, Comfort Tyler and Abram Morgan. They were attracted to the area for the abundant salt springs first discovered by the Indians. Later, they became the early promoters for canal development and building roads and bridges.
Montezuma became the western terminal when the Erie Canal opened in 1820. Work on the “middle section” of the canal between Utica and Montezuma started after groundbreaking at Rome in 1817. The Cayuga/Seneca Canal opened here in 1828, and junctions here with the Erie Canal. It opened up 80 miles of lakes to navigation on our two largest Finger Lakes. Montezuma was a bustling village becoming the head of navigation while the building of the Erie Canal proceeded westward. The first passage boat was built and launched here by Comfort Tyler. Seventy-six feet long and 14 feet wide, The Montezuma contained an elegant dining room, kitchen, and two cabins.
When the original Erie Canal was constructed, no one anticipated the heavy boat traffic it would accommodate. Clinton’s Ditch – a mere 40′ wide and 4′ deep soon proved to be insufficient in size, and no sooner had it opened when plans began to enlarge it. Because crossing the Seneca River at Montezuma was so difficult, the State decided to relocate the canal to higher ground and to build an aqueduct to carry boats across the shallow river. Richmond Aqueduct, the second largest on the Erie Canal replaced the hazards of crossing through the river by lifting the canal up over the river, speeding up transit time. The canal commissioner reported to the State Legislature when it was built in 1856 that this was “one of the largest and most important structures on the Erie Canal.” 110,000 linear feet of wood pilings were driven into the soft ground to support the Seneca with 31 stones arches, 11 feet high and 22 feet wide. It was the second-largest built on the Enlarged Erie and cost $125,000 to build.
In 1965, the town was awarded funding through the Outdoor Recreation Development Bond Act and the Land and Water Conservation Act to acquire 136 acres of land that contains rich natural and historic canal resources. The Town of Montezuma is now developing a Heritage Park where these cultural and natural resources come together as a monument to where the past meets the present. The historic and recreational site will tell the dynamic story of four separate canals built in Montezuma that has evolved into today’s present-day Canal System. Visit the Montezuma Heritage Park page.
Rich in history, the Canals of Cayuga County offer a glimpse into how the New York State Canal System has evolved. Nearby where the canal was originally built, early settlers built the Old Mentz Church the same year the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, now the home of the Montezuma Historical Society.
We’ve come a long way from the days when mules and horses pulled boats through the Finger Lakes region, but there are ongoing efforts to assure us that our rich canal history will be preserved and enjoyed for generations to come.