Have you not wondered, Where are the Falls in Seneca Falls?
It can be argued that the falls as a natural phenomenon never existed, that instead there were just rapids. These rapids existed because there was approximately a 42-foot of drop from west to east inside the village. The Iroquois referred to them as “Shaseonce,” meaning “swift rolling water.”
Following the Phelps and Gorham Purchase of 1788, more and more people were moving to the western part of New York State. In 1794, Wilhelmus Mynderse returned to settle after seeing the area during Sullivan’s Expedition. In 1795-96, Mynderse erected a grist mill that became known as the Upper Red Mill. It was located on the north side of the Seneca River, about where present-day Fall Street disappears into Van Cleef Lake. Also in 1795, Mynderse bought a 1/5 share in the Bayard Land Company and became the firm’s on-site resident agent. The Bayard Company also controlled the movement of boats along the rapids.
The First Canal on the Seneca River
The rapids in the settlement of Mynderse Mills were a major obstacle to transport of goods and people on the Seneca River. Elisha Williams of Hudson, NY was among the first to improve the Seneca River by constructing a hydraulic lock for water power purposes at Waterloo. In 1812 the proprietors of the mills and water way rights in Seneca Falls and “Skoi-Yase”(Waterloo), applied to the legislature for aid in rendering the falls and rapids navigable for boats. These visionary businessmen saw that a canal connecting the two lakes would promote commercial and agricultural interests in the counties of Tioga, Steuben, Ontario and Seneca.
Surveyor General Simeon DeWitt surveyed the Schauyes rapids and Seneca Falls and reported to the state legislature on February 1, 1813. By Chapter 144 of the laws of the State of New York, passed April 6, 1813, the Seneca Lock Navigation was incorporated. The state legislature realized just how much such a canal would benefit the economy of the entire state that the state act of incorporation for this company included a provision that the state would purchase half of the initial 1000 shares in the company and construction work started in 1813, and the first boat passed the newly constructed locks at Seneca Falls on June 14, 1818. The entire nine miles long canal was completed in 1821, and of the eight stone locks, three were located inside the Seneca Falls village.
The construction of the first canal locks on the Seneca River in 1815, led to the creation of 3 man-made waterfalls where previously there had been rapids. These waterfalls created a large source of water power for many industries that flourished in the village prior to the Civil War in an island area known as the Flats. The “upper falls” was located approximately midway between drawing imaginary extensions of Clinton and Mynderse streets all the way to the Seneca River. The “middle falls” was located almost directly south of an imaginary line extending south of State Street. The “lower falls” were located east of the present double locks of the Cayuga-Seneca Canal. The map shows the location of all three waterfalls, as well as the portions of the Flats (shaded in blue green) that were flooded when the canal on the Seneca River was redone in 1915.
Connection to the Erie Canal
Construction of the Erie Canal began in 1817 and was completed in October 1825. In April of 1825, the State Legislature authorized the construction of the Cayuga and Seneca Canal from Geneva to a junction with the Erie Canal at Montezuma, a distance of twenty-one miles. The state opened the Cayuga and Seneca Canal to the public on November 15, 1828. There were eleven locks with a total of 83.5 feet of total lifting or lowering between Seneca Lake and the Erie Canal at Montezuma. The Cayuga and Seneca Canal had momentous economic impact upon the county. The Waterloo and Seneca Falls areas were now connected with the outside world by a very practical and improved transportation system. The towpath constructed along the canal route meant that now boats were by towed by mules and horses rather than polled by man power. Two other canals were soon built nearby, enhancing the economic use of the Cayuga and Seneca Canal.
Explosion of Industry
This new canal on the Seneca River and resulting good access to water power led to a boom in industrial development between 1825 and 1832. These news industries included at least three more flour mills and sawmills; new factories: a distillery; a cloth-dressing, fulling and carding mill, a paper mill; a sash factory; a carriage factory; a clock factory; a cotton mill; and a furnace and machine shop. Given the existence of all these industries—made possible by the falls and the canal—it is not surprising that when the village was formally incorporated as a village on April 22, 1831 that its name 1 3 2
was Seneca Falls. Seneca Falls had grown from a population of about 265 in 1827 to some 3000 people in 1840, making it the 19th largest community in New York State.
Demise of the Falls
The coming of the railroad in 1841 provided major competition for the Cayuga-Seneca Canal and the entire Erie Canal. The State of New York continued to make improvements to the canals, typically creating larger and deeper locks so as to accommodate increasingly larger barges and boats. Starting about 1909, New York State undertook a major improvement to the entire state canal system as a last attempt to make the canal system competitive with railroads.
(The 1912 photo at right shows the construction of the new stone walls of the canal in the area between Ovid Street and Bridge Street bridges. Note the remnants of the old canal, raceways and buildings.) The five tiny locks were replaced with a large two-lock combine of 49 foot lift. (The c. 1990 aerial view below shows these 2 adjacent locks that were constructed in 1915 and the artificial reservoir that became Van Cleef Lake.) Industries located on the islands of the Flats either went out of business or relocated.
Some building materials of the various industrial buildings were salvaged by a New Jersey company, with the remnants simply used as “fill” for the base of the new course of the canal. Approximately 25 residences were moved up out of the Flats to other parts of the town. The actual flooding of the Flats was completed on August 20, 1915.
The water level inside the village was raised approximately 40 feet. In honor of the Silsby Company that produced over 1000 steam fire engines for North American communities, the Silsby Lake reservoir was created to provide an adequate supply of water for the new locks. Just like the “falls” were technically not falls, this “lake” was technically not a lake because it was manmade. Mynderse Van Cleef offered the village board of trustees $500 towards improving the surroundings of this body of water if they would permit him to select the name for this new village lake. In an October 27, 1916 letter the State Board notified the village of the name change in honor of Cunningham Van Cleef.
The creation of this Van Cleef Lake came at the expense of what had been the falls of Seneca Falls. The loss of the falls could not erase from our memories the crucially important role that these falls had played in the thriving economic development of the village in the 19th century.
Source: Adapted from “Seneca Falls and the Seneca River and Canal”, Walter Gable, Seneca County Historian, 2017; https://www.co.seneca.ny.us/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Seneca-Falls-and-the-Seneca-River-and-Canal-ADA.pdf