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Modern Bridge Makeover Preserves Past on Route 69

Wed October 11, 2000 - Northeast Edition
Mary Gelling Merritt

There’s something new and something old about the Route 69 Bridge, which spans 112 ft. (34 m) over the Oriskany Creek, connecting two sides of the village of Oriskany in New York state. The former canal aqueduct turned highway bridge is getting a $930,000 facelift but the construction plan includes preserving the structure’s past. Bell Construction Company of Poland, NY, was awarded the contract in May. The project is slated for completion Oct. 31, 2000.

“We’re on schedule,” said Bell Construction Company’s James Bell. Incorporated in 1988, Bell Construction is a family owned and operated company specializing in bridge, road and culvert construction. Bell said when the project is complete the 70-year-old bridge will have a new deck, new concrete abutments and new approaches.

New York State’s Department of Transportation (NYDOT) said the bridge’s substructure is made of the original stone abutment and pier construction, which dates back to 1851 when the Enlarged Erie Canal Oriskany Aqueduct was opened for canal traffic.

“We’ve designed this bridge to work in concert with the existing piers in the stream,” DOT Regional Construction Engineer Paul Obernesser said. “It used to be a waterway. Now, it’s a highway.”

The aqueduct, or channel built to transport water, was built to carry the Erie Canal over the Oriskany Creek. The Oriskany aqueduct was very tall with a path on one side for horses and mules to pull the canal boats. It was described by a historian as “a 4-ft. deep bathtub with water in it.”

“The original blocks were stacked high in the water to form piers and abutments that supported a wooden trough-like structure,” said Heather Pritchard, the DOT’s regional cultural resources coordinator. The canal was built over the Oriskany Creek because the creek would swell its banks in the spring and shrink in the summer making it unsuitable for canal traffic.

When the idea to build a canal across New York state was first proposed by Geneva’s Jesse Hawley, President Thomas Jefferson called it a “little short of madness.” However, New York City Mayor Dewitt Clinton thought the idea was brilliant. When Clinton became Governor of New York state in 1817, funds were quickly appropriated to build a canal from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes.

On July 4, 1817, ground was broken in Rome, NY, and workers began digging west. The spot in Rome was chosen because no locks or aqueducts were needed for about 80 mi. Workers used only pick axes, shovels, stump pullers, elbow grease and determination to dig the canal. The Erie Canal, also called at the time “Clinton’s Big Ditch,” opened on Oct. 26, 1825. It was praised as the greatest engineering marvel in the world. The canal was 363 mi. long, 40 ft. wide, 4 ft. deep with 18 aqueducts and 83 locks. The Erie Canal was an immediate success. The canal shortened travel time from New York City to the Great Lakes by half, reducing shipping costs by 90 percent. The newly opened trade route to the west encouraged growth and development all along the canal and made New York City one of the busiest shipping ports in the United States. The construction of the State Barge Canal in 1918 caused the Erie Canal in Oriskany to be filled in. Motor-powered boats were towing crafts through canals so towpaths were no longer needed.

Now about 4,500 motorists cross the bridge each day, DOT officials said. Traffic is being detoured using Route 291 to Route 49 to Route 922E.

“We are very pleased that New York state is foremost in not only replacing bridges to ensure the safety of our people but also preserving historic landmarks such as this bridge over the Oriskany Creek,” Village Mayor Donald F. Rothdiener said. The village plans to have a ribbon-cutting ceremony when the new span is completed.

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