(Just like Toronto, the city of Rochester is this year celebrating its sesquicentennial. In view of this special anniversary, it seems appropriate for us to take a brief look at the history of the port that lies just across the lake from Toronto. We are indebted to member Ron LaDue for the feature, which was written with the assistance of Rochester City Historian, Blake McKelby.)
The first non-native person to venture into the area that later was to be known as Charlotte, or the Port of Rochester, was the explorer La Salle. He stood offshore with his three brigs and a fleet of canoes and bateaux in July, 1687. This was the first time that ships of any size came into the vicinity but, during the next century, more than a dozen small sailing ships appeared on Lake Ontario. They came to the Rochester area mainly for military reasons and for the trade which the French and English carried on with the local Indians.
In 1797, the area played host to its first American-built schooner, a 30-ton ship named JERIMA, which made its way up the Genesee River to a point near the lower falls. The river, for the most part, was a sailor's nightmare. Sandbars, shoals and the ever-present currents made the Genesee difficult for any kind of ship to navigate. Nevertheless, some fifteen schooners and open boats, capable of carrying cargoes ranging from 25 to 75 tons each, ran from Charlotte to various other lake ports. After numerous incidents involving problems in navigating the river, the shipowners settled on the lower Genesee for the site of their port activities.
After the war of 1812, lake trade in the Charlotte area grew steadily. The flour and grain trade made Rochester a major exporting centre, as grist mills sprang up all over the area. The steamboat ONTARIO was built in 1816 and made many visits to the port, often carrying passengers to the Niagara Falls area for pleasure cruises, as well as taking on freight. She was 110 feet in length, with a beam of 24 feet, and approximately 240 tons. By the year 1820, some 316 vessels were using the port for loading and unloading cargo.
However, the masters of ships trading into the Genesee were "becoming concerned about the sandbar which lay off the mouth of the river. Accordingly, a stone lighthouse was constructed in 1824 to light the river mouth and mark the navigable channel. By then, many Canadian ships were using the port. More than one-third of the 217 ships that called at Rochester in 1831 were of Canadian registry. When the Erie Canal was opened as far as Rochester in 1823, competition for cargoes became very intense, but when the canal became fully operational for its entire length, there occurred a substantial decline in the amount of cargo handled through Rochester. As a result, the federal government concluded that it was necessary to improve the mouth of the Genesee and do something about the worrisome sandbars. So, in 1834, two piers with a length of 2,876 feet were built out into Lake Ontario. These piers successfully breached the sandbar and provided a safe entrance to the river.
The opening of the Welland Canal produced a great increase in Lake Ontario shipping but Rochester played only a very minor part in this boom. Despite the addition of a light on the harbour's west pier, most of the trade was going to Oswego, N.Y., because that town had a direct connection to the Erie Canal via the Oswego Canal. In 1835, Congress approved another $10,000 for harbour improvements for Rochester, but this work did little to bring shipping back to the port. Many schemes were tried over the next thirty years, but the ports of Oswego and Buffalo continued to take much of the shipping activity away from Rochester. Not until August of 1872 did trade start to pick up. Then, some twenty sailing vessels were docked at Charlotte, loaded with locally grown apples; still, it was not until coal shipments began to grow in the mid-l870s that Rochester found a real export trade.
The coal trade gained momentum with the completion of the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburg Railroad in 1883. A.G. Yates established a coal dock for barges and schooners three miles up the Genesee, and coal was loaded into the vessels by means of gravity from a trestle. Coal shipments to Canada in 1890 amounted to 350,000 tons. The Charlotte area also boasted a blast furnace, but that industry did little to generate shipping activity in the port.
The number of ships calling at Charlotte doubled after 1880 and totalled 1,278 in 1901-1902. In 1906, 754 foreign and 220 American boats arrived at Rochester. (The Port of Rochester was not actually given that name until 1917, when the city annexed the area around Charlotte.; The Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company's big overnight passenger steamers TORONTO and KINGSTON called at the port as one of their way stops on the daily run between Toronto and Prescott; the R & O steamers had called at Charlotte for many years as had several other Lake Ontario passenger lines. But it was the Ontario Car Ferry Company Ltd. that gave the greatest boost to the development of the port. The steel ferry steamer ONTARIO NO. 1 was built in 1907 and a slip was constructed for her near the coal trestle up the river. A near-sistership, ONTARIO NO. 2, joined her in 1915, and together the two big ferries carried passengers and coal cars across the lake between Rochester and the town of Cobourg, Ontario.
With the coming of these large ships, a turning basin was needed near the coal docks so that vessels could turn and leave the port without having to back down the river. A 600-foot basin was dredged out and a twenty-foot channel maintained. Not to be outdone, the Rochester Chamber of Commerce decided to build a large warehouse for general cargo near the mouth of the river. This building was completed in 1921 at a cost of $275,000; it was located on the site of the old blast furnace. The city built this facility because it was said that Canada Steamship Lines Ltd. was going to build a similar terminal which would have shut out package freight competition in the area.
The C.S.L. passenger boats, the carferries, and the colliers loading at the trestle kept the port busy for many years. At the outbreak of World War II, the port experienced a further improvement in shipping volume. Exports, primarily consisting of coal, climbed to 1,500,000 tons by 1948, while imports rose to 270,000 tons. However, a decline was just around the corner. Increased automobile travel made the cross-lake ferry less attractive to the public and the route was soon discontinued. The Ontario Car Ferry Company Ltd. suspended service, withdrawing ONTARIO NO. 1 in August, 1949, and ONTARIO NO. 2 the next April. Even the C.S.L. passenger service came to an unexpected end after the 1949 season; KINGSTON made her last trip of the year that September and service was discontinued permanently after the imposing of harsh new Canadian fire safety regulations with which KINGSTON could not be made to comply. With the retirement of KINGSTON and the carferries, all regular passenger service to and from Rochester was brought to a close.
Nevertheless, during the last few years of port activity, there were more than 300 calls made to Rochester by vessels loading coal. Newsprint was taken to the port terminal by the various Bowater ships which called there regularly, and much road salt was also brought in by ship. A few industries used the terminal for exports, but seldom on a regular basis. The makers of "Ragu" tomato sauce used the facility for shipping their product.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the main visitors to the port were the Reoch ships, the VALLEY CAMP, the Bayswater Shipping Ltd. self-unloaders, and a few other colliers and cement carriers. The Lake Ontario Cement Company built a bulk cement storage facility near the coal trestle and the C.S.L. canaller GLENELG visited it weekly. The canal motorship DAY PECKINPAUGH called at the cement company regularly, and other self-unloaders such as STONEFAX, OREFAX and COLLIER were often in port. In fact, most of the ships regularly running the Lake Ontario coal and cement trades called at Rochester. The cement trade was latterly handled by METIS and then by STEPHEN B. ROMAN.
In 1970, the B & O Railroad wanted to build a new coal trestle, but the Rochester city fathers, concerned about industry causing additional pollution of the river, refused to allow the construction. So eventually the old trestle was torn down and no more coal boats called at the port. An oil company wished to build a tank farm near the trestle site to that tankers could use the port, but again the city refused to sanction the project. That area, together with the actual site of the old trestle, is now a city park. The terminal at the mouth of the Genesee now sits idle and no vessels have used it for freight since 1974. Once in a while, a tug and barge may take refuge from rough weather on the lake, but the only ship that now calls regularly at Rochester is STEPHEN B. ROMAN.
The Port of Rochester is dead. The St. Lawrence Seaway did not "happen" here. Rochester was bypassed for bigger and better ports, and with good reason, for the port never adapted to the demands of modern times. I can recall, as a youngster, hearing the sounds of the ships' steam whistles at the Stutson Street drawbridge and the New York Central swingbridge, sounds that can never be replaced. Politics took its toll, as did the noise and dirt of industry, and the fact that the drawbridge always seemed to be up and hindering traffic at rush hour.
I never saw those things as negative aspects of the Rochester shipping scene, however. I loved the smell of the coal smoke, the sound of the steam whistles, and the banging of the coal cars, and I would gladly have waited forever for the drawbridge. It was all a beautiful part of my childhood, and now it all is gone. I shall miss it. Now my son, Jason, and I spend every free moment at the Welland Canal, but it is just not the same as what I used to see around Rochester when it still boasted an active harbour.
(Our thanks to Ron for this short history of the Port of Rochester. There is a serious lesson about port management to be learned from it, and we would hope that the Toronto city fathers learn the lesson before it is too late, before Toronto Harbour follows Rochester's example and becomes a place virtually devoid of shipping activity.)
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.