Art Cohn, Holley-on-the Erie Canal, NY
In a beautiful gentle curve where the Erie Canal crosses high above Sandy Creek, is the Village of Holley. At the border to Orleans County we were met by an official escort by the Orleans County Sheriff marine patrol who led us to our berth at the idyllic Andrew Cuomo Canalway Trail. This beautiful park has walking trails, a pond with fountain, children’s play areas, picnic tables and a spectacular waterfall. Perhaps more near and dear to the crew was the close proximity of showers and bathrooms. We were looking forward to the visit to Holley because it was one of the communities we had missed during the 2007 tour, and because it was the home of our long-missing friend Bernie Ruggeri who we hoped we might be able to find.
2017 is the beginning of the eight-year bicentennial commemoration of the building of the Erie Canal and our visit to beautiful Holley gave us an opportunity to get to know one of the central contributors to the building of the Erie Canal system. Myron Holley was a Connecticut born scholar who moved to Canandaigua, New York, and from there was elected to the State Legislature and the Canal Commission. However, it was his role as Treasurer and Superintendent of Construction that his biographer reminds us that, “For eight years, he rode on horseback up and down the canal route, inspecting the work, arguing for disbursements in the State legislature, obtaining loans from local banks, paying the crews with cash, resolving problems, even caring for malaria sufferers working in the Montezuma Swamp and occasionally burying cholera victims. He slept in workers shanties, primitive inns, and often under the stars. He administered millions of dollars over eight years of canal construction and kept records in a worn ledger stored in his knapsack.” (1)
History shows he was a dedicated, hard-working and honest man who handled the vast sums of money required to meet the payroll’s and pay the expenses of the contractors building the canals. During his long tenure of service, although accused by the enemies of the canal of improper accounts, no funds were ever found to be missing. Writing in 1828, John Grieg, vice-chancellor of State University of New York and a U.S. Congressman said of Holley, “I have always been satisfied that his intelligence and zeal and unwearied exertions both in mind and body on the subject [of canals], from the moment of his appointment as Canal Commissioner, essentially contributed to bring the Erie Canal to a Successful completion.”
Holley, the town, was originally named “Saltport” but in 1823 changed its name to honor Holley’s contributions during the height of canal construction period. By then the salt mining had declined but the new canal promised great prosperity. “Where the canal crosses Sandy Creek, the little village of Holley, is claiming a name and a share of the business.” . An 1841 gazetteer described Holley as being “… a short distance east of … the Holley embankment, one of the greatest on the Erie Canal, elevated 76 feet above the [Sandy] creek.”
The town fathers had the foresight to set out the town with a prominent central square complete with business, homes and churches. One of the significant features of the town occurred during the original 1825 canal’s enlargement when the canal’s route was changed to just north of the village. The enterprising community members working with canal planners managed to utilize a portion of the original canal as a “circumferential highway” which provided boats the ability to leave the main canal and access Holley’s downtown which in turn allowed the community to enjoy a long and prosperous canal-era prosperity. Today the rich farmlands and orchards surrounding the Village provide an idyllic backdrop for this beautiful canal town.
We had a picture-perfect day for hosting the community and with the word out, we saw over 300 people in a community of 1,400 people. A band played in the gazebo, the Humpty’s Hots food truck provided great hot dogs (they gave the hungry crew complimentary hot dogs after our long day of discussions) and we enjoyed a wonderful old-fashioned visit where we talked about the canal with families, elders and kids.
One of the highlights of Holley was making contact with Bernie. In 2007, our first trip out the Erie Canal, Bernie had been the Section Superintendent in the Cayuga area where we put up and took down our sailing rig. Bernie had essentially adopted the boat and her crew and not only provided logistical support above and beyond the call, but toward the end of our stay in his section, brought us an eggplant parmesan made by his mom. Edna’s cooking was legend in her hometown of Holley, and it became legend aboard the Lois McClure in 2007. Upon arriving in Holley, it didn’t take long to find friends of Bernie’s and in short order Bernie showed up for a reunion. The reunion was all the sweeter because Bernie came with his mom, Edna, both looking great and enjoying the good life.
Thank you Myron Holley for your integrity and dedication is helping to build this world class water highway. Thank you, Holley, for providing us one of our nicest port-visits, and thank you Bernie and Edna for being part of the family that makes us feel so welcome along the way.
- Reisem, Richard, Myron Holley; Canal builder, Abolitionist, and Unsung Hero. Friends of the Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, NY. 2013
Myron Holley is buried at the Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, NY.