Ghosts of Canal Street: Exploring an Abanonded Relic of Rochester’s Industrial Heyday

Photography by George Payne

The Cunningham factory was constructed by prominent Rochester builder William Henry Gorsline in 1850 and still stands today in the Susan B. Anthony District, just west of downtown Rochester.

The company’s choice of Canal Street for its primary factory was no arbitrary decision. The property was located across the street from the Ohio Basin, an artificial harbor located just south of the intersection of the Erie and Genesee Valley Canals.

The Genesee Valley Canal ran 107 miles south to Olean, NY where it joined the Alleghany River. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers formed the Ohio River which in turn joined the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois, 981 miles away.

At that time canals were Cunningham’s primary means of shipping, providing the firm with a direct route to emerging markets in the South and Midwest and were a key factor in the firm’s future success. History of Cunningham Factory



 Once a massive industrial complex





The following is a circa 1850 advertisement for the firm which illustrated Cunninghams new home and 2-story factory:

“Rochester Carriage Factory! The Proprietor informs his friends that he has removed his stock of Carriages from 71 State Street, to his large show rooms connected with his manufactory, No. 3 Canal Street. In order to reduce his large stock, which comprises all the styles made, from the lightest Buggy to the largest Coach, he will sell at manufacturers’ cost, for cash, or short approved paper. The deduction will be from $25 to $200 each; Coaches formerly sold at $1,000, now $800; Chariotees formerly sold at $300, now $250; Pheatons formerly sold at $250, now $175; Pheatons formerly sold at $175, now $135; Top Buggies formerly sold at $225, now $170; Top Buggies formerly sold at $175, now $150; Top Buggies formerly sold at $150, now $125. All persons wishing to purchase Carriages, by calling, will be satisfied of the above facts. All work warranted. James Cunningham.”

The complex eventually occupied an entire city block bordered by Canal St., Smith Alley, Litchfield St. and Peart Alley on the North side of West Ave. (formerly Buffalo St., name changed to Main St. in 1884). They also bought up most of the houses on the west side of Litchfield St. and by the turn of the Century owned most of property on both sides of the street between Peart Alley and Hyland Alley


Visit DePaul Today for more information about their preservation and rehabilitation work on the historic Cunningham Factory.





Third floor





First floor office


First floor office


A list of territory served


The excerpt below was taken from the New York State website on canal history. NY Canals

The effect of the Erie Canal was both immediate and dramatic, and settlers poured west.  The explosion of trade prophesied by Governor Clinton began, spurred by freight rates from Buffalo to New York of $10 per ton by Canal, compared with $100 per ton by road.  In 1829, there were 3,640 bushels of wheat transported down the Canal from Buffalo.  By 1837 this figure had increased to 500,000 bushels; four years later it reached one million. In nine years, Canal tolls more than recouped the entire cost of construction.

Within 15 years of the Canal’s opening, New York was the busiest port in America, moving tonnages greater than Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans combined.

With the exception of Binghamton and Elmira, every major city in New York falls along the trade route established by the Erie Canal, from New York City to Albany, through Schenectady, Utica and Syracuse, to Rochester and Buffalo.  Nearly 80% of upstate New York’s population lives within 25 miles of the Erie Canal.

The Erie Canal’s success was part of a Canal-building boom in New York in the 1820s. Between 1823 and 1828, several lateral Canals opened including the Champlain, the Oswego and the Cayuga-Seneca.

Between 1835 and the turn of the century, this network of Canals was enlarged twice to accommodate heavier traffic.  Between 1905 and 1918, the Canals were enlarged again. This time, in order to accommodate much larger barges, the engineers decided to abandon much of the original man-made channel and use new techniques to “Canalize” the rivers that the canal had been constructed to avoid the Mohawk, Oswego, Seneca, Clyde and Oneida Lake.  A uniform channel was dredged; dams were built to create long, navigable pools, and locks were built adjacent to the dams to allow the barges to pass from one pool to the next.

With growing competition from railroads and highways, and the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, commercial traffic on the Canal System declined dramatically in the latter part of the 20th century.



Collapsed staircase on second floor

Rochester, NY — A 53-year-old man, who was collecting scrap metal for recycling, was crushed to death inside machinery near a construction side on Tuesday, July 31, 2012. The fatal accident occurred on Canal Street and Berdell Alley in Rochester shortly before 7 a.m., reports the Democrat and Chronicle.

According to police, the man stuck his head and torso inside a large piece of machinery to retrieve a motor for recycling when he became stuck, and was subsequently crushed.

Tragic Accident at Berdell Alley in 2012




Interesting Turn of Events for Canal Street in 2015

In 2015, homeless people sleeping in a tent encampment downtown were given a temporary building to stay in on Canal Street, courtesy of Buckingham Properties.

The developers worked with city officials and homeless advocates to allow people staying in Sanctuary Village to spend the rest of that winter in an unoccupied warehouse that Buckingham owns behind the former Volunteers of America building at 89 Canal St.

Glazers offer Canal Street to the Homeless


Rooftop shot of smokestack


Random baseball card on the third floor


Dead bird on the basement floor


First floor production area


Carriage & Wagon Builder and American Vehicle, May 1914 page 17.

Joseph T. Cunningham, one of the pioneer business men of Rochester, New York, and for many years connected with James Cunningham & Son, died at his home in that city last month. He had been in poor health for a number of months. Mr. Cunningham was born in Rochester, March 7, 1843. At the death of his father, James Cunningham, in 1862, he became president of the Cunningham company, retiring from active business five years ago. On his retirement the presidency of the company was filled by Augustine J. Cunningham, who now holds that office. Hospitals and other institutions had a friend in Mr. Cunningham. It was his wish to give without having his donations made known to the public. He was a member of Corpus Christi Church. The house of James Cunningham has had one of the most successful and extensive careers in the country, and its fame is international.


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