Perspective:Basin Street fires and floods

Rich MacAlpine Special Contributor
This photo, taken May 19, 2014, shows the archway under Seneca Street, the remaining portion of the Owl’s Nest building and Birkett Mills in the background. This shows how municipal infrastructure and private property are linked in the area.

The flash flooding of mid-May 2014 focused people’s attention on an area of Penn Yan that was critical to the early development of the business section. It was originally thought that the business district would develop on the north end of Main Street, but in the late 1820s when the state legislature started discussing a canal from Dresden to Penn Yan, the thinking of community leaders changed. A canal would connect Keuka Lake with Seneca Lake, the Erie Canal System, and eventually, the world. Penn Yan was in the perfect location to become an important commercial center.

Construction on the Crooked Lake Canal began in 1830. A combination of labor problems and engineering challenges meant that it took over three years to complete. The engineering challenge was that the canal had to rise nearly 280 feet in elevation on its eight-mile route from Dresden to the entrance of Keuka Lake. That required a total of 28 locks to be built, which greatly increased the cost of construction. The canal operated until it was finally abandoned by the state in 1877. With the initial cost of construction and the cost of constant maintenance,  the Crooked Lake Canal never made a profit.

On the Penn Yan end, where Jacob’s Brook joined the canal and the outlet, a decision was made to create a basin by deepening and widening that end of the brook. That was immediately behind the buildings on the east side of the first block of Main Street, all of which had sub-basements that opened onto a dock and allowed canal boats to deliver and pick up goods for the businesses located on that block. Near the entrance to the basin, on what then was called Canal Street (today Seneca Street), a hotel and tavern was built for canal workers. Rowdy times in the tavern late into the night justified its name - The Owl’s Nest.

The area around that basin has seen more than its share of disasters over the years, starting with the burning of the original Owl’s Nest in 1853. That fire also destroyed several businesses which backed onto the basin on both Main and Canal Streets. On the East Elm/Jacob Street end of the basin, the great fire of 1872 started at the Commercial Iron Works, destroying businesses on both sides of the street, as well as homes and outbuildings along Benham Street nearly to Clinton Street. Wind direction and the diligence of local fire companies saved the buildings along Main Street.

In 1945, the Purdy Block, which was located on East Elm above the culvert for Jacob’s Brook, was destroyed by fire, and two years later, two buildings on the north side of East Elm burned.

As for floods, the gentle water of Jacob’s Brook has turned into a raging torrent periodically over the years.

In 1863, a flood wiped out the wooden bridge that crossed the creek on Jacob Street. In 1935, hurricane rain caused the brook to plug at the East Elm culvert and water backed up all the way through town. The parking garage behind the Benham Hotel flooded and destroyed several cars.

What was left of the old canal basin between East Elm and Seneca Streets was finally filled in during the mid-1980s when the village put in the parking lot. The flash flooding of May 2014 is just the latest in a string of disasters that have  affected the area.

The parking lot where once business blocks stood was ruined, and the culvert collapsed under the Owl’s Nest taking a good part of the building with it.

As in the past, events of this sort will result in further change.