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Rochester Water Works, Part I: The Early History

June 27, 2013

Facade of Rochester Water WorksFor for the past six years, the City of Rochester’s Bureau of Water has granted the The Highland Park Neighborhood Association use of the Lower Reservoir Gatehouse for its exhibits and events during Rochester’s Lilac Festival.   Recently, we found a 1927 volume that describes the formation of Rochester’s Water Works and Reservoirs.  Much more of this history can be found on the City’s website that is dedicated to the Water Authority, although except for substantial modernization and filtration additions as well as the cover added to the Rush site, the three reservoirs remain very much as described 90 years ago.

The question of pure water has never been a troublesome one in the city of Rochester. The clean, sparkling water of today has a different source from the water of the pioneer days. Then the pure water of the Genesee was available. The growth of the city along the banks of the Genesee in time rendered the water unfit for human consumption, whereupon other means were resorted to for the necessary supply.

Mt Hope Reservoir Under Construction: 1875
Click for Detail

 As early as 1835 the Rochester Water Works Company was incorporated with a capital of $10,000. Nothing came of this project and for many years the Erie Canal and Genesee River were depended upon for a supply of water in case of fire. In 1852 another company was incorporated with a capital of $800,000 and authority to issue bonds for an equal amount. Mains were laid to connect the city with three small lakes in Livingston County. The plant was poorly constructed and when the money had all been expended expert engineers reported that it would require $410,000 to complete the work. The bondholders began foreclosure proceedings and a long period of litigation followed.

125 Year Plaque

125 Year Plaque
Click for Details

In the year 1872 the legislature passed an act authorizing the appointment of five commissioners to construct a system of water works at the expense of the city. Mayor Wilder appointed William H. Bowman, Roswell Hart, Charles C. Morse, Gilman H. Perkins and Edward M. Smith. They decided upon a gravity system from Hemlock Lake, twenty-eight miles south of the city and 385 feet higher, with an auxiliary supply from the Genesee River, for which the Holly pumping system was to be used. Despite legal obstacles work was begun in the spring of 1873. The first conduit was begun in July of that year and completed in February, 1876.  On February 18, 1874, the Holly system was tested and found to be satisfactory, thus insuring the city a supply of water for fire protection.  Work was then pushed forward on the Hemlock system.  Two reservoirs were constructed —one in the town of Rush and the other in Highland park, in the southern part of the city.  On January 23, 1876 the water was turned into the mains and first used by the people of Rochester.


19th Century Views of the Reservoir Platform

19th Century View of Reservoir Platform
Click for Enlarged View

The original cost of the system was $3,518,000; between ten and eleven million dollars have been expended since that time in additions and improvements . The Cobb’s Hill reservoir has been constructed;  Canadice Lake, a short distance east of Hemlock and 200 feet higher,  has been added to the supply.  In 1876 the board of water commissioners was succeeded by the executive board which was given authority over the waterworks.  In 1902 the Rochester and Lake Ontario Water Company was created to supply water from the lake to suburban Rochester and nearby villages.  The first pipe was laid by this company on June 2, 1904, and the first pumping was done December 15th following.  Due to the annexation since then of nearly all of this outlying territory to the city, most of the company’s business is now done within the Rochester city limits.  Extensive service is also given to the farmers, the water being available to them not only for potable purposes, but for irrigation and fire protection.

21st Century View of Reservoir Platform Click for Enlarged View

21st Century View of Reservoir Platform
Click for Enlarged View

 from: History of the Genesee Country  (Western New York) Comprising the counties of Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Chemung, Erie, Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Niagara, Ontario, Orleans,Schuyler, Steuben, Wayne, Wyoming and Yates. Volume II Illustrated,Edited by Lockwood R Doty ;1925 The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company,Chicago



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