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From the Historian: The survival of Fairport’s iconic lift bridge

Bill Poray

The rehabilitation of Fairport’s iconic lift bridge provides an opportunity to reflect on events in the bridge’s past, which could have prevented its construction or shortened its life dramatically

Plans were underway in 1908 for the Barge Canal expansion. A movement blossomed in Fairport, supported by many, which promoted the removal of the canal from the central village area. The expansion project was seen as an opportunity to relocate the canal south of Church Street. One benefit cited by citizens was the opportunity to develop the land currently used by the canal. Petitions gained many signatures from people weary of what was viewed as an outdated ditch, which cut the village in half.

Officials arrived in January of 1909 to review three options for relocating the canal. By March, the state had rendered a decision. Based on land surveys and excessive costs, engineers determined all the options were impractical. The larger Barge Canal would follow the current route. The Monroe County Mail opined, “All our fond hopes have vanished in regard to the Barge Canal being ousted from the village and the state’s greatest folly is to be perpetuated through the business portion of our fair hamlet.

With the location of the canal settled, many residents rebelled against replacing the existing fixed-position bridge with a lift bridge. They pointed to the railroad and trolley crossings on North Main Street, and worried that added delays caused by a lift bridge would paralyze traffic. Ultimately, the state cited canal wall geometry and grade issues as the reasons why a lift bridge was the only solution. 

The bridge was only 43 years old, when another attempt was made to remove it from service in 1957. At the time, a renewed debate raged over the railroad crossings. The Chamber of Commerce took the lead and petitioned Gov. Harriman to “seek a solution to Fairport’s oldest and touchiest problem — the elimination of the grade crossings at the railroad and the lift bridge.” The state proposed an overpass of the crossings that did not include the lift bridge. The Chamber of Commerce termed the proposal inadequate and the local newspaper exclaimed, “Why not get rid of the bridge too.” With a lack of funding, the project was eventually abandoned.

In the early 1970s, opposition again mounted to eliminate the lift bridge and railroad crossings. The bridge was unreliable and public sentiment to replace it was growing. The state and many local leaders favored a four-lane fly-over, elevated bridge, to span from near High Street almost to Pleasant Street. The controversial plan was shelved and then a similar one put to use on Turk Hill Road. 

In 1987, the lift bridge received a major overhaul, which coincided with a renewed appreciation for the presence of the canal in Fairport, now considered “the crown jewel” of the New York state canal system. 

Bill Poray is historian for the town of Perinton.

Fairport lift bridge, photographed in about 1950.