Clinton's Ditch and Expanded Erie Canal: Leach Engineers of Lyons, Father and Son, Jacob and Augustus M. Leach

Jim Saunders beside the mules in "Winston's Dream" in Lyons, New York. The massive painting, inspired by a 1910 postcard of the Erie Canal in Lyons, is part of Mural Mania. With its mission, “Preservation of History through Community Art,” Mural Mania creates time travel focal points in canal towns along the Erie Canalway Trail.

Jim and Lisa Saunders (descendent of Leach) in Lyons on October 30, 2020. Jim and Lisa Saunders are tracking their walking miles as registrants with the 360-mile "Erie Canalway Challenge". The couple live in Baldwinsville, NY, near modern Lock 24.

Leach Road signs in Lyons, NY, on Feb 21, 2021. Photograph by Mark DeCracker, Co-Founder of Mural Mania.

Clinton's Ditch and Expanded Erie Canal: Leach Engineers of Lyons, Father and Son, Jacob and Augustus M. Leach

by Lisa Saunders (descendant)

Lock 27, Lyons, New York, in Oct. 2020.

In Lyons, New York, home of all three stages of the Erie Canal, is modern Lock E27, off Leach Road. Leach Road and Bridge, which crosses over the active Erie Canal, may have been named in honor of father and son, Jacob and Augustus M. Leach of Lyons, contractors on the Erie Canal. Jacob Leach (1777-1853) is my 4th great-grandfather and his son, Augustus Mortimer Leach (1825-1901), my 3rd great-grandfather. They are  buried at the Lyons Rural Cemetery. 

Jacob Leach (1777-1853) contribution to Clinton's Ditch (completed in 1825):

Jacob Leach worked as an engineer on the first and second Erie Canals. The first Erie Canal was completed in 1825 (the same year his son Augustus was born--Augustus grew up to become an engineer on the Enlarged Erie Canal).

The first Erie Canal is now referred to “Clinton’s Ditch” (see above sign in Lyons) after DeWitt Clinton, the New York Governor who fought for its construction. 

On October 17, 1825, Jacob Leach attended a meeting at T. Hawley's in Lyons with other appointed committee members responsible for making celebration arrangements for the opening of the Erie Canal. The opening occurred on "Oct.26, 1825, at the time the two ends of the canal were united in Lockport, and the 'waters were let over the mountain range.' The unique celebration throughout the state was the transmission of the exact time by firing of cannon--24 and 32 pounders--distributed along the canal eight miles apart, a total distance 365 miles from Lake Erie to the Hudson River." 

Two days later, Governor Clinton's boat parade came through Lyons on October 28, arriving "at the lock at the foot of Broad street greeted by a fire of artillery. They were met by committees from Geneva and Lyons and escorted under a triumphal arch to the Joppa House, where dinner was served and toasts exchanged."  ("Grip's" historical souvenir of Lyons, N. Y, p. 13,1904). (Clinton had begun his boat parade from Lake Erie, where he filled a keg with water and when he reached the southern end of the New York Harbor (Sandy Hook, NJ), he poured the Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean. He declared to his companions, "...may the God of Heavens and the Earth smile most propitiously on the work, and render it subservient to the best interests of the human race." (Bernstein, Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation, 2006, p. 319.)

Background on Jacob Leach
Jacob Leach was one of the first merchants in Lyons. "Jacob Leach built a frame building on Water street in 1812 and opened a larger general store. Joseph M. Demmon was first his clerk and then his partner. In 1814 Leach & Co. erected a new store. "  ("Grip's" p. 48).

"Jacob Leach came to Lyons from Litchfield, Conn., in 1809, and operated a distillery on the north side of Ganargwa Creek until the site was wanted for the Erie Canal in 1824. He then became a merchant with Joseph M. Demmon on Water street. He was a canal contractor, and erected a mill on the Ganargwa that was burned and rebuilt in 1837. He was a justice of the peace several years, member of Assembly in 1823, and at one time president of the old Lyons Bank with Thaddeus W. Patchen as cashier. He had ten children, and died in 1853, aged seventy-five years." (History of the Town of Lyons, 1895).  

"...Jacob Leach, one of the most prominent and progressive of the pioneer settlers of Lyons. Jacob Leach went to Lyons in 1809 from Litchfield Conn. and in the course of an active career devoted to the development of the section, constructed and operated the first grist mill in Lyons, the first brewery and in 1812 one of the first general stores." (Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, August 12, 1901, Page 4)

Jacob Leach contribution to the Enlarged Canal:

Beginning in 1835, the Erie Canal was enlarged. Jacob worked on the Enlarged Erie Canal but died before the entire enlargement was completed in 1862. This Canal is now referred to as the Enlarged Erie Canal or the Old Erie Canal.

"Jacob Leach took and completed several contacts for work and after he had passed the allotted age of three score years and ten he built (with Robert Ennis) the section extending west from Perrine's hill to the poorhouse lock [Lock 56]."(The Sisson Family of Lyons, New York, 2005, p. 233). (Also mentioned on page from a church book found at Find a Grave.)

Lock 56 (or Poorhouse Lock) as it appears in recent years. The red brick building, now a private residence, "served as a grocery for the canallers" (eriecanal.org). Photograph by Mark DeCracker.

Jacob was also the resident engineer for the Canal portion in Jordan. From Onondaga Standard Extra (10/24/1840).  "At a meeting of the contractors for the enlargement of the Erie Canal on the Jordan Level held at the house of Seba Bonta in the village of Jordan on the 26th of October 1840...Jacob Leach [and several others] were appointed to said committee. Since now there were sufficient funds, work which had much slowed down could be resumed on section 10, no longer ago than the 10 day of this month, the contractor, Mr. Jacob Leach, was the resident engineer and in the presence of the chief engineer, strongly urged to press his work forwards faster than he was going on with it. He was directed to excavate 10,000 yards monthly and had increase the number of laborers and had erected 20 shanties" (Sisson, p. 234).

Jacob died in 1853 at the age of 75. His wife Sarah outlived him by nine years. "He was a quite man, honest with his fellow men. He worked with the Democratic party. He held the office of Justice of Peace for a number of years. He was a member of Humanity Masonic Lodge." (Sisson, p. 234). The descendent of Robert Ennis, Jacob's fellow engineer on the Enlarged Erie Canal section, extending west from Perrine's hill to the poorhouse lock, showed me Jacob Leach's 1820 certificate as "Master Mason" with the Humanity Masonic Lodge.

From anonymous: "These are bank notes from Lyons Bank, which Jacob Leach was instrumental in establishing the very first bank in Lyons in 1836. The $5 note has his signature as President of the Bank, which at the date of note shows that the Bank was just 5 months old. The other 1862 note shows draft to be drawn on the business account of his sons, H.J.Leach and M.S.Leach. ( Heman and Miles)
Just before the start of the Civil War, the Lyons Bank had a contract with the State of New York to collect canal tolls." 

Augustus Mortimer Leach (1825-1901): contribution to the Enlarged Canal (completed 1862):

Augustus Mortimer Leach was educated at Geneva Academy, now Hobart College. Born the year the first Erie Canal opened (in 1825), Augustus died in 1901, four years before construction began on the modern Erie Canal (once referred to as New York State Barge Canal).  

In the 1850s, Augustus, was employed by the corps of civil engineers and was promoted to overseeing the section from Syracuse to Buffalo. According to his 1901 obituary, Augustus "also invented and drafted plans for the drop gate for locks that were accepted by the state and have continued in use to the present time." (Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, August 12, 1901, Page 4).

As of this writing, 3/2/21, I haven't found proof of the drop gate invention in State of New York documents, but found the following in Google books: August M. Leach is listed among four "First Assistant" Engineers on the Western Division in "Manual for the Use of the Legislature of the State of New York",1853, p.440, and as 1st Engineer under "Eastern subdivision in the western division of the Erie Canal Enlargement "AND 1st Engineer under "Genesee Valley Canal" in "Documents of the Senate of the State of New York, Volume 1," 1854, p.142.

Augustus Leach's obituary tells of his career and states that Augustus "secured an early business training under his father Jacob in the milling business. In his college course he showed a natural talent for drafting and drawing, and after his graduation he worked as a draughtman for the corps of civil engineers engaged in plotting a new route for the Erie canal through [the Lyons] section. From them he acquired knowledge of civil engineering and he soon rose to a position of prominence in the department of state engineer and surveyor. In the early [18] fifties he was placed in charge of the engineering work on the western section of the Erie canal, having under his supervision the section extending from Syracuse to Buffalo. On the completion of this work he surveyed the Genesee Valley canal from Rochester to Olean [south and a little west of Rochester] and built a big storage dam at Cuba [near Olean]. During this period he also invented and drafted plans for the drop gate for locks that were accepted by the state and have continued in use to the present time [1901]. According to an obit: "From 1855 to 1857 [Augustus] was assistant state engineer under Van Rensselear Richmond of Lyons who was then state engineer and surveyor. During the latter part of that period, Mr. Leach lived in Rochester and Cuba, Allegany County. Later he became engaged in the milling business in Brooklyn together with his father-in-law and a Brooklyn miller under the firm name of Smith, Leach and Jewell. In a few years Mr. Leach, whose early training in the milling business under his father had adapted him for the work, bought out his partners and for ten years conducted the business alone. During the Civil War he had many contracts for furnishing supplies to the government, and both then and at its close his business was remarkably successful so that in 1870 he had amassed a fortune on which he was well able to retire... "("The Sisson Family of Lyons, New York",  Sisson, David Arne, 2005, p. 234-243)

Augustus built a large house on a hill in Lyons when he returned from Brooklyn. Calling it Terrace Lawn, it still stands today at 27 Cherry Street. After his death, his son Francis (Frank) Leach lost the family fortune in a bad investment. The dwindling funds could no longer support Augustus's widow and Frank committed suicide in 1912.

I descend from his daughter, Emma (Leach) Sisson, seen at the bottom left. (Images from "The Sisson Family of Lyons, New York",  Sisson, David Arne, 2005, page 262.)


(1) NOTES ABOUT AUGUSTUS M. LEACH: One of several Augustus M. Leach obituaries, the following appeared August 12, 1901, Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, New York, Page 4: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/50741272/democrat-and-chronicle/ Transcribed:

Lyons Has lost an Honored and Influential Resident.
Retirement in 1875
Youngest Son of Lyon's Prominent Pioneers Did Valuable Work as Civil Engineer and Surveyor--Wayne.

Augustus M. Leach, a prominent retired business man of Lyons, died unexpectedly Saturday morning at the advanced age of 75 years. He had been in impaired health for a long time, the result of old age and affection of the heart, but his condition last week had shown nothing to differentiate it from his general health for some months. Friday he took his usual drive and retired at his customary hour with no sign of the approaching end. He passed away between midnight and 7 o'clock so quietly that knowledge of the fact did not come to the members of the family until they entered his room to awaken him for breakfast Saturday morning.
Mr. Leach was the youngest of 10 children born to the late Jacob Leach, one of the most prominent and progressive of the pioneer settlers of Lyons. Jacob Leach went to Lyons in 1809 from Litchfield Conn. and in the course of an active career devoted to the development of the section, constructed and operated the first grist mill in Lyons, the first brewery and in 1812 one of the first general stores.

Augustus M. Leach was born November 1, 1825. He attended a preliminary education in the Lyons union school and a collegiate education at Hobart college from which he graduated with the class of '48. He selected as his profession that of a civil engineer for which the enlargement of the canals and railroad construction offered abundant opportunity. Soon after his graduation from college he obtained a position under the state engineer and surveyor and he showed so much adaptability for the work that in the early [18] fifties he was placed in charge of the engineering work on the western section of the canal, having under his supervision a section extending from Syracuse to Buffalo. During this period he invented and drafted plans for a drop gate for locks that were accepted by the state and have continued in use to the present time. At the conclusion of his work on the Erie he surveyed the route for the Genesee Valley canal from Rochester to Olean under the direction of Van Rensselaer Richmond, of Lyons, who was then state engineer and surveyor.

Just before the outbreak of the Civil war Mr. Leach secured an opportunity to engage in the milling business, a pursuit which his father had been the first to follow in Lyons and in which he himself had training under his father. The business was located in Brooklyn and was conducted under the firm name of Leach, Smith and Jewell. In a few years Mr. Leach bought out his partners and then for fifteen years conducted it alone under the name of Williamsburg Mills. It was the largest establishment of its kind in the city and amassed for its owner a fortune on which he was well able to retire from business in 1875.

He then returned to Lyons on the spacious Leach grounds on Cherry Street, erected a residence that is one of the costliest, the most attractive and the finest fit in the county. There he had since resided, enjoying a well earned leisure among the comforts of home life and the pleasures he always took from literary study and reading. He was a man of refined mind and brought culture and his library and art collection was one of the largest and best selected in the vicinity. He never embarked in business after his retirement in 1875 and never cared to enter public life.

Apart from his literary study he took no active interest in matters away from his home village, but in affairs of concern to the community he was always ready to give the advantages of the experience of his successful business career and of his literary accomplishments. In this way he served as president of the village and for several years as school trustee. He was also deeply interested in the affairs of the Presbyterian Church of which he was an elder for many years.

In June, 1855, Mr. Leach married Mary Jane Smith, of Lima. She died in 1868, and in 1874 Mr. Leach was married to Miss Emma Jerome Richards, of Norwich, Connecticut, who survives. Other surviving relatives are four sons: Frank Leach, a lawyer of Kansas City, Albert Leach, a physician at Mt. Morris, and Frederick and Arthur Leach, of Lyons, and two daughters, Miss Minnie Leach and Mrs. [Emma Louise Leach ]Sisson, of Lyons.



1) "Jacob Leach (parents, Richard and Mary Strong) married Sarah "Sally" Bradley in Litchfield Village [Connecticut] on 21 March 1804. Three years later they came to the village of Phelps, a few miles south of Lyons, where they lived for one or two years before settling in Lyons...In 1812 Jacob started one of the first general stores in Lyons, and he was the one who distilled the first peppermint oil in Lyons according to the obituary of his son Augustus Mortimer Leach in 1901...Jacob constructed his distillery on the north bank of Mud Creek in Lyons, near its junction with the Canandaigua Outlet. He kept the distillery in operation until was necessary about 1820 to remove it to make way for the Erie Canal..."(Sisson, p. 230-231). Jacob and Sarah Leach's 10th and last child:
2) Augustus M. Leach, born in Lyons on 11/1/1825. Married Mary Jane Smith, 6/7/1853, in Lima, NY.
3) Emma Louise Leach, born 11/21/1860. Married Frank Munro Sisson on 6/23/1881, at her home on 27 Cherry Street, Lyons, NY
4) Mary Arne Sisson, born 4/5/1882, married Gilbert "Bert" McDowell on 9/11/1905 at Grace Church, Lyons.
5) Russell Gale McDowell, born 6/28/1911. Married Ida Lee 6/3/1937 in St. Luke's Episcopal Church Sodus Center.  
6) Mary Ann McDowell, born 10/21/1938 in Town of Sodus at home. Married Richard W. Avazian, 1/10/1960 in Freeport, NY. Living in Baldwinsville, NY.
7) Lisa Marie Avazian, born 3/31/1961 in Charlottesville, VA. Married James P. Saunders of Auburn on 5/29/1983 in Airmont, NY. They now live in Baldwinsville, NY. Lisa and Jim had two daughters. The surviving one has two children. 

My husband Jim Saunders at Lock 27 in Lyons, NY.

"They call me Sal" mural, part of Mural Mania. Mark DeCracker, co-founder of Mural Mania, said of its dedication:
One of the features of the 2016 Global Mural Conference was the 12 x 16 mosaic mural painted on Evolon.  “They Call me Sal”.  This mural has 728 six-inch squares painted by art students from elementary to students in college across NY State.   This mosaic mural was organized by art teacher Lisa Petrosina. They Call me Sal features the history of New York State, and the flora and fauna.  If you look closely you will find roses, blue birds, Harriet Tubman, and the World Trade Center featured.  This mural is the tenth mural in Lyons, and is a gateway mural on the abutment greeting the bikers or others on the Empire Trail. This mural is mounted on the Rochester-Syracuse Trolley abutment.  This mural was made possible from a grant from the Erie Canalway, Canal Corporation and donations from Greystone Paper (Evolon) and paint from Golden Artist Colors.  Mural Mania would also like to thank F.S. Short & Son Contractors “For all your excavating needs.” for the donation to seal the mural.  Mural Mania would like to thank the Lyons Heritage Society for this plaque.

Winston's Dream (2007) in Lyons, NY. Part of Mural Mania. Mark DeCracker, co-founder of Mural Mania, wrote:
Mounted on the old trolley bed abutment in the newly dedicated G. Winston Dobbins Memorial Park, at Lock 27, this duplicates a scene from an actual postcard from 1910. It’s complete with packet boat, mules, hogies, a trolley, and the famous Hotchkiss Peppermint building. The mural was created by James Zeger. This mural and park was completed with the help of over 200 volunteers.


Erie Canal in Clyde: Mural Memorializes Lincoln's Visit

On Feb 18, 2021, Jim Saunders stands in front of the mural depicting Lincoln's inaugural train stop in Clyde, NY, which occurred exactly 160 years earlier on Feb 18, 1861. Ice skaters are seen on the Erie Canal. Excerpt from my epic poem, "Walking the Erie Canal: Secrets of the 8th Wonder, CMV and Pandemic Pizza" by Lisa Saunders:

Standing in the snow beside the painted citizens of Clyde on February18th, 2021,
we imagined them shivering as they listened to Abraham Lincoln.
His train stopped beside the Canal exactly 160 earlier on his inaugural trip to Washington—
it was so cold, the skaters seen in the Canal seemed unworried the ice was too thin.

Sign to the mural reads: "The canal village of Clyde was the only stop made between Rochester and Syracuse by the Lincoln Inaugural Train Monday, February 18,1861. This mural, from the brush of Robert Gillespie, depicts the President-elect addressing an immense crowed which had gathered at the depot." Learn more: http://muralmania.org/lincolns-visit-to-clyde-mural/

From a sign in Clyde (courtesy of Galen Historical Society) regarding Lincoln's brief visit: "During his  inaugural train's stop in Clyde, President-Elect, Abraham Lincoln, sporting his new beard, spoke these brief words from the platform of his railway car to a large crowd on February 18, 1861. 'I merely appear before you to say good morning and farewell. I did not come to make a speech, nor have I time to make one if I did. I now bid you good morning, and when the train starts, I will come out again to bid you farewell.'"

Jim and Lisa Saunders walking the 360-mile Erie Canalway Challenge realized they should have brought snow shoes for this leg of the trip in Clyde on Feb 18, 2021. 

Took a pizza break at Papa's Place in Clyde where they were happy to find a bathroom.

Find Parking for the Trail at: Galen Boat Launch, Water St Clyde, NY 14433. See it on Empire State Trail map: https://empiretrail.ny.gov/rochester-syracuse/newark-savannah

What we are doing

Walking the Erie Canal:

Secrets of the 8th Wonder, CMV and Pandemic Pizza

by Lisa Saunders


While searching for the 7 Wonders of the old Erie Canal, itself considered the 8th Wonder of the World, an upstate New York plump baby boomer wonders if she’ll ever finish walking the entire 360-mile Erie Canalway Trail between Buffalo and Albany. So far, Lisa has endured swarms of mosquitoes, loud gunshots, snakes, snow, violent wind cracking trees above, aching feet and a dead possum. Will she find an outhouse in time? Will she uncover what truly happened to Aunt Rebecca whose body was found in a car submerged in the Canal? Lisa’s progress is continually interrupted as the global pandemic upends her life with demands from her regal mother held prisoner in assisted living, and by home-schooling two young grandchildren when her daughter leaves her job in a castle to work remotely. When deciding on the 7 Wonders, should Lisa only consider the overgrown, stone aqueduct arches and locks hidden along the Old Erie Canal, or also the engineering marvels on the modern, fully operational Erie Canal? And, how will this latest writing project ever get Lisa thin and famous when the only food near the trail is pizza and ice-cream? Trekking alongside is her detail-oriented, rather fussy husband, Jim. They haven’t spent this much time together since their undergraduate days at Cornell. Now a retired Pfizer scientist, Jim is ready to share in Lisa’s latest adventure, hoping to combine their talents to raise awareness of another “C-virus” plaguing the country, cytomegalovirus (CMV). Will their fight for an amendment to the current CMV law in the State of New York be as tough to pass as the legislation to build the original Erie Canal, derogatively called "Clinton’s Ditch"? Will they agree on the 7 Wonders, what kind of pizza to order and overcome the obstacles on the Trail to impact the world—much the same way the Erie Canal did?

Note from Lisa: 
When we are not snowed in, running  “Grandma and Grandpa School”, or driving my mother around, you will find us on the Erie Canalway Trail—I hope you can join us. Wheelchairs are welcome!

Join the Fun!



Skating on site of Old Erie Canal in Syracuse

Waking the new Empire State Trail has made it so much easier for us to walk the Erie Canalway Trail in downtown Syracuse. Just moments before I shot this, yesterday's ice skaters looked just like those of yesteryear pictured on the plaque in Clinton's Square. So excited to see two remnants of the old Canal preserved on the Square.  

See images  of historic  canal stones in warmer December 2020