157 Years of Our Family History Along the Erie Canal: 1847 - Present


By Peggy Weston Byrd & David Holcomb

 February 2004


The Erie Canal runs 363 miles east–west across upstate New York. For 157 years, our Murphy/Hernon family has had strong ties to the canal. The canal opened in 1825 when Governor DeWitt Clinton rode The Seneca Chief on the first-ever excursion on the canal from Lockport to New York City. Its immediate, positive impact on the economy of New York put to rest its naysayer’s nickname, “Clinton’s Ditch.” Thousands of immigrants worked to hand dig the canal, which when it first opened, was only about three feet deep.


About 1847, our Great Grandmother Mary Hernon Murphy’s family walked from Canada to Lock Berlin, NY, a small berg on the canal. This oral family history story was passed from generation to generation. Frank Griffin, son of Margaret Murphy Griffin, passed the story on to Peggy and in doing so, to all of us.


Census data gives us a real clue as to when Patrick Hernon, his wife Margaret Gibbons and family came from

Ireland. Their three children were born in different countries! 


The oldest, Michael, was born in Ireland c.1840. (In the 1860 US census, Michael is listed as a canal boatman.)


The middle child, John, was born in Canada c.1846. (In the 1900 census, John Hernon stated that he came to

America in 1847. In the 1870 census, John is listed as a boatman on the canal.  In the 1880 census he is listed

as a laborer. He died in 1909 in Wayne Co., NY.  He married Mary Mylott who was born January 1853 in NY,

and died 1923 in Wayne County, NY.)


Our Great Grandmother Mary, the youngest, was born in NY in 1848. So between 1840 and 1846 the Hernons

left Ireland for Canada, and prior to 1848, came to NY.  In the 1850, 1860, and the 1870 census, the Patrick

Hernon family was living in Arcadia, NY, near Newark, a city on the canal west of Lock Berlin.


Mary Hernon’s future husband, William Murphy, was a blacksmith, as was her father, Patrick. The William Murphy family settled in Lyons, NY, a larger town on the canal just west of Lock Berlin. Several pictures of the house and blacksmith shop in Lyons are on the family website.  William’s sister, Bridget, married John Doyle and settled in Lyons as well. William’s two other sisters, Margaret and Mary, married and settled in Newark.


The blacksmith trade may figure in why William Murphy migrated to America and it might play a role in explaining the family's connection to the Bradley's as well as to the Keogh's. It might even explain how William and Mary Hernon connected.  Could William have found work with Patrick Hernon?  Could Patrick have taught the trade to William?  Do our Irish Murphy cousins know what Garrett Murphy, who stayed in Ireland, did for a living? However it came about, as a blacksmith, William Murphy’s business was perfectly located to provide services to the boatmen who used mules and draft horses to pull their barges by walking the towpaths.


On October 3, 1872, William Murphy became a naturalized US citizen.  His sponsors were Robert Hoy and Michael Tomney.  Robert was born in Ireland around 1820 and was a laborer.  Both his wife and daughter were named Esibela. (Source: 1880 census for Lyons, NY) A question: could Esibela Hoy be the inspiration for the middle name of Ann Isabelle Griffin? Michael Tomney’s wife, Mary, was the godmother of our Great Aunts Anna Murphy and Sarah Elizabeth Murphy Esterheld.  Michael and Mary worked on canal boats and in 1870 lived with the Lawrence Bradley family.


Over the years, Murphy family members moved westward along the canal and the Great Lakes to settle in Rochester, Buffalo and eventually, Cleveland, Ohio. We would love to know more about this westward migration. The causes. The dates.


Dave has corresponded with Dennis Murphy who is a Murphy researcher for all of Ohio, NY, and the entire area around there. Some of the Dave-Dennis emails are at the end of this piece for you to enjoy.  He brings up some interesting points.


As an aside, in my Weston family, my second great uncle, Ari Van Ingen, originally from The Hague, Netherlands, settled in Rochester, NY. He fulfilled a contract to build a portion of the canal near lock #2 near Albany. Ari received high praise for his work, especially since he came in to finish a job after another contractor failed to finish the work.


Today, the canal still influences Murphy/Hernon family descendants.


John and Bernard Doyle had homes on or a block away from the canal in Lyons.


Frank Griffin and his first wife, Margaret Burgett, raised their family in Pittsford, NY. His son John and family live in the family home about a half-mile from the canal. Frank now lives in North Rose with his wife, Mary Drury. The canal that flows through the nearby town of Clyde has always affected the economy of North Rose.


The Margaret Murphy Griffin and the Sarah Murphy Esterheld branches of the family lived in Rochester, close to the original canal bed. The Esterheld homes on Wilcox and Richard Streets are directly next to the canal bed.


After the canal was moved about a mile south of the city to accommodate more barge traffic and to hook up with the Genesee River, a subway was built in the canal bed. After the demise of the subway, interstate highway Route 490 was built. One of the old locks can be seen near the Culver Road exit.


 My father, Art Weston, rode the subway to work from the stop at Elmwood Avenue. This subway was underground in the city and then emerged above ground into the canal bed where Route 490 is today. We used to meet him at the stop after work. Believe it or not, the old canal bed was full of plants and wildlife; my favorite was the flocks of ringed-neck pheasants.


In 1963, my sister, Kathy Weston Grinnell, and her then husband, Curt, built a home on property that backs up to the canal in Bushnell’s Basin. In the 1970’s, a portion of the canal about three houses east of their house was being repaired, where Irondiquoit Creek flows under the canal. That section collapsed and thousands of gallons of water slammed into houses along the creek, destroying homes and causing extensive damage. The Grinnell’s home was not affected, but their street was headquarters for emergency vehicles. Kathy can tell you by heart the spiel of the tour boat guides that she hears every day in the summer as they glide past her house! 


Their son Scott and his wife Monica recently purchased a home in Fairport that has access to the canal towpath for running, walking, biking, cross country skiing and snowshoeing.


I remember visiting Anne Denning with her cousin Kathryn Doyle at Ann’s summer cottage near the huge Welland Canal that links Lakes Erie and Ontario. There is a picture of that visit on the family website.  


My husband Ralph and I live in Brighton about a mile from the canal, one of my favorite walking destinations.


A few years ago the NYS canal system was put under the NYS Thruway Authority. There are now extensive repairs and enhancements being made all along the waterway. These will provide better access not only for local use, but also for the thousands of boaters who use the canal for access to the Great Lakes or New York harbor via the Hudson River. Sculling and white water kayaking are now popular sports on the canal.


Pleasure boats hook up in small towns along the canal for antiquing, restaurants and other summer amenities from early May to early November. The canal is drained every year for winter repairs. For the history and a cruising guide to the Erie Canal, go to www.canals.state.ny.us  

Much of the time we pay no attention to the canal; it’s just there. We drive over or next to it without looking. Other times it is an integral part of our lives in upstate New York. Yet throughout the course of the Erie Canal’s history, Murphy/Hernon family members and their descendants have been influenced by this incredible waterway.


We would love to hear your memories and comments about your family and the Erie Canal. Please post them in the “Reply” section with this document!


I've got an old mule and her name is Sal

  Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal

  She's a good old worker and a good old pal

  Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal


  We've hauled some barges in our day

  Filled with lumber, coal, and hay

  And every inch of the way we know

  From Albany to Buffalo


  We'd better get along on our way, old gal

  Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal

  'Cause you bet your life I'd never part with Sal

  Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal


Git up there mule, here comes a lock

  We'll make Rome 'bout six o'clock

  One more trip and back we'll go

  Right back home to Buffalo


  Low bridge, everybody down

  Low bridge for we're coming to a town

  And you'll always know your neighbor

  And you'll always know your pal

  If you've ever navigated on

  The Erie Canal

For some small town fun go to http://www.epodunk.com/routes/erie-canal/index.html then click on the tour and travel around the site. It’s neat.  You can play several songs and see postcards of the various cities.


The Dave Holcomb - Dennis Murphy e-mails follow. Enjoy!


From: "Murphy" <dmurphy595@alltel.net>

To: "David Holcomb" <david@holcombs.net>

Sent: Monday, January 12, 2004 7:37 AM

Subject: Re: murphy CD

      Well, it is coming; the problem is I know not when. It seems every time I think it's ready, I realize or find new data that I feel should be included in the story. Thus it has been edited and rewritten countless times to date. I'm not sure if this stems from my Irish side and a writer's search for perfection or from my Germanic roots and an attention to detail.
      What is your status regarding this work? I hope you did not send me money and are patiently awaiting your copy. At least, I have no record of such a transaction.
      In the meantime, if you have any questions or particular ancestry you seek, I will be happy to provide you with any information I may have.
 More later


Hi Dennis,
      Thanks for getting back to me.  No I had not sent you money, only had a reservation in.   My Murphy family migrated to Cleveland from Rochester/Lyons, NY in the early part of the last century.  I have many questions and I have been hoping that maybe I might find the answers in your  info.  So I am just eager with anticipation.

     Thanks and the following are the Murphy's that I am interested in.

  Dave Holcomb

 Descendants of William Murphy

(This part of the e-mail is posted on the site in a separate file.)



      Well it certainly looks as though you have been doing your homework. I have not really taken the time yet to digest all the data you included in your last email but some items have stuck in my mind. One of the foremost is your family's connection with New York State.
      Many of the Irish, including the Murphy lines, came to America and the U.S. by way of Canada. It was a cheaper passage from Ireland than any of the U. S. ports, mainly as it was a part of the British Empire. So you might try looking for possible connections to your line through Canadian sources, if you have not done so already. From Canada, many migrated into New York State and filtered across America.
      Regarding County Wexford, you realize that it was the cradle of the MURPHY surname; it having descended from the King Murchada of the 10th Century. As his descendants increased and multiplied, the name spread across Ireland. Scholars continue to argue the fact that the Muskerry Murphys (western
 Ireland) are indeed a branch of the Murchada sept or whether they are an independent branch. The associated heraldry would seem to suggest a connection but none has yet to be proven. Giving the destruction that took place in Ireland during the Cromwellian War and the distain for all things
 Catholic, many records were lost or destroyed. Thus the real proof may be lost to the ages.

 Regarding your data and documentation, I would love to include your research in my master database on the Murphys of the Great Lakes region. Would you be willing to send me a Gedcom file on your early ancestors, complete with your source citations if possible? Seeing such a "big picture" of one's data
 often allows me to find patterns that will further the research. Already there seems to be some common aspects within your line, especially in regards to trades and occupations, that I think will prove useful for my
 book. Let me know your thoughts on this matter. Should you decide to send me your data, I will be happy to merge it in my master database and then return you a report that will reflect our combined data, complete with my research Notes.
      Are there any current problems or questions regarding your research that I might be able to address? If so, feel free to ask.


  After again reviewing your material, I have these additional thoughts and notes.
 1 - Don't put too much stock on dates found in the Census reports as they are often in error. Also note that the Irish tended to give their ages on their next birthday rather than their current age. On that note and until
 the 20th Century, many Irish Catholics considered their baptismal date as the day they were actually "born in Christ" and used it all their lives as their birth date.
 2 - Remember that the vast majority of the Irish Catholics immigrating from Ireland were illiterate, which meant that they had no way of knowing if their names were spelled correctly. Depending on their level of poverty, even such notable dates such as a birthday would likely not have been recorded or celebrated within the family. Catholic Church records remain the best source for information on our early Irish ancestors.
 3 - During the Civil War, both the North and the South actively recruited in Ireland. Most were offered automatic citizenship in America for military service. The normal requirements for naturalization were five years of residency, a sponsor who would attest to your moral standing, followed by an application and a final wait for approval and then your oath of allegiance. Going to war was much quicker. Those who possessed a trade, such as a blacksmith, would have been highly sought.
 4 - If you have an ancestor who was a policeman and/or member of a religious order, be sure to contact the appropriate organization as often they hold other records that can help in your research of the family.


Hi Dennis,
     Thanks for the tips and ideas.  They are well taken and I will share with the rest of the family.     You write "Are there any current problems or questions regarding your research that I might be able to address? If so, feel free to ask."
     One of the reasons that I wanted to see your CD is for the sources. Your information that is posted on Ancestry.com last November looks very close to what I have.  My thoughts are that you might have gotten the info from one of my family members.  My base information came from a file created by a cousin who got all of his information from another one of my cousins, his uncle, and I have been trying to source the information.  I know that the stuff is not just made up but I would love to someday have a source for all the things that we know.  Some of my other questions are as follows (You may not have the answers but you never know)
 When did my Great Grandparents move to East Cleveland?  I am trying to find them in the 1910 census and have been unable to find them.  They lived in Lyons, NY for many years, 1870ish to at least 1904.  I then can place them in Rochester in 1908.  William died in East Cleveland in 1914.  My Great Grandmother, Mary Hernon Murphy, moved back to Rochester between Oct., 1918 and Jan., 1920.  My Great Aunts, Rose and Anna, had a Harper Method Beauty Parlor Franchise in Cleveland and I know that they lived there because of
 that.  Their brother, my Grandfather, Gerald, would move there in the middle 20's.  He was a laborer in the auto assembly business and he and his family moved from Rochester to Detroit, back to Rochester, then to Cleveland, more than likely because of work.
     Some other puzzles are that I have been unable to find my Great Aunts, Rose and Anna, in the 1920 census.  I have been unable to find my Great Aunt Josephine in the 1930 census.

     I have attached a gedcom file to this email on what I know about my ancestors.  I have had many family members voice concerns about things being posted on the Internet.  I have taken the time to send only material for members of the family that have passed on.  I have to respect their wishes and it is probably wise to be cautious.  What a great hobby we have but I am sure there are people out there, out of our control, which would take advantage of it.  I hope that you realize I am NOT talking about you.
            Thanks for the help so far and anything else that you can add. Looking
 forward to seeing the CD.



  Thanks for the Gedcom; I will review it soon.
       Regarding my sources, they come from many places. Once I have merged your data, I will send you a report that will list all sources.
       I fully understand your concern over data on living relatives. It is my policy to NEVER publish such information at any location and always "clean" my databases before entering any at Rootsweb. Rootsweb is the only place I put any of my databases and that is only intended to find others researching collateral lines. I will always honor and respect your concerns over such.
        On that note, please understand that I will also need to clean my report of all known living descendants and living researcher data that may be automatically attached therein. This may take a bit of time so bear with me.
       Regarding the time frame of your family's move to Cleveland: Have you checked the City Directories at the Cleveland Public Library? The Fairview branch has a good collection if you are near there. Are you in the Cleveland area?
       On the matter of your lost aunts, have you looked for them at all the relatives and children's homes in the Census? Depending on age and agility, many went to spend their latter years with relatives.
  More later