Three Rivers
Hudson~Mohawk~Schoharie
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

Series of Talks Given by David Minor on The Erie Canal

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2007 "Double Crossing New York"
This completes the series of talks on the Erie Canal.

"This project began as a talk to the winter meeting of the Canal Society of New York State in March 2002. I decided to follow two sets of travelers along the route of the Erie Canal - the first group during the planning stages, in 1810; the second group in 1826, shortly after the full length of the canal was opened. The idea was to draw on the journals of the travelers, while also giving some of the historic background of the areas traversed. Occasionally we'd project a bit into the future."


Canal Talks: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five

When the canal commissioners headed westward out of Albany in early July of 1810, they had a fairly decent knowledge of the state they were crossing. Their route through the eastern section would take advantage of the Mohawk River and generally pioneer the eventual path of the Ditch. The central section took advantage of existing waterways - usually not in a straight east-west direction - and wound around considerably; as we've already seen. Their excursion to Oswego would follow the path of a future lateral canal and after Syracuse they'd dip down into the Finger Lakes before heading back north to Rochester. The Ditch would not.

After Rochester, where we find them now, their route would be more direct.

And would not provide the model for the Ditch to come. They would no longer travel by water.

At six AM on Sunday, July 29th, they headed west by wagon, stopping for breakfast nine miles later at Davis's tavern, a two-story log building in Parma. De Witt Clinton wrote in his journal, " . . . we entered a remarkable road called the Ridge Road, extending from that river to Lewiston, seventy-eight miles." This would become their route, parallel to, but further north than, the Ditch's final path. Clinton correctly supposes that where this east-west ridge drops off sharply to Lake Ontario had once been the bank of a much larger prehistoric body of water. He predicts, "When the country between it and the lake is cleared, it will furnish a charming view of that great body of water."

As they travel on through the morning he notices a profusion of ginseng and fire-weed as well as flashes of red as cardinals dart through the humid air. He also notes that squirrels of the area seem to be mostly black, unlike those we're used to seeing in this area today. If it all sounds delightfully bucolic, Clinton doesn't find it so. It had rained most of the night, not really ending until mid-morning. But then it turned pleasant and soon they passed a political gathering, in a opening in trees thickly plastered with electioneering handbills (our own politicians weren't the first to get an early start in their campaigns).

After traveling another nine miles the party stopped in the village of Murray, having their noontime meal at a tavern run by local town justice and sawmill operator R. Abby. Some of the commissioners had encountered Justice Abby (with and without an 'e'; Clinton spelled it both ways) along the road and had learned he might possibly be at home to greet them; which didn't turn out to be the case. Clinton seemingly was not impressed with the meal - cold ham - or the company - "a crowd of drunken people." The man's library wasn't too impressive either, it seems. Just a Conductor Generalis, subtitled, "The office, duty and authority of justices of the peace, high-sheriffs, under sheriffs, goalers, coroners, constables, jury-men, and overseers of the poor: As also the office of clerks of assize, and of the peace, &c". Oh, well. At least the drunks probably weren't lining up to read them.

After washing down their ham, perhaps NOT with water, they moved on, soon passing an apple orchard and nursery, potash works and wheatfields.

Clinton, noting a local farmer reaping wheat, and other men out hunting, concluded that in this town, "Sunday does not appear to be held in high veneration."

Six miles after leaving Abbey's tavern they put up for the night at another watering hole, a tavern built in Murray Depot by pioneer Epaphras Mattison in the previous year or so. Clinton calls it "an open log house", whatever that might mean. It obviously was not up to the standards of Albany's finer hotels such as the Tontine Coffee House, at least as far as De Witt was concerned. "We suffered the want of sleep, and encountered every other privation. Two slept in the garret, three on the floor on mattrasses, and I thought myself happy in putting mine on a wooden chest, where I avoided the attacks of kittens. The night was very damp and rainy, the musquitoes abundant; and were serenaded by the jingling of cow-bells, and the screaming of drunken clowns." The worst kind, of course.

What with kittens, cow-bells and clowns rollicking on through the night it's not surprising that our travelers were up and on their way at 5:30 AM, stopping for breakfast in the northern part of the Town of Batavia, at the private residence of Elijah Downer, a Vermont transplant. After stopping here and providing their own breakfast the troops set off again.

It had been raining on and off through the night but seemed to be letting up as they progressed along the ridge toward Lewiston. Fifteen miles further along they took a break at a tavern run by William Sibley, in the Town of Gaines. The town's official history says the tavern was founded in 1811 but, according to Clinton's account Sibley must have had some sort of rude establishment there this year before.

Three miles further along they came upon a six-mile-long, oak-lined plain known as Oak Orchard. Then it was on into Niagara County, formed out of Genesee County two years earlier, where they stopped for the night at Stuart's tavern, having made 27 miles by now. We should note here that neither a Sibley nor a Stuart - or their taverns - are mentioned in most histories of the area. Their businesses don't seem to have made much of an impression. Anyhow, Clinton and several others seem to have slept outside under a canvas that night.

The next morning the commissioners are on their way again after eating breakfast and straightening out a bit of unintended larceny after The Commodore, Thomas Eddy, borrows a razor strop from the landlord then absent-mindedly puts it in his own luggage. "The commodore's mistake afforded considerable merriment, in which he heartily participated."

Clinton mentions an abundance of bears in the area, one even spotted near the tavern. They haven't been on the road for very long when heavy rains materialize, flooding several branches of Eighteen Mile Creek. Around two in the afternoon they arrive at Joseph Forsyth's tavern, this time not a log cabin but an actual clapboard house. In the coming war British raids out of Lewiston will attack the area but will be beaten off with the help of friendly Tuscaroras. The Forsyth house can still be seen on Ridge Road today. As usual, Clinton makes sure to enquire how much Forsyth originally paid for his land - 22 shillings per acre, in this case.

Now we'll leave the commissioners here for a rest while we pick up our scholarly 1826 travelers as they depart Rochester and follow a route a bit to the south of the road along the ridge.

On Tuesday, May 16th, they headed out of Rochester aboard their canal boat Lafayette, and travel through Gates (named for Revolutionary War general Horatio Gates) and Clarkson, named for a local landowner who donated some of his property to the settlement. They took a break in Brockport, laid out four years previously, which Asa Fitch describes as a, "fine, flourishing little village". Until last year it had been the western terminus of the Canal. It would be another nine years before it would spawn its own educational institution (today's SUNY Brockport). That night, when the group bedded down in Holleysville (today's Holley, named for canal commissioner Myron Holley, who never passed through it) Asa read several more Byron (the poet, not the town) cantos in his Don Juan, then drifted off to sleep.

They were off again on Wednesday morning. Threatening rain never materialized and a wind out of the west cleared the clouds as the day progressed. That noon they stopped for lunch across the county line in Newport (we know it today as Albion). Fitch mentions that ground had been laid out there for a jail and a court house. Today's court house would have been the second, not built until 1859. About six miles to the west the canal entered onto a raised embankment, one that will be familiar to many of us today and a site that would one day appear in Ripley's "Believe it or Not", the one place along the canal where it crosses over a roadway rather than under one. The archway was high enough then for a wagon of hay to pass through, and a stone marker on the site carried the names of our first set of travelers, who back then had actually passed through the region about three miles to the north.

A little past the village they cross over Oak Orchard Creek and continue on to the unincorporated Niagara County settlement of Middleport (midway between and Newport/Albion). Sad news has preceded them by a day or two - they learn of a two year-old boy who had drowned in the canal. Asa takes a stroll through the village. A three-story public house or tavern is under construction. When completed front and back porches will grace all three floors. Otherwise Fitch finds most buildings, made of logs, are of, "grotesque, if not altogether uninteresting appearance." He knocks off a few more of Byron's cantos before going to bed.

On Thursday they get an early start, moving along until reaching a basin where George Raynolds had settled as the canal opened last year, erecting a small frame grocery store on the north side of the canal. They had been noticing signs of a newly-begun fruit industry; indeed, as they stopped for breakfast Mrs. Raynolds was in the garden setting out peach plants. In the next decade Raynolds would move over to where he would serve as sheriff of Niagara County. Eaton's crew, their hunger satisfied, continued on, crossing a small creek branch that passed through several small lakes to their right and left. In another mile they come into a small settlement newly noted for a gas that seeped out of the ground.

Many years later a member of the Harrington family of La Crosse, Wisconsin, visited the site to do some family research. He was told, ". . . gas was discovered by a scientist from Albany who first placed a large (inverted) cask over the spring where gas had been detected and at the proper time applied a match to see whether gas had really been discovered.

When next seen our scientific friend was making a spread eagle in a mudhole near by." Probably a local legend; couldn't have been Professor Eaton, or I'm sure we would have heard about it. Unless, of course, Fitch and the others had been sworn to secrecy. Or threatened with a D.

Whatever.

As they moved on they bestowed the name Gasport on the little community.

Later on, when they passed by the spot on their way home to Troy, they found their nickname had been adopted and was appearing on boards mounted alongside the canal.

Some of the students decided to walk for awhile. They passed the submerged remains of a fort - history unknown - and continued on to Lockport.

By noontime they had reached the village. Fitch doesn't describe the place, not even its flight of locks, only mentions local entrepreneurs are marketing excavated gypsum from the canal. At this point the place had only been around for several decades, the area first settled by a Charles Wilbur in 1805 and named Cold Spring. By the time the commissioners passed along the road to the north there still was no settlement, still wasn't until the building of the canal. It would be 1829 before the place was even incorporated. Spafford's Guide lists the 1824 population at under 1500. Now, two years later, it was closer to 2500, many of the canal builders having remained in the area. Back at the beginning of this year the canal commissioners had accepted a high bid of $200 a year from local businessman William Kennedy and Junius Hatch of New York City, giving them the use of any water outside the locks that fell naturally. It was a limited start but from this small acorn the town would become an industrial oak tree within a few years as Albany investors appeared on the scene.

They locked through and moved on into the deep cut on the far side of town, the last part of the canal to be completed due to the heavy labor required to cut a 70-foot deep trench south and west through seven miles of rock. The professor took advantage of the rather monotonous scenery to deliver a lecture to his captive audience. They were awarded for their patience at the end of the day when they joined Tonawanda Creek at Indian Springs and took a dip before turning in for the night. While they're drying themselves off, we'll rejoin the commissioners, 16 years earlier.

For the rest of the distance the two parties, which had been following parallel routes since leaving Rochester, would take paths that roughly mirrored each other. The commissioners entered the Buffalo area to the north and hooked around to the south, the academics entering from Tonawanda Creek and hooking around up to the north.

Clinton and the other commissioners left Forsyth's tavern on that last day of July and continued, stopping ten miles away from Lewiston at William Howell's two-story 1809 tavern, the first clapboard house in the Town of Cambria. It had replaced Howell's first home, a log cabin, built three years before that. Like Forsyth's Tavern, Howell's also still stands today.

Partway between Howell's Tavern and Lewiston the road ascended the escarpment. Reaching the top Clinton turned and admired the vista to the north. ". . . we had a sublime view of immense forests towards the lake, like one prodigious carpet of green, and a distant glimpse of the great expanse of waters."

As they neared Lewiston they passed through a three-square-mile settlement occupied by 300-some Tuscarora Indians. The tribe, driven out of Virginia and North Carolina by enemies, had emigrated here in 1722 and become the sixth nation of the Iroquois Confederacy. They had been given a third of the current village by the Senecas and the rest by the Holland Land Company. Clinton tells us, "They follow agriculture and keep a number of hogs and neat cattle. They also plant corn and cultivate wheat, which looks poor." He adds that they often crossed over into Ontario, where they played ball - lacrosse, perhaps - for the amusement of British troops stationed there, and receiving presents from them.

Reaching Lewiston, still part of the Town of Cambria, three miles further on, the Clinton party stopped for the night at a tavern owned by Thomas Hustler, said to be a model for a character in James Fenimore Cooper's "The Spy". Clinton either misunderstood the man's name as Hurtler, or mis-transcribed it later when he wrote up his notes. The tavern would be the only building in Lewiston to escape the flames when a contingent of British troops burned the settlement three years later. While the other commissioners put up at the tavern, Clinton and Simeon De Witt were guests at the home of Benjamin Barton who, along with Augustus Porter, had been a freight forwarder on Lake Erie, when they acquired an exclusive lease on the portage and landings at Lewiston and Fort Schlosser in Niagara Falls three years earlier. The bulk of the shipments were of salt. Barton had built his home here in Lewiston at that time, it was one of a only a few houses in the village. The British would burn it in 1813 and Barton would rebuild it in 1815. It still stands, at North 3rd and Center Streets.

Restoration work is ongoing today.

The next day, the first of August, the commissioners set off on a round of sightseeing, beginning with a short voyage to Fort Niagara aboard the brig Ontario, one of their host's fleet on its way to Oswego. Clinton describes the fort as being in "ruinous condition". After inspecting the new barracks under construction and having a noon meal in a room overlooking Lake Ontario, they crossed the river to the Canadian side to meet up with carriages that they'd had driven up to the village of Niagara, capital of Upper Canada until York (we know it as Toronto) became the new seat of government in 1793. It was burned in 1813, by U.S. troops.

The carriages carried our sightseers down to Queenstown, a Canadian village of about forty houses, where they caught a ferry back to their own side of the border, returning to Lewiston.

The next day it was off to view the Niagara Falls area, taking in the whirlpool and, further down, the falls themselves. After examining Goat Island and Table Rock they returned to Lewiston once again. The following day Clinton reports, "After breakfast the Commissioners had a conference, in which they directed Mr. Geddes to take levels and distances on a variety of points, and adjourned to meet at the City Tavern, in New York, on the 28th August." Several commissioners stayed over a few extra days.

We'll remain with them long enough to have a brief look at Buffalo, until recently known as New Amsterdam.

The town (since February) contains 30 to 40 houses, a courthouse (built by the Holland Land Company), a post office and a tavern, run by Joseph Landon, where our friends settled in. Some of the younger commissioners had arrived already and taken the better accommodations. Clinton was not terribly impressed with what was left, but he didn't grumble. Too much.

He goes on to say there are five lawyers in town, and no church.

After a visit to the settlement of Black Rock, to the north, the remaining members of the party began drifting back east, "with our two carriages, three servants, and baggage-wagon."

We'll say our final goodbyes to them here and hurry ahead sixteen years, rejoining our other travelers in North Tonawanda, where the canal empties into the Niagara River, opposite Tonawanda Island. They're just getting off their boat, the Lafayette, onto a pier jutting out into the river, after coming through the side-cut lock.

(It might be of interest to note here that local farmers, the Cherry family, had a daughter this year. By the time she died in 1918, as noted in John W. Percy's photo book on the Town of Tonawanda, Margaret Cherry Mills would have seen the rural, almost wilderness, area give rise to steel mills.)

Professor Eaton, Asa Fitch, George Clinton and the other students are not the only ones here at the mouth of the Tonawanda this Friday morning. A troop of 200 soldiers out of Sackets Harbor have stopped here, on route to Green Bay, Wisconsin. Fitch doesn't mention their method of travel, whether it's by land or water, or some combination of the two. Probably the latter. In 1802 soldiers from Fort Niagara had built a road through here, known as Military Road.

Several of the soldiers are under guard for desertion and disobedience, chained to heavy weights. The officers discover one of the men is missing.

He's soon spotted sneaking off and recaptured. He's yanked back by his ear and forced to the ground, where he's swatted on the side of the head, kicked and cuffed, by several of the troops, presumably officers, "swearing oaths that I never heard equalled", according to Fitch. He doesn't envy the troops.

Eaton gathers up his troops, not by the ear though, and they start off, following the Niagara River around to the west and north, with the heavily wooded Grand Island across the water from them. It was for this island that Jewish New York City newspaper publisher Mordecai M. Noah had begun negotiations back in 1820 to buy some land, to establish a temporary settlement where Jews could await a homeland of their own. Just last year he'd acquired a large plot on the island and taken part in the canal's opening ceremonies in Buffalo. In the end the newspaper editor found he'd built it and they hadn't come. Seven years from now he'll sell the land to the timber industry that will really put Tonawanda on the commercial map.

After a hike of eleven miles our merry yet studious band reaches the falls. I's been mentioned by a number of commentators, such as Canadian historian Pierre Berton, that visitors to the falls had had their expectations so exaggerated that the reality would prove to be a letdown.

Asa Fitch seemed to feel this way. We don't know what drawings or paintings he might have seen, but he felt the rocks above the falls might have framed the scene better.

The group toured Goat Island, noting a bath house on a side island - Bath, (or Green) Island - which also had supported a paper mill for the last three years. Then they all traipsed down the wooden flight of stairs to the base of the cataract. Asa had to admit that the sound was almost deafening. Entering skiffs they crossed the river and about 2 PM, as he put it, "I set my foot upon the domains of George IV". As they all climbed up the 100-foot spiral staircase they noticed that many of the rocks along the side seemed to be breaking up. Professor Eaton probably made sure his students noticed. A rainbow accompanied them along the way. Not being a bunch that wanted to miss the site of some good, old-fashioned carnage, they hiked the short way to have a look at the site of the Lundy Land battlefield of the recent war with Canada. Then it was back across to the U. S. side. Tired out, they decided to pass on a trip up to Lewiston and settled in for the night, Fitch doesn't say where. Presumably they didn't hike all the way back to Tonawanda Creek, just to sleep on the boat.

Saturday morning, May 20th, they headed back toward Buffalo, stopping at Black Rock, where they encountered the soldiers again, on the march (numbers now intact, apparently). As for Black Rock itself, if losing out to Buffalo on being the canal's western terminus weren't bad enough, the village would see its lake commerce destroyed permanently this month, as high winds took out what was left of its pier.

After breakfast the students amble on to Buffalo, the next village, to check their mail. There was no official post office at the time, Crow's Tavern, on Crow Street - later to be named Exchange Street - served the purpose. Handy for a little liquid refreshment when you picked up your mail (maybe more than once a day). Some of the students had mail waiting; Fitch wasn't as lucky.

The Buffalo they viewed in 1826 would have borne little resemblance to our own experience. But, especially now that the new canal was beginning to draw commerce through the area, the place was on its way up. By the end of the year 418 boats will have arrived in Buffalo harbor; and a total of eleven hundred canal boats will have locked through. Some street names were changed this year, the city fathers feeling that names such as Main, Erie and Niagara streets sounded a bit more dignified than Willinks/Van Staphorst, Vollenhovens and Schimmelpennicks, Dutch names, that now went the way of the village's old name - New Amsterdam.

A natural terrace ran parallel to Buffalo Creek and Lake Erie, set back about a quarter of a mile. Most of this had been laid out in large rural lots, with Erie Street the single thoroughfare, descending through the terrace bank and running to the water's edge and various buildings serving the port. But the main part of the town sat perched on the edge of the bluff, running away from the water. Crow Street, site of the Crow tavern/post office sat right on the edge. Asa might not have had mail, but he would have had quite a view coming out.

Eagle Street, running parallel with Crow, a quarter mile to the north, was home to another tavern - the Eagle. With these two birds it's hard to say whether the street names or the tavern names came first. Four years earlier, in 1822, a theater had been built across from the tavern. The owners must have decided bird names were for the, well, you know. They named their business - The Theater. Shortly after the students headed back to Troy a theatrical troupe arrived on the scene for several weeks of Shakespearean enlightenment.

Many streets were named for Indian tribes - Seneca, Mohawk, Huron, Chippewa. Another main thoroughfare, stretching from northeast down to the lake shore was named for one of the early promoters of the Erie Canal, Paolo Busti. We know it as Genesee Street.

Contemporary accounts describe close to 500 buildings, almost all of them built of wood. There were 36 grocery stores, four druggists, five churches, four weekly newspapers, an insurance office, a library, three jewelry stores, three tanneries, a brewery, a bank, and public buildings such as a courthouse (this was built of brick), a jail and two academies or high schools, one for each gender.

Court houses mean lawyers and Buffalo had quite a few, including one named Millard Fillmore, a newly-wed this year. Two others, named Henry White and Thomas Sherwood opened an office here, also this year. Over future years White and Thomas would drop out and others would take their place in the firm including, in the 1890s, brothers William J. and Samuel D. Magavern.

Today, as the result of a merger with the practice of Richard A. Grimm in 1994, the firm of Magavern, Magavern & Grimm, LLP, is still doing business in Buffalo,181 years later.

So it was quite a thriving community our Rennselaer ramblers found at the end of their trail, and this only a dozen years or so since the place had been burnt to the ground.

Fitch goes on to describe their final days here at the western end of the state. They attended several church services the following day, the 21st of May, and spent the afternoon visiting with the Seneca Indians at Buffalo Creek, to the east of town.

Two days later, as the group sits in camp, back on 18 Mile Creek, Asa Fitch thinks of home and family, and writes poetically in his journal, "And, oh, these weary feet have many a mile to journey ere we meet."

But our journey is over now. We won't make the return trip with Amos Eaton, Asa Fitch and George Clinton, or with the latter's father and his fellow commissioners. For us, it's back to their future.


David Minor
Eagles Byte Historical Research
Pittsford, New York
585 264-0423
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