Monday, July 10, 2017

On the Historical Trail: Early Views of Niagara County

What was life like in the early days of Niagara County when the tree stumps were still fresh and log cabins were the McMansions of the time? Luckily for us, people in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century wrote diaries of their adventures. In this digital age, we seem to have gotten away from that somewhat. What follows is the 1800s equivalent to a selfie. What was the county like for them when they came? What we take for granted today was majestic and new for these people.

Thomas Hughes was the son of British Major William Hughes. He joined the military like his father, and in 1776, he was sent to Canada to serve. He wrote a journal detailing his journey through Niagara County and on to Detroit in 1786. He describes what Fort Niagara looked like at that time. Some of that description follows:


August 4, 1786. Off Niagara, but wind directly out of the river; tacking all day.
August 5, 1786. With great luck just made the mouth of the Niagara River but it was late before we got over the bar. We were thirty hours within site of the fort and were much afraid we should have been drove back.
August 6, 1786. Niagara stands on a point of land formed by Lake Ontario and the river that discharges itself out of the upper lakes. The fort towards the landing is stoccaded, it being in no danger from the water; on the land side, it has regular hornwork, dry ditch and ravelin, with stone block houses in the bastions. The few houses that constitute the town lay in the low ground towards the river and are chiefly inhabited by merchants…The wind being favorable, instead of unloading at Niagara, which is the usual way, the ship went up to a place called the Landing, seven miles farther…
August 7, 1786. …The portage of Niagara is farmed by a John Stedman who charges four shillings per cwt for carrying it eight miles…At leaving the landing we marched up a high hill that gave a fine view of the country we had gone through, and of Lake Ontario, which really looked like the sea… The road leaves the landing and you see no more of it until you arrive at Fort Schlosser, eight miles from the landing and two above the falls…The fort is a miserable place, no defence but a few pickets; Stedman’s house to which we went is large, with a good orchard and a fine farm yard…It was the most magnificent scene that I ever viewed: the falls take a curve like a bow across the river, and taking in the bend almost half a mile wide, 140 feet high and perpendicular. The gloom and stillness of the evening, the deaf’ning roar of the waters and the shaking of the ground gave an awful solemnity, and it is not easy to express what I felt…The fall is divided by an island, on which, notwithstanding the great risk, people often go; Stedman has even made a potato garden there – and says there is no danger if you have men that understand poling and know the ground.
DeWitt Clinton is known in New York State as the Father of the Erie Canal. He was governor of the state 1817-1822 and 1825-1828. He was also a US Senator 1802-1803, as well as mayor of New York City three times. In March 1810, the Legislature appointed a commission to explore a route across the state from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. The purpose of the commission was to determine what improvements should be made and what the current state of navigation was. Clinton, along with Gouverneur Morris, Stephen Van Rensselaer, Simeon DeWiit, William North, Thomas Eddy, and Peter B. Porter left Schenectady on July 4, 1810. Clinton kept a journal of those travels.

July 30, Monday. We dined at one Johnson’s {Johnson’s Creek} a private house five and a half miles from Sibley’s and three from Ellicott’s salt works. It is a perfect wilderness from here to Sibley’s. Johnson settled here in the spring and gave three and a half dollars per acre for his land.
We proceeded seven and half miles from here to Stuart’s tavern in the town of Cambria, Niagara County {near Checkered Tavern} where we lodged, making in the whole twenty-seven miles this day’s journey.
July 31, Tuesday. The people at Stuarts have emigrated from Washington County and are decent and well behaved. There is an abundance of bears in this country; one of our servants saw one near the house.
We travelled ten miles on the Ridge Road without seeing but a very few houses. Here to our great mortification, a heavy rain came on and we found an interruption to the road on the Ridge. For four miles we travelled through the worst road we ever encountered, it being off the Ridge, and about two mile from each other, passed two considerable streams, branches of Eighteen Mile Creek. About a mile from Forsyth’s tavern {Warren’s Corners} we regained the ridge road.
The road from Forsyth’s is excellent, and through a thick settled country. We stopped at Howell’s Tavern, ten miles from Lewiston.
After leaving Howell’s Tavern we turned from the Ridge road and ascended the great slop which approaches it here…On this hill we had a sublime view of immense forests toward the lake, like one prodigious carpet of green, and a distant glimpse of the great expanse of waters.
Three miles from Lewiston we passed through a village of Tuscarora Indians, containing 300 souls. Their territory consists of three miles square – one given them by the Senecas, and two by the Holland Company…we put up at the tavern kept in Lewiston by T. Hustler, an old Sergeant in the army. The Surveyor General and I slept at Mr. Barton’s.
August 1, Wednesday. We landed at the Fort from the brig, which hauled close up to the dock, and were received with a national salute, and other military honors. Capt. Leonard and Dr. West and families reside here, and Lieut. Gansevoort, a single man. The garrison consists of an artillery company. We dined with the commanding officer, in the large stone house, which is 105 by 47 feet. It is in itself a complete fortification – has a well, prison, and only one door. It has iron window shutters, which were taken away by the British, when they surrendered the Fort, under Jay’s treaty. There are marks of shot in the rafters from a six-pounder and which were fired at the siege under Sir Wm. Johnson. It is said that the French asked permission of the Indians to build a trading-house, and that they erected surreptitiously this work; it is further stated that the stones were brought from Fort Frontenac. Considering the distance, and the monstrous mass of stones, one would think this impossible…Niagara Fort is a ruinous condition. There are two blockhouses at the east and west end; and an old stone house, which was built by the French, constitutes the magazine. The only pleasant thing to the feelings of an American are the new barracks which are building.
August 4. Saturday. After breakfast we set out from Fort Schlosser in a Durham salt boat…Grand Island is our jurisdiction, and contains23,000 acres. The Indian right is not extinguished, and the Indians will not tolerate any intrusions or trespassers on it. It is full of deer, owing to the absence of wolves and settlers…At the foot of this Island there are the remains of two French vessels, which were formerly burnt, on account of their not being able to escape.
August 5, Sunday. Buffalo village contains from thirty to forty houses, the courthouse of Niagara County, built by the Holland Land Company, several stores and taverns, and a Post-office. It is a place of great resort. All persons that travel to the western States and Ohio, from the eastern States, and all that visit the Falls of Niagara comes this way.
DeWitt Clinton gave us a glimpse of the Niagara Frontier in the days leading up to the War of 1812. Niagara County still included the present-day Erie County at the time. Fort Niagara was a hub of activity in the area, and one of the few populated areas in the county. Wildlife, including wolves and bears, was very widespread and noticeable in the area.

Meanwhile, we haven’t heard much from another prominent feature of Niagara County – the Erie Canal. Begun on July 4, 1817 in Rome, NY, the Erie Canal was formally opened across the entire breadth of the state on October 26, 1825. Lockport was the final piece of the canal. The flight of locks and the Deep Cut towards Pendleton were the most difficult and last sections of the canal to be completed.

Today, we take the canal for granted. While we don’t have to wait for bridges as often as we used to, there were days when it was not an uncommon occurrence to have to wait several times a day. For most of the 19th century, the Erie Canal was the busiest highway in the country. In its earliest days, the canal was so busy that it was almost immediately too small. The impact of the canal on the state and local economy cannot be understated.

Benjamin Parker Richardson wrote a travel diary in 1824. As a 21 year old man, his older brothers sent him on this journey to broaden his knowledge and outlook on the world. While in Washington, DC, he met John Quincy Adams, who was Secretary of State at that time. He also met Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette while in Virginia. It is interesting how Niagara Falls and the new canal were such a major part of his travels. Times sure have changed.

Friday Oct. 15th [1824]. …stopped at Lockport. Lockport is as far as the canal is completed and here the mountain ridge seemed enough to have despaired farther prosecution, but perseverance has excavated unfathomed rock and formed five double locks one hundred feet ling each and each rising above ten feet. The Washington Hotel, kept by E. Colburn, being full, a party of us were provided with beds at Dunlap’s inn.
{NOTE: The Washington House was erected in 1822 or 1823 on the northwest corner of Main and Transit Streets. This was the place where Lafayette was received upon his visit to the area in the summer of 1825. It was considered one of the “first hotels of prominence in the village.” It was later known as the Stevenson House, and was destroyed by fire in July 1865.}

Saturday Oct. 16th. Blasting rocks for the progressive canal made it seem like training day by unintermitted explosions…started for Manchester {Niagara Falls} – thickset woods infoliated with autumnal shades of yellow and vermillion lined the pass, obstructed by stubs of newly cut trees and gridiron bridges…Few log hamlets niche the forest with just room enough for new settlers to wield their helves. Such conditions show from what beginnings opulent cities have arisen. The axe mars the solid forest, burnings succeed, and homely hovels lose their indigence by village industry and pride. The ridge road stirred feelings of supposition, being along a natural rise, the northern side often showing a perfect level. Some suppose Ontario lake once laved its verge, and portentous trees now darken where the finey tribe did swim…Elevated land on my left  contained the Tuscarora Indians clad in blankets and moccassons, many were busy in hunting black squirrels which appeared very plenty.
Two miles from the falls I heard the crush of torrents and beheld the rising spray. In Cambrey, eighteen miles back, a woman said she had heared them just before a storm…Stopped at Whitney’s Eagle Hotel. Descending 84 steps and winding over rocks I found the margin of the river, wet with vapours from the gigantic sheet of water, divided by Goat Island…
{NOTE: The Eagle Hotel in Niagara Falls was built around 1814. It was located at the southwest corner of Old Falls Street and Rainbow Boulevard. In keeping with the hotel tradition, a Comfort Inn now occupies the location.}

Sunday, Oct. 17th. During the night the cataract incessantly roared, my windows rattled and the glass appeared coated with vapourous substance…Oh! What a scene! To admire the herculean billows, which for time immeasurable have launched from their enormous virge, but greater is the thought to ruminate awhile. How many oceans have dashed o’er those bounds, how many million tons of water have passed that ordeal twice, having been thrown back by the grand hydraulics of heaven and then to view the perpendicular sides of the river, rising three hundred feet, and to suppose these falls to have been the same since the last flight of Noah’s dove, or that they once were less distant from Ontario and have receded those fourteen miles…
Tuesday, Oct. 19th. At 9AM, the Mail stage conveyed me towards Buffalo, leaving on my right Chippewa situated on the opposite bank of the Niagara River, passing Naval, Cayuga, and Strawberry islands, over Cayuga creek to Tonnewanta creek. Grand island, talked of as resort for the Jews lies on Niagara river and accompanied us for some miles. At Tonnewanta creek the Canal joined us which we followed up to Black Rock, where is built a sloop lock which forms a harbor. It consists of a pier twenty feet wide and over two miles in length of framed white oak timber with stones and connects Squaw Island in Niagara River with Bird island in Lake Erie. Stopped in Buffalo, at the Eagle tavern. The road back is most forest with but few houses to alter the sight.
Richardson was on the Grand Tour, much like the Grand Tour of Europe that some people undertake coming out of high school or college. An account book at the back of his diary relates that on October 15th, be purchased packet boat fair from Brockport to Lockport for $2. His supper, lodging, and breakfast in Lockport cost him an additional 75 cents. That was the total for two meals and a bed for the night. In Niagara Falls, the costs were just a little bit higher, costing $2.50 for his two day stay at the Eagle Tavern, including meals.

Very likely our parents and grandparents have stories of visiting Niagara Falls and Fort Niagara. I know my grandmother visited the Falls when the Honeymoon Bridge collapsed in 1938. She had pictures of it in her photo collection, and used to tell stories of seeing it twisted and destroyed on the ice. She also had photos from 1969 when the American Falls were “shut off” for evaluation work by the Army Corp of Engineers. Somewhere, in dusty attics or stuffed in the back of a closet, there are diaries waiting to see the light of day. The stories that have remained untold are waiting to be shown the light of day.

That will be the legacy that likely ends with the generation of our parents. No one writes diaries anymore. Instead, we write 140-character tidbits about what we had for breakfast, or how long the line was at Tim Horton’s. Yes, they are equally as important as the written words of our ancestors, but they are spread out over several mediums and can be hard to collate into a narrative. Maybe someday, with retro being so “in,” we’ll see a resurgence of diaries and journals. 

Craig Bacon is the Niagara County Deputy Historian. The office is located at 139 Niagara Street, at the corner of Niagara and Hawley Streets. The office is open Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday 8:30 to 4:30.

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