Sunday, July 14, 2019

History of the Niagara County Infirmary Part 1

Niagara County Almshouse on Niagara Street
This is the first of a three part series on the history of the Niagara County Infirmary. The first part will relate how the property became the Infirmary, moving from the Poor House on Niagara Street. The second will be the general history of the Infirmary from 1915 until its closing in 1979. The third installment will focus on the associated cemetery behind the buildings on Davison Road.

It seems that the former county property on Davison Road is back in the news with some of the same questions about the property being asked over and over again. Most of us remember it as the Social Services building, but there is a lot more to the story than that. There is a long history of the Poor House/Almshouse in Niagara County that predates the establishment on Davison Road. Some of that is germane to the story of that property.

In 1829, Niagara County established a poor house just to the west of the village of Lockport. While today, the road is known as Niagara Street Extension, it was formerly known as Gulf Road or Poor House Road. The 120 acre plot included not only the poor house, but also a working farm and a stone quarry. According the Dr. James Bowles, there are several significant dates in the history of the poorhouse:

1829: The first building was erected, opening in the fall.

1833: A large main building of fieldstone was built to replace the original frame structure.

1845: Two 3-story additions were made to the fieldstone building, with one of the additions dedicated to the “insane.”

The State Board of Charities inspected the Niagara Street buildings in August 1907, finding many shortcomings in the property. “The [water] supply is very poor at present. The water comes by gravity from three springs. There are three large rain cisterns in the basement of the main building and one in the hospital. A better water supply is an imperative need.”

“These floors are worn out and full of splinters. The spring beds have been rusted and the mattresses badly discolored with bug exterminator. Most of the work rooms are very dark and cannot be well lighted even by artificial means. The building, although it has strong walls and a good roof, is too old and out of date for the purposes of a modern almshouse. The county needs a new set of buildings and it is a serious question if it does not need at the same time a better farm for the economical maintenance of the almshouse.”

In 1907, Superintendent of Poor, Alanson C. Bigelow, followed up with the following: “It is again a subject of criticism by the inspector and the floors have now arrived at a point where some repair or improvement is a matter of absolute necessity. It has become impossible to keep these floors presentable and in a healthful condition by any amount of labor. The holes in the floor were the immediate cause of a small fire during the year… There are 89 kerosene lamps in the different buildings requiring daily care. The number is becoming so great that their use involves a considerable expense and they are at all times dangerous… A different system of lighting has become a necessity.”

The State Inspector continued to press the issue of the deteriorating condition of the almshouse with each year inspection. Not enough improvements were made between the reports to even tread water regarding repairs around the property. 

Hospital building at the Niagara Street Poor House
By 1908, the buildings were in such disrepair that they were dangerously close to being condemned. Four years later, nothing had improved and it was decided that a new building should be constructed. “These buildings are old, much worn and constitute a serious fire risk. They are, however, well cared for and clean, but should not be used longer than is necessary.”

The Committee on Poor House & Superintendent of the Poor presented a resolution to the Niagara County Board of Supervisors on April 15, 1909 which tackled this issue head on. “We recommend that we are not in favor of extensive repairs owing to the unsatisfactory location and general condition of the Poor House and the probability of a new Poor House being erected in the near future.” The water supply gave out completely in the cold, and the inmates went into the heat of summer without a reliable means of water or sewer discharge.

The initial plans to move forward with the construction of a new almshouse came with a resolution by Supervisor Louis O. Fanck of the City of Lockport on December 2, 1909:

"Whereas, the county alms buildings in their present state, do not conform to the present requirements of the state Board of Charities and the accommodations are of a nature not consistent with the present day customs, therefore, be it

Resolved, that the two committees, Poor House & Superintendent of Poor, and County Buildings Committee, be appointed a joint committee to report the advisability of changing the present conditions and other such matters as they deem advisable and report the same to the Board at their earliest convenience.”

The result of this committee’s investigation delivered three proposals to the Board of Supervisors. First, they could spend the money to keep the current site and buildings and bring them up to the minimum requirements of the state Board of Charities. Second, they could build a new almshouse on a new site if it was approved by voters at the next general election. Lastly, they could build a new complex on a new site through the authority granted by the state board. 

At the meeting of December 17th, Supervisor Benjamin Gould of Cambria moved that the first proposition be adopted. It was defeated, bringing Supervisor David Edwards of Niagara Falls to suggest a resolution to adopt the second proposition. This resolution passed despite Edwards voting against his own proposal. On October 4, 1910, the Board of Supervisors approved the question to be placed upon the ballot whether to build a new almshouse at a “cost not to exceed One Hundred Thousand dollars.”

The referendum failed on election day, requiring the county to scramble for at least a temporary fix for the deplorable conditions. They directed their committees and legal team to attempt to purchase an adjoining eight to ten acres on which to construct new buildings for the care of the poor, and another eight acres at the top of the escarpment, which would be the site for the actual home. The two tracts of land identified for purchase were the present day county jail and the Mount View campus on Upper Mountain Road.

Niagara Street Poor House
Despite the attempts to improve the plight of those at the poor house, change was slow in coming. The State Fire Marshal arrived in January 1912 to inspect the property. He presented the Board of Supervisors with a list of demanded changes. The house was once again without any water supply. He requested that an artesian well be dug with a 75,000 gallon tank for storage. Without any water, continuing to burn kerosene lamps was prohibited, and the kerosene tanks in the basement were to be immediately removed. 

The Committee on County Buildings reported that it would be impractical and very costly to erect new buildings on the current site. Architects warned them that the remoteness of the current poor house would add $7,000-$9,000 to the cost of construction and another $9,000 to bring in a reliable water source from the City of Lockport. Instead, the committee sought other sites that would reduce the inherent costs of building a new poor farm for the county. They chose five possible farms for purchase.

1. The Brown farm on the eastern boundary of the City of Lockport
2. The Butler-Dempsey farm on Lover's Lane, abutting the Brown farm on the north
3. The Ginty Farm on Turnpike Road in the Town of Lockport
4. The Robert D. Moore farm on the "canal road" adjacent to the Odd Fellow Home farm
5. The Angevine farm at Wrights Corners just east of the trolley station.

The committee’s recommendation was to purchase both the Brown farm and the Butler-Dempsey farm for $24,000, and an additional twenty-five acres of wooded land at the southern end of the Brown farm for $1,500. There would be nearly 180 acres between all three tracts. Some of the advantages of this site was the trolley line bordering the north side of the Butler-Dempsey farm, which could add a stop for the poor house. Also the East Avenue trolley stopped only 200 feet from the farm. Additionally, city water could be obtained from either the Walnut Street or East Avenue lines. The Board of Supervisors agreed with and approved the recommendations by the committee on May 8, 1912. This was put on hold at the next meeting when difficulties arose with the City of Lockport over sewage disposal.

Supervisor Austin Dwyer of the City of Lockport proposed on July 9, 1912 that W.J. Beardsley be employed to design the new almshouse, “at a fee of five percent of the contract price.” A minority report of the Buildings Committee was presented before Dwyer’s resolution could be voted. This report pushed for a Niagara County architect as, “the Niagara County architects are in our judgment equally as desirable and economical, if not more so, than those submitted by non-residents.” As this was immediately adopted, Dwyer rescinded his request for Beardsley, and instead put his support behind L.W. Gray. Supervisor Gould suggested the rest of the Board of Supervisors vote for the appointment of the architect, which carried. Twenty-three formal ballots later they still had no consensus and adjourned until September.

Just as they were set to vote on the hiring of an architect, Supervisor Bruno Kreuger of Niagara Falls, rose, claiming that there was some graft or other irregularities in the election process. He claimed he had been approached by other members of the Board who offered favors to vote for a specific architect. Kreuger accused Clifford Bowman and Joseph Percy of receiving benefits from architects for their vote, a charge neither denied. George Plaster then claimed that Simon Miller offered a similar bribe to him, which Miller claimed was “a joke.” Charles Banks also claimed he had been offered $100 to vote a certain way. 

The claims by the respective supervisors were directed to the district attorney for investigation and that the matter be presented to the grand jury for deliberation. Upon the acceptance of this, architects J.R. White. R.J. Moore and Henry Mess addressed the Board of Supervisors to assure them none of them had offered money in exchange for a vote for the position. Finally on December 30, 1912 Chester R. Phelps of Niagara Falls was selected to be the architect for the new almshouse. 

Architectural rendering of new Infirmary by Chester Phelps
John Moon provided a low bid of $117,452 for the construction of the new Poor House, but a consensus could not be reached among the supervisors. After debate, it was decided to reject all the bids and readvertise for new ones in hopes that a lower bid would be more enticing to the  county. W.F. Felton submitted a bid in August of $117,612, which once again was met with dismay by the supervisors and was attempted to be thrown out in favor of new bids. The attempt was thwarted, and the report of the County Buildings Committee was adopted. 

At a meeting of the supervisors on December 2, 1913, the Committee on County Buildings recommended that the Niagara County Almshouse be formally renamed the Niagara County Infirmary. They also announced that the opening of the new buildings would be formalized on December 28, 1914. Overseer of the Poor, Alanson Bigalow, announced that the formal opening could not take place until after the new year. The inspection of the new buildings was scheduled for January 6, 1915 at 1:00pm, followed by a ceremony at the Courthouse. It was opened to inmates on February 27, 1915.

Craig Bacon is the Deputy Niagara County Historian. The Niagara County Historians Office is located at 139 Niagara Street on the corner of Niagara and Hawley Streets. Offices hours are 8:30-4:30, Wednesday through Friday.

All photos courtesy Niagara County Historians Office.