The History of New York State
Book VII, Chapter V

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

CHAPTER V.

SCHUYLER COUNTY. #1

To many of whom the name Schuyler county means little, the mention of Watkins Glen will strike a familiar chord. This famous and much visited cañon is one, and only one, of the several fine natural beauties of this central New York county. Before ever a white man had peered into the depths of the glen it was held to be one of the dwelling places of the Great Sprit by the aborigines. His voice they heard in the tumbling waters; His power was seen in the making of the rift; it was the cathedral in which they worship Him.

The returning Sullivan expedition from the punitive trip into the land of the Seneca, paused to locate the extraordinary place. Later a number made the long and dangerous journey over the Indian trails to see for themselves this natural wonder,, and many stayed, or later returned and made their homes near its brink. To them the shores of Seneca lake also appealed with its broad acres and means of transportation. There were water powers to be utilized to turn their mills,. To those who must wring their very existence from the primitive woods and lands, the natural beauties may attract, but is the practical utility that leads them to stay.

And so it was with the pioneers of Schuyler County. The Indians had built close to Seneca Lake and Glen one of their largest towns, known as Catherine's town, after the famous wife of Montour, a more famous chief. It had been utterly destroyed by Sullivan. But the fires of the burning place had not ceased before there were those who planned to rebuilt it as a habitation of the whites. It was, however, nine years later when one of the Sullivan soldiers came to the desolated area and made there the first permanent settlement of the Schuyler region. Silas Walcott and a Mr. Wilson divided the honor of being the pioneers, 1788, and the spot chosen was near the present Montour Falls. George Mills came two years later to locate, he having looked the ground over in the same year of its settlement. He had much to do with early development of the region, being the first merchant and one of the first to build a boat and navigate the lake. In 1790 the first of the settlements along the lake was made, but no until 1797 did John Diven and William Baskin locate near the glen so well known.

The impulse that led to the settlement of this and other of the central New York counties waned somewhat with the close of the eighteenth century, and the region now within the boundaries o Schuyler grew in population rather slowly. It was a bit off the natural highways across the State; the outlet and market for farm and forest products were both limited and distant. But with the opening of the Erie Canal there was a renewed growth and the region was fairly well peopled by the middle eighteenth century.

A proposition was made in 1854 for the formation of anew county to take care of the expansion, but this met with great opposition by the districts which would be compelled to gibe of their territory to make this new civil division. The bill erecting the new county passed the Legislature April 17, 1854, almost as it had been introduced, except the county was not called Webster as planned, or even Montour as some advocated, but Schuyler. Parts of Steuben, Chemung and Tompkins were taken for the new county, and its lines enclose the lower, or southern, end of Lake Seneca, with an area of 352 square miles.

The commissioners appointed to locate the site of the shiretown and county buildings. Although the bulk of the county lay around and above the lake, Havanna (Montour Falls) , was named, and the exact position for the public buildings marked. The village of Watkins strongly objected, and it only after a long and tiresome struggle that the Havanna site became the seat of government, and the proper buildings erected. Meanwhile Watkins had gone ahead, with the endeavor to force the final recognition of their village as the county seat, an in this latter object they succeeded, although it was not until 1877 that matter was finally settled and pace reigned.

The new county was, and is, a strictly agricultural district. There are not twenty-five factories, large and small, in the whole region, and many of these are engaged in the manufacturing of articles directly connected with farm products. There was much lumber and wood ash shipped in the pioneers days, but the forests were soon depleted, and the soil beneath became the south of prosperity. Until 1825 grains took the lead, but as the Erie Canal opened new and more easily cleared sections, grain growing became less profitable. Sheep were brought in and Schuyler became one of the leading wool producing section s of this part of New York. Sheep in turn gave place to the dairy cow, and it is along dairy lines that recent agriculture has developed. The relatively elevated character of the most of the county, together with the climate, makes this a grazing and hay section, rather than on fitted to general farming. Perhaps the most interesting development has been the planting of fruit trees and grapes, with great success in the culture of both.

The more important of the early public works were: The Chemung Canal, completed 1833, extending from the head of Seneca Lake, through Catherines Creek Valley, to the Chemung River at Elmira; the Elmira, Jefferson and Canandaigua Railroad, along the west shore of the lake; the Chemung Railroad, which connected this road at Watkins with Elmira, both now parts of the Erie system; and perhaps one should add the Seneca Steam Navigation company, of 1870, which had at various times a half dozen steamers on the lake, some of them nearly 200 feet long.

TOWNS.

Catherine, formed from Newtown (Elmira), March 16, 1798, originally comprised a large territory, Catlin and Veteran being taken off in 1825 and given to Chemung County. A part of Newfield (Tompkins) was annexed 1853, and a part added to Cayuta in 1854. The last loss was in 1857 to form Montour. It is a hilly section with deep valleys, with Lake Cayuta in the northeastern part, the outlet o which reached the Susquehanna. The height and ruggedness of the area has limited its agriculture to daring and fruit growing, but not to detriment of either. The earliest known settlements were by John Mitchell, who came in 1788,m and Josiah Hinman, who arrived later in the same year. Most of the northern part of Catherine was in the hands of non-resident owners and had few settlers until after 1813. Odessa is the main village, and the mercantile center of the region. Laid out in 1827 by Phineas Catlin, it became the important saw and grist mill hamlet of this par of the county. The original flour mill was started in 1801, and was replaced and enlarged many times in later years. The first saw mill was put up in 1799, but had no connection with the large mill which later cut co much of the timber of this area. Present industries are few and these are connected with the fruit produced by the town. Alpine and Catherine are two hamlets of ancient history and pleasant location.

Cayuta, the smallest town in population and area, is in the extreme southeast corner of the county. It was made from Spencer (Tioga) March 20, 1824, and annexed parts from Catherine and Erin (Chemung), in 1854. Cayuta Creek flows through the center of the district, forming rather a narrow valley, in which are located the homes of most of the residents of the town. The pioneer of the section was Captain Gabriel Ogden, who located near the site of the present village of Cayuta, in 1798. About the same time came Rev. David Janes and Joseph Thomas; the former held the first religious service in the region, 1802, at this own house. The principal hamlet has the same name as the town, and is the seat of the former mills that ground the grain of the pioneers.

Dix, formed from Catlin (Chemung county) April 17, 1835, lies along the west side of Catherine Creek from the head of Seneca Lake to the south line of the county. It is a rolling section, relatively low, broken by narrow valleys, such as Watkins Glen, and the soil is naturally fertile. The first settlements were along the lake and Catherine Creek about the opening year of 1800. In 1798 John Diven and William Baskin made their homes about a miles west of the lake, and in 1800 Jacob Mills located farther back. Watkins, at the head of Seneca Lake, the largest village and county seat, came from the settlement of Culver and Smith on lands purchased from Watkins and Flint, who owned 325,000 acres around the head of Seneca. The village is a well planned and laid out place, with many churches and a full quota of hotels to care for the visitors to Watkins Glen. Incorporated on April 11, 1842, as Jefferson, the name was changed to its present title in 1852. It has ample connections with the outside cities; sixteen factories which manufacture a variety of products, the discovery of salt in more recent years supplying one of the raw material utilized. The most noted possession is the nearby glen, a rift in the highlands, through which a stream cascades its way between bordering cliffs some 200 feet high. Although known and visited for more than a century, it has not lost its popularity or charm.

Hector, the largest of the civil division of Schuyler, forms the northeast corner of the county. Ranging high above the eastern shore of the lake, with a heavy rolling terrain, it has become the prime fruit section of the county. All the small fruits as well as the vines do well, and horticulture is the main occupation of the district. John Livingstone and William Wickham were the first to permanently locate within these parts, 1791, although there is a tradition of an unknown who built his cabin on the site of Burdett in 1790, but soon became discouraged and left. There are many hamlets in this well-developed section, among which are: Perry, Meklenburgh, Reynoldsville, Bennettsburgh, Peach orchard, Polkville, Searsburgh, and Steamburgh. Bennett is the main village, the metropolis and business place of he district. It was founded by Joseph Gillespie and others, in 1799, and bore the name for a time of Hamburg.

Montour, the last of the towns to be organized, was erected from Catherine, march 3, 1860. Its formation had a tendency to help retain the county seat at Havanna for a number of years. It is six miles lone, bordering the Catherine Creek, and three and one-half miles wide, containing 12,297 acres. It is most delightfully located among the broken highlands of the south central part of the county, and has a glen comparable to Watkins, although not so well known. The soil is good, and has been brought to a fine state of cultivation; much of it is used for grazing and the production of hay. The streams were early utilized for mills and to a small degree still furnish water power for industrial purposes. With the growth of the place, the name Havanna was given to it, and it was incorporated as such May 13, 1836. As a post office it started with the title Catherinestown. But both these names were changed after the county seat was removed to Watkins for the more appropriate cognomen of Montour Falls, in belated honor of the Indian Chief who built here the first town. the village is a popular summer resort, and, with not so many factories as Watkins, probably equals it as a manufacturing center. There are large electrical crane works, a bridge building concern, and a factory making hardware specialties among the several plants.

Orange, formed from Wayne (Steuben County) February 12, 1813, as Hersey, changed its name to the present form in 1836. It is the southwest corner town of the county, has a rolling surface broken by the narrow valleys of streams, the principal one of which is mead's Creek. It is a dairy section. The first settlements were made, in 1797, by Abraham Rozenback and Samuel Scomp, to the northeast of Monterey. This latter place is the main village of the area.

Reading lies on the west bank of Seneca Lake, and is one of the heavy soiled agricultural towns, giving considerable attention to grape and fruit culture. It was formed from Frederickstown (now Wayne, in Steuben County) February 17, 1806. Judge John Dow, of Voluntown, Connecticut, was the first to make this section his home, 1790. The proximity of the town to Watkins, in which several hundred of its acres are incorporated, as prevented the growth of any large village. Reading Center, North Reading, and Irelandville are hamlets.

Tyrone, formed from Wayne (Steuben County) April 16, 1822, is the northwest corner town of Schuyler, it has an area of 22,684 acres, the most of which are under farm fence. The soil is high and rather well drained and fertile. Excellent crops of grain, hay and fruit are produced. The first settlement was made by Gen. William Kernan, in 1800, on a tract of 4,000 acres purchased from Thomas O'Conner. Tyrone village is the rural center of the town, with Weston, Altay, and Pine Grove making up some of the hamlets.

 

The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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