The History of New York State
Book VIII, Chapter V

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

CHAPTER V.

NIAGARA COUNTY #1

Usually the history of a county is largely only of local interest, but Niagara has much that is worthy of attention by the State, and even nations. Its location in the extreme northwest corner of New York makes its western boundary line the dividing one between New York and Canada. The Niagara river, separating two nations, while only 36 miles long, is the site not only of one of the most wonderful natural spectacles of the earth, but the site of the greatest hydro-electrical power developments in the world. Here, too, it was that the French and English fought for the control of the western continent, and only along the frontier of Niagara County was there a continuous warfare waged throughout the War of 1812. And it was said, in the days of the World War that "if the Kaiser had owned Niagara, he could have won that war."

Niagara was established as a county from Genesee, including the present Erie County, March 11, 1808, with the county seat at buffalo. As now constituted, it was formed April 2, 1821, when Erie County became a separate entity. Much that is of historic interest occurred before even the latter date. Six years after the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, and same length of time after Hudson discovered the river that bears his name, two years later than the erection of a few huts on the island of Manhattan, and five years before the Pilgrim fathers landed on Plymouth Rock, Etienne Brulé, came to the Niagara region. he had been sent there to gain the aid of certain Indians against the Iroquois. He did not see the Falls, however; even the priest who came into this country in 1626, and the Jesuit Fathers who followed in 1640, failed to find the natural wonder. Many of the French had learned of the great Falls from the Indians, and their position mapped as early as 1612 from these descriptions, but it was not until he who was to be the most frequent of Niagara's visitors of the olden time, La Salle, arrived in 1669 that this spectacle can be said to have been "discovered." This same Robert Cavalier de LA Salle, in 1678, built the "Griffon," the first vessel to said the "unsalted sea" Erie, and became the "Father of out Lake commerce."

Whoever discovered Niagara Falls, it seems to be established that Father Hennepin was the first to describe them in 1678, and for 250 years others have attempted to do this adequately, with only fair success. From the industrial point of view, here is a water power of from five to seven and a half millions of horse power per year, three quarters of which is on the Canadian side. Only a small portion of this might is utilized by the industrial plants on both sides of the river, but there is fear that still greater diversions of the water may, in the end, ruin the falls as a spectacle, but these seem unfounded. Secretary Hoover, however, in September, 1925, drew attention to the danger of the erosion of the softer stone, causing breaks in the surface rock, which might seriously impair its beauty.

Use was made of the falls nearly 200 years ago, and then abandoned for a century. There really was very little power utilized until 1895, when a power plant started furnishing electric power to a large reduction company. This latter company is now the maker of aluminum with three tremendous plants by the Falls, and is credited with being the greatest power user in the world. Since 1895 Niagara Falls has become the electro-chemical center of the Untied States, and this is but one of the many interests surroundings this district. A mere list of the products of this center would fill pages, and the part it played in supplying essential materials during the World War emphasized its importance not only to the Untied States, but to the world at large.

The county is more than the site of a great natural wonder, and the industrial center around it. Niagara, with an area of more than 300,000 acres, the most of which is arable, is one of the leading agricultural section in the State, and as a fruit growing section is famous. There are probably few districts of like size with so many bearing apple trees, and for or then a half century it has been the leading apple producing county in the East. Peaches are grown in quantity in nearly all parts of the county, and most of the small fruits are produced in commercial quantities. AS high as 3,00 carloads of produce have been shipped in one season; one station, Barker shipping 1,700. The Niagara grape and peach originated in the county.

The division of Genesee County in 1808, known as Niagara County, was a comparatively unsettled wilderness up to a few year previous to that date. In 1799, a gentleman well acquainted with this part of the State, wrote a friend that "for sixty-five miles east of the Niagara River the country was a wilderness, there being a station at Big Plains to care for the chance visitor on his way to the Falls." "There are two or three huts and one framed house at buffalo and two or three at Lewiston." The Indian title to the land had been extinguished, but the British still held Fort Niagara. Lewiston was founded in 1798, but existed most on paper for a number of years. Not until 1802 were the first American permanent settlements made in this region, Bit the matter of actual settlement, by whom and when, will be told in the histories of the various cities and towns.

CITIES.

Lockport, the first village and the first city to be incorporated in Niagara County, has been the county seat for more than a hundred years (July, 1822). It was incorporated as a village March 26, 1829, and chartered as a city April 11, 1865. In 1820 there were two log huts on the site of Lockport. The Erie Canal commissioners chose, in 1821, the place where the canal should break through the mountain ridge; that same year was the year of the separation from Erie, and realizing what the great water way meant to the county, instead of choosing the most developed settlement, Lewiston, as the shiretown, they selected this, as yet, almost unsettled place. The rapidly increasing numbers working on the canal soon populated a village. The name, Lockport, grew naturally from the location of the great canal locks in the heart of the city, the lift here being higher than at any other section of the canal, 54 feet.

When the canal was completed in 1825, Lockport had a population of nearly 3,00, and the county 14,000. The place did not wane after the completion of the Erie, as did many of the other settlements of the period, principally because of the water power developed by the canal and connecting waters. In 1920 its population was 21,308.

Niagara Falls city was formed by the consolidation of the villages of Niagara Falls and Suspension Bridge, March 17, 1892. The village of Niagara Falls, incorporated July 7, 1848, had been known as Schlosser, and also as Manchester, a title given it by Judge Porter, who might well be called the pioneer of the place since he came there in 1795, and made it his home in 1806. Governor De Witt Clinton wrote in 1810:

"We arrived at the village, one quarter of a mile above the falls, and three quarter of a mile from Fort Schlosser. It was established by Porter, Barton a & Co., and it is the best place in the world for hydraulic works. Here is a carding machine, a grist mill, a saw mill, a tannery, post office, tavern, and a few houses. An acre sells for $50.00 The rope walk is 60 fathoms long, is the only establishment of its kind in the western country, and already supplies all the navigation of the lakes. The hemp used in its manufacture is grown on the Genesee flats."

The village of Suspension Bridge was incorporated June 8, 1854, under the name of Niagara City, with an area of one and a half square miles. In 1854 it had two houses within its limits, and only part of the area as cleared sufficiently to farm. The French were, of course, the first settlers of this region, and the portage they opened and used, carried a heavy traffic. To defend this, they built a fort in 1745, the first buildings raised by white men with the bounds of the present city. They did not call it a fort until three years later, and a second one was built a years later. The ruins of these little buildings were to be seen until in the years following the completion of the Erie Canal.

Compare the village of De Witt Clinton's day with the following 1920 facts and figures. Population, 50,760, a gain of over 20,000 in 10 years. Valuation assessed $100,000,000. There were 110 miles of streets, 92 miles of sewers. More than 220 manufacturing concerns were in business with products to the number of 50, and an annual valuation of over $100,000,000. There were 38 hotels, and 36 churches. Numbered with its 23 educational institutions were De Veaux college, and Niagara College is just outside the city. Even Clinton's vision of the :best place in the world for hydraulic works" gave him no inkling of the wonder city which was to be.

North Tonawanda, the last of the three cities of the county to received its charter, April 24, 1897, was incorporated as a village May 8, 1865. There are only two other of the 61 counties of New York which contain an equal number of cities. This is another of the places which owes its birth to the Erie Canal, but it came into being much later. AS the virtual western terminal of the canal, with its sister city, Tonawanda, they became the greatest lumber place in the world, later second only to Chicago. In 1824 James Sweeney and George Goundry issued an advertisement, describing the advantages of the location, and the dam that would be thrown across the Tonawanda, so as to raise the river to the level of Lake Eire. They predicted a great future a an industrial and lumber center. That they knew whereof the spake is shown by the fact that the receipts of lumber in the year 1890 rose to 718,6509000 feet. Iron ore is the second largest of its receipts, which is here made into pig iron and sent to various destinations by rail or canal, including the Welland Canal of Canada. The equivalent of 43,000 car loads are shipped of various products from the two cities. Having the use of the Falls hydro-electric power, a multitude of manufacturing plants are located here. A list of products would include more than 50 different articles. Claim is made that the "Twin Cities" are the largest manufacturers of bolts and nuts, pianos and automatic pianos. The first settle of North Tonawanda was Georges Burges, 1809, erected a frame house on the site of the future city. Joshua Pettit established a log tavern the next year. But any real development did not begin until James Sweeney, he of the advertisement, located in 1828. The site of the city was only a ward of Tonawanda until the separation of Erie County, which established Tonawanda Creek as its north line, thus dividing what was one district, and placing what is naturally one city in two counties.

TOWNS.

Cambria was the original name of the whole region which is now Niagara County, and is therefore the "mother" of all the towns of the county. The first settlers in the present town of Cambria were Philip Beach and his family, who pitched their tent by Howell's Creek in 1801. He was the first mail carrier between Batavia and Fort Niagara. The trip took several days and lay over an Indian trail. His two brothers followed him in settling in the district as pioneer of Cambria. In 1800, the town of Northampton, covering a territory now divided into the west eight counties, had an assessed valuation of $4,785,368. It would be hard to even estimate the valuation of the present town of Cambria, and of the county of Niagara.

The villages of the township are: Warren's Corners, where the old Batavia road connected with the Ridge road of the pioneers; Molyneux Corners, once an important stop on an early stage route; Cambia Center and Pekin, two hamlets.

Hartland, formed June 1, 1812, with an area of 143,855 acres, had 126 taxable persons who owned less than 20,000 acres, assessed at a dollar an acre. The first settlers were John Morrison and others, 1803, who located along the Ridge Road, the great highway of upper western New York. This is one of the best of the agricultural towns, peaches being one of the specialties. The movement to erect a new county of Niagara started in the town of Hartland January 20, 1818. The three villages of this section are Orangeport, Hartland, and North Hartland. Middleport thrusts a corner into this section, and there are other hamlets like Johnson's Creek, once a chief village, but now simply a group of a few houses.

Niagara, formed June 1, 1812, originally known as Schlossers, take its present name from the marvel it borders. The name was not taken officially until February 14, 1816. Pendleton, Wheatfield, and the city of Niagara Falls, have been taken from its territory, leaving it with an area of about 12,000 acres. Its location has made its agriculture take the form of vegetable and fruit growing for the supply of the nearby city. Aside from being the suburban home of many of the city dwellers, it is quite a region of small hotels and boarding houses where visitors from many parts of the State locate for a time. The main village of the township is La Salle, named from the explorer who built the first white constructed vessel to sail the lakes. The place was incorporated in 1897 and has a population of more than 4,000. Many industrial concerns have erected factories in the village in the last decade. "Big Smith," 1806, was the pioneer of La Salle.

Pendleton, set off from Niagara, April 16, 1827, is named after Pendleton Clark, who located at what is now Pendleton village in 1821 because it was on the route of the Erie Canal. The first settlement was made in 1808 by Martin Van Slyke, but there was not growth made until about 1823. When the canal was enlarged in 1850, a guard lock was built in the town, giving it a new impetus and expansion. Besides the village of the same name, Pendleton has but one hamlet, Wendelville.

Porter, taken from Cambria town June 1, 1812, is one of the most beautifully located of the towns in the county. It is on the lower reaches of the Niagara River, while to the north lies lake Ontario. The fertile lands are laid out in orchards and thriving farms. Where the river joins the lake is one of the historic places in New York, the site of Fort Niagara, over which have flown the flags of three great nations. The first of the permanent settlements was started by Philip Beach, a mail carrier. The two important villages of the township are Ransomville and Youngstown. Ransomville was founded by Gideon Curtis in 1817; Youngstown, since it adjoins Fort Niagara, was settled much earlier, but was destroyed by the English in 1813. The latter named village was incorporated April 18, 1854, and has a present population of about 600.

Royalton, created April 5, 1817, has an area of 38,200 acres, making it the largest of the Niagara towns. Settled in 1800 by Joshua and Thomas Slaton of Vermont, it soon became one of the most prolific of the grain sections, and in later years noted for its orchards. The five settlements of the township are: Middleport, the only incorporated village (December 25, 1859) and for a time the largest in the county; Gasport on the Erie Canal where the gas from certain springs was once used for lighting; Orangeport; Royalton Center; and Reynales Basin.

Somerset, erected from the original town of Hartland, February 8, 1823, has a frontage on lake Ontario of eight miles. Truck gardening, fruit growing, and diversified farming have been brought to a high perfection in this section. Barker, the principal village, is one of the heaviest shipping points for farm produce in the county. Somerset Corners was the main business place in the town until a railroad was put through in 1875 which brought about the settlement known first as Somerset, but later as Barker. This latter mentioned place was incorporated in 1908 with a population of 404. Other hamlets are West Somerset, Millers and County Line. The first settler in the region was Jacob Fitts, February 8, 1810. One of the notable structures in the town is Thrifty Mile Point Light-house, the light of which is said to be visible 80 miles.

Wheatfield, formed from Niagara May 12, 1836, was the last civil division of the county to be made. Its name is no longer appropriate, for the large city of North Tonawanda is one of the offshoots of this town. Martinsville was another village which no longer is a part of Wheatfield. The history of the town is so much a part of these two places that a separation can hardly be made. There are three remaining settlements, Shawnee, Bergholtz, and St. Johnsburg.

Wilson, created by the legislature, April 10, 1818, is named after Reuben Wilson, the real pioneer of the section. He located here in 1810, not the first, but the first who stayed, John Lockwood having had a farm in Wilson in 1808. Reuben Wilson not only carved a farm from the wilderness, but helped in the improvement of this part of the county. He was the first supervisor, in which capacity he served for ten years, and the first postmaster. Wilson village, the rural center of the township, was incorporated May 11, 1858, and has at present a population of 700.

 

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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