The Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Letchworth State Park provided a venue for various purposes during their short existence. The last of these was housing 200 German prisoners of war from 1944-1945.
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, the last time we had taken foreign prisoners of war was during the War of 1812. The government was unprepared for the influx of Italian and German prisoners when Great Britain couldn't house anymore in 1943. American military success in North Africa yielded large numbers of German POWs and made it imperative the U.S. transport POWs to U.S. soil.
The Geneva Convention of 1929 was the framework all nations were supposed to work within to treat POWs, but we know that the Axis powers disregarded the rules much of the time. However, the U.S. intended to set the example with humane treatment in hopes that our soldiers held in German POW camps would have better conditions. The camps were first established in the southern states, but eventually, POW camps were constructed in almost every state.
Fort Drum near Watertown, NY, was the first to receive POWs in New York State and then Fort Niagara early in 1943. Fort Niagara was the POW headquarters for Western New York. The prisoners arrived on the Liberty ships, which had transported soldiers to the Europe Theater, and had few passengers for the return voyage, making them the perfect solution. The number of prisoners constantly increased, and the need for more camps snowballed. Additional camps were designated in Attica, Geneseo, Hamlin Beach, Rochester, Medina, Oakfield, Stony Brook and Letchworth State Parks. In May 1944, the construction of a barbed-wire fence to enclose a compound around CCC Camp SP 49 located at the Lower Falls commenced. POWs began arriving in June. Two hundred German POWs were now temporary residents of the park.
The Letchworth Farmers' and Canner's Cooperative formed to manage the use of the Germans. With the scarcity of young men at the time, farmers and factories were without enough labor to produce the food desperately needed for the military and civilians. Rationing of food and other goods was a way of life during the war, making food production a high priority.
The largest farms which contracted with Birdseye-Snider to supply vegetables to its canneries received help first. Work details of five prisoners accompanied by one armed guard were organized to help harvest crops. Other crews were sent to the local canneries as laborers on the production lines. The system worked well, and as time went on, arrangements became quite casual in many cases. Most of the prisoners were quite content with their lot. They worked hard, but were treated well, had plenty to eat and recreation time.
One crew of POWs was gathered to work with the Army Corps of Engineers to build the camp in Geneseo in 1944. The camp was located on a slope west of SUNY Geneseo. After clearing the land, the prisoners constructed eleven prefabricated buildings. Nine were for barracks, one for a mess hall, and one was outside the compound to house military police.
When winter came, the men were busy with construction and maintenance projects provided by the park administration. The barracks in the park were small, housing 20-50 men according to one former German POW, who returned in the 1980s to see the park. Each barrack was set up in military-style with cots around the perimeter of an open room. A coal stove provided heat, there was electricity, and hot-and-cold running water. The Germans were able to organize recreation and entertainment for themselves, write letters, and read during their non-working hours. The food was ample and good—certainly better than what they would be eating on the battlefield and the camp had a translator. Sunday worship services were held for them too. The men received about 80 cents a day for their labor, paid in canteen coupons. This way, they could purchase cigarettes, candy, and other sundries with their wages.
Stony Brook State Park housed Italian POWs at its CCC camp. These men also worked in the canning factories and farms in and around Mt. Morris. It was reported that the Italians were elated to be in the U.S. There were stories of Italian soldiers immediately surrendering on the battlefield when they realized they were fighting Americans. They were weary of the fighting and couldn't wait for a cruise ticket to the U.S.
The presence of enemy soldiers in the rural communities along the Genesee didn't seem to rattle the residents. Each of the camps was isolated from the population, the newspapers barely mentioned their existence, and people accepted that laborers were necessary. These men were young, healthy, and willing to work. The girls in Geneseo seemed to enjoy flirting with the young men while they worked in town, and there were some incidents of escapes and even arrest of locals in aiding the escape of POWs.
In August 1944, three prisoners from the Letchworth camp managed to escape. The FBI initiated a manhunt, and citizens were instructed to be on the lookout for the escapees dressed in POW garb. Their descriptions were provided for the newspapers. In November 1944, 36-year-old Hans Geisser slipped away and was found at the CCC camp near Gibsonville the next day. This camp housed the young women who signed up to work in the canneries for short periods during WWII. Also, in November 1945, two women were arrested for aiding a POW's escape. Margaret Wilson of Gainesville, mother of two children, and 19-year-old Alice Fisher of Perry were arrested and jailed in the Monroe County jail for transporting POWs out of the Geneseo camp. The ladies claimed innocence, insisting they were on a date. Quite a date! Unfortunately, I didn't find the outcome of their charges, but likely they were dropped or the women received fines.
When the camps closed after the war, most of them were dismantled, which was the fate of Camp SP49. Little remains, if anything, of the camps along the Genesee. There are few records about the camps and fewer photos; the inspections and other official reports are with the National Archives. This fleeting encounter between enemy soldiers and the people of Western New York almost disappeared, but a few glimpses remain into a unique moment of Genesee Valley history.
The Troy Record, November 22, 1945
Buffalo Courier November 22, 1944
Buffalo Courier August 4, 1944
Letchworth State Park History.com
Genesee Valley Events 1668-1986 by Irene A. Beale
MAZUZAN, GEORGE T., and NANCY WALKER. "Restricted Areas: German Prisoner-of-War Camps in Western New York, 1944–1946." <i>New York History</i> 59, no. 1 (1978): 54-72. Accessed September 3, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23169531.
Ashcroft, Jennie. WWII POW Camps in the United States, Fold3.com
August in Western New York means it’s time for county fairs. They are a long-established tradition in New York State that began as early as 1793. Generations of Western New Yorkers have participated in this icon of rural life for over 175 years.
History of the County Fair in New York
The history of American agricultural fairs is traced back to Elkanah Watson, who hailed from Massachusetts and was the founder of the Berkshire Agricultural Society. His concept was successful in Massachusetts and exported to the Genesee Valley by Charles Williamson, a land agent for the British Pulteney Association. This association was a group of British land speculators who purchased 1,000,000 acres of land in Western New York in 1790 from the 6,000,000-acre Phelps and Gorham Purchase.
Williamson, who was employed to encourage settlement of the Genesee Valley and sell the vast acreage, decided that a fair would expedite matters. In 1793, he organized the Williamsburg Fair and Genesee Races in what is now Groveland, NY. The fair featured horse racing, a popular sport that offered a winning purse of 50 pounds. There were also foot races and shooting matches. In addition, livestock was offered for sale—cattle, horses, and sheep. Williamson held another successful fair in Bath, NY, three years later, which ran for almost a month. Diverse entertainment was offered to spectators, who traveled in from all directions for some fun. Plays performed by a troupe of actors, along with a variety of contests, kept people coming back. Williamson had a famous mare, Virginia Nell, who raced for a large purse of 1,000 pounds. There likely were many wagers on the races. While the fair cost over $100,000 in today’s coin, Williamson shrewdly turned a profit for his bosses. Land sold, and the population of the Genesee Valley grew.
In 1819, New York State formed an Agricultural Society to promote best farming practices to improve crop production and the husbandry of livestock. They handed out $10,000 to local agricultural societies for premiums at fairs and expanded their support in 1841 by giving premium money to county agricultural societies. 1841 is significant because it was the year Wyoming County was officially organized as a separate county set off from Genesee County.
Wyoming County Fair
In 1843, the Wyoming County Agricultural Society was formed, and in 1844, Warsaw hosted the first fair on September 30 and October 1. The Society’s single objective was to promote agriculture in the county. The fair celebrated agrarian achievements of growing the largest pumpkin, the best apples, or wheat. It provided a venue for farmers to examine new equipment, superior breeds of cattle and sheep, better varieties of grain, vegetables, and fruit. Of course, some fun was in order and horse racing and other contests were consistently popular with everyone. For example, in 1845, there was a plowing contest to see who could plow a ¼ acre the fastest, which was 75 minutes that year.
By 1849, attendance was estimated at over 5,000 people for the two-day county fair. Warsaw remained the main venue for the fair until 1940, but the fair moved to other locations, including Perry Center, Wethersfield, Varysburg, Perry, Letchworth State Park, and Attica. Throughout the 19th century, departments were added to include homemade goods—preserves, cloth, butter, cheese, woodworking, and farm implements. In 1902, a Wild West show was part of the entertainment, and in 1911, the midway had electric lights, and numerous entertainment companies were booked to thrill fairgoers. This was when the association hired the Daredevil Tony Casterline and his flying machine to thrill the crowds. Casterline, the inventor of the “Loop to Loop” and “Loop the Gap” aerial maneuvers, fired up the Curtis aeroplane to show off his skills. However, because of soft ground, he could not gain enough loft to clear the telegraph wires on the west side of Liberty Street in Warsaw. Entangled in the wires, the airplane lost its propeller, and the craft's framework was significantly damaged. Fortunately, the pilot escaped with minor injuries. The fair was extended by a day so Casterline could make repairs and consequently a successful flight to the amazement of all. Unfortunately, expensive entertainment diverted the purpose of the fair and began to eat away at its resources.
By 1927, the fair association was in real financial trouble and couldn't pay its bills. The 4-H clubs held an exhibition and did so a few times until the fair association was solvent around 1935. Between 1931 and 1933, Perry hosted the event without much success, but the Great Depression was likely a factor. Times were exceedingly tough for everyone. There was no fair in 1934, and its future was bleak. In 1935, Perry Center was the host, and it appeared that the fair was on sound financial footing once again with good crowds. The committee refocused on agriculture, and eliminated the midway. In 1936, the fair was held at CCC Camp 76, near St. Helena in Letchworth State Park. The fair was advertised to have more than adequate space for exhibits and that the beauty of the park would draw more than Wyoming County residents. Newspaper reports heralded it a great success, but this was the only year it was held in the park.
In 1940, the fair moved to Pike. With the restrictions and shortages of many goods during World War II, the fair wasn’t held between 1943 and 1945. The reason was the shortage of gasoline and tires. Everyone was conserving during those hard, uncertain years of the War. Metal, gasoline, rubber, and even cooking fats were in demand to support the war effort. Wyoming County did its part and sacrificed much for victory. After the War, Pike seemed to be the perfect location, and in 1950, the fair association purchased ten acres for permanent fairgrounds north of Main Street.
The Pike Volunteer Fire Department graded the land for a cattle and horse show area, and they constructed bleachers to accommodate 500. Concession stands on Main Street were moved at this time, and lights were installed on the midway. After the Wyoming County Fair Association incorporated in 1951 construction began on a pole barn for livestock. The People’s Hall was completed in 1954 and more parking added in 1959. Unfortunately, in 1955 the livestock barn burned, but its replacement was constructed in 1956.
Much of the fair schedule we know today was set in 1958. Some of the highlights of fair week are the Grand Parade and Fair Queen competition on Monday, Firemen’s Parade on Tuesday, 4-H horse and livestock shows on Wednesday, the chicken barbeque and talent show on Thursday, the open-class beef show Friday. Tractor pulls draw the crowds on Friday and Saturday nights.
That’s one of the beautiful things about “Pike Fair.” You can count on it being the same year after year. Comfortable and reliable, like a well-loved pair of slippers. There have been improvements, new buildings, and exhibits over the years, but the fair still charges no admission and parking is reasonably priced. An array of farm equipment for sale greets you on Main Street; the Historical House demonstrates 19th-century farm equipment and cooking skills. The aromas of cotton candy, popcorn, and grilled meat waft down the midway. The Ferris wheel turns high above the grounds; the merry-go-round cheerfully spins, its music combines with the sounds of noisy game booths. Parents and kids eagerly examine the school exhibits looking for a blue ribbon on an entry. Flowers, quilts, jams, photography, embroidery, and other home arts are on display, waiting for judging. The livestock barns are full of cattle, horses, chickens, rabbits, sheep, goats—the odors are familiar, as are the sounds. Neighbors meet, and folks catch up on life when they spot a friend they haven’t seen in years. The county fair still promotes community, competition, and education. It’s a weeklong celebration of agriculture, fun, food, and laughter. You can’t beat it. Elkanah Watson sure had a great idea.
As Independence Day approaches, we're stepping back into the turbulent time of the Revolution. We’re so far removed from those days that the Boston Tea Party, the ride of Paul Revere, the Battle of Bunker Hill are events usually romanticized in our imaginations. For us, it’s difficult to understand the reality of those times with its limited communication, resources, and transportation. The War was hard-fought by both regular army soldiers and thousands of volunteers. They were ragtag bands of farmers, fishermen, tradesmen, teenagers—just ordinary men who left families and businesses to put everything on the line to win America's freedom from Great Britain.
Digging into the Wallace (Wallis) family history, I found insights into the volunteers who fought alongside the regular army. Henry Wallis, my husband’s fourth great-grandfather, was one of those men. Henry served the United States various times over the eight years of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). He was an early settler in the Town of Perry, and with his son, David established a successful farm just outside the Village of Perry in 1816.
Henry Wallis was born in Worcester, Massachusetts September 23, 1758. The Wallis family was well established there, the first arriving a few years after the Mayflower in 1620. The family was a large one with ten children, and they moved to Colrain, Massachusetts, around 1760. It was from this town that Henry mustered in as a volunteer in the Revolutionary War.
Since the French and Indian War (1754-1763), which was a complex and vicious struggle between France and England to control North America, anger fomented over Great Britain's unjust use of taxation and governmental control. The famous tea tax was implemented in May 1773, and the Boston Tea Party occurred on December 10, 1773.
Here is a transcribed portion of some of the resolutions the town of Colrain, MA, passed as war threatened. There is no doubt as to the mindset of Americans at this time in 1774.
First.—Resolved, That as freemen and Englishmen we have a right to the disposal of our own, are certain there is no property in that which another can of right take from us without our consent, and the measures of late pursued by the Ministry of Great Britain, in their attempts to subject the colonies to taxation by the authority of British Parliament is unjust, arbitrary, inconsistent and unconstitutional
Secondly. –Resolved, That by landing teas in America imposing a duty by an act of Parliament (as is said), made for the support of government, etc., has a direct tendency to subvert our Constitution and to render our General Assembly useless and government arbitrary, as well as bondage and slavery which never was designed by Heaven or earth.
Sixthly. –Resolved, That we will not, by ourselves, or any under us, directly or indirectly, purchase any tea, neither will we use any on any occasion, until that unrighteous act be repealed, and will use our utmost endeavors with every person in our town as we have opportunity, that they shall do the same; and those that buy and sell teas contrary to our true intent and meaning, shall be viewed as enemies to their Country, and shall be treated as such.
Men with military experience from the French and Indian War began training and organizing volunteers—minutemen. Muskets and shot were gathered, houses on higher ground became forts as fences were constructed to help defend these lookouts. Women readied pots of boiling water to throw on enemies from second-story windows. Riders galloped from nearby towns to spread the news of the Battles of Lexington and Concord—“the shot heard around the world” on April 19, 1775. The War was on.
Henry, an 18-year-old first volunteered on June 1, 1777. He was a farmer, living at home when he served ten weeks under Captain Agrippa Wells (a Colrain resident) in the Massachusetts State troops. He marched from Colrain, MA to Fort Edward, NY, which was around 80 miles. There the state militia joined the U.S. Army to fight the Battle of Fort Edward, which ended in retreat. The dilapidated house named Fort Edward was in such bad repair the men weren’t able to defend the area and retreated some 20 miles to Bemis Heights, near Stillwater, NY. Battling both the Six Nations tribes and British, Henry returned safely to Colrain after this first campaign.
On September 1, 1777, Henry served seven weeks under Captain Hugh McClellan, another resident of Colrain. McClellan’s Company of Volunteers marched immediately back to Bemis Heights. The men were put under the command of General John Fellows, who quickly retreated nine miles toward Shaftsbury, VT. The army stayed in that area for two weeks before marching through the woods about 12 miles opposite Saratoga, NY. It was here at the battle of Bemis Heights the Americans finally turned the direction of the War. The British sought control of the Hudson River to cut off the New England colonies from the western frontier beyond the Hudson. General Horatio Gates determined to turn back the redcoat tide, which he did on October 17, 1777. This victory must be partially credited to the unsanctioned efforts of General Benedict Arnold, who led a surprise attack on the British. His actions sent the British troops into confusion and secured the American advantage. An American army surgeon, James Thatcher, M.D., kept a detailed diary about the War and writes about this battle. Here is an excerpt from Dr. Thatcher’s diary:
General Arnold, in consequence of a serious misunderstanding with General Gates was not vested with any command, by which he was exceeding chagrined and irritated. He entered the field however, and his conduct was marked with intemperate rashness; flourishing his sword and animating the troops, he struck an officer on the head without cause and gave him a considerable wound. He exposed himself to every danger, and with a small party of riflemen rushed into the rear of the enemy, where he received a ball that fractured his leg, and his horse was killed under him.
Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga convinced the French to enter the War to aid the Americans. I can imagine the cheers of Henry’s cadre of volunteers when they received the news they’d won the day. After Burgoyne’s surrender, Henry again made the long march back to Colrain to help ready the farm for winter. It was crucial to secure what crops they could to survive the long winter.
Captain James Walworth of Colrain put out the call for volunteers in July 1779, and Henry joined the troop that set out for New London, CT. Meeting up with more men under Elihu Porter, they rendezvoused at Norwich Landing, NY, where Colonel Peas of the regular army was in command. Henry, now 20-years-old, kept guard at Roger’s Point for the two months he was there.
His final stint began in July 1780 under Captain Isaac Newton in a regiment commanded by Colonel Seth Murray. The regiment marched to Claverick, NY (back of the Hudson), where they camped for a week. Then it was on to Fishkill and then to West Point, where General Benedict Arnold was in command. Henry was shifted to various locations around West Point—Verplanck’s Point and King’s Ferry. It was during this time that Arnold turned traitor. General Arnold felt he hadn’t received enough recognition for his efforts and entered into secret talks with the British in 1779. He promised to surrender West Point to the British for a hefty fee and a command in the British Army. The plot was uncovered, and Arnold escaped to the British. Henry says in his pension affidavit that he “saw the boat and crew on their return from the British ship Vulture, which put Arnold on board of that vessel.” What an event to have witnessed!
The Revolutionary War in Western New York
One of the best accounts of what happened in New York and Pennsylvania's western frontiers is in Moses Van Campen’s biography, Sketches of Border Adventures in the Life and Times of Major Moses Van Campen. I highly recommend this book which is available online at Internet Archive. The fight for American independence tragically took the lives of many women and children. The British hired the Senecas, Mohawks, and other Six Nation tribes to destroy villages, farms, and everything in their path. Then, for payment in rum and empty promises of land, the tribes executed the British order. Ebenezer “Indian” Allan played a prominent role in this slaughter.
The British soldiers were no better in their ruthless killing and burning of settlements without regard for the helpless. The fight was intense along the waterways and thick woods with small bands of Americans who quickly learned guerilla warfare against a seemingly numberless foe. Crops were destroyed, food stores ruined, livestock shot. Starving, frightened mothers gathered their children to run to any nearby fortified house for shelter. Farmers secretly tilled land in hollows, attempting to eke out a crop of grain and corn to sustain life. It was unimaginable hardship in those years. Van Campen’s biography states:
The unexampled barbarities committed by the Indians and British, led General Washington to turn his thought to this part of the great American conflict. With little outlay of means themselves, an immense destruction of life and property resulted from their murderous inroads; leading him to believe that the most effective remedy would be to strike a blow at their homes, and break up if possible, those hives that sent forth these swarms to prey upon the defenseless.”
After the War
The surrender of Cornwallis to Washington at Yorktown, VA, on October 17, 1781, brought the bloody conflict to an end, although there were skirmishes for another two years. Cash was scarce after the War, and the former colonies scrambled for alternatives to pay those who had served. New York decided to offer large tracts of land in the western frontier (up to 600 acres) to veterans from any state who’d fought in New York. Albany was eager to see state population growth and the wild and fertile river valleys to the edge of Lake Erie cultivated.
Henry, who married Sabra Dodge in 1784, accepted the offer from New York, moving to Burlington in Otsego County in 1796. From there, the Wallace family moved several more times until Henry purchased farmland in Genesee County in 1816. (The property became part of the Town of Castile in 1821 and in 1841 Wyoming County was formed.) The family found a permanent home in the Genesee Valley, and some of Henry's descendants are still there, 205 years later.
Major Moses Van Campen’s life after the War was similar to Henry Wallis’ experience. After marrying, Van Campen moved his family northward to Almond, NY, in Allegany County in 1796. Traveling up the Chemung and Canisteo Rivers on flat-bottomed boats with all their household goods was a dangerous trek through Six Nations country.
Henry and his family went by ox cart through the wilds of New York to claim his land the same year. Both were men of faith, starting churches--Henry in Perry and Moses in Almond. They worked hard to build a good life for their families and the generations to come. Henry and Moses had very different responsibilities during the War. Still, the goal was the same—America’s freedom, which is our privilege to enjoy today 245 years later because of their service and those who followed their example in every war to follow.
O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain
For purple mountains majesty, above the fruited plain.
America, America, God shed His grace on thee
and crown thy good with brotherhood
from sea to shining sea.
Beer’s 1880 Wyoming County History
Henry Wallis Revolutionary War Pension Affidavit and Supporting Papers
Sketches of Border Adventures in the Life & Times of Major Moses Van Campen
The Early Settlers of Colrain, Massachusetts, Charles McClennan
James Thatcher, M.D. Military Journal 1775-1783
Wallace Family Archive
U.S. Census Records, 1790, 1820, 1830, 1840
The iconic vista of the Portage Bridge high over the Genesee River is unforgettable for any visitor to Letchworth State Park. It’s certainly a favorite place for me. And if you’re lucky enough to see a train cross the bridge—that’s a special treat. However, people have been amazed by the bridge, which is now in its third iteration, since 1852, or 169 years. It’s a destination of longstanding, one that captured imaginations and was a photographer’s dream subject, even in those early years.
The First Bridge
Expansion of the Buffalo & New York City Railroad system prompted plans to lay track from Attica, New York, to Hornellsville, a distance of 60 miles. It was to bolster the New York Central and Erie Railroads lines as train travel became more popular. This new “road” entailed crossing the Genesee River at Portage, and the bridge’s designer, Col. Silas Seymour (1817-1890), had the project of a lifetime. The bridge was to be 800 feet across and 234 feet from the riverbed to the track. Col. Seymour, a civil engineer, designed the bridge so that any piece of timber could be removed and replaced without any danger to the stability of the structure. Seymour went on to have a notable career with several railroads and was the New York State Engineer and Surveyor from 1856-1857. And in 1852, he was the engineer of the world's largest wooden bridge.
The railroad gave the contract for the bridge construction to Lauman, Rockafellow, and Moore. The work was commenced on July 1, 1851, although the gathering of the timber and other materials had begun two years before. It was a massive project, and the contractors advertised for 100 bridge builders, 100 masons, and 800 handymen who could drive iron bolts and handle timbers. The highest wages were promised, ranging from $1.25 - $1.75 per day.
Lauman, Rockafellow, and Moore hired a large group of Irish immigrants to begin the work, but they were disgruntled over the wages within days and went on strike. A day’s work was often 15 hours, making the hourly wage just 8 cents. No wonder they were angry. The contractors ignored the strike, hiring a contingent of Germans, which set a riot into motion on July 7, 1851. The Germans were working on the bridge’s foundation at the riverbed when Irishmen began rolling boulders on them from the banks above. The Wyoming County Sheriff’s Office was sent for, and eventually order was restored, although a deadly riot ensued between law enforcement and the Irish first. The following morning twenty arrests were made, and several of the rioters were seriously injured. Those arrested were transported to Warsaw for trial, except for two who died. One man was discovered below the falls with a gunshot wound to his head (hmmm), and another succumbed to injuries received in the violent uprising. The judge released all the rioters after their trial. Most of the Irish crew immediately left Portage after the incident, and the contractors hired a new workforce.
By the end of July 1852, plans to celebrate the bridge’s completion were in full swing. Pedestrians could now walk across the magnificent bridge to enjoy the views of the canyon and beyond. However, everyone was talking about the amount of material used to construct the bridge. It was mind-boggling.
The stone abutments in the river reached 30 feet, the trestles 190 feet, and the trusses 14 feet. Estimates said that the bridge could carry 3,100 tons as well as its own weight without difficulty. The structure was tested on August 14, 1852, with its first successful train crossing.
On August 25th, the bridge was dedicated with an impressive array of dignitaries and invited guests on hand. Excursion trains from Buffalo and Hornellsville transported hundreds to the celebration at special fares, promising a same-day return in the evening. Thousands gathered to gaze at the engineering wonder and watch as the “first” train crossed the bridge filled with VIPs. Governor Washington Hunt, railroad executives, George B. Chace of Castile, and railroad investors were some of those first passengers.
George B. Chace, a wealthy Castile farmer and successful investor in the railroad, provided a 3,600-pound ox for the feast served from the large mess hall constructed for the workers. The menu was spectacular with several courses, a vast selection of boiled fish (salmon, two kinds of trout, striped bass) and lobster, roasted and boiled meats--beef, chicken, turkey, ham, lamb, mutton. Side dishes were rice, mac and cheese (it was macaroni au gratin on the menu), and pork and beans. For dessert, there were pies, rice pudding, ice cream, and that perennial favorite, calf’s foot jelly. There were also fresh fruits, nuts, and raisins. The banquet was catered by Bloomer’s Restaurant in Buffalo, which was considered the best restaurant in the city. Long tables were set up through the woods to accommodate the vast crowds. Governor Hunt and Lt. Governor Patterson spoke, as did a great many others that day. Between speeches and all that food, people must have been almost comatose by the end of the festivities. The articles written about the occasion were romantic, with flowery descriptions of the scenery and the activities. It really was the most significant event to happen in Wyoming County at that time.
In 1853, the Cascade House was built near the depot at the east end of the bridge. Excursion trains regularly ran, catering to the tourist trade, and the hotel was well situated to provide accommodations for those who wished to linger in Portage.
Numerous repairs were made as the years passed, and talk of replacing the bridge began to circulate in the early 1870s. An iron structure would be less maintenance and safer, proponents argued. While the discussion went nowhere because the public loved the wooden bridge, a destructive fire forced an immediate decision the night of May 5 and early morning of May 6, 1875.
Watchmen were responsible for checking the bridge for any sign of fire every time a train crossed over. On May 5, 1875, at 10:40pm, William T. Davis performed his routine check after a westbound train made the crossing. The watchman found no embers or cause for concern. He left at midnight—the end of his shift, and the next watchman, Pardon Earle came on duty. He began his safety check of the bridge after an eastbound train passed around 12:50am. Walking west, he saw nothing to alarm him as he completed the inspection, and the watchman began his return eastward. Earle glanced back toward the west again, shocked to see a small blaze on the decking. He ran to stomp it out, and his foot went right through the deck. Rushing back to get the hose and hook it up to a water pipe, he found that the faucet wouldn’t turn on. It may have rusted shut from disuse. At that point, there was no other recourse but to sound the alarm to the neighborhood. Unfortunately, there was no way to save the world’s largest wooden bridge.
W. P. Letchworth was awakened around 4:00am and rushed out onto the lawn of the Glen Iris to watch the terrible spectacle. The entire bridge was ablaze; the falls eerily lit up as the flames raged above, consuming the timbers which dropped into the river. The sounds were terrible—cracking and groaning as the mighty structure gave way.
An enterprising photographer, L. E. Walker hurried to the scene and was soon advertising his stereographic views of the destruction along with his previous ones of the intact bridge. Before and after photos—American entrepreneurship.
The Second Bridge
Plans to replace the bridge commenced immediately. Train travel wasn’t impeded since the railroad had three other routes to use by this time, but the crossing was an important one. There was no question that the new bridge would be iron, and architect Henry C. Brundage was hired to design it, along with civil engineer Andrew Trew. The new bridge was to have six wrought-iron towers set on stone piers in the river. The towers were of differing heights, built according to the shape of the riverbank, and iron latticework stabilized the structure to withstand high winds. The bridge would rest on these towers that were independent of each other, so the others would stand if one or more failed. The railroad nixed the idea of a comfortable pedestrian walkway and carriage-way, allowing just a narrow access walkway for maintenance. The purpose of the second bridge was merely a railroad crossing and not a tourist attraction.
Watson Bridge Works, bridge builders in Paterson, New Jersey, was manufacturing the iron for the bridge, running the foundry 24 hours a day to complete the order. There was a scare at the outset of the project when a fire swept through the complex of factories at the foundry’s location the night of June 28th. The fire started in a silk factory on the third floor above the ironworks. The water supply gave out before the firemen were able to get it under control, and the silk factories on the upper floors were destroyed. However, firefighters were able to salvage the first-floor foundry. Despite the setback, a quarter of the 1.6 million pounds of the required iron was delivered to Portage by the end of June. On July 29th, construction crews completed the last span of the viaduct. At 6:00am July 31st, the first trains successfully tested the new bridge. Trew, the project’s engineer, had several different combinations of trains and loads pass over to test the strength and stability. Declared safe, five freight trains with 100 cars each then crossed to make deliveries in Hornellsville. After that, the bridge was back in business, and the remaining work to be completed was the walkway and railing, which workers began at once. Watson Bridge Works had built the new bridge with uncommon speed with no significant delays or serious injuries to workers. It was quite an accomplishment. The cost for the new bridge was estimated at $100,000, about half the cost of the wooden bridge. The final touch was painting the bridge. The Geneva Gazette October 8, 1875 edition reported that the posts were painted black; the bridge itself was red, and the railing white. It must have been quite a sight.
Repair and maintenance of the bridge continued, and the railroad replaced the piers in 1886. A terrible train accident near the bridge on March 22, 1890, kept the popular destination in the news. The Western New York & Pennsylvania Railroad now navigated the rails there. At 9:30pm that fateful Saturday night, a fast-moving, northbound passenger train ran head-on into a southbound freight train on the curve traveling from Nunda just north of the bridge. Due to a mix up in orders between Olean and Rossburg, the freight train didn’t receive orders to give the right-of-way to the passenger train, and the passenger train received no notification that a freight train was on the track. Fortunately, there were few passengers, but the engineers, brakemen, conductor, and other train personnel—seven in total were killed. Two female passengers were slightly injured. The wreckage of the engines and 15 cars kept crews from Olean busy throughout the next 24-48 hours, removing bodies, rescuing the injured, and getting the mangled trains hauled away.
The coroner’s jury was unable to determine blame between the two dispatchers. The state railroad commission later became involved in the matter as other fatal accidents had occurred due to wrong instructions from dispatchers. Changes to improve safety were implemented, and one was that dispatchers couldn’t work more than 12 hours. What an excellent idea! Other accidents occurred near the bridge—some involved men who imbibed too much at the Cascade House and wandered onto the tracks only to be hit by a late-night train.
In 1902, there was talk of replacing the bridge again to accommodate a double track, improve the grade and move it further away from the falls. The plan never left the board room. The public likely pressured the executives to let it remain. Otherwise, passengers would lose the fantastic views on their rail journey and if that is the case, the public won. The iron bridge was in service until 2017 when the beautiful arch bridge was constructed over one of the world’s most beautiful chasms.
Author’s Note: There were a couple of tales surrounding the wooden bridge that are suspect. There was a rumor a 16-year-old boy designed the wooden bridge—that was just a good “story.” Col. Seymour designed the bridge with assistance from other engineers. The other was that several people died from food poisoning at the bridge festivities in 1852 because the beef (that huge ox) was tainted. I have been unable to find any corroboration for that particular tale. However, given that the celebration was in August, it was 1852 with no refrigeration other than chipped ice, food sitting out on tables for long periods of time, it’s entirely possible.
Democrat & Chronicle, March 24, 1890
Buffalo Morning Express, August 30, 1852
Buffalo Courier, June 30, 1875, August 4, 1875, November 1886, April 3, 1890
Geneseo Republican, July 1851
Belmont Courier, March 7, 1902
Buffalo Weekly Courier, June 23, 1875
The Evening Post, July 14, 1851
Genesee Echoes, Mildred Anderson
We'll be straying a bit from the Genesee River today, but not too far as we delve into the life of James L. Blodget, the Hermit of Hermitage. Much has been written about Mr. Blodget, who became a legend during his lifetime. I think it's always interesting to explore a person's beginnings, which helps give some context to his or her adult life. Our formative years are indeed imprinted on us our entire lives—like it or not.
Lewis Blodget, James' father, was one of the early pioneers who settled in Hermitage, New York. Born in 1790 in Massachusetts, Lewis migrated to Vermont and then on to Western New York with many others who sought cheap, fertile land. He was single when he arrived in Hermitage, but not for long. He met Betsy Cravath, the only child of James Cravath. The Cravath family arrived in Hermitage in 1809. Betsy married Lewis in 1816, and the couple settled in to build the village into a thriving community. Both Lewis and his father-in-law were ambitious men who built many of the first businesses in Hermitage. They acquired land for farming, established a gristmill, a tannery, and other enterprises. The Blodget's had three children born to them: Horace in 1817, James in 1822, and a daughter, Lozana, in 1831.
Lewis was a mechanical expert of the era's technology. He made the gearing for the gristmill and cut the grinding stones for the mill. He was known as a forceful man, both physically and mentally, but he was also generous and sympathetic, according to Beer's 1880 History of Wyoming County. Lewis built the Hermitage Hotel without knowing who would run it, taking a risk on the growing town. Although not a churchgoer, he gave money to the Baptist Church for its bell in 1837. His business acumen brought success in a short time, and when his father-in-law died unexpectedly in 1826, Lewis gained that estate through his wife's inheritance. He was a successful farmer and operated a profitable lumber business.
James' Early Life
Education was an essential component of James' upbringing. Lewis recognized both of his sons' quick minds sending Horace to Wyoming Academy and Lima Seminary. It's uncertain where James received his early education; however, he was an exceptional student, accepted at Yale University when he was 26. James graduated with a degree in civil engineering in 1849 at the top of his class. He agreed to take a teaching post at Yale that was immediately offered to him when he graduated. He had an extraordinary mind for mathematics and seemed poised for a career in civil engineering. James taught for only a year, returning to Hermitage in 1851. Working side-by-side with his father, he not only increased his father's wealth but began building his own.
The turning point in James Blodget's life is the stuff of speculation, although something indeed affected him sometime during the 1850s. It was so traumatic that it changed the course of his life. As long tradition tells us, his heart was captured by Elizabeth Page, a neighbor who was 17 years his junior. A courtship blossomed, and it was reported the couple became engaged. Blodget began construction on a home for his intended bride that would be the pride of Hermitage. The modest mansion was situated to the west of the village on a low hill with beautiful views. Windows and doors had been installed; the lath was nailed to the walls. It was at this point in construction that Elizabeth and a friend went to inspect the house. There are a couple of different versions (perhaps more) about what happened that evening. One story is that Elizabeth went alone and talked to a carpenter still working, and the other is that a friend accompanied her. The most popular is that Elizabeth's friend, properly impressed with the fine house, remarked how lucky she was to have such a home built for her and gain a rich husband to boot. The purported fatal statement from Elizabeth was, "Oh, I'll make his money fly after we're married."
Unbeknownst to the women, James Blodget was on the property and overheard the conversation. He angrily confronted his fiancée and broke off the engagement, or so the storytellers say. The day after the ugly scene, all work ceased on the house. Unused materials remained inside, as well as lumber on a wagon in the yard. The house was locked and abandoned, eventually collapsing into the cellar many years later.
Neither party ever spoke about what exactly occurred, which fed the gossip mill. While Miss Page was able to get on with her life, Blodget was not. Elizabeth married Homer Hart in 1868 and moved to Wisconsin, where the couple had five children. She passed away in 1921. Elizabeth visited Hermitage over the years and remained cordial with the Blodget family. Her family flatly denied the confrontation but gave no other details. One of her daughters wrote a strong letter to The Castilian in 1934 declaring her mother wasn't even engaged to Blodget. Many believed the entire tale was constructed by a Rochester journalist to sell papers. Blodget, for whatever reason, deserted his quest for romance and focused his full attention on accumulating wealth from that day forward.
James continued to work with his father and brother in the various Blodget businesses, acquired more property, gave mortgages, and generally increased his assets in short order. He was appointed the Hermitage postmaster in 1861, a position he held for many years until he was removed due to complaints. A keen croquet player, Mr. Blodget enjoyed the pastime to the detriment of his postal duties. Residents finally got fed up, and James lost the position.
His father died in 1870 after an accident with a team of oxen hauling a wagon. Blodget lived with his mother until she died in 1880. Up to that time, he dressed and dined well. He was known for doing all his own work—shingling rooves, chopping wood, doing laundry, cooking, making any repairs to his properties. He enjoyed physical labor and enjoyed showing it off.
Miserly tendencies were evident in his objection to the railroad, which had plans to run through Hermitage. Blodget blocked the move, fearing that the railroad would bring in tramps who would rob him. His objections were effective since he owned the majority of land that the railroad needed as a right-of-way. State Line Railroad (later B & O) changed the route to Hardys and Bliss, eliminating Hermitage's opportunity to become a railroad town. Public schools were also unpopular with Blodget. He strenuously objected to the expansion of Hermitage School and believed parents should pay for their children's educations. As the village's largest taxpayer, he wasn't about to pay a penny more. In desperation to improve the school, residents finally met in secret to formulate plans and built a larger schoolhouse. To further demonstrate his stinginess, he made deals with the county to work off his road tax and avoided using the roads as much as possible to pinch pennies.
Despite his fear-filled objections to progress, Blodget was known for fair dealings, leniency with late repayment of mortgages, and precise bookkeeping. Several accounts tell of him allowing mortgages to go unpaid due to farmers' crop failures or other extenuating circumstances. However, public notices abound in the newspapers of him foreclosing mortgages.
Blodget operated a private bank with a safe in his house, tempting gangs of robbers which roamed the Western New York countryside in the late 19th century. The first robbery was in 1875 when his mother was still alive. Robbers broke into the house in the night, tying up James and terrifying his elderly mother. They were able to abscond with a reported $12,000 in cash. One of the outlaws was caught a year later in Mt. Morris when someone squealed to authorities. The robber received a 20-year sentence at Auburn State Prison.
In 1899, Blodget discovered robbers in his bank office one night, where he now kept the time-locked safe. Blodget chased them off, bludgeoning one with a club, and a posse pursued them to the bridge before James called off the chase. The thieves got away with their lives intact but no cash. On July 4, 1904, three men broke into Blodget's residence in the night. Bandits beat the 82-year-old man and took his watch along with about $175. Four months later, more sophisticated criminals blew open the hermit's safe after bludgeoning the elderly man into unconsciousness. It was reported that perhaps up to $22,000 in cash and bonds was stolen that night.
Not only did James experience frightening robberies, but his brother Horace did as well. Horace had married and moved to Pike after their father's death in 1870. Quite successful, he was well respected for his ethics and work for the community as town justice and treasurer in the 1870s. He also ran a drug store, grocery store and became a private banker. Like his brother, Horace became a target. His safe was blown to smithereens early one morning in 1878, waking the entire village of Pike. The thieves anticipated reward of greenbacks vaporized in the blast due to the overzealous application of dynamite. However, the three bank robbers managed to get away from a vigilante committee at Griffiths Corners with about $1,500 in cash and bonds.
After his mother Betsy's death in 1880, James became more of a recluse, dressing shabbily, allowing his property to deteriorate, and keeping contact with people to a minimum. He avoided conversation in general, and if you had business with him, you'd best state it quickly. The Hermit of Hermitage was a curiosity, and stories were rampant about the extent of his wealth and why he behaved so oddly. It was hard to separate fact from fiction—as it still is, but Blodget never explained himself, never confided in anyone.
Lozana, the youngest of the Blodget children, had married Isaac Allen of Wethersfield. The couple had four children. Lozana died in 1893. Horace was adjudicated mentally incompetent in 1890 because of dementia. Horace's daughter, Frances, and her husband, Dr. George Blackmer of Silver Springs, cared for him and the estate until his death in 1899.
A Sad Ending
On December 5, 1905, a fire broke out at James Blodget's residence. Just before midnight, neighbors noticed the smoke and flames, but it was already too late by the time help was organized. The house was a total loss, and everyone feared that the mysterious hermit was gone. In the morning, as ashes cooled, the remains were located and taken to the Dolph home. Frances and George Blackmer rushed from Silver Springs when the news reached them and had Uncle James buried in the Hermitage Cemetery.
There are stories that people rushed into the house, plucking gold coins from the ashes, and that Dr. Blackmer shamed the people into dropping the loot into a bucket. A good story, but not true. Some Mexican coins were found in the house, but not much else. It was all pretty much incinerated. Tales of foul play—another robbery perhaps or a murderous villain were swiftly replaced with a more likely version. Blodget was careless with a woodstove, possibly getting it too hot on the wintery night. Neighbors had pulled the old man out of the house the previous year when a fire broke out because of the stove. It was the most plausible of the theories.
No will was found for James Blodget, which meant the estate was administered according to New York State law. Frances became the sole heir of her uncle's estate, although I found that two of Lozana's children were still living at the time. I've been unable to determine why they weren't listed. However, this was a heavy burden for Frances. James and Horace had never settled their father's estate, and she now had two complex estates to unravel and liquidate. The estimations of Blodget's wealth were between $1 and $3 million, but that is speculation. No accounting of the estate was made public, and mortgages were a significant portion of his portfolio.
No matter how wealthy the Hermit of Hermitage was, his money never bought him happiness, friendship, or the truly valuable things in life. I can't help but be reminded of the movie It's a Wonderful Life. The richest man in town wasn't the conniving banker, Mr. Potter, but George Bailey, who had incredible wealth in the love of his family and friends. It seems to me that James Blodget's life is a cautionary tale to be careful of what we set our hearts on, lest we miss the best of life.
Resources: Beer's 1880 History of Wyoming County
The Castilian, October 4, 1934
The Buffalo Commercial, November 1904
Democrat & Chronicle, November 1899
Historical Wyoming, September 1950
Perry Record, December 14, 1905
Buffalo Evening News, May 11, 1932
Buffalo Courier, May 20, 1903
Wyoming County Times, December 1897
The Selma Times, March 21, 1878
Headline from The Castilian November 18, 1904
Caused the Murder of Dr. Alfred Silverheels the night of Sep.30.
BURIED IN POTATO FIELD
James Jemison Accused Of the Murder by His Wife and Daughter,
Is Still at Large, but Authorities are Making Every Effort to Find Him.
In November 1904, the Castile postmaster received a letter from Tommy Silverheels inquiring as to the whereabouts of his brother, Alfred. The last Tommy knew, Alfred had been living in the Castile area for several months. He was concerned that Alfred had met with foul play since no one had heard from him in weeks. The last information the Seneca man had from his brother was that he was living near the Glen Iris, William P. Letchworth’s home. The postmaster notified Wyoming County Sheriff Richardson about the missing man, who began an investigation. The missing person inquiry soon reached the desk of the Indian Commissioner, J. O. Spencer in Salamanca, New York.
A few weeks before, Tilden Jemison had made a strange report to the commissioner, accusing his father, James of Silverheels' murder. Although the commissioner had issued an arrest warrant for Jemison, he'd had no success in locating the fugitive, and he sent word to the sheriff about the situation.
The sheriff wasted no time in fetching Matilda, James Jemison’s wife, son Tilden, and daughter Laura from the Tonawanda Reservation. The trio confirmed the story of Silverheels’ demise. Richardson then took them to the small house near the dry bridge above the Glen Iris, along with two Seneca hunters to see if they could locate Silverheels’ remains.
They soon found the body of Alfred Silverheels in the garden buried among the potatoes. A stone boat had been dragged over the grave to help conceal it. Opening the shallow grave, they found Silverheels buried face down, strapped to what looked like bed slats, accompanied by a moldering loaf of bread at the man’s feet, a bag of tobacco, and some wood shavings (The bread, tobacco, and wood shavings were part of a traditional Seneca burial). Laura and Matilda directed law enforcement to the riverbank below the Glen Iris and there they found Silverheels' clothes scattered amongst Letchworth’s garbage. (Sorry—garbage was tossed down to the riverbank in the old days.) Dr. L. C. Broughton of Castile performed the autopsy, determining that the unfortunate Silverheels had been shot in the back, buckshot spraying through his heart and lungs, causing his immediate death.
Tilden, Laura’s half-brother, who lived with his mother on the reservation most of the time, recounted visiting his father and helping dig potatoes in the farmhouse’s garden plot on October 7. He said the Jemison family had taken Silverheels into the household earlier in the year as they camped along the Genesee River. They made baskets to sell, and there was no trouble between them. When the weather turned colder, the vacant farmhouse provided a warm and secure place to spend the winter. When Tilden asked where Silverheels was now, Jemison replied, “I’ve scart him so that he’s gone to another country.”
James Jemison readily told his son about the shooting and where he’d buried Silverheels. Laura and Matilda then shared they'd been forced to help Jemison with the burial. Tilden swore his father warned them, saying, “If you tell—three of you will be killed.” Tilden further stated he knew his father had sold a shotgun to a man named Ed Christian on October 10. After the sale of the gun, his father left for Canada while Tilden, Laura, and Matilda returned to the safety of the reservation.
A manhunt was initiated for Jemison in Canada with a $100 reward offered by the Wyoming County Sheriff for his capture. The Jemison family sat in the Wyoming County Jail as material witnesses. The sheriff took no chances on his witnesses disappearing as the law attempted to discover the truth. It didn’t take long to find Jemison who was hiding out in Caledonia, Ontario on a reservation. On November 22, 1904, a heavily armed posse of provincial officers took Jemison into custody without incident, surprising him at the farmhouse where he was staying.
The newspapers reported Jemison was a large man, a towering 6’ 3” and 250 pounds. That was quite an exaggeration since the state prison log records his height at 5’ 9 3/4” and 187 pounds. However, Canadian authorities took no chances, training their guns on the suspect when he opened the door. He was manacled and hauled away to a Canadian cell to await extradition to the United States, which didn’t take long.
Wyoming County District Attorney J.N. Knight promptly received the desired murder indictment, and the trial was docketed for January 1905. The highly publicized trial captured the attention of the media and public alike. Crowds filled the courthouse each day to hear the scandalous story. The court provided a Seneca translator for Jemison, which added to the exotic atmosphere of the trial for the onlookers.
Testimony soon brought to light that Albert Silverheels, a man in his fifties, had been carrying on an intimate relationship with Laura, who was only sixteen. Her father had demanded that Silverheels marry the girl legally, and the bad blood between the men grew after Silverheels refused. Jemison also became suspicious of Silverheels as he observed his interactions with his wife and daughter. Mr. Jemison believed the good “doctor” was flagrantly cuckolding him. Anger and jealousy continued to grow during September 1904.
On September 30, after an especially ugly day of Jemison drinking and fighting with Matilda about her lack of morals and cooking skills, Silverheels apparently inserted himself into the situation. When Silverheels went to the kitchen to check on Matilda, Jemison took his shotgun and blasted him in the back.
The jury found Jemison guilty of second-degree manslaughter and he was sentenced to ten years at Auburn Prison. The district attorney was disappointed by the verdict, hoping for a first-degree murder conviction. Surprisingly, upon reflection the judge and many others felt the sentence was too harsh, and a successful petition was presented a couple of years later which reduced James Jemison’s sentence to five years.
In April 1910 at age 48, Jemison was released on parole and returned to Castile. He went to work for Albert Preston, who lived near the farmhouse where the crime occurred. Jemison had certainly improved himself while incarcerated. He learned to read and write while at Auburn, and he’d also become a shoemaker. He disappears from the records in 1910, the federal census being the last record I’ve found, which places him as a hired man with the Prestons. No further mention of his children, their mother, or Matilda, Jemison's second or third wife was found.
At the time of the murder, it was reported that James Jemison was a descendant of Mary Jemison, which from my research is entirely possible. On a personal note, because I’ve been fascinated by this case, my husband and I took a hike deep into the woods near the dry bridge a couple of years ago. We found the remains of the farmhouse’s foundation, which is almost completely swallowed up in the undergrowth—fading away with time.
The Wyoming County Times
The Western New Yorker
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
Buffalo Evening News
1905 New York Census
1910 U.S. Census
New York Auburn Prison Records
Below are snapshots of the Auburn Prison Log when Jemison was admitted. He was prisoner 28235.
Many of us are exploring family trees to find our origins and how our ancestors found their way to the United States. Investigating my husband’s paternal grandmother’s family brought some interesting stories to light in the history of Portageville, that tiny hamlet along the Genesee River in the Town of Genesee Falls. His great-grandfather, Edward Quested was part of its early history.
First, I’ll offer a little background on the origins of Portageville and the Town of Portage, now Genesee Falls. Originally, an old Indian trail ran from Wiscoy to Mt. Morris, winding through present-day Portageville. It was a well-traveled trail—good hunting and fishing all along the way. There were sawmills in the Portage area in the early 1800s, situated along the river, and a band of squatters resided nearby before the land was officially on the market in 1816. The area was then in the Town of Nunda, Allegany County. The Town of Portage was incorporated in 1827 and then, by an act of the New York State Legislature in 1846, (after the formation of Wyoming County in 1841), the township became part of Wyoming County.
The village was first known as Schuyler to honor General Philip Schuyler. The esteemed man fought in the French and Indian Wars, becoming a general in the Revolutionary War. The name was changed to Portage in 1829 and then incorporated in 1866 as Portageville. The village was unincorporated in 1874—its dream of becoming a popular destination along the Genesee already vaporizing with the waning business on the Genesee Valley Canal. It was a village known for its churches: Methodist Episcopal organized in 1825; a Congregational Church in 1827; First Baptist Church in 1838; the Universalist Church in 1841, and a Roman Catholic Church was established in 1848. It was also known for its taverns. There was a general store, blacksmith, a doctor, mills, hotel, and other businesses to serve the needs of the early settlers who, principally came from eastern New York State and the British Isles.
It was in July 1842 that London tailor, Thomas Quested (27 years-old) and his wife, Mary Ann (nee Read), along with their two-year-old daughter, sailed for America on the packet ship, Columbus. They arrived in New York Harbor in August. Columbus was a packet ship that regularly sailed between Liverpool, England and New York. Thomas, although skilled with needle and thread, headed for the frontier of Western New York to try his hand at farming. The Quested family first appears in the 1850 census as residents of Portage with three new additions to the family. The three children, Anna, Margaret Marian, and Edward were born in Wyoming County between 1845 and 1849.
The Genesee Valley Canal was fully operational at that time, and there were great hopes that Portage would become a prosperous town full of successful businesses and a growing population. Into this optimistic time in Portage, the Quested family put down roots.
Edward found work as a twelve-year-old on the Genesee Valley Canal by driving the mules which pulled the barges along the canal. He earned about twenty-five cents a day for his work. His father struggled to realize his goal to farm and wouldn't do so until 1870 when Edward was twenty-one and beginning to shape his own career. He must have been taught by his father, Thomas to keep good records because Edward maintained a work journal, which we discovered among some family papers. It’s proved to be a treasure, shedding light on daily life in the 1870s. I’ve included some of the pages in the slideshow below, along with some photos, and other items of interest.
Much of the notebook is a log of his work—dates and descriptions of the jobs and wages. Wages were typically paid by the day which was an average of 10 hours and the work week was usually six days. Sundays were days of rest and for church attendance. Work was also seasonal and one had to be industrious to stay employed. Wintertime meant unemployment and good money management skills were essential in the lean times.
In 1870, he began jobbing around; his journal records board bills in May of that year in South Warsaw, Castile, Swain, and Canaseraga. June and July were the same with a stop in Attica as well, so it’s most likely he was working on the railroad during those summer months, staying at homes that took in railroad workers. From the account in Edward’s notebook, it appears he also fit in work on the canal in May of 1870 on the dredge. The dredge was most likely a crane with a bucket operated by a steam engine. The canals had to be regularly dredged to keep sediment, rocks, and other debris from clogging up the waterways and damaging boats.
In November of 1870, the diary indicates he was making cider and his father, Thomas was one of his customers. Thomas had given Edward 81 bushels of apples to press. Edward also listed work for a McCready, setting poles, sharpening poles, sawing logs, and “grubing hops” which amounted to 5 ½ days of work.
During the 1870s, Edward became more regularly employed for McConnell Pitkin & Co. of Rochester. Robert Y. McConnell, who was a well-known contractor, also owned an interest in the Portageville bluestone quarry. Bluestone was transported via the canal, and McConnell-Pitkin was responsible to dredge the quarry’s section of the waterway. The Portageville area was especially challenging because of a slide area and perennial flooding. From documents in Edward’s files, it seems he became a competent engineer on the equipment. Apparently, he left McConnell’s employ in December 1876 and received a glowing letter of recommendation from the company. He was an “engineer having charge of a 60 horse-power engine and boiler in which capacity we have found him faithful, sober, trustworthy, and competent.” The “sober” part was actually very high praise as drunkenness on the job was a huge problem for the canal, railroad and other seasonal occupations in this time period.
While Edward was a hard worker, he didn’t neglect his social life. Several tickets to dances and parties were saved. Many of the socials were in Portageville, but some were in Wiscoy (where he most likely met his future wife, Sarah Granger), and one later elegant party at Cuba. The Wiscoy Hotel was the place to be with dances held on Wednesdays and Thursdays. In those days, Wiscoy was a lively village which boasted a mill, a foundry that produced farm implements such as plows, the hotel, general store, blacksmith shops, a Methodist church, a cheese factory, and a sawmill.
Club membership was trending and it was expected at the time for young men to join secret societies of which the Freemasons were most popular. Edward became a Mason when he turned 21. In those days, finding employment and making connections with the right people was greatly enhanced if one belonged to the Freemasons. He joined in the era known as the Golden Age of Fraternalism which was from 1870 to 1920. During that time it was estimated that 40% of the U.S. population belonged to at least one fraternal organization—Knights of Columbus, Elks, Moose, the Grange, Masons, etc.
On June 1, 1875 he bought a colt which he pastured at a John Gleeson’s through the summer. This might have been like buying his first car. He paid a Mr. Gleeson $4.00 on August 8 for pasturing the horse and then on August 29 another $2.75. His note says he brought the colt home at that time.
The shopping lists found in his journal are some of the most interesting, giving us a glimpse of his personal life and what things cost way back when. He shopped locally, keeping an account at Beardsley's General Store in Portageville. I've used his original spelling with some translation.
Shopping list for December 18, 1874
White lead .14
Castor oil .08
1 “rapper” (wrapper/robe) .50
1 pair slippers .63
1 lamp chimley .12
1 doz. buttons .30
¼ lb. tea .25
1 yd. lining .16
½ gal. oil .10
½ gal. oil .10
12 shirt buttons .12
1 seain (sewing) silk .06
1 paper tabbacco .10
1 ½ lb. chise (cheese) .27
1 card .15
2 violin strings .55
2 oz. caster oil .10
¼ tea .25
1 paper tobacco .10
1 pair rubbers 1.00
December 10, 1875
1 pair mittens .50
1 bottle hair oil .25
1 bottle sasaprilla 1.00
1 necktie .35
1 pair overshoes 1.75
1 pair suspenders .38
3 cigars .15
2 violin strings .50
1 box collars .30
1 pair slippers .50
1 pocket book .30
1 lb. shot .12
¼ lb. powder .15
1 whip .50
The purchases likely included Christmas gifts—slippers and the robe. Maybe he enjoyed an occasional cigar and probably made his own cigarettes. Edward was a fiddle player and evidence has been found in the newspapers that he played at dances and other social events. The whip purchase was probably for that colt he’d brought home in August which was likely broken to pull a buggy.
Edward remained a bachelor until 1886 when he married Sarah Granger from Wiscoy on January 29th. She was 23 and Edward was 36. Edward already owned property having purchased a house and lot on Pike Street in Portageville from John and Nellie Dunn for $300 in 1880. On September 20, 1888 the couple was blessed with the arrival of a daughter, Nina Mae, my husband’s grandmother. (She would marry Charles Wallace in 1907.) A son, Howard Wayne was born to Edward and Sarah on June 4, 1892.
Edward became interested in politics and the first mention of him in the political arena was found in 1891 when he was elected Inspector 1st District. He was elected as a town assessor after his term as election inspector and served in that position for many years, winning multiple elections.
In October of 1919, the newspaper reported that Edward and Sarah had had their house wired for electricity along with a few other families in Portageville. An invoice in the amount of $22 for the home’s upgrade was found in a musty accordion file that held his records. Modernization was creeping into Portageville.
The Quested family was totally invested in their little hamlet. Edward and Sarah raised their family in Portageville, living in the house on Pike Street until Sarah’s death in 1930. He and his family were members of the Universalist Church for many years and Edward served as a trustee, sexton, and deacon there. His career followed the ups and downs of the economy of Portageville, first with the Genesee Valley Canal and after its demise, with the railroad.
Edward’s life was one of hard work and community involvement. He was a dedicated family man who cared for not only his wife and children, but his widowed mother until her death in 1896. As assessor, he would have known William Pryor Letchworth since the Glen Iris and surrounding properties are in the town of Genesee Falls. He was active as a Freemason for 67 years. In 1937, he passed away at his daughter’s home in Castile at the age of 87. Edward lived during the time of the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and the Great Depression. Turbulent and challenging times were normal for this first-generation American—just like today.
References: Wallace Family Archive, History of Wyoming County 1841-1880
One of the Genesee Valley’s most colorful and perhaps despicable inhabitants was Ebenezer “Indian” Allan. Born September 17, 1752 somewhere in New Jersey, Allan had likely moved to Pennsylvania by the time of the Revolutionary War in 1777. He was a British sympathizer (Tory) and enlisted in a loyalist regiment commanded by Major John Butler.
The Six Nations Confederacy which was made up of the Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Tuscarora tribes also gave their allegiance to England as war began. With the promise of whisky and other goods for every settler scalp they presented to the British, the tenuous peace on the frontiers of the colonies was demolished. It was with these Six Nations raiding parties that Ebenezer was embedded. Allan gained notoriety for his vicious, sadistic attacks against civilians during the war, caring neither for women or children who were burned out of their homes and slaughtered for coup throughout Pennsylvania and New York. With most men off to fight, isolated families and small towns were easy prey. As you can imagine, Allan earned an ignominious reputation among the “rebels” as the British called Americans.
When the British army realized that their defeat was imminent, and an exit plan was necessary in late 1782, Lieutenant Allan found himself unceremoniously discharged from the military, losing the promise of a land grant along with his walking papers. He left Pennsylvania, traveling to the Genesee Valley in New York where he met Mary Jemison. She and her husband, Hiokatoo, along with their children were living in a cabin at Gardeau Flats.
From Mary’s account, it seems that Allan told her he’d come to live with the Indians and struck up a friendship with her son, Thomas. The men hunted together that winter and Allan bunked with the family while he tried to formulate a plan to make a living. As he considered his options, Ebenezer became enamored of a Nanticoke squaw, the wife of a white man, who lived on the Jemison property. While the husband went off to work, Allan made daily visits to the wife and soon she reciprocated Allan’s affections. She made him a stunning Indian-style cap of red that immediately caught the attention of her husband. Of course, jealousy and anger came into play. Before the men could do harm to each other, Mary’s husband, Hiokatoo took down his old tomahawk, instructing the offended husband to leave the house. Although it looked like Allan would woo the squaw from her husband, it wasn’t to be. The couple made up and left for Niagara in the spring.
It was that same spring Allan decided he would pay back the British for their injustice to him by assisting in brokering a peace between the Six Nations and the newly-formed United States. Although, the U.S. had a peace agreement with England, it hadn’t yet made a treaty with the chiefs, which was an advantage to the British who continued to plunder as they were able. It was a messy and broken process amidst the birthing of a nation. The most powerful chiefs were in Canada, safely away from the Americans. Joseph Brant, a chief of the Mohawks was one of those men. However, skirmishes and destruction continued in the frontier regions led by Indians and remaining British soldiers.
The shrewd Allan inserted himself in the negotiations by procuring a wampum belt through devious means and took it to a nearby U.S. military post, indicating that the Indians wanted peace. The commander immediately accepted the belt with elation. Mary Jemison tells the story that although Allan had stolen the belt from the Indians, they reluctantly honored Allen’s arrangement since they so highly regarded the wampum. With the first step completed, he then composed a letter to the U.S. government to speed the treaty process along. Here’s his letter, which he carried to Philadelphia to the Continental Congress in the summer of 1783.
12 August 1783
To His Excellency the President of Congress
On the 13th June last, Mr. Bull messenger from Congress to the five nation Indians was carried a Prisoner from Oswego to Niagara without being allowed to speak to the Indians. On the 20th of the same month, he found means to apply privately to me, and begged I would take charge of a letter and bring it Express to congress, which I agreed to do. He likewise desired me to make a just Report of the situation and disposition of the six nations Indians, after speaking with them, and informing them of the substance of Mr. Bull’s Instructions, and particularly the offer of Peace and Friendship from Congress; and their desire to meet the Indians at any Time or Place they should appoint to settle the terms of Peace and Friendship.
On my speaking to the principal Chiefs, they expressed great Satisfaction with the contents of Mr. Bull’s message and appointed to meet the Commissioners from Congress at Wia loosin the 27th of this present month, agreeable to the letter I have delivered to Gen. Lincoln.
Permit me gentlemen to inform you that the Indian nations are well disposed for Peace, but are ready for War, and will desolate the frontiers of Pennsylvania if the United States resolve to conquer their lands; yet as they have been the aggressors they will readily give up a Part of their country and engage to never more make war, nor join the enemies of the United States; or trespass over the Boundary that may be agreed upon.
It is my opinion that if Congress adopt this System and direct that an honest wise conduct be observed towards the Nations, it will save thousands of lives, and much money. I beg pardon for intruding my opinion, but a Sense of Duty impels me to take this Liberty, and I hope I will soon be dispatched back to the Nations and that Congress will send some Persons they have confidence in, to meet the Indians in their own towns, rather than on our Frontiers.
There remain in the Seneca country about 100 American prisoners, which prudent commissioners might have delivered up to them immediately. As many of these are Young People fast degenerating into Savages and forgetting their own language would it not be wise to draw them out of the Hand of the Indians without delay, and restore them to their Religion and to their country?
In everything I can do, be pleased to command me,
“Indian” Allan donned his British uniform, saddled a good horse and headed for Philadelphia with his missive. As he rode into the Wilkes-Barre area of Pennsylvania and the fort there, he was stopped in the woods by none other than Major Moses Van Campen. Van Campen was an American soldier of some renown having fought brilliantly against the British throughout Pennsylvania and New York. He was well known by the Six Nations tribes and had earned their respect.
Once Van Campen found out who he was talking to, his first inclination was to arrest him and incarcerate him at the fort. The man had terrorized the countryside all during the war and Allan was deeply loathed by the citizens of the area. After Allan explained his mission, which was confirmed by the letter he carried, Van Campen organized a few soldiers to help Allan on his way to Philadelphia. The major knew the settlers would lynch Allan in a minute if they found out who he was, and the peace treaty was of more importance than bringing the Tory to justice.
Allan delivered his letter and returned to the Genesee Valley, specifically Allen’s Creek (now Mt. Morris) where he built a small house and “married” the sister of Seneca chief, Captain Bull. Her English name was Sally. Their domestic bliss was short lived.
The Indians had taken a burn about the wampum and Allan’s deceptive ways during his absence, and a small party from Niagara came looking for him along with a British man named Nettles. Allan hid out in the woods for months with Mary Jemison’s help, but eventually he was arrested and taken to Fort Niagara for trial. He managed to escape, returning to Mary’s home on the Gardeau Flats.
Ebenezer was captured and once again dragged off to Fort Niagara for trial in December 1783. His crime was meddling in the peace treaty process. Imprisoned for ten months, his jail time was split between Fort Niagara and Montreal. He was acquitted, and upon his release returned to the Genesee Valley where he built a saw mill in the Gibsonville area. From there he moved up the river to what is now Scottsville and then Rochester, New York. He built a grist mill and saw mill at the three-falls area in 1789, but sold the property after a couple of years because the population was sparse and he couldn’t make a profit.
By now he had another “wife,” a young white woman, Lucy Chapman. She’d been left with Allan by her father who had no idea Ebenezer had Sally at home. Imagine Lucy’s surprise at this arrangement. A short while later he obtained another Seneca woman, whose husband was elderly. Ebenezer went for a walk by the river with the old man and shoved him in the water. Despite the sly, attempted murder by Allan, the victim didn’t drown, but survived for a few days before succumbing to the assault. With the husband out of the way Allan took the woman for himself, and then “married” another white woman, Milly Gregory after her.
Ebenezer Allan was never satisfied with his lot, as his polygamy and business affairs prove. He wrangled for several years over land titles in New York without success, so he turned his attention northward. He maintained that the British still owed him 2,000 acres for his military service, deciding to force the issue in Upper Canada. In May 1794, he petitioned the Canadian government for land and was granted his 2,000 acres which was located in Delaware Township near the Thames River in Ontario. He continued his wily ways, initiating lawsuits against neighbors for perceived injustices, and business associates sued him for fraud. He was charged with counterfeiting, assault, and all manner of crimes, but seemed to avoid any long-term prison sentences. He had several children by his various wives, and Sally’s daughters lived on the Tonawanda Reservation in the mid-1800s according to a Jemison descendant.
Ebenezer became an American sympathizer during the War of 1812, stirring up trouble in Ontario. This led to his arrest and imprisonment by authorities at Niagara-on-the-Lake. He was released in early 1813, but died on April 13th that year. He left all his wives destitute, except for Milly, who inherited the entire estate. Violent, cruel, inconstant husband, entrepreneur, a founding citizen of Rochester, NY, clever, and bad tempered all describe Ebenezer Allen, a man of the Genesee Valley frontier.
A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison by James E. Seaver
Genesee Echoes by Mildred Lee Hills Anderson
The White Woman and Her Valley by Arch Merrill
U.S. Dept. of State, Page 433, Vol. 1, No. 78 Letters from 1776 to 1789
Dictionary of Canadian Biography
Turpin and Osgood Historical Records compiled on Ebenezer “Indian” Allan
Wheatland Historical Association Records
The Life and Times of Major Moses Van Campen by J. Niles Hubbard
Rochester’s Romantic Rogue, The Life and Times of Ebenezer Allan by Donovan Shilling, Crooked Lake Review
St. Helena was another ghost town along the Genesee River that saw its heyday in the 19th century. Located in the Town of Castile, St. Helena was part of Mary Jemison’s (White Woman of the Genesee) land that was given to her by the Seneca Nation in 1797 after she refused the opportunity to go back to white society. Given almost 18,000 acres that stretched out alongside the Genesee, she called it the Gardeau Reservation. Sections were sold off in 1823 after complex arrangements were made through the Senecas and the U.S. government to allow Mary to complete the sale to Jellis Clute, Micah Brooks, and Henry Gibson.
The community of St. Helena was settled in 1826 as the forests were cleared, and the river was used to transport goods northward. Named after the island of Napoleon’s exile, the settlement was designed by an English engineer, who created three zones—residential, commercial, and industrial, a rather modern layout for the time. It was comprised of three streets: Main, Water, and Maiden Lane. In 1828, the New York State Legislature granted Rosel Curtis, John LeFoy, and Joshua Smith the right to build a dam on the river to power their mills. The men also had to construct a lock to allow river traffic to pass through. The town had mostly Baptists and Methodists at the time, who met on alternate Sundays at the schoolhouse until the Baptists built the Oak Hill Baptist Church in 1828. In 1835, a latticework bridge was constructed across the river, which afforded residents from Livingston and Wyoming counties easier access to both sides of the Genesee. Increased traffic through the village meant increased commerce, which was welcomed.
By the 1850s when the Genesee Valley Canal was in business, there were now several saw mills and a grist mill. It also boasted two general stores, a hotel, a blacksmith shop, woodworking shop, a cider mill, and schoolhouse. There were approximately 25 residences at that time. New York State dredged the river from St. Helena to York Landing to facilitate St. Helena and Gibsonville in using the canal to ship their goods of wheat, flour, logs, staves, tan bark, and whisky. The future looked bright for the river towns, but it quickly evaporated when the Civil War began. The first post office was established in 1854 and closed in June 1867. It briefly reopened in February 1897, but was shutdown on June 2, 1897. From then on the mail was delivered by the post office in Castile.
In 1865, the dam was flooded out and never replaced. Business dwindled over those years. Residents moved away and neglected homes rotted into the ground. The area was subject to great flooding in the springtime—the Genesee raging and sweeping away the bridge time after time. The last bridge, which was of iron was torn down in 1950. In the 1920s, Rochester Gas & Electric bought the village site and rented land out to the remaining family, the Streeters. Finally, they threw in the towel and left the lonely spot. In 1952, in anticipation of RG&E’s plans for a power dam, the cemetery residents were removed and reinterred at Grace Cemetery in Castile. Ninety-two bodies were moved, many of them children. Measles and whooping cough were dreaded childhood diseases, which quickly took the lives of many young children in the 1800s and early 1900s.
Here's one of the colorful stories about life by the river, which made the Buffalo papers.
Considerable excitement arose in St. Helena over Alva Clark shooting his wife on October 11, 1894. Apparently, the couple’s son had just returned from hunting, and asked his father to put away the shotgun, while he got a pail of water for his mother, who was doing laundry. As the dutiful son pumped the water outside, he heard a gunshot and ran back to the house. He found his mother with her shoulder blown away, her jugular vein and lung exposed with blood everywhere. The doctor and constable were immediately sent for from Castile. Dr. Harding, who attended the poor woman, stated the injury was fatal as he picked 17 pieces of bone from the gaping wound. Alva told authorities he was kidding around and said “what if I shot you?” to his spouse right before the blast. He hadn’t meant to really shoot her.
Despite the horrible injury, Mrs. Clark made a remarkable recovery and she exonerated her husband, stating it was truly an accident. We’ll never know for sure what Alva Clark’s intentions were that day, but no doubt there was talk about the incident for years afterward. As an interesting footnote, Alva died in April, 1896--no cause of death given, and Belle Clark remarried a Piper from St. Helena in 1899. Her youngest son, Otto Clark owned the two photos of the school, which are in the slideshow below.
Today, there’s nothing left of St. Helena, but the area is accessible in Letchworth State Park on Trail 13. This is only a snapshot of St. Helena’s short, but storied history. If you’d like to dig further, I recommend Mrs. Anderson’s books below, along with Arch Merrill’s book.
Resources: The White Woman and Her Valley by Arch Merrill
Genesee Echoes by Mildred Lee Hills Anderson
St. Helena, Ghost Town of the Genesee 1797-1954 by Mildred Lee Hills Anderson
Buffalo Courier, October 12, 1894, October 27, 1894
With the Erie Canal’s opening in 1825 and its success in moving goods and people across New York State, canal enthusiasm ran high. Western New York residents, with the support of the press lobbied for another canal to complement the Erie Canal. It would start in Rochester and extend to Olean, New York near the Pennsylvania border. The dreamers envisioned a canal system that would eventually link to the Mississippi River, enabling a steady flow of products throughout the young United States. The rich produce of Western New York, along with timber from New York and Ohio, and coal from Pennsylvania needed transportation to urban markets. A canal along the Genesee River seemed to provide the needed solution.
The Genesee River was designated as a public waterway in 1818, but it was a fickle one, becoming too shallow for boats especially in the summer—and there was the problem of the falls in the Portage area. Rafts and shallow-draft boats could navigate between Rochester to Geneseo or Mt. Morris, but the springtime was the only reliable time for transportation. Citizens further south were unhappy that they had no way to find markets for the abundant produce that was grown in the Genesee Valley, along with furs, potash, and timber. They began lobbying for a canal as early as 1823.
Businessmen in several western counties organized, urging the legislature to at least explore the idea. By 1830, the state approved a survey of the proposed 124-mile canal, but neglected to fund the project sufficiently. The survey project was finally fully funded in 1834, when a group called the Canal Congress initiated a barrage of petitions that buried the state senate in paper. Engineer Frederick Mills was contracted to perform the survey work and gave his estimate of $2 million dollars for the project. Political wrangling commenced in the state legislature, until at last in 1840, the massive project was underway. Elisha Johnson, from Rochester, New York was hired on as the canal’s chief engineer.
The biggest challenges facing Mr. Johnson were working around the Middle Falls and dealing with a section of high ground in Oakland. Men and shovels dug through the issues of the Oakland area, but Mr. Johnson failed in his first attempt with the Middle Falls. He hoped a tunnel could be bored through the shale mountain to carve out the canal. This ended badly. The shale proved unstable and there were deadly cave-ins during that experiment. In the end, crews went around the mountain and not through it. Despite the challenges and difficulties of terrain, the canal opened in 1841 through to Dansville, and by 1856 it successfully reached Olean. Instead of the estimated $2 million price tag, the cost had risen to $6 million.
Businesses sprang up in the canal towns all along the way to the Southern Tier. There was great anticipation that the Genesee Valley Canal would grow the economy of these rough places, and prosperity would reach everyone. The canal carried both passengers and freight. People were eager to travel, with plenty of entertainment at every stop. Preachers took advantage of the crowds to preach the Gospel and warn against liquor, while owners of public houses selling liquor urged passengers to come in for drink or two of whisky or ale. A bugler on the boat announced its arrival at a stop and purveyors of food were quick to meet hungry passengers at the dock. A ticket from Rochester to Olean would cost you $4.27, and there were tariffs on transporting goods.
The boatmen were a rough and ready lot. The boats which plied the Genesee Valley Canal were said to have been well built, clean and attractively painted. They were round at the bow and square at the stern, about 80 feet long and 14 feet wide, with a cabin at the rear for living quarters and one at the other end for the crew and horses. The boats could carry up to 90 tons and often transported 50 to 80 thousand board feet of lumber or as much as 50 cords of wood. (A Personal Look at the Genesee Valley Canal)
Travel on a passenger packet boat wasn’t exactly elegant or comfortable, but many preferred it to their only other option which was the stagecoach. Bathroom facilities were primitive and unhygienic, sleeping arrangements were makeshift berths, and the speed of the boat was quite leisurely. All drank water from a community cup and men spat their chewing tobacco on the floor, avoiding the cuspidor for some reason. Horses and mules pulled the boats up and down the two-way canal, providing employment for young boys.
Edward Quested from Portageville was one of those boys. He is my husband’s great-grandfather. Edward, who was around 11-years-old in 1860, secured a job as a mule driver of a stone barge for the bluestone quarry. This is where his future grandson, Robert Wallace (my husband's father) would work in the next century. According to Bob’s recollections in an article for the Historical Wyoming, Edward received about twenty-five cents a day driving mules on the towpath of the Genesee Valley Canal as they towed barges from the quarry. The locks of the canal were constructed of bluestone and the waterway ran in proximity to the stone-finishing mills on the Genesee River.
During the 1870s, Edward was still working on the canal. He was regularly employed by McConnell Pitkin & Co. of Rochester. Robert Y. McConnell, who was a well-known contractor, also owned an interest in the Portageville bluestone quarry. Bluestone was transported via the Genesee Valley Canal and McConnell Pitkin was mostly likely responsible to dredge the quarry’s section of the waterway. The Portageville area was especially challenging because of a slide area and flooding.
From an account in Edward’s journal, it appears he began working on the canal in May of 1870 on the dredge. The dredge most likely was a crane with a bucket operated by a steam engine. Canals had to be dredged regularly to keep sediment, rocks, and other debris from clogging up the waterways and damaging boats. From documents in Edward’s files, it seems he became a competent engineer on the equipment. Apparently, he left McConnell’s employ in December 1876, and received a glowing letter of recommendation from the company. He was an “engineer having charge of a 60 horse-power engine and boiler in which capacity we have found him faithful, sober, trustworthy, and competent.” The “sober” part was actually very high praise as drunkenness on the job was a huge problem for the canal, railroad and other seasonal occupations in this time period. (You'll find photos of these documents in the slideshow below.)
Edward was working for McConnell again in May 1877 and received a letter from Robert Y. McConnell which had instructions for him to move a derrick to a new location near one of the docks. He also had authority to charge materials to McConnell at Beardsley’s General Store in Portageville. He seemed to be the company’s “man of business” there since the company was headquartered in Rochester.
The rise of the Erie railroad in the 1870s brought about the abandonment of the canal in September 1878. The expense of maintaining the canal was prohibitive, besides trains were much faster and more comfortable for passengers. The railroads were open year around, which wasn’t possible for the canal. The canal also brought health issues. Malaria was a problem—stagnant water and mosquitos are a bad combination. Although residents along the canal fought vigorously to keep the canal open, the state was done. Within a few years, the towpath became the bed for the Genesee Valley Canal Railroad. Later it was purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad, then Rochester Gas & Electric became the owner. Today it is the Genesee Valley Greenway, a recreational trail following the old towpath. The canal was by no means a failure, but served its purpose in its time. Thanks to the diligent work of the Friends of the Genesee Valley Greenway, today it provides an excellent outdoor experience for residents and visitors alike.
I hope your appetite has been whetted to learn more about the canal. This blog has merely touched on a bit of its history. There are many online and print resources for you to explore its colorful story.
Resources and further reading:
Rochester History – The Genesee Valley Canal by Jim Warlick
A Personal Look at the Genesee Valley Canal by Ronald Taylor (Allegany County Historical Society)
Remembering the Genesee Valley Canal by Richard F. Palmer (Allegany County Historical Society)
Friends of The Genesee Valley Greenway
Genesee Echoes by Mildred Lee Hill Anderson
Citizens Argue to Keep Canal Open, Allegany County Democrat, January 19, 1877
Edward Quested’s Journal and Personal Papers (Wallace Archive)