1828, Part 4
New York City / State Timeline
from Eagles Byte by David Minor
Year-by-year tracing the growth of the early days of the Republic
James Stuart mentions passing through Caledonia, Le Roy, Batavia and Alden en route from Avon to Buffalo in 1828, but seems to have just been passing through, stopping somewhere for lunch. There doesn't seem to have been much of note happening at the time; the villages, bypassed by the Erie Canal to the north, were probably just quietly and slowly growing.
The village of Le Roy is still chafing over the William Morgan kidnapping and resulting anti-Masonic feelings. This past May 12th, U. S. Representative Albert H. Tracy of Buffalo presented a memorial of delegates assembled at Le Roy . . . . requesting that an inquiry be made as to whether Morgan was imprisoned within Fort Niagara at any time after his kidnapping. Kicking the matter around a bit they resolved, by a vote of 143 to 33, to forward the memorial to President John Quincy Adams. It would be interesting to know how many of the 33 were Masons. There's no indication that the matter went any further; Mr. Adams was busy trying to get himself re-elected.
Perhaps inspired by the Le Roy meeting, local First Presbyterian ruling elder, Jedediah N. Hotchkin, publishes a pamphlet — A Candid Appeal to the Professors of Religion Upon the Subject of Speculative Free-Masonry — in which he outlines six reasons that Masonry is objectionable, including that of blasphemy.
Meanwhile, to the southeast of Batavia, in East Bethany, a young girl named Mary Debow will be born shortly. When she turns five it will be reported that she had been "kidnapped by missionaries traveling west to work among the Mdewakanton Dakota" It was quite common in the 19th century for families with too many mouths to feed to try to find better homes for some of their children; perhaps this is what happened to Mary. In 1835 she turns up in the area around Fort Snelling, Minnesota, where, being young, she picks up the language quickly and becomes "very familiar with the Dakota culture". The Dakota name her "Little Bird That Was Caught," because of her childhood. In 1849, another white, Heman A. Gibbs, arrives. Already going bald, he's given the Dakota name "Prairie On Top Of The Head". After the local tribes disperse in 1839 she and Heman, having been married, move on, eventually settling down near Minneapolis - St. Paul. It's reported she, "believes herself to be the white person of longest residence in the State of Minnesota." Their home becomes today's Gibbs Museum of Pioneer and Dakotah life.
Stuart's party probably passes to the south of Lockport, where the first Niagara County clerk's office opens this year. Before we take them on in to Buffalo, we'll take a quick final look at their mode of travel. Stuart never mentions a stage line by name. Late last month a new innovation was introduced by the Buffalo and Albany Coach Lines — the Telegraph Line, even before the telegraph itself came into existence. The new high speed coaches do not run on the Sabbath, but the other six days of the week they roar across the state, often literally racing the competition. For a higher price (Albany to Buffalo, $15, twice the competition's price) the lighter-weight stages carry only six passengers at a time, travel day and night, pick up and drop off passengers only at single designated stations. In good weather they make the entire trip in 48 hours. Stuart obviously prefers a slower pace.
When the Queen City Was a Pup
September 9, 1828. As James Stuart's coach or, more properly, dalliance, wheels toward the center of Buffalo it bypasses a number of inns and taverns, such as McCook's, the Plough, the Broadwheel, Cold Spring, Hodges, The Steam Boat, the Packet Boat, the Black Rock and Thayer's Brick Tavern. Stuart likes his comfort and intends to stay at the Eagle Tavern. As he puts it, "There are many good-looking hotels; but we are told, that the Eagle, which contains accommodation for nearly 200 persons, is the best. We have found it very good." Currently owned by entrepreneur and store owner Benjamin Rathbun, rapidly becoming early Buffalo's version of Donald Trump, the three-story tavern at the corner of Court and Main is described later in the 19th century as having acquired, "fame for good cheer, super viands and entertainment." The author goes on to state that, "Among its guests . . .have been Presidents of the nation, Governors, statesmen, and foreign potentates . . ." And now James Stuart.
On his way into town the Scotsman may also have seen the village's Episcopal, Presbyterian, Universalist (enlarged this year), Methodist and Baptist churches as well as its eleven schools, two private institutions for young ladies and the new Buffalo High School, incorporated last year and opened just this past January, albeit in temporary quarters. Nearby Lewiston, New York, also opened a high school this year. Stuart reports, "Buildings are going on rapidly, and there is every prospect of Buffalo becoming one of the greatest commercial stations in the State of New York. Its present population is between 5000 and 6000, double of what it was four years ago." Thanks to that Erie Canal that bored his party stiff between Schenectady and Utica.
As they near the Eagle they get a hurried view of Lake Erie (he refers to it as the American Mediterranean). He doesn't mention the new lighthouse being built by the Federal government out at the end of the pier. The limestone structure towers 44 feet above its nine-foot deep basement and its walls, four foot thick at the base tapering to two at the top, are kept from bulging outward by iron bands. The structure will have its work cut out for it. Right from the beginning of this season's navigation in mid-May a number of the 53 vessels on the four western Great Lakes will put in to port here. On opening day the schooner Eagle was the first vessel to enter the harbor, plowing her way through three or four miles of floating ice as nearly a thousand spectators cheered her in. In the next few days she was followed by the steamboats William Penn and Henry Clay, followed by the local outbound steamer Niagara. Many of the vessels' passengers are traveling to and from Detroit.
As Mr. and Mrs. Stuart and their traveling companions turn in for the night and prepare for a morning excursion to Niagara Falls, we'll hang out in the taproom and catch up on some of this year's past events. After hibernating all winter the citizens began to come alive in May with the breaking of the ice. The local Washington Guards militia was called out mid-month for drill by Sergeant William Cheesman; on the 21st the New England Menagerie circus settled in near Pearl and Seneca streets for an eight-day visit. It was followed by an equestrian circus, a demonstration of "an ingenious piece of Mechanism" with six galleries and 128 figures all set in motion simultaneously. Independence day brought "fine green turtle soup: at the Eagle Tavern, a program of "serious, comic and patriotic songs, as well as recitations and dances" by New York's former song-and-dance man Mr. Durang. All this as well as organ concerts, Mr. Lowell's Main Street museum and upcoming political shenanigans.
Slowly They Turned
Tourists in 1828 Buffalo may have admired the accommodations at Benjamin Rathbun's Eagle Tavern, been impressed by the new lighthouse, edified by the exhibits at Lowell's Museum. But, like their future counterparts from around the world, it was the natural phenomenon twenty miles to the northwest that drew them here. The Great Cataract at Niagara.
The Stuarts were no exception. On the morning of September 9th they joined more than 80 fellow hotel guests in the 100-foot-long public dining room for, "as abundant and excellent a breakfast as I have ever seen." Then Mr. and Mrs. Stuart climbed up into a stagecoach and headed up the east side of the Niagara River to Black Rock, Buffalo's rival community, and crossed over into Canada. They had no way of foreseeing that, in years to come, large numbers of passengers would follow a similar route, to freedom on an amorphous underground railway. What they did see of Canada did not impress the travelers. "The country we passed through was entirely level, greatly overcropped, and there was very little appearance of industry or exertion to reclaim it. Wherever the stage stopped to water the horses, the doors were crowded with children offering apples and plums for sale; and we saw, for the first time on this side of the Atlantic, several beggars."
But all that was soon forgotten. Ten miles from their destination they become aware of a continuous, muffled, rumbling growl, feeling it as much as hearing it. The winds must have been out of the south, for Stuart reported the sound could often be heard from thirty miles out. The unceasing and unvarying bass tone grows louder over the next few miles; soon they spy cloud-like billows above the horizon up ahead of their horses. The coach pulls into the yard of Forsyth's Hotel and its passengers lower themselves to the ground, now only a few hundred yards from the river. Without taking time to check into the six-year-old hotel, run by William Forsyth, a man of Yankee stock as well as dubious character, the visitors hurry past the piazza at the rear of the building and down a path through a woodlot to Table Rock, projecting out over the gorge. It had long been one of the best vantage points for seeing the falls; even though a bit of it had broken off ten years earlier. Another section broke away just this year and still another would follow next year; others in 1850, 1862, 1887, 1889 and 1891. Finally, in 1935, the remainder would be blasted away, for safety. But now, in 1828, the Stuarts stand on the rock shelf. And marvel. Marvel at what Stuart described as, "a great deep ocean, thrown over a precipice nearly 160 feet high." Like many future writers, he declares that such words as grandeur, majesty, and sublime fail to do justice to the sight. And, of course, can't resist using all of them. He is also aware of the dangers the Falls present, and recounts the close call of the Vicomte de Chateaubriand, during his 1791 visit to the area. The young nobleman had ridden his horse close to the edge of the gorge and dismounted, twisting the reins around his arm. He had just hunkered down for a good view when a dry rattling sound came from the nearby bushes. If the Frenchman didn't know about American rattlesnakes his horse certainly did. The animal started for the edge, dragging his master along, then stopped at the last moment leaving the vicomte teetering on the brink, prevented from toppling over only by the leather strap around his arm. The horse, as Stuart puts it, " astonished at this new danger, threw himself forward with a pirouette, and sprang to the distance of ten feet from the edge of the abyss." His dismounted rider, needless to say, was glad to go along.
James Stuart doesn't say precisely how long his party spent at Niagara Falls in 1828, but within a week after his arrival in Buffalo he had crossed over the top of Lake Ontario and gone beyond the Thousand Islands, so it's likely he was only at the falls for a day or two. He made good use of that time, however. Soon after their arrival he descended a spiral staircase from Table Rock to the bottom of the gorge. He tells his readers he walked out on the slippery rocks where, "A false step might have precipitated me into the abyss." There was a cavern at the base of the stairs but the great amount of spray decided him against entering it. There is also a boat (not the Maid-of-the-Mist; that will come along in 1846) that will take tourists to within several hundred yards of the cataract. After taking it himself, Stuart warns others they are certain to be drenched and should be sure to obtain great coats before venturing aboard. He also mentions Goat Island, reached by a crude wooden bridge, where some of the most dramatic vistas are to be viewed, along with a number of complete rainbows arching through the brilliant sunlight.
At this point Stuart's narrative takes a detour as he links the area to events in the War of 1812, and conveys to readers the course and nature of the conflict, with neighbor battling neighbor across the common border. He admires the tenacity of the U. S. commanders, all of them untried in battle, quoting Peter the Great, who said his Swedish foes, "will beat us for a long time, but at last they will teach us to beat them." He goes on to quote Henry Clay, vis-a-vis Canada. "I would take the whole continent from them, and ask them no favours. God has given us the power and the means." And finally he warns those considering emigration to Canada (long before pharmaceuticals were the goal) that they will be enlisted in the militias and will serve in the army, if a third U. S.-British conflict should break out. Stuart also admires the millions of dollars currently being spent on public works such as the Welland and Rideau canals, much of the expense absorbed by the British government.
And, being British, Stuart finds one other Canadian blessing to praise. "We were unable, which to us appeared singular in a country abounding in the finest apples, to get a drop of tolerable cyder at any of our stopping-places from Albany, until we reached Mr Forsyth's hotel, where it is abundant and good, and produced as small beer is in Britain, plentifully in time of dinner."
But even the nectar of the gods can't keep our travelers from moving on. It's back to the coach for a short journey through Queenston (where a climb to the top of the 120 foot tall monument to the late Sir Isaac Brock is a necessity) and then Newark, where the Lake Ontario steamer Queenston awaits to chug them off to the east, taking them the length of the easternmost Great Lake and into the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, descending it to Montreal. Stuart explains, "The travelling, however, so far as respects the stages, steam-boats, and hotels in Canada, so much resembled that in the United States, with one only difference, its increased expense, that it is unnecessary to go into details, especially as the object of these pages is to communicate information respecting the United States, and my stay in Lower Canada was not of sufficient duration to enable me to see much of the country or of the people." He can't resist commenting on the quality of the farmland in this part of Canada, ". . . originally of indifferent soil, and now totally worn out by over-cropping, and altogether in the most wretched state, agriculturally." From the south shore of the river, Stuart's party steams up the rapid filled Richelieu River, re-entering New York at the top of Lake Champlain, where we'll rejoin him.
© 2005, David Minor