December 1990

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The Pre-Emption Line


Alfred G. Hilbert

Part I, Part II, Part III

Part III

Disputes and Stories

The plaque on a boulder along Route 352 at the Chemung-Steuben boundary evidently refers to the older adjacent stone: "This marker was placed in 1792 to designate the Transit Meridian Line between New York and Territory Ceded to Massachusetts in 1786." Erected by Corning and Chemung Chapters, D.A.R. And State Education Department

The note on this stone on exhibit in the Montour Falls Memorial Library reads:

"This was a marker on the Pre-emption line found on a hilltop near Townsend on Tom Taylor's Hill west of Willis Frost's farm. It was given to the Historical Society by Lloyd Webb in 1935."

The two surveys of the Preemption Line produced two distinct lines. The confusion of these lines has caused many political and legal disputes in the past 200 years. Even a present-day lawyer involved in title search will be concerned with any mention of the Pre-emption Line in an old deed. Which Pre-emption Line? There were law firms that specialized in such problems. One was that of the late DeForest Fox in Elmira. In past years I have been consulted on such problems in the Southern Tier area.

The discrepancy between the two surveys caused trouble from the start. Jemima Wilkinson had originally settled her group at the site known as "City Hill" on the west shore of Seneca Lake about one mile south of the location of the present electric-power generating plant at Dresden. Their settlement was in the the gore, the area between the lines. This meant their land titles would be clouded by the uncertainty and confusion of the two surveys. Because of the question of the validity of their title to the land, Jemima Wilkinson was able to demand, and get, clear tide to land farther west in Jerusalem near Branchport. She got three acres of land for every acre she gave up at City Hill.

Much of the land in the gore had been sold before the second survey, when it was thought to be in New York. The area of the gore should have been in the Phelps and Gorham purchase. When the London investors bought the remaining Phelps and Gorham lands from Robert Morris, they should have received this area with the other unsold land of the main tract.

Charles Williamson, representing the Pulteney group, did reach a settlement with New York and acquired other lands on the New York side of the line in a ratio of 3 or more acres for each acre of dispute.

The true line runs through the middle of the northern end of Seneca Lake. This originally was also the county line between Seneca and Ontario Counties. Some time in the past, without any objection from Ontario County, Seneca County moved its boundary to the west shore of the lake. What Seneca gained in area it also gained in responsibility. Boating and marine recreation have brought the demand for police patrol of the lake. This cost, and the cost of jurisdiction over all happenings and accidents in this area of the lake, are entirely the burden of Seneca County. To be relieved of this responsibility, Seneca County in 1965 asked the State Legislature to move the county line back to the Pre-emption Line in the center of the lake. A bill was passed, but it was vetoed by Gov. Rockefeller, who stated that under the Home Rule Act, it was no longer a state problem but must be settled locally. Ontario County seems reluctant to return its boundary to the Pre-emption Line in the middle of the lake and is willing to let Seneca County continue to carry the responsibility and the costs of governing the lake.

When the roadway for Routes 5 and 20 was rerouted through Geneva, part of the lake was filled and a new shore line created. Was this Ontario County or Seneca County? Recently the new shore line was mutually accepted as the county line.

The east boundary of the City of Geneva is Preemption Street which is on the true line. Mariners used to line up their boats with this true north-south street to check the accuracy of their compasses, but now their sight has been blocked by the new route of the 5 and 20 highway.

The Pre-emption Line has figured in other local matters. About the turn of the century after a visit by Carrie Nation and her famous hatchet, the town of Elmira went dry. At the time, the Weaver Hotel stood on the line between the towns of Elmira and Big Flats about 100 yards north of Woodland Apartments. Mr. Weaver continued to sell alcoholic beverages, claiming his hotel to be in Big Flats. After much legal and verbal battling, a party of surveyors, using the Preemption Line as a starting point, resurveyed the town line. Their survey showed the hotel to be straddling the line. Mr. Weaver built a slight extension and moved his bar to the north end of the hotel where he could not be stopped from carrying on his beverage business.

Throughout the years this line has cropped up in the news over and over again. For example, about 1922, after the lake had silted in the shallow portion of a bay in the Charlotte area, the City of Rochester sought a clear title to this land for its Ontario Beach Park. Massachusetts instituted a suit against the city, claiming that since the land previously had not been sold it was still under the pre-emptive rights of Massachusetts. It took four years and much money before the suit was denied by the Supreme Court of the United States, finding that the title was to the previous water's edge of the lake.

If you like to travel, the line can be identified in many locations. The marker for Milestone 82 which is 82 miles west from the west bank of the Delaware River along the 42nd parallel, is a stone still visible alongside Wedger Hill Road about four miles northwest of Millerton, Pennsylvania. As the line runs northward along the present Chemung-Steuben County line, the "Four Mile" stone marker existed until 1972 near the Glenn Drake farm on Dutch Hill. It was removed then for safe keeping from earth-moving operations.

On Highway 352 between Big Flats and Corning at the base of the county line marker near the oil-tank colony there are two stones: One a stone marker with a bronze plate placed there by the Corning and Chemung Chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the State Education Department, and the other a square stone of unknown origin. These stones were rededicated by the D.A.R. in 1988.

Originally the 1788 line was marked along its entire length by field stone markers, but road scrapers, bulldozers, farm tractors, and even souvenir hunters have eradicated most of them.

The false line is unmarked until one reaches the Watkins Glen-Tyrone Road. From this road northward, a Pre-emption Road extends about 12 miles and passes to the west of Dundee in the vicinity of the cemetery, then on through Milo Center. Starting east of Penn Yan on route 54 is a Pre-emption Road which does not follow the line until it is north of Bellona from where it does follow the false line north along the western boundary of the City of Geneva to Oaks Corners, near Phelps. This road is best known by its intersection with the Geneva-Canandaigua Road, Routes 5 and 20, where the Lafayette Tree and the Lafayette Inn once stood. A state historical marker identifies the Pre-emption Line here.

There are many stories about the Pre-emption Line: After a talk in Altay, a man said to me, "I was born on the Pre-emption Road, I live on the Pre-emption Road, and I will probably die on the Preemption Road. However, until tonight I have always maintained that the correct name should be 'Prevention Road.' But I've never been able to find out what it was there to prevent." In the Penn Yan area many of the natives call the road the "Pre-hemption" or "Per-hemption" Road probably because few people knew the meaning of the word or why it was used for a road name. Tom Bowlby, who was county clerk of Chemung County, gave a lecture on the history of the county and referred to the Pre-emption Line in the course of his talk, mentioning where the line ran and its connection with Massachusetts. After his talk a teacher hurried up to thank him profusely. She said, "You have helped eliminate the skeleton in our family closet. One of my ancestors, an early settler in the area just east of Penn Yan, had in his diary such entries as, Today, I cut wood in Massachusetts,' and 'I arose early this morning and took a walk to Massachusetts and back before breakfast.' Our family all thought he must have been crazy."

Pre-emption is such an unusual word, connected to geography, that even if it's meaning isn't known, it is often remembered. In 1967 a letter from Denmark arrived in this country addressed to Mr. Robert Jansen, Pre-emption Road, USA. Believe it or not, without the name of a city, without the name of a state, not even a ZIP code number, this letter was delivered. Some postal employee recognized the unusual word, preemption, sent the letter to Geneva, and there a carrier recognized the name of one of his customers. Can you think of any other road name that would pinpoint a specific section of our great United States?

© 1990, Alfred G. Hilbert
Part I, Part II, Part III
Index to articles by Alfred G. Hilbert

Further Reading

A Brief History of "The Preemption Line" and "The Preemption Road," E. Everett Buchanan, Jr., (1957) Chemung County Historical Society.

History of Ontario County, G. S. Conover.

History of Chemung, Tioga, Tompkins, and Schuyler Counties, Pierce-Hurd.

Short History of New York, Ellis, Frost, Syrat, & Carman.

History of Wayne County, George Cowles.

New York State—A History, Dr. James Sullivan.

The Pre-emption Line, Justice Frederick T. Henry.

Pennsylvania Boundaries, W. A. Russ, Jr.

Story of Geneva, E. Thayles Emmons.

Files of the Chemung County Historical Society.

Files of the Geneva Historical Society.

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