April 1995

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Charles Cook

The Father of Schuyler County


Barbara H. Bell

One of the outstanding names in Schuyler County history is Charles Cook. He is often called "The Father of Schuyler County" because of the role he played in having the county organized from parts of Steuben, Chemung and Tompkins.

He was born November 20, 1800, in Springfield, Otsego Co., New York. His ancestors had come from England. Cook's father was killed during the War of 1812, leaving a widow and six children. Charles was third from the oldest. At a tender age, he became a clerk in a Herkimer store for a time before going into a business for himself. We are told he bought and sold goods but have no details. Was he a peddlar?

He did well and managed to save money while contributing to the support of his mother and one sister. At age 23, he was hired to work at canal building; this was a chance of fortune which influenced much of his life.

He apparently learned well in this career. In his mid-20s, he and a brother, Hiram, formed a partnership as contractors to work on the Hudson and Delaware Canal. From there, they did similar work in Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

About this time, their brother, Elbert, joined the company. In 1829 Cook set up headquarters in Havana, now Montour Falls, New York, with a contract to help build the canal from Seneca Lake to Elmira and Corning. His brothers remained behind to finish up a previous commitment. For reasons which research fails to reveal, Hiram and Elbert left the firm and headed "west" to Erie County. Before too long, Hiram became terminally ill and moved with his wife and daughter to be near Charles and under his care.

Meanwhile Cook was thriving in his endeavors as the canal contractor. Recognizing that Seneca Lake and its surrounding territory had become a growth area, he sought to buy land for development where Watkins Glen is now. However, Dr. Samuel Watkins declined to sell.

Charles then turned to developing the town he chose to be his own, Havana. He bought farms and built houses, mills, and a brick-making yard, all of which he managed. Cook built a three-storey brick hotel and named if for Catharine Montour who had been the local Seneca clan mother and leader, and was the daughter of French Margaret Montour, and the granddaughter of Madame Catharine Montour, and the great-granddaughter of a Canadian, Monsieur Montour, and his Huron Indian wife. Queen Catharine as she was called locally by the whites had died 25 years before Cook came to Havana. Montour House, which still stands, fronted on the main street, and faced the canal and railroad on one side. The building contained, in addition to hotel rooms, Cook's bank, his offices and living quarters, and a post office in the basement.

His Cook Bank flourished during a period when many similar institutions were in trouble, even to the point of failure, so that their depositors lost all their investment. Later, Cook became president of the Chemung Canal Bank, a "descendant" of which continues to date in Montour Falls with other branches now in Watkins Glen and Elmira.

Among Cook's numerous activities was the weekly newspaper, Havana Journal, which he started in 1849. He hired a publisher and staff, but did not attach his name to the publication until two or three years before his death.

When the time seemed right to him, Cook led the move to form a new county. Authorities in Chemung, Tompkins and Steuben counties, each of which would lose territory to the forming of Schuyler County, fought the idea of a new county. At the time when Schuyler County was founded, there is little doubt that Cook's personal friendship with such public figures as Thurlow Weed and William Seward (New York State governor, 1838 - 42) was of value. Schuyler County was established on April 17, 1854.

Cook, of course, wanted the county seat to be in Havana and he led the way by having constructed the buildings necessary for a county seat. Strong opposition was waged by those who felt the county seat belonged in the village which had been named Watkins in honor of the man largely responsible for its development (it did not become Watkins Glen until 1926). A political tug-of-war ensued which went through courts for most of 20 years before Havana finally lost.

Cook's power had been enough to direct the building commissioners to erect the necessary physical structures for county government in Havana. Actually for a period of seven years, it was the county seat.

Part of the wording in the state enactment to create Schuyler was that the locating commissioners should designate the site of the county seat where the acreage would be donated to the county with a "good, unencumbered title… in fee simple." A site in Watkins was donated, unencumbered, by George G. Freer who had inherited a vast acreage from his wife which she had received as the widow of Dr. Samuel Watkins. Cook, cautious not to lose the donated or purchased lands in Havana to the county supervisors (the governing body) for other use or disposal should Havana not remain the county seat, had the deed worded with the proviso that, should the county seat be removed from Havana, the site and buildings would become the property of the village. This stipulation was used to award Watkins the county seat.

The site and structures in what is now Montour Falls did revert to village ownership. What was the courthouse is now the village hall. The former clerk's office is now privately owned. The jail has been razed, and the sheriff's center is in private hands.

Charles Cook was elected to nearly every village office at one time or another. He ran for Congress but lost and then declined nomination for governor. In 1855 he was elected state senator, and that same year, he invested with several other area men in creating the Erie Railroad from Binghamton to Elmira and ultimately into Watkins where coal from mines in Blossburg, Pennsylvania, could be tranferred to steamboats to reach another rail line in Geneva for further shipment. Cook also had money invested in the coal mines.

Cook was an early advocate of schooling for vocational training. His ideas took form when he was able to secure the promise of funding from New York State under federal backing for land grant colleges. He had the money and the political know-how to initially win out over Ezra Cornell who wanted such support for his fledgling college in near-by Ithaca. Cook's "People's College" was well underway when he suffered a debilitating stroke. The resulting paralysis and a change in mental capacity reduced his abilities to manage his numerous and complicated ventures. Failure to keep his college operating, in a way to meet federal requirements, cost him public funding which then went to Cornell.

Charles Cook never married. His fianceé died just before the date planned for their wedding. Charles built St. Paul's Episcopal Church in her honor and memory. When he died in 1866, his estate was valued at about a half million dollars, a considerable sum for those times. In his will he left a plot of five or six acres as a cemetery to be managed by St. Paul's Church, and specified that he be buried on "Queen Catharine's Mound" which lay within the tract.

His brother Elbert, who had moved to Havana a few years earlier, was in charge of Charles Cook's estate and multi-faceted businesses. For a time, he let the former People's College be run as a Masonic orphanage. When that failed Elbert turned the buildings over to the Baptists to use as a seminary. In a few years Cook Academy was established as a boarding high school which continued until after World War II. Today the building houses the New York Academy of Fire Sciences.

© 1995, Barbara H. Bell

For more information on Charles Cook and Montour Falls read:
The Historic Village Hall of Montour Falls by Louise Stillman, July 1990
The Little Greek Temple of Montour Falls by Louise V. Stillman, August 1990
The Havana Literary Society and the Montour Falls Memorial Library by Louise V. Stillman, November, 1990
Montour House by Louise V. Stillman, August, 1991.
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