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Ogdensburg: A boom town on the eve of the Civil War

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following in the second part of a column concerning Ogdensburg in the mid-1850s, the first part of which was published last week.

A little over 150 years ago, Ogdensburgh had grown from a rough frontier settlement on the edge of the wilderness to one of Northern New York’s major commercial centers.

The arrival of the railroad meant that communities on the Great Lakes could ship goods by water to Ogdensburgh. Before the construction of the Seaway, 40 miles of rapids between Ogdensburg and Massena blocked ships from sailing east of Ogdensburgh.

Just 11 years later, in 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, Ogdensburgh was one of upstate New York’s success stories.

Historian and author Harry F. Landon described Ogdensburgh in the 1850s in his book: The North Country: A History Embracing Jefferson, St. Lawrence, Oswego. Lewis and Franklin Counties, New York.

Landon’s description follows:

“The Oswegatchie Bank had just been organized, not only the oldest bank in Ogdensburg but also the oldest in St. Lawrence county, with Augustus Chapman the first president and James G. Averell the first vice president. On the board of directors was Henry Van Rensselaer, the land owner and son of the Patroon, who was then one of Ogdensburg’s most influential residents.

“Ogdensburg had its prominent men. There was Preston King, prominent in the affairs of the nation, now hard at it organizing the new Republican party, he who had been a life-long Democrat. Then there was Judge John Fine, as well known a jurist as there was in the New York State of his day, eighteen years on the bench, a former member of the state senate, long treasurer of St. Lawrence county and the man who stood up in the Baltimore convention of 1844 and declined the nomination of president of the United States for Silas Wright. David Judson was another prominent citizen of his day, for eleven years one of the judges of the county court and for many years more collector of the (U.S. Customs) district of Ogdensburg.

“Of course there was no house in all Ogdensburg to be compared with the Parish mansion, the Red Villa, (now the Remington Art Museum) as the townsfolk called it. Three stories high, it was, and painted a dull red. Around it ran a stone wall eight feet high and inside that wall, which enclosed a whole city block, were all those things which go with an English gentleman’s estate, cobbled courts and brick stables, coach-houses and a tan-bark track, trellised gardens, and gardener’s lodge and gravelled walks.

“On the whole Ogdensburg was a cozy, hospitable place in the fifties and attractive, too, laid out as it was along the banks of the broad St. Lawrence. There was Ford street with its roofed sidewalks where the farmers’ horses lazily munched their oats. Old stone warehouses which still bore the scars of British shot stood near the river front.

The population was largely of old New England stock but with a sprinkling of Irish and French attracted there by the commerce. It was a frontier village of course and perhaps a little raw, viewed from modern standards, but although it had lost the county buildings to Canton still it was by far the largest place in the North Country north of Watertown. And how it progressed in the fifties, with the coming of the railroad and the telegraph and the gas lights. So Ogdensburg became a city, not as early as Oswego and Watertown, it is true, but, in 1868 after the boys in blue had marched home and the Fenian raids were a thing of the past the City of Ogdensburg was incorporated and William C. Brown was elected the first mayor. Delos McCurdy was the first recorder and the following aldermen were elected: First ward, Charles I. Baldwin, Walter B. Allen, Henry Redee; second ward, Benjamin R. Jones, Galem W. Pearsons, Patrick Hackett; third ward, Carlisle B. Herriman, Urias Pearson, Chester Waterman. Nathaniel H. Lytle was elected city clerk.

“In 1857 the New York Reformer, published at Watertown, printed a series of four articles on the wealthy men of the Northern New York of that day. George Parish of Ogdensburg, according to the Reformer, was easily the richest man in the north and one of the wealthiest men in the country. His fortune was estimated at six million dollars, truly a remarkable fortune for that day. Henry Van Renssalaer of Ogdensburg, son of the patroon, and a large land owner, was estimated to be worth $800,000.”

James Sterling of Sterlingville, the iron master, who operated mines in northern Jefferson and Southern St. Lawrence counties had $400,000. James Averill of Ogdensburg was credited with being worth $400,000, made largely in land speculation. E. G. Merrick, who at one time operated forty-nine boats in the lake trade, was said to be worth approximately a half a million.

David C. Judson of Ogdensburg was said to be worth $200,000 and George N. Seymour, Ogdensburg merchant, about the same amount.

Augustus Chapman of Morristown was credited with having made $300,000 in land dealings. Solomon Pratt was said to have accumulated $100,000 as a merchant in Somerville, St. Lawrence county. Henry Barnard of Morristown was said to be worth about a half a million.

The country was rapidly filling up. Plank roads run through the most thickly settled areas. The railroad took passengers from Watertown to Rome and from Ogdensburg to Malone in a few hours where formerly it had been an all day trip in a stage coach. Telegraph lines connected the principal towns. Gas lighted the streets and stores of a few of the largest villages. Water systems brought better fire protection and all the larger villages purchased fire engines. With better fire protection came larger and more costly buildings and with better transportation facilities came large-scale manufacturing.

This was the North Country of 1861, when Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States.

James E. Reagen is a former managing editor of The Journal and Advance News. He is the author of “Warriors of La Presentation” and “Fort Oswegatchie.” He is currently employed by the New York State Senate.

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