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Sun., Dec. 28
Serving the community of Ogdensburg, New York
History At Large
By Michael Whittaker
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History At Large

No Better Known Man In St. Lawrence County

First published: December 23, 2014 at 1:54 am
Last modified: December 23, 2014 at 1:54 am

General Roscius Winslow Judson of Ogdensburg was one of the best known men in that section of the state, according to his New York Times obituary May 26, 1894.

We can agree General Judson was one of the best known because the patriot and collector extraordinaire is largely unremembered.

Our County and Its People: A Memorial Record of St. Lawrence County, New York lauded the general shortly before his death May 25 at age 84.

“To-day there is probably no better known man in St. Lawrence County than General Judson. He is universally esteemed for his integrity of purpose, his genial disposition and his untiring zeal in support of every worthy project, while he is admired for his sterling patriotism and genial disposition that even now at his advanced age is as bright and cheerful as ever. He has always been an active temperance man and has delivered many orations in this cause.”

Roscius Judson, born Aug. 17, 1810 in Louisville, at age18 entered the St. Lawrence Academy, which he attended for five years. On graduation in July 1834, Judson took first prize for oratory in a class of 13.

For his remaining 60 years his oratory skills played significantly in his professional and private life.

In 1835 he tutored the children of Henry M. Fine. The same year, on becoming the assistant principal of the Ogdensburg Academy, he began the study of law in the office of Judge John Fine. Four years later on completing his legal studies with Hon. Ransom H. Gillett and Attorney General Charles G. Myers (New York 1860-61) he was called to the bar.

The Civil War interrupted Judson’s Ogdensburg law practice. Aboard a steamer out of New York bound for Boston he learned of the April 1861 attack on Fort Sumter and returned to Ogdensburg as soon as his ship reached port.

Judson leaped into the war effort as a principal speaker and occasionally officiating at patriotic meetings. Judson’s July 4, 1862 oration in North Lawrence was immediately published in Ogdensburg.

His remarks concluded, “Events are now daily transpiring, fraught with momentous consequences to the rights and interests of our beloved country. Let us all be alive to the spirit of the hour, and prove ourselves equal to the task before us. Let every patriot be true to himself, to the Constitution, and to the Union, and be ready and willing to preserve and sustain them, even though he should sacrifice his all to accomplish so noble a purpose.”

His often stirring words credit him for the large number of men raised in St. Lawrence County, particularly for the 16th, 18th, 60th and 106th Regiments.

He raised 1,024 men for the 142nd. The regiment, known as the St. Lawrence County Regiment, mustered Sept. 29, 1862. Judson was the colonel until his health kept him from the field. For his services, he was brevetted brigadier general.

He contributed Ogdensburg’s first financial donation to the Union cause when he challenged a gathering, “Gentlemen, it remains for us who cannot go to the front to say how much we love the cause. I love it $100 worth tonight.”

The roll of bills he tossed on the table inspired a subscription of $85,000.

Out of the battles, but not out of action, General Judson followed the Civil War supporting veterans and the Grand Army of the Republic. He delivered articulate, apolitical speeches at engagements across the country and at least 25 Fourth of July orations.

Popular as he was, Judson never sought elected office. As a member of the St. Lawrence County Bar for more than 50 years, he served as commissioner of deeds, special county judge and master in chancery. He was among the last masters in chancery to inquire into matters referred by the court, examine cases, take oaths and affidavits, hear testimony and compute damages. In 1897 the office became Master of the Supreme Court.

From his prize-winning school days, his brief tenure as a tutor and as assistant principal, Judson was “a historian of close reading and deep research, and has accumulated a great deal of valuable manuscript on the history of our own land, as well as a large collection of rare and curious relics,” according to the Memorial Record of St. Lawrence County cited above.

With the racist bias of the era, Everts and Holcomb in their 1878 History of St. Lawrence Co. asserted Judson’s stone implements and figures were too well-worked and decorative to have been made by Indians.

The authors said the specimens “evince a skill and intelligence that put to shame all the efforts of the red race known as Indians, and prove beyond a doubt the existence of an ancient people upon this continent, who possessed a remarkable degree of civilization.”

Nonsense aside, the authors encouraged visits to his freely open museum where the eloquent and gracious General Judson took delight presenting his irreplaceable objects.

Everts and Holcomb wrote, “The collection deserves to have a fire-proof building erected for its safe-keeping, and the citizens of Ogdensburg will do honor to themselves by making provision for preserving it in the interests of their historic city.”

Where are the 3,000 objects from his collection of American Revolution memorabilia and artifacts from pre-contact to his current day in St. Lawrence County?

They should have pride of place in Ogdensburg.

The Roscius Judson file in the library archives indicates the general offered his extensive collection to the Ogdensburg Public Library and that is where the quest for Judson’s bounty stands.

People remember the Indian artefacts in the library. At some point they were boxed for storage, and just last week scholars from Potsdam State documented the relics. They are attributed to C. B. Olds and other unnamed donors.

C. B. Olds was a Waddington-area resident and Norfolk School Board Director of Education who summered at Louisville Landing. His 1968 obituary states he assembled the artifacts then in the Ogdensburg Library.

There is more to be revealed.


Roscius Winslow Judson.

Our County and Its People: A Memorial Record of St. Lawrence County, New York. 1894

History of St. Lawrence Co., New York. 1878.

Oration of Roscius Judson, Esq. stream/orationofroscius00juds_djvu.txt

142nd Regiment, New York Infantry.,_New_York_Infantry

The Civil War Archive.

Central Water, Fires An Issue In Ogdensburg.

Norman Rockwell Drew Inspiration From Louisville.

Michael Whittaker resides in Bishop’s Mills, Ontario, and is a former member of the Fort La Presentation Association Board of Directors. He currently serves on the association’s marketing committee. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of the association.


One Border, Many Challenges

First published: December 16, 2014 at 2:15 am
Last modified: December 16, 2014 at 2:16 am

Imagine Americans attacked by Americans during the Civil War, not within the U.S., but from Canada.

Oct. 19, 1864, 18 to 22 Confederate infiltrators from Canada robbed three St. Albans, Vt. banks of $208,000, killed a civilian and fled north across the border. When the Canadian militia apprehended 14 robbers 24 hours later, they recovered only $84,000. The rest supposedly reached Southern coffers.

The Canadian government expected a lengthy trial during which time diplomatic amends could be made with the United States, but Dec. 14 a sympathetic Montreal judge dismissed the charges on a technicality. The crisis was worsened by the judge returning the stolen money to the raiders.

The initial fallout was something which all cross-border travelers now accept. By executive order, President Lincoln demanded all persons entering the U.S. from Canada must produce a passport.

The significance was soon impressed upon the citizens of Ogdensburg. When returning from Prescott, a few travelers realized they’d have to pay $5 for a travel document before being allowed into their own country. The American consul general in Prescott provided the passport.

Canadians entering the U.S. had carried passports since 1862 because American authorities wanted reliable certification from people living in Canada. The U.S. Customs Border Patrol established in 1853 enforced the regulations.

Other official reactions to the St. Albans Raid, as the bank robberies became known, had more serious implications. The Rush-Bagot Convention, the treaty disarming the Great Lakes in the aftermath of the War of 1812, was abrogated by the president. Congress planned the repeal of the 1854 Canada-U.S. Reciprocity Treaty, a free-trade agreement.

After the war, the border remained relatively quiet for 50 years from the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s Fenian Raids from the U.S. into Canada between 1866 and 1871 until Prohibition.

Nationwide prohibition began Jan. 17, 1920. In Canada the provinces legislated prohibition; Ontario was officially dry from 1916 to 1927. Perhaps not surprisingly THE enforcement issue for the Ogdensburg Border Patrol Station, created in 1931, was rum running. A Morristown station was also established in 1931 to combat bootlegging.

Alcohol smuggling ended in Dec. 1933 with the repeal of Prohibition. This piece will not look at those adventurous days because Jim Reagan has explored the period very well in his weekly Tales from the Oswegatchie Delta. However, during the Prohibition Era there were three federal border patrols.

The first mentioned U.S. Customs Border Patrol operated until 1948, then re-established in 1973 and closed in 1991.

In 1927 the U.S. Prohibition Border Patrol formed in the newly created Bureau of Prohibition.

The Bureau’s overlapping responsibilities with the Bureau of Customs and the Coast Guard led to the dismantling of its patrols in Jan. 1930.

Responsibility for alcohol taxation went to the Internal Revenue Bureau of the Treasury Department and the remaining functions to the Justice Department.

The U.S. Border Patrol we meet today began in 1924 as the U.S. Immigration Border Patrol in the U.S. Immigration Service and later within the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security it was integrated as the Office of Border Patrol.

World War Two and the interdiction of escaped prisoners of war and subversive aliens entering from Canada presented challenges for the Border Patrol.

In July 1940, the Border Patrol nabbed German U-boat sailor Walter Kurt Reich on a farm near Lisbon. Reich had jumped from a prison transport in the St. Lawrence. Under the terms of the Hague Convention, the U.S. as a neutral power had to leave escaped POWs at liberty. An attorney hired by the German Consulate in New York City, obtained Reich’s release from the St. Lawrence County Jail.

The best known POW on the run was Luftwaffe Oberleutnant Franz von Werra, who after multiple escape attempts in Britain succeeded in slipping away from a Canadian prisoner train near Smiths Falls in Jan. 1941. He soon reached Ogdensburg and surrendered to the police. Eventually he returned to Germany.

His tale appeared in this column as Surprise Arrival in Ogdensburg, Tues, Aug. 19, 2014. The One That Got Away put von Werra’s story on the big screen in 1957.

In the post-war years issues familiar today arose along the border. Many people deemed inadmissible to the U.S. found Canada welcoming. Thousands of refugees and displaced persons migrated there.

The Ogdensburg Border Patrol Station contended with would-be illegal entrants and people smuggling.

Similarly from 1955 to 1958 the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway stretched border patrol resources for the line watch controlling what was then called the Free Zone along the American shore from Massena to Ogdensburg.

The permanent game changer was the 9/11 terrorist attacks. March 1, 2003 U.S. Customs and Border Protection became the nation’s first comprehensive border security agency responsible for U.S. boundaries and ports of entry.

The CBP consolidated the functions of existing federal organizations to ensure compliance with immigration, health and international trade laws and regulations.

Passports again became mandatory for Canadians and Americans crossing the border.

Along the 3,987 miles of land border (not including Alaska) with Canada, U.S. Customs and Border Protection employs more than 2,200 Border Patrol agents, a 500 percent increase since Sept. 11. At ports of entry and crossings, nearly 3,700 CBP Officers process people and goods.

Closer to home, unmanned aircraft monitor approximately 200 miles of New York border and Lake Ontario. The border stretches 445 miles.

The Ogdensburg Border Patrol Station oversees 48 miles of border from Waddington to the St. Lawrence and Jefferson County Line with responsibility south to Herkimer County lying north of New York State Route 8 and Hamilton County.

The station sits at the mouth of the Oswegatchie River in the recently renovated Robert C. McEwen U.S. Customs House. Built in 1809 by David Parish as his storehouse, the stone structure is the oldest building in Federal Service.

Sources: The St. Albans Raid.

How a Confederate raid shaped our democracy

German Prisoner of War not Illegal Immigrant.,2341722

Ogdensburg Station.

During the Prohibition Era There Were 3 Federal Border Patrols?

Border Security Overview.

Michael Whittaker resides in Bishop’s Mills, Ontario, and is a former member of the Fort La Presentation Association Board of Directors. He currently serves on the association’s marketing committee. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of the association


Trains, Planes And Lumber Mills

First published: December 09, 2014 at 2:54 am
Last modified: December 09, 2014 at 2:54 am

The efficiencies of railroads and steamboats combined with other natural advantages grew Ogdensburg into a regional center for the timber industry that peaked in the 1870s.

Along the St. Lawrence shoreline lumber businesses concentrated west of the Ogdensburg and Lake Champlain Railroad terminus, generally between Paterson and Franklin Streets. The St. Lawrence afforded readily accessible dockage not prone to silting. Mills flourished along River and Lake Streets on the west bank of the Oswegatchie where the river’s drop provided water power.

In the 1750s Abbé Picquet had the Oswegatchie harnessed for a sawmill. In the decades of settlement into the early 19th century, dismantling a mill for relocation was easier than snaking logs a great distance overland.

In 1799 the theft of timber by phony settlers became a problem for Nathan Ford, early Ogdensburg’s guiding hand. With the nearest law at Fort Stanwix (Rome), the timber pirates, claiming they were beyond the law’s reach, brazenly took trees. Ford expressed fears for the destruction of upper townships forests in a letter to Samuel Ogden.

The legislature took notice. An 1801 law enforced punishment for stealing timber or lumber floating on a river or lying on the shore. Those who defaced log marks (an owner’s symbol) risked severe penalties. Later acts called for the registration of log marks.

From 1810 to 1854 legislation came forward to protect and improve the Raquette, Grasse, Oswegatchie and Black Rivers for floating timber and saw logs. By mid-century the importance of the river drives began to diminish.

Technology was changing. Crosscut saws replaced axes. Railroads, flat cars and steam-powered loaders relieved some of the lumbermen’s burden. Steam engines powered some mills the year round, cutting many logs simultaneously. Gang saws delivered boards, planks, slabs and beams.

In 1860 several gang mills in New York pulled logs through five or six gates to as many as 36 saws set for inch boards and a lesser number for planks and beams. Operating day and night a six-gate mill cut about 15-million board feet per year.

A patented innovation of the 1840s was the planer. A planing mill cut and smoothed seasoned boards with a variety of saws, planers and molding machines into finished dimensional lumber and trim.

Canny mill owners, having secured the best sites, operated productive mills on waterpower alone. Water, free in comparison to steam, powered many of the largest gang mills into the 20th century.

Ogdensburg’s exemplary location and comprehensive transportation infrastructure appealed to at least four major companies, which shipped wood products southward and to New England by rail. Skillings & Whitney Brothers owned large riverside mills and yards west of the Ogdensburg and Lake Champlain Railway terminus. Shepard, Hall & Co., E. S. Brownson and Charles Lyon were the other large companies. There were smaller retail and wholesale operations, too.

Skillings & Whitney Brothers was the 1858 fusion of three New England companies based in Boston, Lowell and Burlington. In spring 1859 the company arrived in Ogdensburg under the management of W.L. Proctor. The company also had undertakings in Albany, Toledo and Detroit until changes in ownership centered the business in Boston and Ogdensburg in 1877.

In 1877 the company cut 30-million board feet of lumber, which was worked into the many dimensions of wood required for rough construction to cabinet making. As necessary, 50 to 200 men labored for the company. The steam-powered planing-mill alone employed 50 men to handle the 10,000 feet per hour produced through a 10-hour day in the 24,000-square-foot facility. At its peak the company cut125-million feet while 125 men served the company’s 18 steamers and sail fleet. New England was the principal market.

New England was the main wholesale market for Shepard, Hall & Co. that established in Ogdensburg in 1870. Its principal offices were in Boston and Burlington with connections to a major Canadian firm in Montreal. The mill’s hardwood and softwood came from the west and Canada.

In 1867 E. S. Brownson purchased George Parish’s mill on Water St. and entered a partnership with Charles Lyon. Mr. Brownson continued at the location after Mr. Lyon left to establish a separate business after less than two-year’s affiliation. In one week, Brownson’s enterprise could

plane 15,000 feet of lumber, cut 10,000 clapboards, mill shingles, contract other work and turn out one boat.

In the heyday, Brownson’s milled as much as 4,000,000 feet of lumber in a year. An 1873 fire compelled him to rebuild. By 1877, with eight to 10 men employed in the summer, the cut dropped to about 700,000. Charles Lyon, with adjacent premises, was a larger business concentrated on the cordwood trade. The main workforce labored in the forest.

Ogdensburg’s connection to Burlington contributed to the Vermont city having the largest timber-dressing mills in the world and becoming the number four distributor of lumber in the U.S.

The 1880 census reported New York’s 2,822 mills employed 17,500 earning $2.23 million in annual wages. With invested capital of $13.2 million, the mills turned out 1.15-billion board feet, as well as shingles, lath and staves. A decade earlier the numbers may have been more impressive.

From 1840 to the Civil War, the economy grew on average by more than six percent annually. Fueled by post-war government subsidies and land grants, the railroads became the nation’s largest employer after agriculture. Speculators bloated the industry’s grow. Subsidiary investments ballooned the construction of contributing industrial facilities.

In the worldwide financial Panic of 1873 more than a billion dollars were defaulted by thousands of American companies. Nine out of 10 railroads failed.

More than 10 years of double-digit unemployment followed. By the early 1890s, American economic productivity had declined by more than 24 percent.

In the U.S. and other countries economic protectionism resulted, restraining trade with tariffs, quotas and regulations conceived to allow fair completion between domestic and foreign goods and services.

Sources: Historic Ogdensburg, N.Y.

Executive Documents, Third Session, Fortieth Congress 1868-69.

Online dictionary of woodworking.

Panic of 1873.

Lumber Business – Burlington, Vt.

History of St. Lawrence County.

A history of the lumber industry in the state of New York (1902)


In The Wake Of The Steamboats

First published: December 02, 2014 at 2:17 am
Last modified: December 02, 2014 at 2:17 am

A new era of water transport began in 1807 when Robert Fulton’s improved steam-powered Clermont chugged up the Hudson from New York to Albany at almost five-miles per hour.

Fulton’s innovations led to the Winans brothers’ steamboat Vermont launched at Burlington, Vt. in 1808 to serve Lake Champlain down to Saint-Jean-sur Richelieu in Lower Canada (Quebec).

In Montreal the same year, John Molson of brewery fame unveiled the Accommodation to run between Montreal and Quebec City. He offered his Swiftsure, launched in Aug. 1812, to the British military for the duration of the War of 1812. With clichéd military intelligence, authorities declined the offer.

Molson’s fleet grew with the Malsham in 1814, followed by the Lady Sherbrooke in 1816 and the New Swiftsure in 1817.

Driven by local entrepreneurs, steamboat service on the upper St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario matured in the first half of the 19th century. Through those years, the iron engines often outlived the wooden boats.

Sackets Harbor and Kingston entered the steamboat era in 1815, giving the word ‘first’ different interpretations. First under construction and first to launch, the Frontenac from Kingston. The Ontario the first promoted and first to steam on Lake Ontario built at Sackets Harbor.

The 110-foot Ontario’s first commercial voyage in 1817 from Lewiston to Ogdensburg triggered celebrations at every port with guns, church bells and bonfires. The 10-day trip, averaging five-miles per hour, cost $16 for a cabin, half that for deck passage. In 1832 she was scrapped at Oswego.

At Sacket’s Harbor the Martha Ogden launched in 1819 to soon founder in a gale off Stony Point. Because she was close to shore passengers and crew landed safely, rescued in small numbers in a basket drawn back and forth by ropes. Her salvaged engine went to the Ontario.

The Paul Pry known for the attempted rescue of Patriots from the 1838 Battle of the Windmill first ran in 1830 on Black Lake to Rossie. The steamer became a ferry about 1834 following an arduous, expensive overland haul to Ogdensburg.

After the Patriot War, Canadian travelers shunned the Paul Pry. The ferry’s life ended shuttling out of Black River Bay. Her replacement on Black Lake, the small steamer Rossie built about 1837 by White & Hooker of Morristown, failed financially within two years.

How the Paul Pry reached the St. Lawrence is worth investigating. Of note, the petite steamer Jack Downing built at Carthage in 1834 rolled to Sackets Harbor on wheels for fitting up as an Ogdensburg ferry. She operated briefly between Waddington and Morrisburg and later from Fort Covington to Cornwall.

In 1837 Jack Downing’s engine powered the Henry Burden on which it and the paddlewheel mounted uniquely between two hollow cylindrical floats. Via the Ottawa River and the Rideau Canal she made her roundabout voyage to Ogdensburg for a short ferry career.

The steamer United States entered service in July 1832 at Ogdensburg. Like the Paul Pry, the steamer’s connection to the Patriot War made her anathema to Canadians. Commandeered by Patriots in Nov. 1838, she brought the schooners Charlotte of Oswego and Charlotte of Toronto loaded with would-be liberators from Cape Vincent to Morristown; here the schooners continued to Ogdensburg. The United States later took the Charlotte of Toronto to Windmill Point.

Out of Ogdensburg in April 1839 the United States drew musket fire from unidentified shooters at Prescott and Brockville. The United States did not run on the St. Lawrence after 1841. Before she went to the wrecker’s hammer and subsequently intentionally burned in Oswego her engine was removed to the Rochester in 1843.

The Oneida built at Oswego in 1836 made regular trips from Ogdensburg to Lewiston until 1845. Her engine then went to the British Queen built between Clayton and Kingston on Long Island; initially steaming between Ogdensburg and Montreal and later lost on Lake Erie.

The St. Lawrence launched at Oswego in 1839 was rebuilt in 1844 to a length of 180 feet becoming the first steamer on Lake Ontario to have main-deck staterooms. Her engine from the Oswego ended service when the St. Lawrence last steamed in 1851.

Convenient steamer passage to the Great Lakes above Niagara Falls commenced in 1839 when the Welland Canal opened across Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula.

Ogdensburg was the downward navigable limit for most ships. This did not preclude steam vessels running the rapids to Montreal.

Seasonal passenger and freight steamers traveling between Lake Ontario and Montreal called at most ports. From Ogdensburg numerous smaller boats ran to Waddington, Louisville, Massena and other communities. Steam ferries crossed from Morristown, Ogdensburg, Waddington and Fort Covington.

The first attempt to create a steamboat company serving Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence died in Feb. 1816 when the Lake Ontario Steamboat Company failed incorporation. A new Lake Ontario Steamboat Company operated from 1831 to 1850. In 1848 two young companies, the Steam- and Canal-Boat Company and the St. Lawrence Steamboat Company merged into the Ontario and St. Lawrence Steamboat Company.

The Ontario and St. Lawrence Steamboat Company headquartered in Oswego ran a number of lines in the 1850s. The Express Line from Ogdensburg, by way of Toronto to Lewiston, ran daily with two steamers. Four steamers served the Mail Line from Ogdensburg to Lewiston, via Kingston and primary American ports, except Cape Vincent.

A single railroad ferry connected Cape Vincent to Kingston. Three daily steamers operating on the American Line from Ogdensburg reached Montreal. A fourth line linked the head-of-lake cities of Lewiston and Hamilton.

In Ogdensburg Crawford & Co. established a line of ten propeller-driven steamboats in association with the Northern Railroad in 1851. In addition to passengers, merchandise weighing near 20,000 tons went west while flour and produce totalling about 30,000 tons came east that year.

Remarkably, given the thousands of passengers traveling thousands of miles through the hazards of water and weather, not a significant injury or death ensued in the first four decades of steamboats of the lake and river.


History of St. Lawrence County, New York,

Robert Fulton Biography (1765-1815),

John Molson,

The Story of the Upper Canadian Rebellion: Largely Derived from Original Sources and Documents, Volume 2,

Thousand Island Life,

Michael Whittaker resides in Bishop’s Mills, Ontario, and is a former member of the Fort La Presentation Association Board of Directors. He currently serves on the association’s marketing committee. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of the association


Dams, Locks and Canals: A Century Before The Seaway

First published: November 25, 2014 at 2:02 am
Last modified: November 25, 2014 at 2:02 am

Audacious plans to improve the economy of northern New York floated and sank in the three decades following the War of 1812.

Legislation declaring rivers public highways outlawed their obstruction. An April 1810 declaration protected the Raquette from the St. Lawrence up to Norfolk and the St. Regis from the Canadian border to near Stockholm. The next year the Oswegatchie was declared a highway from Ogdensburg to Rossie and later extended to Cranberry Lake.

Improving transportation along the rivers with canals and locks was believed to be the best route to prosperity.

As early as 1808, J. Waddington and T. L. Ogden received legislative permission to improve navigation on the St. Lawrence with a toll canal and locks at Hamilton (Waddington). Construction did not go well during the three years allotted to the project. Water undermined the first lock built of wood. It was abandoned.

New legislation in 1811 extending the project became virtually null and void with the declaration of war in 1812 and the attacks on Canada. Only a tow path from St. Regis to an Indian village on the shore near Lisbon was likely cut with a $600 appropriation under the legislation.

In 1815 the act was renewed, and work on a stone lock begun. It was too little and too late. The lock measured 50 by 10 feet, sufficient to carry only one Durham boat with a two-foot draught. The steamboat era arrived. Canadian efforts along the north shore were superseding American work and the project was abandoned.

Canals in Canada go back to the French Regime. In 1680 the Sulpicians proposed a canal to bypass the Lachine Rapids at Montreal to ease canoe access to the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers. Three-quarters complete after less than two year`s work, the waterway was abandoned in 1701 for lack of funds.

In the mid-18th century the most turbulent eight-mile run of the St. Lawrence above Montreal was largely sidestepped by a “rigolet,” a channel for bateaux constructed parallel the rapids at Coteau du Lac between the shore and a rock wall. During the American Revolution the Royal Engineers militarized the site and constructed the first canal with locks in North America.

The Loyalist King’s Royal Regiment of New York cut a short, straight canal through the limestone using picks and shovels, sledges, chisels and wedges. On completion in 1781 the canal cut exceeded 100 yards in length with a width of 10 feet.

The three locks were each 38-feet long and five wide with a depth of 2.5 feet. Additional canals were built at Faucille, Trou-du-Moulin and Rocher-Fendu by 1783.

Passage along the north shore by French explorers and fur traders established the route over the 150 years prior to the British taking control of Canada in 1753. Drawing traffic to New York was problematical.

The completion in 1832 of the easily traveled Grenville Canal on the Ottawa River above Montreal and the Rideau Canal running from Bytown (Ottawa) to Kingston greatly reduced the upward traffic on the St. Lawrence. Westbound paddle steamers circumventing the St. Lawrence by the longer course easily towed barges and Durham boats. Downward shipping too large for the St. Lawrence locks ran the rapids to Montreal.

The Vandalia built at Oswego in 1841 changed the game. She was fitted with an Ericsson screw propeller, the first such ship so constructed in North America. Steam-powered vessels from then on built to full-lock dimension had increased cargo capacity because paddlewheel side boxes weren’t required. The stern-mounted engines allowed a longer cargo hold.

In 1833 the last grasp at cutting a canal below Ogdensburg came with a proposal to link the head of Long Sault to the Grasse River. Connecting the Grasse from a navigable point upriver to Massena only three miles distant surveyed to be six-mile challenge. Still in the planning stage, the project died in 1833.

From Ogdensburg the Oswegatchie River continued as a commercial route to the interior.

Building a system of canals, locks and dams facilitating river transportation to Black Lake, Gouverneur and to Canton through a natural canal to the Grasse River fell to The Oswegatchie Navigation Company in the spring of 1831.

Commissioners Louis Hasbrouck, Jacob Vanden Heuvel, Sylvester Gilbert and Smith Stilwell were appointed to raise $50,000 from subscribing investors. Predetermined tasks were to be completed within five years. In 1835 the capital stock was increased to $100,000.

The incorporating act was renewed in April 1836 and to be continued in force for 30 years, as was the first. New commissioners were named; Henry Van Rensselaer, Jacob A. Vanden Heuvel, Sylvester Gilbert, Smith Stilwell, Baron S. Doty and B. M. Fairchild. Confusingly Franklin Hough in his History of St. Lawrence County followed those above with a list of seven new commissioners appointed to receive subscriptions, only Henry Van Rensselaer remained among them.

Geography presented challenges. According to the petition for the renewed act, the Grasse River dropped nine feet at Canton. At De Kalb, Cooper`s Falls took an eight foot plunge. Locks at Heuvelton were supposedly begun. Dams and locks on the Oswegatchie were to cost no more than $12,000, and a steamboat priced at $5,000 would serve the proposed company.

Regardless, no improvements happened along the Oswegatchie.

Ogdensburg was busy forwarding port at the top of the Galop Rapids, transshipping cargoes to the Great Lakes and down the St. Lawrence to international markets. An 1841 water color by British Army Officer H. H. Bartlett portrays a busy inner-harbor of small vessels and a log raft sheltered in the river mouth. Vessels under sail, a steamer and a log raft the ply river.

Plans to move shipping by an all-American route from the St. Lawrence to the Atlantic Ocean failed. As early as 1823, schemes were afoot to link rivers around the northern Adirondack slope to Lake Champlain and over to the Connecticut River. The proposal to link Ogdensburg to the Black River Canal and thereby to the Erie Canal collapsed in the 1840s.

Canal enthusiasts wanting to discover New York’s canal history and explore operating canals should visit the Canal Society of New York State webpage at


From The Largest To Nothing At All

First published: November 18, 2014 at 1:46 am
Last modified: November 18, 2014 at 1:46 am

In the 1950s, St. Lawrence County claimed the world’s largest open-pit iron mine in the Town of Clifton, not far from the Hamlet of Star Lake. The Benson Mine, almost three-miles long and nearly 300-yards across, rode the economic ups and downs for nearly 90 years before closing in 1978.

The rich pit could not have been imagined in 1810 by the engineers surveying the military road from Albany to Ogdensburg who crossed the magnetic field that disturbed their compasses.

Frontier settlements needed resources. Ogdensburg entrepreneur David Parish’s iron furnace at Rossie fired up in 1813. Within 25 years two quarries, three lead mines, four marble mills, seven foundries and eight iron furnaces dotted the county.

Talcville earned its name in 1878 from the first talc mine in the United States excavated there. Gouverneur merited the nickname Marble City from the many buildings constructed of the locally quarried cream-colored stone.

Galena, which refines into lead, was mined near Black Lake. The not totally worthless fool’s gold, iron pyrite, mined south of Canton provided sulphur and sulphuric acid for the paper industry.

The famous Potsdam red sandstone gave distinctive looks to homes, civic buildings, commercial blocks and churches. Iron furnaces had linings of the heat-resistant stone.

The quarrying of stone in 1749 for the walls of Fort de La Présentation must have been the first mining of its kind in the region, predated as that was by the First Nations’ sources of flint and related minerals for points and blades.

In 1889, the opening of a lumber road encouraged the Magnetic Iron Company to move heavy equipment from their Jayville mine in hope of increased profits from the richer body by the Little River in the Town of Clifton. Production ground to a close in 1893. Better ore bodies in Michigan and Minnesota triggered the shutdown until 1900.

In 1907, the Magnetic Iron Company sold the mine to the Benson Mine Company, which continued the intermittent operation until 1918. Mining did not resume until 1941 and the advent of WWII.

The Jones and Laughlin Ore Company leased the mineral property in 1941. As part of the war effort, the Department of Defense constructed a basic processing plant on site the following year. The ore company purchased the processing plant and in the post-war boom years undertook a major expansion.

The crushed ore was sintered and concentrated before shipping. Sintered ore has been combined with coke to make steel production easier. Throughout the history of the mine, the New York Central hauled the ore to the steel works in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Jones and Laughlin renamed the operation the New York Ore Division, which peaked in the 1960s. About one-million tons of processed ore moved annually to the mills. Most of the steel from Benson Mine ore reportedly went into Chrysler automobiles.

Costly rail transport from the mine could not compete with the ores shipped by water. Foreign competition dealt a lingering death blow. Duty-free iron ore entering the U.S. sent the American mining industry into a tailspin and crash through the 1960s. Benson Mine cried uncle and shut down in August 1978.

The company, employing 840 workers in 1960, exercised a key role in the development of Star Lake. The Benson Mine paid more than $400,000 annually in taxes. In 1952, separate financial contributions to town construction projects included the central school, hospital, housing and water system.

The Hamlet of Star Lake is now home to little more than 800 people, half the population of its heyday. Like too many communities in St. Lawrence County, the local economy slipped into decline. Today tourists and rockhounds inject seasonal dollars.

The mineral riches noted by Franklin Hough in his 1853 History of St. Lawrence Country cited more than 50 minerals. Many are quite collectable. The Benson Mine has yielded a few prize examples. Some rest in personal collections and others with institutions such as the New York State Museum and Canadian Museum of Nature.

Within the county there are 15 communities associated with sites for collecting minerals. The Gouverneur Museum ( has an extensive collection of specimens gathered from across the county.

The St. Lawrence County Rock & Mineral Club, which meets monthly in Canton, has weekend digs throughout the summer. A membership is inexpensive and without one many collecting sites cannot be accessed. The club’s webpage is


New York State Geological Survey,

St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce,



A Bitter Dispatch From Flanders Fields

First published: November 11, 2014 at 9:30 am
Last modified: November 11, 2014 at 9:33 am

Today is Veterans Day, Nov. 11; commemorated elsewhere in the English-speaking world as Remembrance Day or Armistice Day, even Poppy Day.

We mark Nov. 11 because the armistice ending World War One became effective the 11th day of the 11th month at 11th hour in 1918.

The name and day moved around the US calendar since first declared by President Wilson Nov. 11, 1919 until 1978 when Veterans Day officially returned to its celebratory date.

Veterans Day is associated with poppies, which the Veterans of Foreign Wars have sold since 1922. The funds now raised by the organization’s Buddy Poppy sales assist in maintaining state and national veterans’ rehabilitation and service programs, partially support the VFW National Home for Children and compensate veterans who assemble the poppies.

How then did poppies come to be associated with veterans?

December 1915 England’s Punch magazine published In Flanders Fields. Within months, the poem came to symbolize the bloody sacrifices of WWI.

Poppies were fixed in the public imagination by the first two lines.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row...

Lt. Col. John McCrae penned the famous verse in May 1915 while brigade-surgeon to the First Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, when a major and second-in-command near Ypres, Belgium.

McCrae, born in Guelph, Ont. in 1872, grew to maturity at the height of the British Empire. His firmly upper middle-class principled, spiritual Presbyterian upbringing and military connection stamped him for life. His father Lt. Col David McCrae commanded the local Militia artillery battery, which young McCrae joined at age 17.

At 16 a scholarship took him to the University of Toronto where he earned a B.A. in 1892. In 1898, McCrae received his Bachelor of Medicine and the gold medal from the medical school.

While pursuing his studies he became a gunner with Guelph’s Number 2 Battery in 1890, in 1891 Quarter-Master Sergeant, Second Lieutenant in 1893 and in 1896 Lieutenant. At university, he was promoted Captain in the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada.

He began writing poetry at the Guelph Collegiate Institute and sharpened his literary skills at university. Sixteen of his poems and several short stores were published at that time.

In 1899 the South Africa War postponed his pathology fellowship at Montreal’s McGill University. He commanded D Battery, his home town unit, in the Canadian Field Artillery. He was popular amongst the ranks and fellow officers. The care given the sick and wounded appalled him.

Back in Montreal in 1901 he joined the city’s Edwardian English-speaking elite, moving in familial establishment cliques: McGill, medicine and the Militia.

McCrae was a luminary in the medical field; first at McGill as a Governor’s Fellow in pathology, resident assistant pathologist and a researcher in the medical laboratories. His career advanced through a number of hospitals. He lectured in pathology at the University of Vermont and at McGill.

In 1904 he resigned as a major from the 1st Brigade of Artillery. That year he studied for several months in England becoming a member of the Royal College of Physicians. He wrote extensively on medical subjects, contributed to the 10-volume Osler’s Modern Medicine in 1909 and in 1912 co-authored a textbook on pathology.

His pride in the British Empire hadn’t wavered. He contributed to patriotic publications, wrote poetry and was a member of the Shakespearean Club and the Pen and Pencil Club. Despite his busy professional schedule, the eligible bachelor socialized with many friends and habitually attended St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church.

He shared imperialistic values with several associates, including Lord Grey, the Governor-General of Canada, whom McCrae accompanied as expedition physician on a canoe trip from Lake Winnipeg to Hudson’s Bay in 1910.

The declaration of war Aug. 4, 1914 drew him back into service. Through Lt. Col. Edward Morrison, a friend from the South Africa War, he was appointed major and brigade surgeon of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

The first battalions of the CEF arrived in France in Jan. 1915, fighting their first action at the Battle of Neuve Chappelle March 10-13. From there they moved into the Ypres Salient bulging into the German lines.

April 22 the Germans attacked, using chlorine gas for the first time. In the 17-day battle half his brigade died. April 24, the German objective marked the 6,034 Canadians; almost 2,000 died slowing the advance until British reinforcements came up.

Day and night McCrae tended the hundreds of wounded. Ghastly as this was, he went in search of his McGill friend and colleague Lt. Alexis Helmer. On retrieving the body, McCrae conducted the committal service in the absence of a clergyman. Poppies were blooming amongst the other graves.

This death amid the thousands no doubt incited John McCrae to write In Flanders Fields, although the words must surely have percolated in his poet’s mind for some time. The verse is a rondeau, a medieval French hymn form. No matter his genius, such words did not impulsively flow while the author sat on a wagon tailgate during a brief respite.

The intent of the three stanzas has been debated for 100 years. Many readers affect the sing-song recitation too often learned about poetry in grade school. This obscures the meaning. Consider the poem presented as three short paragraphs of 94 words in five sentences.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row, that mark our place; and in the sky the larks, still bravely singing, fly scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved, and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe: to you from failing hands we throw the torch, be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.

The poem reads like a brief news dispatch with the first paragraph, the lead, a provocative introduction to what follows, providing a few of the journalistic necessities-who, what, when, where and why. The second paragraph tells the essential news; we are the dead. The kicker, McCrae’s call to action, is the third paragraph.

At Ypres half his brigade rotted beneath their crosses. More than one-third of the initial commitment of Canadians to the line was dead or wounded. The desperate fight at the Ypres Salient was the Canadians’ second major battle in two months.

McCrae, the shattered imperialist, knew dying for one’s country was neither sweet nor glorious.

His military family, his hometown artillerists, his colleagues, friends and fellow Canadians lay slaughtered in the fetid mire.

With whatever remained of McCrae’s faith, In Flanders Fields appeals for reinforcements. Love, life and daily pleasures were stripped from the men sacrificed at the front. If help did not come, theirs deaths were in vain.

June 1915 the exhausted McCrae left his brigade for No.3 Canadian General Hospital as lieutenant-colonel in charge of medicine. Jan. 24, 1918 he was honored as consulting physician to the 1st British Army; the first Canadian so appointed. Four days later he succumbed to pneumonia and meningitis.

With full military honors, he took his place in Wimereux Cemetery.

Michael Whittaker resides in Bishop’s Mills, Ontario, and is a former member of the Fort La Presentation Association Board of Directors. He currently serves on the association’s marketing committee. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of the association


The Great Windfall Of 1845

First published: November 04, 2014 at 2:21 am
Last modified: November 04, 2014 at 2:21 am

Blame Canada. Every American knows bad weather blows in from Canada...most of the time.

The most extraordinary blow to descend on St. Lawrence County and the north country ripped through Sat., Sept. 20, 1845. Observers first recorded the peculiar storm effects at Cobourg, Canada West (Ontario), about midway between Toronto and Kingston. The worst of the documented weather along the roaring wind’s 200 mile course seems to have died somewhere east of Burlington, VT.

The purported tornado, known as the Great Windfall of 1845, tracked devastation across Northern New York.

Near noon that wild day a strange phenomenon disturbed the water of Lake Ontario. Witnesses in Cobourg saw an unheard of current flowing from the shore out into the lake. Soon the water returned to a height two feet above the usual level. The back and forth action continued into the evening on an eight-to-10-minute cycle.

To the west at Port Hope, the steamer Princess Royal could not enter the harbor. Waterspouts formed.

One mile east of Antwerp, in northwest Jefferson County, the storm struck at 3 p.m. as “a cloud of pitchy blackness from which vivid lightnings and deafening thunder incessantly proceeded, and the air was filled to a great height with materials carried up from the earth, and branches torn from the trees,” according to Durant and Pierce in their 1878 History of St. Lawrence County.

Little stood in the path of destruction–a gash through the forest from half-a-mile to a mile-and-a-half wide. Rain and hail hammered the area.

The storm struck Pitcairn, Fowler, Edwards and Streeter’s and Emmerson’s settlements before raging eastward. In Edwards the roof of a frame schoolhouse tore away without injuring the teacher or the students. Homes and barns were damaged or destroyed, but not a man, woman or child died.

Durant and Pierce wrote, “In the house of a Mr. Leonard were two women and five children, who took refuge in the cellar, and escaped harm, except that one was struck senseless by a piece of timber.

“In another house was a sick woman with a young child, and a nurse attending them. Frightened by the noise, the latter threw herself upon a bed, when the house was blown down, and one of the logs of which it was built fell across her and held her fast. She was relieved by the superhuman exertions of the invalid.”

Nearby a coal wagon drawn by a yoke of oxen had two trees crash upon the load without hurting the carter or his team. Large hail stones lacerated grazing cattle.

Along two paths the ferocious wind roared into the woodlands near the Franklin County line to emerge at Union Falls in Clinton County. Many buildings were reported wrecked, including a brick schoolhouse in Peru and two houses. The following lightning storm struck a church in Clintonville; many buildings were hit and some burned.

Before rushing across Lake Champlain at 6 p.m., the wind felled 15 or 20 buildings. Near Burlington barns toppled, and a house lost its roof.

The 1892 Annual Report of the New York Forest Commission noted the most visible forest destruction occurred about six miles north of Lake Massawepie. The lake in the town of Piercefield is 12 miles southwest of the village of Tupper Lake. Nearly 50 years after the storm, its route remained evident for 25 miles.

The Great Windfall left other marks on the geography of St. Lawrence County, place names. After the Civil War, the Windfall Road linked settlers from Cook Pond across the Grasse River to Sevey Corners and into Franklin County. Inviting as it may have been, the land was not fertile and the homesteads abandoned one by one.

In Adirondack Canoe Waters, North Flow, Paul F. Jamieson wrote the course of the great storm is marked by the largely uninhabited Windfall Road, Windfall House at Sevey, three Windfall Brooks, two Windfall Ponds and the Windfall Club at Cook Corners.

The forest reclaimed its own. The broken and uprooted woodlands of 1845, much burned off by settlers in the late 1860s, has left the most marginal traces on the landscape.

The Great Windfall may have been a derecho, a long-lived windstorm associated with thunderstorms, following a straight course. Increasing in strength behind the front, the sustained winds often exceed hurricane force.

July 14-15, 1995 a derecho on a course similar to the 1845 storm swept southeast 800 miles from the Strait of Mackinac to Cape Cod. Peak winds often exceeding 100 mph caused about $500 million in damages, killed seven people, injured dozens and trashed nearly one-million acres of Adirondack forest.

The Great Windfall of 1845 is thought by some to have been more powerful.

Additional sources: Emmons, E. & Osborn, A.: American Quarterly Journal of Agriculture and Science, Vol. III. (J. Munsell, Albany. 1846)

About Derechos. NOAA-NWS-NCEP Storm Prediction Center web site,

Michael Whittaker resides in Bishop’s Mills, Ontario, and is a former member of the Fort La Presentation Association Board of Directors. He currently serves on the association’s marketing committee. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of the association


New City Historian For The Digital Age

First published: October 28, 2014 at 2:23 pm
Last modified: October 28, 2014 at 2:27 pm

In 1919 the State of New York still buzzed with pride a decade after commemorating 300 years of economic and social development since Henry Hudson first sailed up the river now bearing his name.

In the victorious wake of WWI and keen to preserve New York’s history and heritage, the legislature mandated every city, town or village to have an official historian. The unenforceable regulation, unique in the United States, requires city mayors or managers appoint historians to undertake the job without financial reward.

Thus we have the new City of Ogdensburg Historian Julie Breen Madlin approved by council on Mayor William Nelson’s motion Sept. 8, 2014.

Ms. Madlin, as the mayor indicated in his motion, has the responsibility to preserve and interpret the City of Ogdensburg’s past, research, write and teach, preserve historic documents, artifacts and buildings and for tourism promotion. And there is more.

A daunting set of tasks for a part-time and unpaid position, but without a doubt she is more than capable of the challenges.

Ms. Madlin, a 1985 OFA grad, graduated from Syracuse University with a B.A. cum laude in history in Dec. 1988 and earned a Master of Science in Teaching (Social Studies 7-12) from SUNY Potsdam in 1990.

The Ogdensburg native of Irish and French Canadian descent began her career at the Ogdensburg Public Library as a genealogist and archivist.

“The library enabled me to get training in archival science,” she said. “I was also a volunteer genealogist for St. Mary’s Cathedral and Notre Dame Church.”

She has since taught for 24 years with 19 years as a grade 7 and 8 social studies teacher at Heuvelton Central School.

“I have used local history resources for many years in my classes. Students read letters written by Louis Hasbrouck during the War of 1812 and letters written by Civil War soldiers,” Ms. Madlin noted. “Local historians have visited to share primary sources and how to do research.”

Her students have researched and completed family trees and brought in family foods and recipes. They have visited the Remington Museum.

“I was 20 years old before I knew there was a fort in Ogdensburg,” she said. “How can we expect kids to love history if they don’t know their own?”

She couldn’t believe no one had taught her anything about where she lived and really believed nothing happened here. Fortunately she found her grandfather’s copy of A History of the City of Ogdensburg by the Rt. Rev. P. S. Garand, which she couldn’t put down.

For more than five years she has had a solid connection to the Fort La Présentation Association, a connection that began when she composed a song about Fort de La Présentation, which she used with her students and sang at church.

Former fort association board member and retired teacher Marsha Hough who taught next door brought her into the fold.

“After joining the board I was asked to develop a curriculum to go along with an educational kit about the French and Indian War purchased with a grant from AT&T,” she said. “I also developed lessons and materials for use in my own classroom, which I shared with other teachers.”

The board decided to offer a Living History Day that she helped plan and implement, and she is the liaison between BOCES, the school districts and the fort association. Each year more than 300 students are served by this program held on the fort association’s property on Van Renssselaer Point.

“As city historian I would like to make history more accessible for everyone” she said. “Prior historians Elizabeth Baxter and Persis Boyesen have done a ton of research that is just waiting for people to discover.”

Ms. Madlin believes technology will make this possible. She cited QR codes, which read by smart phones allow users to watch movies, listen to podcasts, view pictures, go on scavenger hunts and more.

Movies about historic homes, notable people, and important events can be posted to YouTube. Podcasts can be broadcast over the Internet. Twitter, Facebook, and blogging will also let people know about Ogdensburg’s rich history.

She has made two movies about the John Fine House, 324 Caroline St., which are on YouTube.

She created a blog and Twitter account Ogdensburg History

Not two months on the job and she is addressing the council’s expectations to research and develop content for the City’s digital initiative to create an interactive, mobile-friendly website and a series of apps to engage the public in the study of local history.

With more than 250 years of recorded history, Ogdensburg has rich resources for Ms. Madlin to explore and share.

Michael Whittaker resides in Bishop’s Mills, Ontario, and is a former member of the Fort La Presentation Association Board of Directors. He currently serves on the association’s marketing committee. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of the association


I’m On My Way To Canada Where Colored Men Are Free

First published: October 21, 2014 at 2:10 am
Last modified: October 21, 2014 at 2:11 am

The northward push of the Underground Railroad through eastern New York split around the Adirondacks secreting its passengers to Ogdensburg, a known destination to get to Canada.

Most traveled the Champlain Line; some came by the Utica Mail route on the Black River trail.

Ogdensburg at the narrowest point on the St. Lawrence above the Long Sault Rapids connected to English-speaking Canada by ferry. Canada West, known as Upper Canada from 1791 to 1841, offered sanctuary.

Slavery brought to Upper Canada by the Loyalists after the American Revolution offended Col. John Graves Simcoe, the colony’s first Lieutenant-Governor, who had served in the southern colonies during the war.

His limited, but much opposed, 1792 legislation decreed slaves would remain so for life, no new slaves could be brought into Upper Canada, and children born after passage of the act would be freed at age 25. This act, first in the British Empire to limit slavery, stood until superseded by the Emancipation Act by the Parliament of Great Britain, which in 1833 abolished slavery in British holdings.

Perhaps in recognition of their War of 1812 service, the attorney general of Upper Canada declared in 1819 that by residing in Canada people of African descent were set free, and the courts would protect their freedom.

That year, President James Monroe’s administration requested the return of former slaves from Canada to Tennessee. The official British reply delivered in Washington: “The Negroes have by their residence in Canada, become free…and should any attempt be made to infringe upon this right of freedom, these Negroes would have it in their power to compel the interference of the courts of law for their protection.”

The first trickle toward freedom had begun. In the words of an abolitionist song:

I’m on my way to Canada

That cold and distant land

The dire effects of slavery

I can no longer stand –

Farewell, old master,

Don’t come after me.

I’m on my way to Canada

Where colored men are free.

Although Canada was not without racial prejudice, an estimated 30,000 people found refuge between 1800 and 1860, some guesstimates run as high as 100,000.

In 1837 a report in American anti-slavery newspapers recounted the story of an unnamed man who had escaped slavery to make his way through Clinton and Franklin Counties to St. Lawrence County heading to Ogdensburg and freedom in Canada.

Some 30 miles from Ogdensburg, he took work for a few days. A passing mail stage carried a wanted notice for the man who pleaded with his employer not to turn him over to the law. With a loaf of bread in hand, he was directed on the 15-mile route to the St. Lawrence.

The St. Lawrence County Anti-Slavery Society formed in Potsdam Aug. 15, 1836. A house in Spencerville, Ont. a few miles northeast of Prescott may have been a destination for freedom seekers conducted through St. Lawrence County by Presbyterians, Baptists and Wesleyans who were particularly active in the anti-slavery movement.

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Law upped the ante for abolitionists. Officials who did not arrest fugitives were subject to $1,000 fines, while entitled to a bonuses or promotions for making arrests. Persons were to be arrested on a claimant’s sworn affidavit, and suspected runaways had no legal protection. Providing food or shelter was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.

Safe houses dotted the route to the St. Lawrence River. The station owners along the Underground Railroad, being subject to federal prosecution, did not publicly advertise themselves. The best documented is the home of Myron Cushman on Rock Island Street in Gouverneur.

Research by De Kalb historian Bryan Thompson also connects the abolitionist movement to the Noah Webster house in South Hammond and the Calvin Hulburd house in Brasher. Known but demolished are the Red Brick Tavern in Gouverneur and the Liberty Knowles house in Potsdam. In Morley there is the Wesleyan Methodist parsonage. The abolitionist society met at churches in West Potsdam and Bucks Bridge.

Many in the anti-slavery movement may have been inspired by the Second Great Awakening, the Protestant revival movement that grew rapidly after 1820 among Baptists and Methodists. They had kindred spirits across the St. Lawrence. Methodism rooted in Augusta Township, sowed by the Loyalist Heck family exiled from New York City.

A connection exists between the Augusta Methodists and the abuses suffered by free men and women in New York. Samuel Bass grew up in a family that eschewed alcohol and abhorred slavery. About 1840 he left his wife and four daughters for a succession of carpentry jobs south of the border, arriving eventually in Louisiana. His wife, he allegedly said, was of such temper as to preclude any man from living with her.

The heart of the tale is in the movie ‘12 Years a Slave.’ Brad Pitt portrays Sam Bass, the man who strove successfully to free Solomon Northrup lured into slavery from Saratoga. The Grenville County Historical Society in Prescott holds Bass family records.

From Ogdensburg to Cape Vincent, the flight to freedom ended with a short voyage across the St. Lawrence. In Augusta there may have been a community of free families originating with the Loyalist migration. By far the largest influx of freedom seekers crossed the Niagara and Detroit Rivers.

Harriet Tubman led numerous trips guiding southern slaves to St. Catharine’s, Ont. at the western end of Lake Ontario. A schoolteacher from Dresden, Ont., Josiah Henson, served in the Civil War. Henson’s flight from Maryland before the war inspired abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The sentimental novel published in 1852 receives some credit for instigating the Civil War.


Bryan Thompson, Town of De Kalb Historian. Personal communications

North Underground Railroad Association; St. Lawrence County. Bryan Thompson.

North Country Was Key Stop On Underground Railroad. Jimmy Lawton. Watertown Daily Times, Oct. 25, 2011.

Historian Shares Abolitionist-Movement Research. Martha Ellen. Watertown Daily Times, Jan 22, 2010.

Canada’s Black Freedom Fighters. Bill Twatio. National Post, Feb. 14, 2012,

Canadian Connection to 12 Years a Slave has Descendents Buzzing. Cassandra Szklarski. National Post, Nov. 14, 2013.

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