Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Interior of old Tavern

Interior of the Jerome Tavern on Mohawk Turnpike at St. Johnsville. By Rufus Grider.

Owego & Bath Mail Stage

[Owego Gazette, August 24, 1819]

Auburn and Ithaca Stagecoach

[From the New York Spectator, May 16, 1826]

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Story of Cayuga Bridge

This is all that remained of the old toll house on the west side of Cayuga Lake in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of Bill Hecht

The Famous Cayuga Lake Bridge
By Seneca County Historian Wayne Gable
   Few today are likely to know that at one time the bridge spanning Cayuga Lake near the north end was the longest bridge in the Western Hemisphere. The story of this Cayuga Lake Bridge helps to explain much of the early growth of Seneca County as well as western New York.
    Following the American Revolution, there was an influx of white settlers into what is Seneca County as well as places further west—the so-called Genesee area. One major route was the Genesee turnpike road through Auburn to Cayuga Lake where ferry boats would then carry settlers and goods across the lake to where the road continued. It was quickly realized that a bridge spanning the lake would provide a much faster flow of goods and people.
    On March 28, 1797, the State Legislature incorporated the Cayuga Bridge Company to build such a bridge. Work began in May 1799 and was completed September 4, 1800. The wooden bridge was 5,412 feet long, making it the longest bridge in the western hemisphere up to that time. The bridge was wide enough to allow three wagons abreast. At the eastern terminus of the bridge (where Cayuga, NY is today) were a tavern kept by Hugh Buckley and the first jail in Cayuga County. The Western terminus, aptly known as Bridgeport, had a toll house where the toll fee for use of the bridge was collected.
    The bridge’s success was immediate but short-lived. Built on mudsills rather than post pilings, the defective construction made it susceptible to ice and lake currents. The harsh winter of 1807 led to its collapse in 1808. For the next several years travelers were dependent again upon a ferry until a second bridge was completed September 28, 1813.
   The Cayuga Bridge had major competition, however, within a few years. In 1825, a new bridge—known as the Free Bridge--was built through the Montezuma Marshes just north of the lake. This bridge got its name because it was not the toll bridge about 6 miles to the south. An even greater competition, however, also came with the completion of the Seneca-Cayuga Canal in 1816 and the entire Erie Canal in 1825. Moving heavy goods by water was much cheaper than over land and bridge. One source says that road transport of goods at that time would cost $88 a ton, but use of the canal lowered costs to $22.50 a ton.
   Perhaps at least partially to meet the competition of the Free Bridge route and the canals, a third Cayuga Bridge was built in 1833. This third bridge was built just north of the second bridge that was still usable. Tolls over this third bridge were 10 shillings ($1.25) for a carriage with 4 horses, 8 shillings for 2 horses, and 2 or 3 cents a head for each hog. Toll revenues varied from $300 to $500 daily. Railroad competition became very great after 1841. This new bridge was sold by the bridge company in 1853, although some limited use continued. When the bridge was finally abandoned about 1858, a Mr. Scoby of Union Springs bought the timber of the bridge for $450. It is reported that many buildings in Union Springs and Cayuga were built from these timbers.
   Interestingly in both 1929 and 1930 the New York State Legislature passed bills authorizing the construction of a modern highway bridge over the ancient route of the Cayuga Bridge. Opposition from the Finger Lakes Association, however, prompted Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt to veto both bills. One can only speculate how different things might be today had such a new modern bridge have been built. Nevertheless, the contribution of the early Cayuga Lake bridges to the early settlement of Western New York cannot be denied.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Packet and the Stagecoach

A romanticized cutaway sketch of an early Erie Canal packet boat.

(Syracuse Journal, September 18, 1891)

Fashionable Travel Sixty Years Ago
The Champlain Canal and the Red
            Bird Line of Stages
  [From The Spirit of the Times of Batavia]

   The present generation have little idea of the way in which the rapid transit by canal was conducted. The packet was a boat about the length of our largest canal boats of present date, but narrower - her bow built with some attempt at easy draught. Three horses in single file trotted on the tow-path, dragging the boat by a line of canal boats are now drawn.
  The cabin of the packet had lockers, used as seats, along both sides, and at night they were converted into berths, with another row above, not unlike the arrangement of a modern sleeping car. A kitchen was part of the equipment and the table was set lengthwise of the cabin. In pleasant weather most of the passengers sat on deck daytimes and moonlight evenings. A bowman was stationed on the front of the packet to give warning of bridges and other matters.
  At the cry of "low bridge" every passenger instinctively ducked his head in order to not get knocked "into the drink." The expression "into the drink" was so common that nobody thought of it as slang, nor was it used in a slangy way in which we now say "in the soup," but simply as a commonplace expression of the idea of falling into the water.
  As these packets met or overtook other boats a regular rule as to the right of way was expected to be carried out. When a packet overtook a slower-moving boat, if necessary, the latter was hailed by the bowman of the packet and was expected to veer off towards the heel path and let the fast boat pass on the tow path side, the team of the forward boat stopping on the outside of the tow path, letting its tow-line sink to the bottom of the canal, so that the passing boat would go over it, and the team of the passing boat would also pass over that part of the line that rested in the towpath. The 
 The rule was generally observed without trouble as between packets and freight boats, but when two packets of opposition lines got to racing for the next lock, an amount of scientific boating took place, compared with which a modern yacht race is a tame affair.
 When the bowsman of the rear boat shouted to the helmsman of the leading boat for right of way, he was generally asked to reply whether he would take it now or wait until he could get it. That settled the question of preliminaries. It meant a race. The driver of the rear team was told to put them through, and the leading driver with an the over his right shoulder, also cracked his whip and the race began. If the rear team could gain ground so that the bow of the over king boat was likely to strike the stern of the forward boat, the helmsman of the later, sometimes considering discretion the better part, would put his boat to the left and call on his driver to halt. 
   But if it determined to keep the lead at all hazards he called an assistant with a pike or fender to ward off the stroke of the rear boat. If the bow of the latter came against the front boat, and the helmsman of the latter still kept his in the way, so that both teams drew the front boat, the second stage of the controversy was settled. That meant a backdown by the rear boat or else war.
  If the later, the bowman of the rear boat called upon his crew and sprang upon the towpath, where he seized the leading team unless prevented by the other boat's crew. No football march of today compared with the struggle that followed. The driver of the leading team did his best to keep them moving, but if the rear boat so as to get up alongside and let the rear team overtake the other, unless the driver of the other halted his team and pulled to the outside of the tow path, thus giving up the race, the overtaking team would pass him on the outside and sweep his horses "into the drink" with the tow-line.
   Generally the dispute was decided before the team got drawn into the water but a good many teams have had to swim for it, nevertheless. Similar struggles often occurred at the locks when two boat entering the jaw at the same moment, one crew would attempt to draw back the rival boat. Capt. Jim Gandall, alluded to the above, was noted for carrying a picked crew "very skillful in navigation."
   The packet drivers and stage drivers of that section of the country were a rare set of characters. They are nearly all dead now, but I think at least among them- the old -time trainer and driver of the pacer Pocahontas, and many other good horses - Otis W. Dimmick, is still living somewhere in Ohio. He perhaps never drove on the Comstock line of stages, between Troy and Whitehall, but he was on some of the connecting lines. The stages used in those days wee of the old-fashioned mail coach pattern, hung on thorough braces. 
  When fully loaded they were very comfortable, but woe betide the single passenger that rocked and jolted within them as they swung along over the ups and downs and "thank-you-marms" of the roads of that day. Splendidly team and equipped was the Red Bird Line of coaches, and each stage as it came and went was an object of absorbing interest to everybody. The drivers were known by name to every man, woman and child along the whole route. Their comparative skill in driving and the use of the whip was canvassed and discussed as a subject of the weightiest importance.
   A whip in those days was a subject of great study. The stalk was of straight grained hickory, worked down to the nicest calculation, so as to bring the elasticity at the right point. The lash was put on with a loop and hung and hung slack from the tip of the stalk. The braiding of the lash was also a matter of weight. The belly must be just at the right point. When scientifically rigged, the precision with which a skillfully hand could use it was marvelous. 
  The boast that Joel Sullivan could pick a fly off the nigh leader's ear without ruffling a hair was hardly an extravagance. It was a poor hand that could not cut a "button hole" in the skin of an apple set on the top of a post as a target by cracking his whip at it. I wonder what one of those old drivers would think of the modern whip with its bow top, which fashion indicates shall be grasped something like a foot and half from the butt.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Nellis Tavern at St. Johnsville

The Nellis Tavern along Route 5 at St. Johnsville, Montgomery County, New York,  is a historic inn and tavern built about 1750 as a farmhouse and expanded about 1790 to its present form. It is a two-story, five-by-two-bay frame residence constructed atop a coursed rubblestone foundation. After the coming of the railroad in 1836 the tavern business along the old Mohawk Turnpike declined and the building became a private residence. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. It was restored and is owned and operated as a museum by the Palatine Settlement Society. For further information go to www.palatinesettlementsociety.org and threerivershms.com/nellistavern2.htm