Lafayette’s Farewell Tour: The Natural Wonder Of Niagara Falls, Goat Island, And Lewiston

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Judge Porter’s Second Bridge To Goat Island source: Robinson, Charles M., “Life of Judge Augustus Porter,” Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society Vol VII, Buffalo, 1904, p.276

Another day, another carriage. Another carriage, another bumpy ride. And the road from Tonnewanta to Manchester took a slow, lazy curve following the east fork of the Niagara River as it arcs around Grand Island. Today, driving from Tonawanda to Niagara Falls—the names that have since replaced those 1825 names—would take about twenty-five minutes. But during the time of Lafayette’s tour, it took much longer. And the ride was definitely not as smooth.

The fleet of canal boats arrived in Tonnewanta (today, Tonawanda) at noon on Friday, June 5, 1825. As he had now become accustomed to, the French guest was greeted by far more people than lived in this small hamlet. Very quickly, however, a convoy of carriages and horses departed for Manchester. It wasn’t until two o’clock that Lafayette’s party could be seen on the main road heading into the future city of Niagara Falls.

Waiting for him were the citizens of that village of 1,807. They gathered in front of the Eagle Hotel. Originally a thirty or forty square foot log cabin, it was one of three buildings that survived the British flames of 1814. It’s owner, General Parkhurst Whitney, built an addition that allowed him to open it as the first hotel in 1815.1  During the Battle of Chippewa in 1813, Whitney had been captured by the British while carrying a dispatch to the American commander at Queenston Heights. He was later released in a prisoner exchange.2 From POW to local luminary, Whitney was about to greet a hero of the American Revolution. He could barely contain his joy.

One story of Lafayette’s arrival in Manchester reports that, as he approached his destination, he could hear a band playing music to greet him. His ride slowed to a stop outside the Eagle Hotel. The building’s hewn oak log walls only added to the rustic character of the frontier Lafayette was travelling through. Suddenly, the door to his carriage unexpectedly swung open with gusto. There, outside the door, stood owner and proprietor Whitney. The burly man reached in with his arms to scoop up his guest. With Lafayette’s feet dangling in the air, Parkhurst proceeded to carry him into the hotel. While Whitney no doubt considered this a most appropriate gesture, there’s some question whether Lafayette shared this view.3

Indeed, Levasseur’s account of the event leaves little to question. He writes rather curtly, “Full of an impatience that may readily be conceived, we abridged as much as possible, the duration of a public dinner, of which we were obliged to partake on arriving.”4 Remember, Levasseur wrote this in French, the “diplomatic” language. To be as blunt as he was leaves one to wonder how well Whitney’s stunt was received.

Not that Whitney picked up on any of this. Years later, (more than seventy, to be precise), his son still spoke of Lafayette’s visit to his father’s hotel in the most glowing of terms. Solon Whitney, who was only eight years old at the time, said Parkhurst Whitney, with all the bluster one could imagine might come from a major general in the state militia, proudly introduced Lafayette to the many guests that gathered in his ballroom. He even escorted the Nation’s guest to his next stop. (Solon followed riding his pony.)5

Perhaps Levasseur was being a bit harsh. After all, it was much later revealed that Lafayette, so impressed with Parkhurst’s hospitality (or perhaps feeling guilty for displaying “an impatience that may readily be conceived”), sent the hotelier a pewter chandelier from France.6

The original log cabin may have survived the burning of the settlements along the Niagara River when the British crossed the border in 1813. The hotel, under a new name, would itself fall victim to fire in 1918. So large was the fire that it threatened to consume the entire business block. Ironically, Canadian fire companies crossed the border to help stymie the blaze and protect those other buildings.7

Parkhurst bought the nearby Cataract Hotel across the street (initially to handle overflow from the Eagle Hotel). He ended up selling the Eagle Hotel in 1835. The good news is he moved Lafayette’s gift to the Cataract. He even built a new extension and placed the pewter chandelier in the River Boat Room within that addition. Unfortunately, in 1945 that hotel was also destroyed by fire. The bad news is that the fire started in that new wing that housed Lafayette’s pewter chandelier.8

In either case, by 3:30 PM Lafayette and crew were about to experience possibly the biggest highlight of their tour through Western New York. They came to Judge Augustus Porter’s home. Coincidentally, they had just come from his brother Peter’s house earlier that morning. While they might have been impressed with the European-designed mansion that Augustus built to replace his first house that was burned by the British, it was what was beyond the house that really left an indelible mark.

There, in front of their eyes, lay Augustus’ prize: Goat Island. He had struggled for years to acquire it. When he finally obtained the island, he built the first bridge to it. That didn’t last, so he learned from his mistakes and built a second bridge. Stronger. Steadier. Superior in every way.

Once again, we need to trust Levasseur’s words on this: “The sight of the bridge which leads to this island, called Goat Island, admirably prepares the mind for the contemplation of the imposing scene that presents itself, and gives a nigh idea of the boldness and skill of those who constructed it. Built on a bed of rocks, whose numerous points are elevated above the water, and by opposing the current only increase its violence, its wooden pillars are agitated by a continued vibration, which seems to announce that the moment approaches when it will give way and be precipitated in the abyss; some minutes after having passed the bridge we found ourselves in presence of the great fall.”9

So in awe of the nature before him, Lafayette spent more time in the tranquil white noise of the rushing current and roaring falls than he did at the Eagle Hotel dinner. He embraced the warm solitude of the natural beauty around him. When it was time to leave, he hesitated. Sensing this, Porter told Lafayette he would soon put the island up for sale. The French general inquired as to the asking price. “$1,000,” said Porter. With a sigh, Lafayette left, wondering what it would have been like if France wasn’t so far away.10

At five thirty they were on the road again, this time heading to Lewiston. Once again, they’d snake along the Niagara River. This time, however, they wouldn’t travel abreast of the current. No, they’d experience the amazing vista of the Niagara Gorge. When he finally finished the roughly eight-mile journey, he arrived at Lewiston. He alit from his carriage with a face of astonishment upon seeing nearly all of the more than twelve hundred residents waiting to greet him. The newspaper reporting the event said he confessed he felt as if he were “at home.”11

He had only one more item on his to-do list for this day. The good folks of Lewiston had arranged for a reception in the west parlor of Thomas Kelsey’s Tavern in the center of town. Built around 1820 to replace another tavern burnt by the British, it appeared as a modest two-story home with clapboard siding.12

In fact, it served as both a family home and a tavern. One story says, when Lafayette saw Martha Kelsey, Thomas’ eight-year-old daughter, he kissed her on both cheeks. It’s said he also embraced Tuscarora Indian Chief Nicholas Cusick on the steps of the building. Cusick had been one of his scouts during the war. After the reception, he had his evening meal and slept in the best bedroom at the front of the building.13

Then it was off to a quiet sleep—the first one in many nights. Tomorrow would start early but involve only two stops. One would look back in time. The other to a future that would awe Lafayette.

Next Week: Riding The Ridge (Road)

1 A History of the City of Buffalo and Niagara Falls, The Times, Buffalo, NY, 1896, p. 322
2 Ibid. p. 347
3 “History Pages in a Hotel Register; Recollections of the Cataract House,” Buffalo Evening News, Saturday, October 20, 1945, p. 13
4 Levasseur, André-Nicolas, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825, Volume II, John D. Godman translation, Philadelphia, Carey and Lea, 1829, p. 188
5 “More Recollections of 1825,” The Buffalo Commercial, Thursday, June 17, 1897, p. 12
6 “General Alarm Sounded For Cataract Fire,” Buffalo Courier Express, Monday, October 15, 1945, p. 7
7 Famous Hotel Destroyed at Niagara Falls,” Oswego NY Daily Times, Thursday, January 3, 1918, p.1
8 “General Alarm Sounded For Cataract Fire,” Buffalo Courier Express, Monday, October 15, 1945, p. 7
9 Levasseur, p. 188
10 Ibid, p. 190
11 “The Progress of La Fayette,” Albany Argus, Tuesday, June 14, 1825, p.2
12 Taussig, Ellen, “Lewiston’s Kelsey-Hall House Once Welcomed Gen. Lafayette,” Buffalo Evening News, Saturday, August 10, 1963, p.7
13 Ibid.


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