Lafayette’s Farewell Tour: Fort Niagara And The Man-Made Wonder Of Lockport

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Previous: Riding The Ridge (Road)

The Erie Canal overtakes the Niagara Escarpment at the Five Flights in Lockport. Source: History of Niagara County, Sanford & Co, New York, p.164

Monday, June 6, 1825, began bright and early all across Niagara County. Excitement, anticipation, and the coming relief following a job well done swirled in the mnds of many. For the young, it presented a chance to build memories that would last a lifetime (whether or not they are true). For the old, the day meant the culmination of a grand adventure in coordination, dedication, and ultimately respect for an older generation. For that older generation, their thoughts delighted in remembering the glories of their past.

So, yes, Monday, June 6, 1825, began bright and early.

At Fort Niagara, Major Alexander Ramsay Thompson, with his officers and their wives, rose early to prepare for a proper breakfast banquet.

In the town of Cambria on the Ridge road, William Howell woke early to make sure everything in his tavern was in order for the meeting of the two local committees escorting Lafayette.

Just south of Howell, John Gould readied his Red Tavern for yet another meeting of escorts.

Lockport was abuzz. Like many other small villages on Lafayette’s itinerary, it seemed like the entire population of 3,007 people were part of the set-up committee. Alfred Barritt woke up knowing he’d be the one to lead his brothers and companions in ceremonies that were destined to rank as the biggest in their lives. Col. Asher B. Saxton, the rugged Revolutionary War veteran, groomed his horse for the day’s long ride which he would lead. Stephen Van Rensselaer got up knowing it was now his turn to perform the same task fellow canal commissioner William C. Bouck performed at Black Rock.

Finally, in Lewiston, the impetus for all these early risers himself rose early. Thomas Kelsey made sure of that, although he probably didn’t have to. Lafayette and his crew were well accustomed to the rigors of their ambitious schedule.

At 5 o’clock in the morning, General Lafayette bid adieu to Kelsey’s Tavern. He was quickly on his way to breakfast with Major Thompson (or “Thomson,” as Lavasseur incorrectly calls him). The major commanded the garrison at Fort Niagara, having been placed there only a month before. He and his men had been moving from frontier fort to frontier fort the past year. Their mission: repair old forts or establish new forts.1 They were the janitors of the army and they were about to meet a military legend.

In a way, it was a homecoming for Lafayette.

The Fort Niagara Lafayette would soon visit represented the third attempt by New France to build a fortress at the mouth of the Niagara River. The French meant to use the edifice to protect their interests on both the River and Lake Ontario. It didn’t quite work out for them, but the site of his countrymen’s handicraft must have pleased Lafayette.

Thompson and his officers met Lafayette’s party in advance of the Fort itself. As they entered the compound, the troops stationed there greeted them with an 18-gun salute from the long eighteens. Guests and hosts then sat down for breakfast.2 Officers, their wives assisting, provided the entertainment. But Lafayette was on the clock and he had to cut his visit short.3 After a quick view of the lake from the lighthouse, it was back on the road. By 10 o’clock he was on his way to Lockport.4

Some reports suggest Parkhurst Whitney provided his carriage for the ride to Lockport, with his ten-year-old son Solon following on his pony.5 As these reports came out years after the event and don’t appear in any contemporary reporting, we’ll leave it to the reader to decide if they can be taken at face value. That being said, there was a “Whitney” listed in the June 6, 1825 meeting minutes for the Ames Royal Arch Chapter’s meeting with Lafayette in Lockport.6

Of course, that might have been “Warham Whitney” from Rochester, who became a member of Hamilton Royal Arch Mason, number 62 on February 1, 1819.7 Warham Whitney served two terms as a trustee of the Village of Rochester8 prior to Lafayette’s visit and may very well have been part of the delegation sent to convey the General from Lockport to Rochester.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Based on what you know about Western New York topography, note how Levasseur described what happened next. “On a height near Lockport we met a troop of from seventy to eighty citizens on horseback…”9 That “height” refers to the “Ridge” upon which they travelled. The stop was at William Howell’s Tavern and the horsemen were led there by none other than Col. Asher B. Saxton.

It’s at Howell’s Tavern that we find another of these “oh, by the way” stories involving then young people only telling the story in their older years. This one involves Howell’s daughter Harriet. Said to be between 10-12 at the time of Lafayette’s visit, the story goes the General took a liking to her and while all the other men sated themselves with adult beverages, he asked young Harriet to share her lemonade with him.10

Harriet may have told this story a time or two, but when she gave her family’s migration story to Sanford & Co for its 1878 edition of the History of Niagara County, there was no mention of lemonade. Or Lafayette for that matter. In fact, it said she was sixty-nine years old, meaning (if she was that age in 1878), she would have been born in 1809. When Lafayette visited in 1825, she would have been sweet sixteen. Furthermore, the story as printed in that volume says she was married in December 1824 – before Lafayette’s visit.11 You do the math. It kind of makes you wonder if there really was lemonade that day.

Almost immediately after leaving Howell’s Tavern the convoy left the Ridge road, heading south on what is today Route 425. After hanging left on Lower Mountain Road, they made a quick stop at Gould’s Red Tavern. There “old people remember seeing Lafayette standing in the west room, greeted by all ages and both sexes, the landlord’s animated bearing showing his appreciation of being honored by so distinguished a guest.”12

From there, it was a straight shot into the Village of Lockport. As they entered the village, before them loomed an ominous rock wall. Seemingly impenetrable, it screamed “Halt!” to all those who graced its presence. This was the famed Niagara Escarpment. It stood as the greatest challenge to the engineers building the Erie Canal.

But it was far from impenetrable.

The eyes of French visitors continued to gaze in awe at this natural edifice. Suddenly, a tremendous explosion occurred in the rocks above them. Shattered fragments of the Niagara Escarpment rained down from the ensuing cloud of dust. The workmen had set up a series of powder-infused explosives that all ignited at the same time. This, together with the constant sound of the hatchet and the hammer, spoke to the industriousness of this young community.13

Levasseur describes what immediately followed this display of pyrotechnics:

“Our carriages stopped opposite to an arch of green branches, and General Lafayette was conducted to a platform, where he had the satisfaction of being welcomed by one of his old fellow soldiers, the venerable Stephen Van Rensselaer, now president of the board of canal commissioners. After having been officially presented to the deputation from Monroe county, as well as to a great number of citizens, we sat down to a public dinner, presided over by Colonel Asher Saxton, at the end of which the general, induced by the feelings awakened in him by the sight of so many wonders, gave the following toast: “To Lockport and the county of Niagara—they contain the greatest wonders of art and nature, prodigies only to be surpassed by those of liberty and equal rights.”14

The dinner occurred at the Washington House on the corner of Main and Transit. Before they could leave Lockport, General Lafayette, his son, and Levasseur were hosted by the Ames Chapter No. 88 Royal Arch Masons in their Masonic Temple. Although that event was held in private, the minutes of that meeting became public decades later. Here they are:

“An extra communication of Ames Chapter, No. 88, was held at the Masonic Hall in Lockport on the 6th June, A. L. *5825, pursuant to special notice to the companions.
Present—Companions Alfred Barritt, M.E.W.P.; H. Gardner, King; S. Scoville, Scribe; Ladd, Tyler, P.T., and Companions Ganson, Bounds, Brown, Draper, Pomeroy, Judd, Parks, Gooding, Maynard, Danone, Taylor, Wright, Turner, Shepard, Haigh, and Haines, and visiting Companions Rochester, Weed, Whitney, Cobb, Armstrong, and Whitmore, and opened in the Royal Arch degree for the dispatch of business.
Resolved. That a committee be appointed to introduce our worthy friend and companion, Gen. La Fayette, whereupon companions Kind and Rochester were appointed for that purpose, who retired and introduced and presented him to the Grand Council and to the Companions, who welcomed him by a short address from Companion Rochester.
Resolved. That another committee be appointed to introduce the son of Companion La Fayette, vix., Companion George Washington Lafayette, and Companion Bond, Whitney, and Millard were appointed as said committee, who retired and introduced the same, together with the General’s private secretary, who were respectively presented to the Grand Council and to the Companions.
Minutes read and accepted, and chapter closed in due form.
Joel M. Parks, Secretary”15

* A.D. 1825

Once they concluded their meeting, the Masons led Lafayette to the basin above the unfinished five flights of locks. At 7 o’clock they boarded a packet boat “much more convenient and better provided with the comforts of life than could have been supposed.”16

On that slow boat to Rochester, they had probably the best night’s sleep in Western New York.

Too good a sleep if you ask the horde of people unfortunately waiting for them at King’s Basin outside their next stop.

Next Week: Remembering Silvius Hoard

1 Klements,  Elizabeth, “Alexander Ramsey Thompson (1793–1837),” Veterans Legacy Program, The University of Central Florida & the National Cemetery Administration [retrieved June 10, 2024]
2 “The Progress of La Fayette,” Albany Argus, Tuesday, June 14, 1825, p.2
3 Levasseur, André-Nicolas, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825, Volume II, John D. Godman translation, Philadelphia, Carey and Lea, 1829, p. 190-191
4 “The Progress of La Fayette”
5 A History of the City of Buffalo and Niagara Falls, The Times, Buffalo, NY, 1896, p. 346
6 “Lafayette in Lockport,” The New York Times, Tuesday, May 8, 1883, p.5
7 O’Reilly, Henry, Settlement in the West, Sketches of Rochester, William Ailing, Rochester, 1838 p. 382-383
8 Ibid., p. 184
9 Levasseur, p. 191
10 Lewis, Clarence O., “Howell Tavern One of Oldest,” Niagara Falls, Gazette, Wednesday, April 2, 1969, p. 37
11 History of Niagara County, Sanford & Co, New York, 1878, p. 229
12 Ibid., p. 231
13 Levasseur, p. 191
14 Ibid., p. 192
15 “Lafayette in Lockport,” The New York Times, Tuesday, May 8, 1883, p.5
16 Levasseur, p. 192

Lafayette’s Farewell Tour: Riding The Ridge (Road)

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Previous: The Natural Wonder Of Niagara Falls, Goat Island, And Lewiston

Western Portion of 1825 Erie Canal map showing Niagara Escarpment (upper shaded line) and Onondaga Escarpment (lower shaded line). If you look closely you’ll see Ridge Road just north of the Niagara Escarpment. Source: Laws of the State of New York, in relation to the Erie and Champlain canals / Published by authority, under the direction of the Secretary of State (E. and E. Hosford, printers, Albany, 1825)

Over the eons, what would become the North American continent heaved and hoed. Rock strata, once flat with the earth when created, now undulated in waves. Each layer born in a different geological epoch bore their own unique properties. Some too loose and soft to sustain the onslaught of wind, water, and ice; others stubbornly sturdy, able to withstand those same powerful forces.

As the most recent period of glaciation receded into Canada and further north, the melting ice revealed the natural formations known as cuestas. These landforms represent a gentle upward slope on one side and dramatic fall – often evidenced by a face of rock on the frontslope.

This precipitous cliff is called an escarpment. Western New York contains three such Continue Reading “Lafayette’s Farewell Tour: Riding The Ridge (Road)”

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

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Previous: Augustus Porter Could Have Danced All Night

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

Lafayette’s Farewell Tour: Augustus Porter Could Have Danced All Night

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Previous: Breakfast At Black Rock Then On To Tonawanda

Judge Augustus Porter, Source: Orsamus, Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase of Western New York, Jewett, Thomas & Co., 1849, p.358a

Anna Spencer Foster loved the Genesee Country. Born in East Haddam, Connecticut in 1777,1 by the time she was nineteen in 1796 she was living in Palmyra (then in Ontario County) with her first husband Moody Stone.2 The young couple traveled freely through the challenging frontier of Greater Western New York. That year, the young couple forded the Genesee River above the falls to visit her sister and brother-in-law. On the way, they passed through Irondequoit and Rochester (where “there was but one house”).3

Late in the fall of 1796, Nathan Harris hosted a “husking frolic” at his home in that growing settlement.4 In general, these social events allowed neighbors to gather to work on a particular task, then party upon the completion of that task. The tasks could range anywhere and included “husking bees, raisings, quiltings, and pumpkin pearings.”5

Harris, known as “Uncle Nathan,” as the jolly newcomer soon became known as, had Continue Reading “Lafayette’s Farewell Tour: Augustus Porter Could Have Danced All Night”

Just Get Past The Peak

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There’s a bridge between here and Toronto. It’s in St. Catherine’s. It’s not high, but it’s high enough.

As you cross the Lewiston Bridge, the 190 turns into Route 405 in Ontario. The 405 quickly merges into the QEW and from there its straight on through to Toronto.

By way of this “high enough” bridge.

It’s called the “Garden City Skyway” and it soars 130 feet above the Welland Canal at its greatest height. Not too high. But high enough.

Nearly a mile long, when approaching from the east (which is what you do when you’re travelling to Toronto) before it crosses the canal, it ascends to a gentle curve. But not gentle enough.

To compound matters, the Canadians built the Garden City Skyway as an open road. There is no high structural steel to cocoon you comfortably within its path.

This, combined with it being as tall as a 13-story building and a curve that hides your ultimate destination leaves you with a feeling of flying unbound, high above the endless horizon of Lake Ontario.

And that’s just enough to give one smitten with a not-so-mild case of acrophobia sweaty palms.

I happen to be that one.

We all have a fear of falling. It’s natural and it’s meant to protect us. Acrophobia – the fear Continue Reading “Just Get Past The Peak”

I’ll Have One for the Road and Two for the Sea

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And let me the canakin clink, clink,
And let me the canakin clink.
A soldier’s a man;
A life’s but a span;
Why, then, let a soldier drink.
– Othello

The reason James Fenimore Cooper strode into Hustler’s Tavern has disappeared into the hazy mists of history. By 1821, his life had been less than pristine. Kicked out of
Yale after three years as a trouble-maker (he blew up a classmate’s door), the son of a (probably embarrassed) Congressman who founded the City of Cooperstown did what any other lost teenager trying to find himself did in the early eighteenth century – he joined the Merchant Marine.1

Perhaps he remembered his earlier, albeit brief, stay in the Niagara Frontier just before the War of 1812.2 Serving mostly overseas, he saw some of his best crewmates taken from their ships and forced to serve aboard British warships against Napoleonic France. Like the rest of America, he detested Continue Reading “I’ll Have One for the Road and Two for the Sea”

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