Land of Liquid Gold
OIL IS LIQUID GOLD. It is a prize of empire, the richest stake of war. Because of man's lust for this buried treasure, bloody wars have been fought, the destinies of nations and the course of politics swayed, governments debauched and princely fortunes won and lost.
Without it, all the wheels of world industry would cease and all the engines of war on all the fronts would rust away.
As long as the drills go down into the earth, seeking out this buried treasure, America still will have a frontier. For in a land of pumps and derricks, there is a vividness of life, an air of daring, of playing for high stakes, a keen and often ruthless competition-the things that keep alive the flickering fires of the pioneering spirit.
This flame burns in the Genesee Country, along the southern reaches of the river that flows through Rochester. In that rugged countryside was discovered the first petroleum in all America. For 64 years the buckled terrain of Allegany County has given liberally of its underground riches that lay untapped for millions of years. The geologists tell us that the oil began as organic matter eons ago, deep down in the shale and seeped up through cracks into the sands, waiting for the drills of men to come and harvest it.
There are few acres of southern Allegany soil that have not been punctured in the quest of oil and its sister resource, combustible gas. Both have been found in paying quantities in the southern row of towns.
Wellsville on the Genesee may be called the Capital of the Oil Country but Bolivar, the village named after the South American liberator, is its production center and little Richburg was the scene of the region's most spectacular boom. Allentown and the towns of Genesee, Independence, Scio, Clarksville, Ward, Andover and Amity all contribute to the county's production.
Apparently oil and Genesee water do not mix for one must wander away a few miles from the river to explore the oil and gas fields.
* * * * *
In that rugged land, the air reeks with the pungent odor of the oil. You taste it in the water you drink. Along the road from the northern rim of Richburg almost to the corporate limits of Wellsville, you hear the constant chug of the engines that power the thousands of pumps, and the slide of the polished rod. The thick woods around Allentown often hide the wells but you can hear the monotonous, ceaseless chant of the pumps. Looking up into the hills, you see a swath cut through the woods and you know in that cleared path is a pipe line, leading to one of the refineries or one of the huge storage tanks that dot the landscape.
The talk is all of oil and gas and leases. There is an undercurrent of excitement, of things unpredictable, characteristic of all regions where wealth is taken from the earth.
In Richburg there are oil wells on the front lawns and even one in a churchyard. The chug of the engines goes on even during the church service. Oil is pumped a few feet from the village cemetery. One oil well is so close to a house that the resident can almost touch it from a side window.
Bolivar, a rich, brisk town, has no oil wells in its dooryards but is surrounded by them. A town of about 1,500, it has an assessed valuation of seven millions.
Don't look askance at some roughly clad, hustling man you see racing from lease to lease in a dust.smeared car. He may be a millionaire oil operator who can buy and sell you a thousand times.
There are mansions on North Main Street in Wellsville and on the shady, side streets of Bolivar that tell of fabulous fortunes the pumps in the hills and valleys have built.
Most of the glamour and the drama of the Oil Country lie in the past. The days of mad speculation, akin to a gold rush, are gone forever. The oil and gas industry is a stabilized business, in the hands of responsible operators. Some of them are independents and natives of the region. Others are the big combines. The feverish speculation and wildcat promotion of the early days are missing.
The monthly drilling report for July showed 81 wells are being sunk in the Allegany field. In my ignorance I looked for a sea of derricks along the roads. Derricks are used nowadays only in drilling new wells. Prior to the adoption of "flooding" in 1920, the tall derricks with their huge timbers stood throughout the period of production.
The Allegany field began producing in 1879. The peak production of the early days was in 1882-24,000 barrels a day. Later the field showed signs of exhaustion but "flooding" brought a marked revival.
All New York State oil sands produce some gas along with the oil. This gas escaped faster than oil was produced. Thus the gas pressure which encouraged the flow of oil out of the pores of the sand, was largely lost after a period of production. This gas pressure was restored by flooding exhausted fields. By this process, the large amount of oil still left in the sands is driven from one well to another by the introduction of water to create hydrostatic pressure.
Under this system, rows of water wells are first drilled in straight lines. After at least six months, sometimes longer, oil wells are put down in a line from a point midway between two lines of water wells which push the oil at right angles to the travel of the water.
The principle of flooding was known-and was used surreptitiously-prior to its legalization in 1920. This process proved a blessing in preserving the life of the Allegany fields.
"Black gold" is a misnomer when applied to Allegany County oil, which is of a greenish, gold cast. Genesee Country oil is listed in the trade under the heading of "Pennsylvania oil" and is of as fine quality as a lubricant as any produced in America.
Throughout the section many wells produce both oil and commercial gas. In early days gas had no great recovery value and farmers used the surplus for huge outdoor lights that burned all night in the barnyards. Since then, the value of natural gas has been greatly enhanced. Allegany County is the state's most reliable source of that elusive and fickle resource.
The gas fields are chiefly on the fringe of the oil pools, surrounding Wellsville. Deep well testing began in 1927 and one well in the town of Wirt holds a record for drilling depth-6,500 feet without paying gas. The shallow wells throughout the area have a more consistent history.
In Wellsville alone, some 2,300 people are employed in some phase of the oil industry, with 600 on the payrolls of the big Sinclair Refinery alone. Prior to the introduction of "flooding," the oil production for the Allegany field was around 100 barrels a day. Now the average will reach 10,000 to 11,000 barrels daily.
Which reminds me of a story they still tell in the Oil Country. A Boston lady, who had never seen an oil well, paid a visit to the fields. She was told a certain well produced 100 barrels a day.
"But," she said, "how do they get the barrels down in the wells?"
In Rochester ever since gas rationing began, there have been persistent reports of such a surplus of oil in the Southern Tier that it was being pumped back into the ground. Every person in the oil business with whom I talked ridiculed this story. On the contrary, they said, concern is felt over dwindling production because of government quotas, labor shortage and material priorities.
Just the same, people who live in a countryside studded with oil wells, are not too keen about having their automobile gasoline rationed-or their driving policed.
Everybody in the Oil Country remembers the great fire which five years ago swept the refinery in Wellsville. And they recall, too, the gas "gusher" which ran wild from a deep well south of Wellsville in 1940. It was a tremendous sight. At first the liquid shot straight in the air, later fanned out. The loss was enormous and the hazard from fire was grave. The operators had never dreamed of such a flow and were unprepared for the "runaway." To stem the flow and to prevent fire, a crew of specialists was im- ported from Texas. They used weighted mud, which had to be heavier than the gas pressure, to tame the mad "gusher."
* * * * *
In the Genesee Country, but some miles west of the river, is the spring from wh.ich bubbled the first known petroleum in America. It is in the town of Cuba and for three centuries has been known as the Seneca Oil Spring.
It was first made known to white men in 1627, when Father D'Allion, a Franciscan friar, wrote of it. The Iroquois tribes carried word of its great medicinal qualities to far places. In 1700 Lord Belmont directed an agent to find "the spring that blazes when a hot coal is applied and which lies eight miles southwest of the furthest Seneca castle (Caneadea)."
According to Seneca tradition, a very fat squaw fell into the pool and disappeared forever. Ever since then, oil has arisen out of its depths. The Indians gathered the oil seepage by spreading blankets over the surface of the spring. These absorbed the oil which was wrung out and put up in vials as the famed Seneca mineral oil.
Oil was never produced in paying quantities at the spring although an 1857 "duster" drilled there makes it, according to some accounts, the state's first oil well. The Seneca Spring is a shrine of the industry, however, and bears a historical marker.
Ever since Col. Edwin L. Drake made his epochal oil "strike" at Titusville in 1857, the first producing oil well in America, and the consequent development of the Pennsylvania field, oil operators had cast their eyes over the state line into Allegany and Cattaraugus Counties.
In 1866 a well was drilled near Whitesville but it was not a profitable venture. But pioneers kept on drilling in Southern Alegany. One of the most persistent and energetic of these pioneers was Orville P. Taylor, who has been called "The Colonel Drake of the Allegany fields."
In June, 1879, after he had sunk several dry wells, Taylor brought in the famous Triangle No. 1 well, four miles southwest of Wellsville, This was the discovery well, the first productive well in the Allegany field. Immediately the excitement began. What had been a barren field became a mushroom town, christened "Triangle City." For years this staunch pioneer well produced consistently.
And recently the memory of O. P. Taylor, the man who I would not give up, was honored by the government when a Liberty I ship was launched bearing his name.
But Richburg was the Eldorado, the hell-roaring boom town of the Allegany fields. This village was named after a settler and without any prophetic allusion to its future wealth. For years it had slept, a hamlet of some 25 buildings and less than 200 souls, on the shady road that led over the hills to Friendship, 11 miles away. Farmers plowed the fields, little dreaming of the wealth that lay beneath their furrows. The arrival of the stage with the mail and an occasional passenger was the big event of the day in Richburg.
But in 1881, the pioneers were drilling for oil in the countryside.
On the morning of April 27, 1881, a gusher came in one mile west of the village-and Richburg was no longer a crossroads hamlet. For a little over a year it was the wildest, wickedest boom town in America.
Oil scouts rode on horseback to the railroad towns and the wires carried news of the gusher to newspapers in all parts of the country. Thousands read the news and the next day the invasion was on. Oil men came pouring across the border, from Bradford, from Pittsburgh, from Oil City, from all points of the compass, along with the unsavory army of camp followers that in those days followed the discovery of new oil fields.
There was a wild scramble for leases. In a week Richburg grew from a hamlet of 200 to a veritable city of 8,000.
On my way down to Wellsville, I talked with Charles Ricker at Fillmore. Ever since he left his Black Creek home, a boy of 16, Ricker has been interested in oil. When the gusher came in at Richburg, he opened a hardware store in the boom town.
From this man, now over 80, with leonine head and the bearing of a senator, from written reminiscences and oral accounts of other pioneers, a picture of Rithburg's lurid past can be pieced together.
In less than a week after the discovery of oil, four stage lines were in operation over into Pennsylvania. Big old-fashioned stage coaches, drawn by four horses, came lumbering into Richburg, laden with oil-crazed passengers. Flimsy houses, stores with false fronts, saloons and gambling halls sprang up.
There were few sleeping accommodations. It was nothing strange to see 20 men crawl out of a hay mow at daybreak. Sometimes as many as 200 slept under the maples of the little park by the village schoolhouse. Others paid $1 a night for the privilege of sleeping on a billiard table.
One saloon keeper did not wait for the carpenters. He placed two whisky barrels on end, used a plank for a bar and set up business in the street. The village grist mill became a bagnio. Ricker said at one time there were 135 women plying the oldest profession in the world in the oil town. There were gambling hells in barns, over stores. Money flowed like water. There were murders and stabbings and gang fights. No mining camp in the Rockies was wilder than Richburg in the heyday of the oil boom.
Narrow gauge railroads were hastily built over the hills. A fine opera house arose in Main Street. There stars of the spoken stage appeared, among them Fay Templeton. Richburg became part of the Oil Country Circuit which included Pittsburgh, Bradford and Oil City, and John L. Sullivan came there on one of his barnstorming tours. Ricker recalled that an oil gang foreman named McGarvey put on the gloves with the champ and gave a good account of himself.
The men of the Oil Country were husky fellows, athletic, fleet of foot. The Ackerman Hose Company of Richburg once made a world's record in a hose race at a tournament at Bradford.
A parasitic breed known as the "oil dipper" flourished for a time in those lush days, when the overflow of oil formed veritable lakes in low places. Two men built a dam on the flats, an ingenious contrivance, that would skim the oil off the water. At one time they were storing 700 barrels of oil.
Another man set up a tank near a creek that was full of floating oil. By the simple law of gravity, the oil laden water just flowed into his tank. The law of the state finally halted his enterprise.
A horde of men, and boys and even women, spent their days dipping the oil off the waters in the lowlands with every sort of receptacle. In the woods a big "dippers' oil dam" held an accumulation of driftwood and debris, as well as liquid gold. One night it caught fire, how no one knows, Hundreds fought the blaze that raced for a mile along the creek and lit up the heavens. That was the end of the chiselers "oil dam."
In the van of the prospectors who came to Richburg were the Irish, who loved the adventure and the gamble of the oil rush. Some of them stayed to flavor the stern New England strain of the countryside.
Farmers on whose lands oil was struck became rich overnight. Men who had never seen more than $50 at one time in their lives, counted their wealth in the thousands.
One man who did not trust banks, took out his lease money, a considerable sum, in gold, shoved it into grain sacks and sat up all night beside it, with a rifle. Another went in for gaudy harness trimmings. When the country was being scoured for old gold in the 1930s, much precious metal came out of hiding in Richburg, a hangover from the boom days. Relatives sold the two heavy gold watches that one long dead, get-rich-quick farmer had purchased-and carried-just because he did not know what else to do with his newly found wealth.
But Richburg's day of glory was shortlived. In the summer of 1882 word spread of a rich new gusher at Cherry Grove, Pa. Almost as quickly as they came, the fickle army that followed the oil fields deserted Richburg. Besides the field was showing signs of exhaustion.
Slowly Richburg went back to sleep. The opera house was converted into a cheese factory and later burned. Some of the buildings fell into ruin. Some were moved away bodily. Bolivar became the center of production. In 1895 Richburg was called "a ghost town."
Wellsville had its hectic boom period, too, In 1884 there were 55 saloons and 12 houses of ill fame in the village and a Law and Order League formed to preserve the peace.
With the advent of "flooding," the Allegany fields received a mighty shot in the arm, Richburg rallied from its eclipse and the fields around the village became steady producers again.
The wild days and wilder nights of the rush of '81 today live only in the memories of the old men in the Oil Country.
* * * * *
Old timers in Bolivar remember a youth of 15 who came there to live in 1891. He was an enterprising lad who delivered the daily papers on the first "safety" two-wheeled bicycle the village had ever seen. He had bought the bike out of his savings. He also bought a cornet and played in a boys' band. He caught on the village baseball nine, which numbered on its rolls such future greats as Pat Dougherty and Fielder Jones. This lad lived in Bolivar two years, then went on to Cornell University and to fame in fields other than baseball. His name was Frank Gannett.
Wellsville is the birthplace of two noted writers of their day; Charles M. Sheldon, author of a religious story, "In His Steps," which was one of the best sellers of all time, and Grace Livingston Hill, writer of more modern fiction. Adam McMullen, one-time governor of Nebraska, also first saw the light of day in the capital of the Oil Country.
* * * * *
The Oil Country has had a glamorous and romantic past. It is the center of a mighty industry today.
But the oil producers are looking into the future. A comprehensive research program is contemplated. The oil men are seeking ways of taking even more of the crude from the sands of Allegany County.
If they are successful, the life of the oil fields will be greatly prolonged.
And if history is any criterion, the men of the Oil Country will find a way!
* * * * *
A Mansion and A Sage
THIS paraphrase of the old song that I had concocted kept running through my head as I turned my back on opulent Wellsville and the Oil Country and the mountains and pursued the meandering Genesee, astride Shank's Mare:
"Where do we go from here, boys?
Where do we go from here?
On to Angelica and to Belmont
And all the way to Belvidere."
As the river flows northward, the valley widens and little by little, the hills slough off their towering stature. Still Central Allegany is mighty rugged country.
A couple of miles out of Wellsville, an elderly physician-his auto bore an M. D. license-gave me a lift into Scio. The doctor turned out to be a man of kindly deeds but few words. Here is our conversation:
Q. - Nice weather, isn't it?
A. - Too dry.
Q. - Great cars, these Buicks (This after deducing he had been addicted to the make for years.)
A. - First one I ever owned. Always drove Hudsons before.
With that, I gave up. We rode on in silence. That rural doctor could never be called a chatterbox or accused of overdoing "the bedside manner."
There are oil and gas wells in the hills around Scio but little evidence of mineral wealth in the village. A big sign flapped in the breeze in front of the church. "Evangelistic meeting tonight," it read. It was fairly early in the morning so I pushed on.
Again Lady Luck walked with me that bright July morning. Some two miles north of Scio something that clattered and groaned and squealed pulled alongside. It was the remnants of a Ford, '32 vintage, and what held it together was a mystery. The driver was a pleasant faced youngish farmer who was only too willing to talk about the weather.
Only he thought it had been too wet.
By the time we rattled into Belmont, I thought my name was Tom Collins. I was that shaken up.
The farmer was going on to Angelica. I hope he made it before the fate of the One Hoss Shay overtook his chariot.
* * * * *
Belmont is the county seat of Allegany. A new and-handsome courthouse graces a hilltop overlooking the river, on the site of an ancient Indian fort and burying ground.
"This town is livelier when court's in session," I was told at the hotel. Court or no court, it is a pleasant village under its spreading old trees, on the fringe of the Oil Country and the center of a rich dairying section.
The Borden plant there has manufactured powdered milk for years. Now it is making a lemon concentrate which can be converted into a cooling drink for the parched throats of our warriors in far off deserts and steaming jungles.
In Belmont I sought out Russell F. Pierson, editor of the Dispatch. He is a big man, brisk and fortright. When I told him my mission, he said: "Jump into the car. I'll take you to just the fellow you want to see."
The "fellow" was Charles E. Whitcomb, the most fascinating personality I encountered in my prowls along the Genesee from the Pennsylvania mountains to the Lake Ontario plain.
Despite all his mechanical skill, Charley Whitcomb has never been able to get his dozens of clocks to strike at the same time. One was striking as we arrived. Another rang out a few minutes later. And a little later another. It was a bit confusing.
Charley's old house on the southern edge of Belvidere is a veritable, museum. There are clocks everywhere. Add to the ensemble an array of guns, violins, pipes, lathes, work benches, books of history, maps and old documents and the result is the most remarkable living quarters in all Allegany County.
Serene, amid his treasures, sat a slender, gray-haired man with shrewd and kindly blue eyes, with the thin, aesthetic features of a scholar and the long, slim hands of an artist. Charley Whitcomb is both.
Ever since his wife died years ago, he has lived alone in the old house where his father lived before him-alone with his many hobbies.
All of his nearly 80 years have been spent along the Genesee. He has fished its waters and hunted its hills since boyhood. He has delved deeply into its history and he knows its people. He was once active in politics and served as supervisor of his town. He has known all the dignitaries of the county.
His flair for the mechanical is known throughout the countryside. There is no mechanism so intricate he cannot master it, no clock or gun he cannot doctor. But he does not commercialize his skill. He "runs no repair shop" but will occasionally fix a timepiece for a neighbor.
His amazing collection of clocks has been accumulated over years of rambling the countryside. There are tall Grandfather clocks, wall clocks with bronze pendulums, genuine antiques, mantle clocks, every conceivable kind of timepiece. Sharing his hobby is his neighbor, the Rev. Jerome Kates, rector of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Rochester, whose summer farm home is a few rods up the Belmont road. The clergyman has spent many summers there. Maybe his enthusiasm for clock collecting can be traced to his association with Charley.
A real gun fancier would go into ecstasies over his collection. Alas, I knew so little about clocks or guns or violins. Some of his guns are a century old. There are beautiful long rifles like the Kentuckians fired in the long ago. There are Civil War pieces with old time target sights.
In his youth, when there were gunsmiths on the river, Charley learned that now lost art. Today he could turn out a rifle complete. One of his most prized treasures is the last gun A. D. Brown, a famous Belvidere gunsmith, made in the 1870s.
Among his violins is one that is 140 years old. It belonged to his uncle, a celebrated fiddler in his time. It played for countless dances up and down the river. It accompanied its owner to the bloody field of Gettysburg in the War Between the States.
"Ever play the violin yourself ?" I asked Charley.
"Not when anyone is around."
I will wager that he can play-and play well.
In his younger days he was an ardent hunter and angler. As a boy he heard his elders talk of the wild deer that once roved the river country. In manhood, he had to go many miles, way down into Pennsylvania forest, after them. And now in his old age, they romp almost on his very doorstep and "I pay no attention to them." He said there were no fish worth catching in the river any more. The stream is so full of oil that even the fish shun it. Thus the shadow of the oil fields falls on the lands to the north.
Mention any name or event in Allegany history and Charley has the answer-either in his well stocked mental storehouse or in his books and maps in his cluttered living room. He is an authority on the Church family, the pioneers and landed gentry of the region. His father was superintendent of the vast Church estate at Belvidere and as a boy Charley Whitcomb lived in the mansion that Philip Church built beside the Genesee 133 years ago. And as a boy. Charley had access to the extensive library in the mansion, which no doubt fostered his love for literature.
In quiet tones and in scholarly language, Charley went back into the earlier days of Allegany, while the rain beat on the roof, the first shower since I began my walking trip. I could think of no better shelter than this "House of a Hundred Clocks" and no better company than this "Sage of Belvidere."
Charley told of great days at the manor house of the Churches, when the Wadsworths would drive down from the Middle Valley in coach and four, when he saw Horatio Seymour, once a candidate for President of the United States, standing before the huge fireplace in the drawing room.
He told of the Indians and the pioneers; of Moses Van Campen, the border fighter, who ran the gauntlet at Caneadea.
He spoke of the days when Belvidere was an important shipping point on the main line of the Erie. Now it is not even a whistle stop and even the station has been torn down.
Charley was born on the Big Tree farm of General Wadsworth, of which his father was overseer. He has a piece of the original Big Tree of treaty fame among his souvenirs.
Charley smokes a special brand of tobacco that is almost clear perique. At least two decades ago, a friend warned him that "that stuff will put you in your grave in five years." Within less than five years perique-puffig Charley attended his friend's funeral.
The Sage of Belvidere lives an enviable life. He does pretty much as he pleases. If he wants to read a book or the Hobbyist Magazine half the night, well, he does not have to rise early. If he wants to tinker with clocks or oil his guns or tune his fiddles, there is nobody to say him nay.
As I was leaving, Charley pointed out a compass he had cut into the cement curbing beside his driveway. He was directing me to the mansion of the Churches that I was to visit on the morrow.
I might ramble all the rivers of America and still not find another Charley Whitcomb.
When I walked back to Belmont, the rain had ceased and the sun was shining on the flats and on the hills.
That night at 9 p. m. a shrill whistle blast shattered the quiet of the county seat. I asked the man behind the counter what it meant. "Curfew for the kids. Don't mean a thing," he said.
At 10 p. m. the same whistle sounded, only longer and louder. It meant something this time, for all the lights in the hotel suddenly winked out. It was blackout, The war had come to peaceful Belmont, where already half the town had gone to bed and put out the lights.
It all seemed a bit silly. But, of course, the Great White Father knows best.
The next morning when I trudged down Belmont's main street, bound for the Mansion on the Genesee, a voice boomed out behind me. I looked back. A big man was waving and shouting "Good Bye, Good Luck." It was Russ Pierson, the editor. Somehow, the sunshine was brighter, the skies bluer and the birds' song more blithe that dewy morning after that friendly farewell.
But then, Belmont is in the township of AMITY and adjoining it is the town of FRIENDSHIP.
* * * * *
As a boy, I had heard of the big estate around Angelica with its pure-blooded Jersey cattle, and veritable castle hidden among the trees.
But I knew nothing of the history of Belvidere Farms until I had talked with Charley Whitcomb and had pored over old histories of Allegany County. Across those pages the name of Philip Church is written in bold letters. He was the patroon, the pioneer, the first citizen of the lower Genesee, playing much the same role in its early development as did the Wadsworths in the Middle Valley. Indeed, the paths of the two aristocratic families crossed many times.
During the Revolution, the cdmmissaries general of the Colonial and French armies were John B. Church and Jeremiah Wadsworth of Hartford, Conn. The British-born Church had come to America before the Revolution and amassed a fortune in Boston as an underwriter.
John B. Church had loaned Robert Morris, the land promoter, $80,000 and had taken as security 100,000 acres of Genesee Country land. Morris failed to meet his obligations. And so it-came about that young Philip Church, son of John B., journeyed over the rough trails to Canandaigua in the year 1801 to bid in at foreclosure sale what is now the central portion of Allegany County.
Philip Church had lived in Paris and London, had studied at Eton, hobnobbed with the Prince of Wales, studied law in the Middle Temple. His mother was the daughter of Gen. Philip Schuyler. His uncle and mentor was the famous Alexander Hamilton. He had served on the staff of General Washington after the war and as private secretary to Hamilton. He remembered filing away among other papers, the final draft of Washington's Farewell Address.
This was the background of the man who was to become the master of a vast estate in the backwoods, miles from any settlement and to live there, the community's most influential citizen, the rest of his days.
Church had his 100,000 acres surveyed and selected a site near their center as the principal town, which he named Angelica after his mother. He reserved 2,000 acres for his personal estate and planned to sell the rest to settlers in the Wadsworth tradition. He called his home site Belvidere and there along the river he built in 1804 the White House, the first painted building in the wilds, into which were driven only nails hammered out by hand. That frame building stood for 100 years until a wind storm blew it down.
It was to this home that in 1805 Philip Church brought his bride, Anna Matilda Stewart, whom he had met when attending General Washington's funeral in Philadelphia. This 19-year-old belle was suddenly transplanted from the gay whirl of Philadelphia society to the wilderness.
Their wedding journey was a strange one, first by coach and four to Bath, then by jolting wagon to Hornellsville whence they rode on horseback along a rough trail, marked only by blazed trees. When they reached the White House, the pack horses with bedding and provisions were far behind so they slept that night on straw mattresses on the floor, annoyed by rats indoors and howling wolves outside.
In 1810 Church built the brick and stone, white-columned manor house that still stands beside a bend in the Genesee and looks out over a romantic vista of mingled flats, table land and rolling hills. It is said Church, an athletic man adept at cricket and foot races, climbed a tall pine tree to prospect out the site for his homestead.
He became the leading man of the new county, of which he made Angelica the county seat. He was influential in bringing the Genesee Valley Canal and the Erie Railroad to the area and was an early judge of the county.
After Judge Church's death in 1861, his son, Richard, lived in the mansion and continued its tradition of lavish hospitality. There were merry gatherings in the high old rooms whose walls were lined with rare paintings and well-filled book shelves. The horn of the hunter was heard on the Allegany hills and the crack of the rifle sounded through the woods.
In the desks of the mansion were stored private papers of the Hamiltons, the Schuylers, the Rensselaers and other notable kinfolk of the Churches. And in possession of the family were the historic pistols-that Alexander Hamilton carried to his death at Weehawken in his duel with Aaron Burr.
Financial reverses beset the house of Church and the mansion in the 1890s passed into other hands. Richard, the last of his line in Western New York, died in 1911 at the home of his daughter, Mrs. E. P. Hart, in Rochester.
* * * * *
Belvidere Farms was sold under foreclosure in 1892 to Fred B. Keeney of Warsaw. In 1909 the property passed to the late wealthy Grace Emery of Bradford, Pa,, and Louise Squires Clark. Since Mrs. Clark's death, her husband, S. Hoxie Clark, seldom visits the place and quiet has settled over once gay Belvidere Farms.
One can hardly see the mansion from the road, it sets so far back amid towering trees and dense shrubbery, There is a stone wall around the grounds and a curving driveway that leads through once magnificent lawns and gardens.
As I ambled up that winding driveway, the elderly caretaker came to meet me. His name is L. A. Van Campen and he is a descendant of the pioneer who ran the Seneca gauntlet. He has been in charge of the place for 18 years and "never have the grounds looked so unkept."
"I can't get any help and this is too much for one man, not so young at that," he mourned and as we walked through the flower gardens, the spacious lawns and surveyed the stables, I agreed with him. The place still has an air of splendor.
The mansion of the Churches still stands staunchly, its stately south porch with the white pillars looking out on the winding Genesee. Time cannot dim the beauty of the wide, old-fashioned white doors or the high green blinds. The structure is a rambling one with servants' quarters built on the rear. All around it are sky-reaching hemlocks and in the front yard, the biggest maple I have ever seen.
I would like to have explored the interior but Van Campen said, "Sorry, can't let anybody in without a note from Mr. Clark."
"Where is Mr. Clark ?" I asked.
"Miami, last I heard."
So I gave up the idea.
But Van Campen told me something of the 22 rooms, the dozen bathrooms, the score of fireplaces, the great chandeliers in the high ceilinged rooms, most of which are now unused.
Because now only an elderly caretaker and his wife dwell in the 133-year-old mansion of the Churches beside the Genesee.
* * * * *
The road that leads over the hills from Belvidere Farms to Angelica is a lonely one, but a farmer gave me a ride for the last mile of the four.
About Angelica clings an air of antiquity, a scent of musk and mignonette. It is the oldest town in the county and once was its most important center. Judge Church saw to it that this village he named after his mother became the county seat, even although he had to annex three towns to Allegany from Steuben so that Angelica would be nearer the geographical center.
But when in the 1850s, the Genesee Valley Canal and the Erie Railroad had both passed it by, a cry arose for a county seat on the railroad. A commission in 1858 picked Belmont, but still Angelica fought on and succeeded in having the Legislature divide the county into two shires so that alternate court terms were held in both villages, So for 50 years Allegany had two county seats, only seven miles apart! But since 1898, Belmont has been the sole shire town and now the old and bitter rivalry is forgotten.
On the public square, at Angelica, flanked by four churches and the high school, the old Courthouse, built in 1819, still stands. The cream-colored structure now is used as a community center. In October, 1854, the first Republican convention in the state-and it is claimed, the nation-met there to name Myron H. Clark for governor. Ripon, Wis., claims to be the birthplace of the GOP by virtue of a similar convention there in the spring of 1854. Friendship also has a claim because a convention was called there that same year but nobody attended save the promoters.
Angelica about 1792 was the haven of a group of French Royalists who fled to America after the fall of the Bourbons. Among them was Baron Hyde de Neuville, who after the downfall of Napoleon, returned to France and became a political power. He once was France's Ambassador at Washington.
A young Frenchman lived in Angelica at that time, named Victor Dupont de Nemours. His name appears on the first deed ever recorded in the county. After a short time he joined his brother, Irenee, on the banks of the Brandywine in Delaware. There the family founded one of the greatest industrial dynasties in America.
There is a house near the square that is 141 years old. A white colonial home with green blinds, built by Ewart Van Winkle, it stands far back from the street. Charley Whitcomb said on one of the window frames are scratched the initials "JBC." He figures that John B. Church, brother of Philip, carved them there a century ago.
Angelica, a lovely old village with a lovely old name, is saturated with history.
* * * * *
In Friendship village, over the hills south of Angelica, once lived a bearded former prophet of the Mormon Church. The story goes that he spent his last years in the quiet village in mortal fear, even boarding up his windows at night. His name was Sidney Rigdon, a onetime Baptist preacher and a founder, with Alexander Campbell, of the sect known as the Campbellites. Rigdon was an early convert of Joseph Smith and skeptics have maintained he wrote much of the "revelations" of the unlettered Palmyra farm boy who became the founder of a mighty church. Rigdon rose to power in the new sect, but when Smith was slain in Illinois and Brigham Young, the former Mendon carpenter, came to the throne, Rigdon fell on evil days. He quarreled with Young and was ousted from his high place in the church. He came to live in the town called Friendship, perhaps in the hope its magic name would give him sanctuary. There is no record he ever was disturbed but his fear was real indeed.
Ghosts Walk Old Trails
"VILLAGE OF BELFAST. Speed limit 25 miles per hour. Hawking and Peddling forbidden." That sign was to me like an oasis in the desert to a heat-parched caravan, like the sight of land to long shipwrecked mariners.
My speed limit had slowed down to considerably less than 25 miles an hour. I had no desire to to hawk or to peddle. All I wanted was to rest my feet.
For I had walked 14 weary miles that summer's day-from Belmont to Belvidere, then back to the river at Transit Bridge and now, praised be Allah, I was at the gates of Belfast.
The road from Angelica to Transit Bridge was a lonely one. There were few autos and no offers of lifts. Only the occasional clatter of a reaper in the fields, the song of the birds, the hum of the bees broke the silence of that green and smiling countryside. It was hard to believe that these tranquil hills and valleys under a cloudless sky were part of a world at war.
There was more traffic on the road along the river from Transit Bridge to Belfast-but it all whizzed right by. Feet, that long had been accustomed to no more than a three-block saunter to the corner store, were protesting vehemently as I ambled through the ever widening valley of the Genesee.
That is why Belfast, gateway to Northern Allegany, to me was the portal of a Promised Land, the end of the road-for that day.
* * * * *
Back in 1824 a band of New Englanders established a tiny settlement that they called Orrinsburgh on the river flats. The great flood of 1836 in the wake of three days of downpour washed it away, along with every bridge on the river from Pennsylvania and Rochester, many houses, barns, mills, dams, animals and crops. Undaunted, the pioneers built anew but on higher ground to the southwest. This reborn village on its new site later was called Belfast, after an older town on the Irish Sea.
Two years later, in 1838, came the big wind, so mighty that, according to legend, it scooped all the water out of the river so that for a few minutes the channel of the Genesee was dry.
There are many legends that cluster about this old river town. The principal one deals with two strong men in whose veins flowed fighting Irish blood. Their names were John Lawrence Sullivan and William Muldoon. Sullivan was a native of Boston but Muldoon was born on a Belfast farm.
For a few months in 1889 the eyes of the sporting world were fixed upon this village in the Allegany hills. For it was here that Billy Muldoon was training Sullivan, then world's heavyweight champion, for his bout with Jake Kilrain. Sullivan had come to Muldoon's training camp at Belfast, a besotted wreck. In a few weeks the stern, iron willed, tyrannical Muldoon had whipped the champion back into shape to conquer Kilrain.
It had been no easy task. Muldoon's principal worry had been John L.'s love of liquor. Muldoon guarded his charge day and night, but occasionally the Strong Boy would elude his jailer. And then as women and children scurried to cover, the cry would be heard in the streets of Belfast:
"John L. is loose again. Send for Muldoon!"
Muldoon would come, snatch the champ away from the bar and take him back to the training camp in the heart of the village. Most of the buildings are still standing. The long, low house, flanked by the Catholic and Protestant cemeteries (for Belfast is half Irish Catholic and half Yankee Protestant), is still there under the tall maples although the wide porches that surrounded it in Muldoon's day are gone.
In one of the stables, a pair of iron rings still hang from the ceiling just as they did 54 years ago when John L. Sullivan swung upon them.
Old timers around Belfast proudly say: "Yes, I remember when John L. trained here," As boys, they saw the big Irish fighter trotting along the river roads on his daily grind behind the dour Muldoon. Some recall the trainer driving up to the village saloon in a buckboard, picking up the drink-paralyzed Sullivan and tossing that great hulk into the wagon that clattered back to the house with the wide porches.
As I stood, looking over that historic house and trying to recreate its glamorous past, I could see the lace curtains in the window of an adjoining residence pulled back by a thin, blue veined hand. Strangers who stand and gape at old buildings aren't too common in Belfast village.
Tourists will remember Belfast as the town by the big railroad bridge. At its northern outskirts stands an engineering triumph of 1910. Stretching for three-fifths of a mile across the valley at the height of 140 feet, the Genesee Viaduct of the Erie Railroad is an impressive structure. It is part of what is known as the "cut-off," a freight line built by the Erie to by-pass the formidable hills of southern Allegany County. A few miles to the northward near Fillmore is an even higher viaduct. It is 155 feet high but only 1,922 feet long.
* * * * *
In 1851 there were music and bonfires and high jinks along the river. The Genesee Valley Canal from Rochester to Belfast was completed. Two years before, the stretch from Shakers' (near Mount Morris) to Oramel had been cut through by hand labor, mostly Irish immigrants.
Allegany County folk saw the new canal as a great boon. This ribbon of water eventually was to join the Allegheny River at Olean with the Erie Canal at Rochester and channel the commerce of the entire Mississippi basin across the Empire State. That was the dream of its promoters. It was begun in 1840. It was 1856 before it was completed to Olean. In 1878 it was abandoned after the state had sunk three and one quarter million dollars in its rocky bed.
The old canal followed the river from Rochester to Belfast, then swung off to the southwest to join the Allegheny at Olean. In its brief heyday it brought color and life to the river towns as well as goods and comiverce.
Oramel today is just a hamlet - a handful of old houses, a store, two churches, a gasoline station. A fire six years ago helped along its disintegration. But in the 1850s, in the boom days of the Genesee Valley Canal, it was the bustling capital of that inland waterway, THE town of river towns.
* * * * *
Caneadea is a historian's paradise. Its name in the Indian tongue means "where the heavens rest upon the earth," and there on the east bank of the river, the Senecas built the southernmost village of their ancient domain along the Genesee. Caneadea was the southern door to the Long House of the Iroquois and a hereditary sachem of the league dwelt here.
Walk the east side of the Genesee and you walk with ghosts of the past. You will come across John Hudson, Seneca orator and chief, the head man of the village that once squatted on the river's bank, opposite the present site of Houghton College and two miles northeast of the village that now bears the name of Caneactea.
You will meet Captain Nellis, the Tory renegade who lived there with his squaw wife and incited the tribesmen to attacks on the settlers.
Mary Jemison, the White Woman,- will be coming down the trail again to stop at Caneadea on her long trek from the Ohio to her new home along the Genesee.
You will encounter doughty Moses Van Campen, the Daniel Boone of the Genesee Country. You will see him run the gauntlet again the 30 yards from the road to the old Council House of the Senecas. When the Red Men captured Van Campen, a soldier of the Revolution and a famous scout, they brought him to Caneadea. There they forced him to run through a line of squaws, armed with wicked clubs and whips that stung the flesh.
The warriors stood aside, watching the sport. Van Campen, fleet and crafty, had dodged and ducked his way, virtually unscathed, to within a few feet of his goal. In his path were only two young squaws with whips poised to strike the bared back of the scout. Van Campen suddenly charged them like a football player. He gave one the straight arm treatment and sent her sprawling. He lashed out and kicked the other in the stomach and she joined her comrade on the ground. The braves guffawed and after that Moses Van Campen was held in high respect by the Senecas.
The scene of Van Campen's dash and the site of the Council House are marked by a boulder and plate today. The old meeting place, which resounded to the eloquence of Red Jacket and Brant and Cornplanter, was built in 1780 by British troops sent from Fort Niagara to assist their Seneca allies.
After the Revolution, it stood on the 10,000-acre reservation set aside for the Indians by the 1797 treaty of Big Tree. After the Senecas had sold their reservation to land speculators for $48,000 in 1826 and moved away, a settler added three or four logs to its height and made his home there. Later, it was used as a barn and was rotting away when William Pryor Letchworth had it removed to his estate at Glen Iris, now Letchworth Park, where it was reconstructed.
Walking down the river road, you may run across Joseph Jones, the Quaker surveyor, with his men. The deer and the wolves are startled at these intruders, with their compasses and theodolites, chains and flags and the Senecas watch the palefaces uneasily. Jones is subdividing 170 acres of wilderness into lots and streets and a public square. With the water power of the Genesee at hand, he visualizes a city at Caneadea - a city that never materialized.
Or you may look over the shoulder of Elisha Johnson, who latter became a pioneer at Rochesterville, and was engaged to make a survey of the region in 1807, as he dips his quill in home-made ink and pens these words to his employer, John Greig of Canandaigua:
"Some peculiar property exists in this Valley that causes many of the natives to have swelled throats. I think, however, that when the land is cleared, which will cause a more free circulation of air, some of the stagnant water drained and having the flats produce fields of grass, instead of the present natural vegetation, those complaints will not be so common."
Elisha Johnson was right.
* * * * *
There are more recent ghosts along the river. There is a vacant farm house near Freeman Bridge that brought back memories to me.
In that house on a September afternoon in 1927, a 23-year-old farm youth, Wilmot Leroy Wagner, shot to death two State Troopers who had come to arrest him on a petty charge. I recalled the grim man hunt that ended two weeks later with Wagner's capture in the Pennsylvania mountains. I saw the point where the slayer swam the river in the night, while armed men guarded the roads. And in retrospect I sat again in a crowded Buffalo court room as I had 16 years before and saw the young defendant, with all the stoicism of an Indian, stand to hear the verdict that meant death in the electric chair. There was no sign of emotion in his curious, unfathomable eyes, one blue, the other gray, no change of color in his poker face.
Since the murder, the house above the river has remained vacant most of the time. Maybe the river people see ghosts there.
To Rochesterians, Caneadea brings to mind the huge power dam that the Rochester Gas and Electric Corporation built there in 1926-27. The dam holds the water of a large artificial lake of considerable scenic charm. This lake covers the onetime hamlet of East Rushford and many acres of farm lands. About this dam and lake there hangs a tale of two villages.
The power project is about midway between the villages of Caneadea on the river flats and Rushford in the hills, Each wanted the lake and dam to bear its name. Caneadea folk put up a big sign, "Caneadea Dam and Lake." Rushfordites tore it down and put up one of their own that read "Rushford Lake and Dam." This went on for months until a compromise was evolved. Today it is Caneadea Dam and Rushford Lake.
On their family farm near Caneadea some 15 years ago, two physician brothers, Drs. William H. and Stephen V. Mountain of Olean, established a unique philanthropy. It was a home for aged and indigent physicians and their families. After the death of the Mountains, the home was abandoned.
* * * * *
Houghton on the Genesee is one of the few college towns in America where it is impossible to buy liquor or tobacco in any form. The college, now beginning its 60th year on its hilltop campus overlooking the valley is a citadel of the Wesleyan faith, and frivolities and dissipation have no part in its creed.
This village was not always so straight laced. In the days of the canal, long before the Georgian red-brick college buildings arose on the hill, Houghton was Jockey Street. It was a hang-out for horse thieves and rough characters and got its name because horse races were staged in its principal street.
Houghton College is one of Allegany County's two institutions of higher education. The other at Alfred, some miles east of Genesee water, was founded by the Seventh Day Baptists. Members of this sect in the 1820's and 30's came to the shelter of the Allegany hills, to worship away from the haunts of men. They settled at Alfred, Little Genesee and Nile and in those places members of the sect stilt are numerous. Other than their belief that Saturday is the true Sabbath, these thrifty, industrious people are no different from their neighbors.
Much to the delight of Alfred students, so a recent graduate told me, the college does not hold classes on either Saturday or Sunday. He also said that some Seventh Day Baptist washing is on the line on Sunday mornings in plain sight of the church-goers of other faiths.
* * * * *
When I reached Fillmore, liveliest of the river towns in Northern Allegany, I felt very much at home. My brother-in-law, Eugene Towell, is postmaster of that village. The length and breadth of the county he is known as "Beaner" Towell, a star baseball player of a decade ago. He saw to it that I did little walking in his end of the Genesee Country.
Fillmore is the center of a prosperous dairying region. The hills that surround it abound with deer and foxes. There is a night quarantine on dogs but residents often are awakened by the baying of the dogs as they chase the wild deer in the hills.
While I was at Fillmore, a young deer stalked fearlessly out of Cole Creek and into the village street. Children petted it, the deer posed for pictures and a villager holding out a handful of grass as bait, enticed the animal into his barnyard. Then a dog appeared and the deer, with one graceful leap, cleared the fence and romped off into the woods. The next day it was back again, looking for a hand-out.
Once the hills were thickly clad with pine. There is still one considerable stand of virgin timber around Fillmore. In the 1850's, lumbering was a mighty industry in these parts and saw mills whined along the river and barges laden with lumber plied the canal.
In the early days timber thieves flourished, too. They would raid the pine woods and cut down other men's trees. Sometimes they were victimized themselves, for other thieves would haul away the timber they had hewed down.
Frank Purdy, a farmer beside the river all of his 80 years, remembers when the hills were thickly timbered and there were a big saw mill and dam near his land. This man, straight and sturdy, was busy moving fence posts from his barn to his pasture lot by wheel barrow. He told how as a boy he rode a canal boat to Rochester. The trip took four days. "Now," he said, gazing at the autos whizzing by on the highway beside his pasture, "a car makes it in two hours."
Sprightly John Hammond, 77-year-old retired mail carrier, remembered how as a boy of ten, he had driven horses on the old towpath all the way to Rochester with a barge load of coal. "Those canal days were wild ones." And he grinned reminiscently. "There was a saloon at every lock and there were many locks. I have seen many fights between canal men, many tow lines cut and heard many a splash as men were tossed into the water,"
Hume was once the main center of the region. Now it is really a suburb of Fillmore. In Hume there lived a lawyer named George Harding. He had been dead for some years but whenever his name was spoken, men slapped their thighs and chuckled. For George Harding possessed a biting wit and was a shrewd master of court room strategy. In winter he pinned up his overcoat with a huge horse blanket pin. He chewed tobacco incessantly and his spitting precision was remarkable. He frequently would remove his shoes in the court room, even when appearing before the august Appelate Division. This stocky, shrewd and highly successful rural lawyer feared neither judge, rival barrister, man or devil.
Whenever he was to try a case or to preside over one, for he also was a peace justice, crowds flocked from all over the countryside. And he always gave them a show.
Once a judge fined Harding $5 for contempt of court. The lawyer had spoken witheringly of the jurist. Harding forked over a $10 bill.
"I said $5, Lawyer Harding," said the judge.
"Keep it," retorted Harding. "I shall probably utter another $5 worth of contempt before this case is over."
Again when another jurist slapped a $5 fine on Harding for contempt of court, the lawyer merely said. "I will apply it on account."
It seemed the jurist owed him money.
Once Harding tangled with a big city lawyer, who getting the worst of it in the battle of wits with his "backwoods" adversary, snarled:
"I could eat you whole, you little squirt."
"In which case you would have more brains in your stomach than you ever will have in your head," shot back Harding.
* * * * *
This friendly Northern Allegany countryside, this land of majestic hills and fertile river bottoms, flows with much milk and some honey and-with many tales of the days of yore.
It was a hot-bed of abolitionism before the Civil War and led in the foundation of the new Republican party. Its men flocked down from the hills in droves to wear the Union blue.
Fiery crosses blazed on those same hills in the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920's.
Although many parts of the region have voted "dry" for years, more than one wildcat still flourished in the hills in the prohibition era.
There are still old-time cheese factories where the farmer brings his milk and takes home with him cans of whey for his hogs just as in the days of my own bucolic boyhood.
And in spring, sap flows from the maples on the hills to be transformed into golden syrup.
It is great deer hunting country and in pre-gasoline rationing days, its villages were full of hunters in the open season.
And I have heard vague and doubtless unfounded rumors, that venison has been served on rural tables out of season.
To Chapter Listing
To next chapter
To On-line Books Page
To GenWeb of Monroe Co. page.