Brockport, New York,
“The Victorian Village on the Erie Canal”
was incorporated in 1829, 4 years after the completion of the Erie Canal. Its name derives from one of its founders, Heil Brockway. The village covers an area of 2.2 square miles and at 8366 residents is the largest village in Monroe County.
The 2010 census showed a village that was 92% White, 3.8% Black or African-American, .3% American Indian and Alaska Native, .1% Asian, .1% Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and 3.8% Hispanic or Latino. 92% of the adult population had a high school degree or higher and 39.2% a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Forty-seven percent of village homes were owner occupied; the median value of owner occupied homes was $113,500 and median household income was $46,292.
Brockport’s pedestrian friendly downtown of small shops and restaurants is listed on the National Register of Historic places. The Village prides itself on its public art, its Canalfront Welcome Center staffed by volunteers who greet boaters and Erie Canal cyclists, and its nine public parks.
Located 20 miles west of the city of Rochester and 11 miles south of Lake Ontario, Brockport is home to the College at Brockport, State University of New York. Once an agricultural and manufacturing center, today’s village industries include frozen food packaging and distribution and electronic recycling.
Brockport’s history began when European settlers arrived in western New York in the late 18th century to land that was occupied by the Seneca Indians. In 1788, the Phelps and Gorham land syndicate bought from the Senecas 2.6 million acres from Seneca Lake to the Genesee River, plus a 12-mile-wide strip on the west bank of the Genesee. However, their surveyor ran the west boundary line straight north from Leroy to Lake Ontario instead of parallel to the river. The Senecas discovered the fraud, recovered the land, and sold it to Robert Morris. He sold it to the Holland Land Company which sold it to a New York City consortium. It became known as the Triangular Tract.
Early 1800s: The Erie Canal
In 1802, an Indian trail from Leroy to Lake Ontario was enlarged to open the Triangular Tract to settlement. The first settler on land that is now in the village was probably Calvin Freeman in 1803. As the Triangular Tract became populated, it was carved up into the towns of Bergen, Sweden, Clarkson, and Hamlin and part of Leroy. The Town of Sweden was organized in 1814. Land speculators Hiel Brockway and James Seymour bought the land on the north edge of Sweden that is now Brockport and laid out the village in 1822. They had been merchants on Ridge Road in Clarkson, but transferred their attention south one mile when they learned of the planned route of the Erie Canal.
The canal is where it is in the village because it rests on the lip of the Medina escarpment. North of the canal, the land drops off sharply to Lake Ontario, about 250 feet lower in elevation. One mile south of Brockport the Niagara escarpment is about 200 feet higher in elevation than the Medina escarpment. At Lockport, where locks lift the canal from the Medina escarpment to the Niagara escarpment, the difference in elevation is only about 60 feet.
The schedule for constructing the canal called for it to halt in Rochester in 1823 while the ladder of five locks was built at Lockport. However, James Seymour had a first cousin, Henry Seymour, and a business partner, Myron Holley, on the Canal Commission and they arranged for the canal to be extended to Brockport by October 1823. Therefore, Brockport was the western terminus of the canal for two years. The last section of the canal, from Brockport to Buffalo, was opened in October 1825.
That opening from Brockport made it possible for the United States to become a continental power and the rise of the United States was the most important political/economic event in the world in the 19th century. Before the canal opened, it cost $100 to ship a ton of wheat from Buffalo to New York City and required three months. As a ton of wheat was not worth $100, the land west of the Appalachians could not be economically viable. Canal transportation lowered the shipping cost to $5-10 a ton and the time to two weeks.
Before the canal, every major American statesman expressed concern that the land west of the Appalachians could cease to be part of the union because no practical means of transportation connected the two parts of the nation. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, etc., etc., all shared that fear. Britain wanted to extend Canada into the Midwest, one of the causes of the War of 1812. France wanted to recover the Louisiana Purchase. So did Spain. Adventurers like General Wilkinson and Aaron Burr wanted to create their own empire there.
Also, the Erie Canal ensured that the Midwest would be populated mainly by northerners. Southerners, led by Washington and Jefferson, sought to build a canal from Virginia into Ohio, but were thwarted by the mountains. New Yorkers had the tremendous advantage of the Mohawk Valley, the only break in the mountain range. This had major implications for the future of our country, especially with respect to the Civil War. If the Midwest had been settled mainly by southerners, the balance of power in that great conflict might have been very different.
Hiel Brockway, co-founder of the village, was also heavily involved in canal trade. He operated a packet line between Rochester and Buffalo and had a boatyard that, at one time built more canal packet boats than any other in the world. His son-in-law Elias B. Holmes, also owned a packet boat line.
1829: Municipal Charter
Brockport received its municipal charter on April 6, 1829. The following decade was a period of intense growth and community organization. Its population grew from; 798 in 1830 to 1,249 in 1840, a 60 percent increase. The charter provided the basis for the Village government. The village was to be governed by five trustees elective annually who were to choose one among them to be village “president”. Also elective for one-year terms were three assessors, a clerk, a treasurer, a tax collector, a pound-keeper, an overseer of highways for each of the three road districts, and two constables. The charter also defined their powers. One of the first ordinances passed by the trustees created a system of fire protection and the first fire company was the Water Witch Engine Company No. 1 in 1832. No Board of Health was provided by the charter, but popular demand led to its creation in 1832. An active militia existed as a kind of quasi-governmental organization.
Village elections were non-partisan, but political party organizations were formed for participation in town, county, state, and national elections. Jacksonians, Anti-Masons, National Republicans, and Whigs were all active in the early decades. The Republican Party came to Brockport with the founding of the Brockport Republic weekly newspaper in 1856. The Democrats founded their own mouthpiece with the Brockport Democrat weekly newspaper in 1870. The two papers merged in 1925 as the Brockport Republic-Democrat.
One district elementary school existed before the village was chartered, two others were established soon after, and the original one moved to a new building on Utica Street. Also, the village began its career in higher education by hosting a Baptist college. When that failed, the village took over its building for the Brockport Collegiate Institute in 1841. In 1867, it became one of the original “State Normal Schools”. Secondary education was provided by the BCI and the Normal School.
Religious life in the village became organized during that period also. The Baptists began worship services in 1828 and built their first church on the site of the original schoolhouse at the corner of Main and Holley Streets. Methodists had been meeting as early as 1820 and built a church on Market Street in 1829. The Presbyterians began as a Congregational Society in 1827 and built their church on State Street in 1831 where it still stands. The Episcopalians, Catholics, and Lutherans came later—in 1838, 1854, and 1862, respectively. Benjamin Titus Roberts was the Methodist pastor, 1853-55, and began worship services for “Nazarites” separate from his ordained ministry in the structure on King Street that had been a Free Baptist church in 1855. After leaving Brockport, he broke entirely from the mainstream Methodists and founded the Free Methodist denomination.
Other organizations sprang up in the village during those early decades, also. A temperance society was one of the first and largest of them. Leaders in that movement were Justin and Clarina Carpenter. After leaving Brockport in the early 1830s and divorcing Justin, Clarina became a leader in the women’s rights movement, first in Vermont and then in “bloody” Kansas. She was a mentor to the young Susan B. Anthony. A Masonic lodge was quite strong at the beginning of this period, but dissolved during the anti-Masonic frenzy of the early 1830s An Odd Fellows lodge also existed intermittently during those decades. The only cultural organization in that period seems to have been a “Lyceum”, which was a kind of adult education forum.
Because of the canal, Brockport very quickly became the main market town and transportation hub for the area. As a result, it had a thriving business community. In 1830, an estimated 100 businesses existed in the village. As the census counted only 133 families, this means that three-fourth of the population earned its livelihood through commerce.
1840s: Industry Thrives
By the 1840s, Brockport had developed a major industrial economy. It was the home of several iron foundries that produced stoves, tools, and threshing machines. In 1845, Cyrus McCormick came to Brockport and licensed the Backus & Fitch foundry to manufacture 100 of his newly-invented reapers. Either they were never made or did not work. So he then gave the same license to Seymour, Morgan & Co. In 1846, they produced 100 reapers that did work—thereby bringing the Industrial Revolution to agriculture.
The reaper was so much more efficient than the scythe that, according to American Heritage Magazine, one man could do the work of five. Therefore, the 165,000 reapers that were manufactured in the North during the Civil War released much manpower to serve in the Union Army and contributed to its victory. Again according to the magazine, many of those men were not needed on the farms after the war and migrated to the cities, urbanizing America, and provided much of the manpower for the new factories, thereby industrializing America. The economies effected by the canal and the reaper had major consequences for life in Europe as well. The cheap American wheat transformed British life, for instance, leading eventually to the rise of democracy.
Seymour & Morgan was the forerunner of a rash of Brockport manufacturing enterprises over the next 140 years or so. They included at least six farm implement factories and at least nine food processing plants. Others produced shoes, buttons, bricks, dolls, fishing tackle, pianos, piano boxes, cardboard boxes, clocks, apple corers, refrigeration equipment, card games, rotary pumps, sewing machines, wagon and buggy wheels, cooling boards for undertakers, wagons, buggies, two automobiles, and galvanized tubs, buckets, sieves, and cans. The era of manufacturing as the major industry in Brockport did not end until General Electric, Owens-Illinois, and A & P closed in the mid-1980s.
Brockport also had major lumber businesses during the second half of the 19th century. Luther Gordon owned 7,000 acres of timber land in Michigan and shipped timber to his lumber yard and planing mill in Brockport. He shipped finished products all over New York State. After William Seymour retired from Seymour & Morgan in 1872, he went into the lumber business with timber shipped by his son, Henry, from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Lucius T. Underhill also was a big lumber man. As an example of the volume of lumbering business, they and several other firms shipped 5.9 million pounds of barrel staves in 1860.
Daniel and Mary Jane Holmes
In 1852, a young couple arrived in Brockport where they would become its leading citizens. Daniel Holmes was an Ontario County boy who had been valedictorian at the Brockport Collegiate Institute and graduated from Yale. He had married Mary Jane Hawes in 1849. She had grown up in Massachusetts and was a school teacher who had studied at Ontario Female Seminary.
After settling in Brockport, Daniel studied at the University of Rochester and became a lawyer. He held many important civic offices: Village Clerk for 20 years, justice of the peace for 50 years, Episcopal vestryman for 50 years, and member of the BCI and Normal School councils for more than 50 years. He died in 1919.
Mary Jane was also active in civic affairs, but gained celebrity as the leading American woman novelist of the late 19th century. She published the first of her 47 novels in 1854 and the last in 1905, two years before her death. Many women novelists “scribbled away” in the late 19th century, but Holmes was unique in that her works always portrayed ordinary people in everyday situations and eschewed supernatural events, violence, and anything unsavory. Moreover, she wrote in a style that was accessible to the average American housewife or teenage girl who was barely literate at that time. Finally, her heroines were strong, independent women who succeeded by their own efforts and talent without male support. Because of this and her sales in the millions, her writings probably did more than any others to condition American women for the appeals of the Suffragettes and feminists later on.
Three years after the Holmeses arrived in Brockport, a baby was born to Anthony and Harriet Barrier and named Frances. The Barriers were African-American. Anthony was a barber and coal dealer and a leading member of the First Baptist Church. Harriet taught Sunday School there. Frances, always called Fanny, attended the Brockport Collegiate Institute, went South to teach, studied music in Boston and art in Washington. There she met and married a lawyer name Stephen Laing Williams. They settled in Chicago and became top leaders in the civil rights movement in the Midwest. After Laing died in 1921, Fannie returned to Brockport where she died in 1944.
The Brockport area was heavily involved in the American Civil War. The village was much engaged in home front support for the war effort and recruited seven companies (plus one from Hamlin) for the Union Army. In addition, at least 233 men from the Brockport area served in units not recruited here. I have compiled a list of 845 men from the Brockport area who served the Union cause. Collectively, they joined in every major battle and many lesser ones from July 18, 1861, until Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865.
The most significant fighting of Brockport companies occurred at Gettysburg. On the second day of that battle, Brockport’s Company A of the 140th New York Volunteer Infantry regiment led an attack that repulsed a Confederate drive to conquer Little Round Top, the promontory that commanded the field where the decisive battle was fought the next day. On the third day of that battle, Brockport’s Company H of the 108th NYVI played an important role in defeating Pickett’s charge.
The railroad came to Brockport in 1852, bringing an end to passenger travel on the canal. The spread of the rail network across the county also helped to doom Brockport’s farm implement manufacturing industry. Rail transport was more efficient than the canal for its products. Seymour & Morgan responded to the threat by building a second plant near the rail line, but Brockport was not on the main line of the New York Central and suffered competitively.
By 1900, the farm implement manufacturing industry had pretty much vanished from Brockport. The Johnston Harvester Co. plant burned in 1882 and the firm rebuilt in Batavia. The Whiteside & Barnett Agricultural Works closed after Whiteside died in 1882 and Barnett retired in 1886. Dayton Morgan died in 1890 and his firm expired shortly thereafter.
Gifford Morgan, one of Dayton’s sons converted D.S. Morgan’s Plant No. 2 to the Rochester Wheel Works, but that business soon failed and the building became Brockport Cold Storage, which still exists today as Bonduelle’s food packaging plant. However, the employment and economic benefits of the farm implement industry could not be replaced. Morgan’s Plant No. 1 burned in 1904.
The decline of the farm implement industry coincided with a drop in canal traffic. Business on the canal peaked in 1880 and even abolition of the tolls two years later could not make the canal competitive with the railroads. By 1900, it became clear that the canal could not survive in the form it then had. Under Governor Theodore Roosevelt’s leadership the decision was made to convert the canal from animal to mechanical power, replacing the horses, mules, and oxen by steam- and diesel-powered craft.
The reconstruction of the canal occurred between 1905 and 1918. The Brockport section was rebuilt in 1914-15. The excavation from Adams Basin to the Orleans County line was done by Brockport’s Merritt Cleveland’s company, which was a major construction firm, having constructed railroads harbors, and canals in New York State, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Canada.
The new Barge Canal followed essentially the same route in Brockport as the old Erie Canal, but was 53 feet wider so new bridges were required. The Park Avenue high bridge and the 1890 Main Street lift bridge were replaced by larger lift bridges. The new bridges required two abutments each 18 x 45 feet which meant the removal at each bridge of 10,000 cu. Ft. of dirt and the pouring of 3,000 cu. Ft. of concrete. The new bridges are 131 feet long and 31 feet wide. Each weighs 200 tons, the equivalent of a Boing 747, but can be raised to their 15 foot 3 inches height by two 12-hp. motors because of counterweighting.
Construction of the Barge Canal had a major impact on the village. Not only was canal traffic much reduced during the construction, but, also, 160 parcels of land were taken from village residents to make way for the larger waterway. Then, too, the village was invaded by a construction crew consisting of 60 workers on the bridges and 200 on the excavation, many of them Italian immigrants.
Despite the immense effort and cost of rebuilding the canal, it never recovered the importance or economic value of the original. Traffic never returned to the level before 1880 and the cost was never recovered. Brockport’s heyday as a canal town was long past.
A major event of the early 20th century was the arrival of an interurban electric railroad, the Buffalo, Lockport & Rochester Railway in 1908. The twenty trolleys each day ran in each direction, being more frequent than the steam railroad, facilitating commuting to work in Rochester and making Brockport more of a “bedroom community”. The tracks ran along State and Erie Streets. Brockport’s station at what is now 36 Erie Street had been a residence and, later, a millinery shop. A single-ride fare to Rochester was 26 cents and a monthly round-trip pass to Rochester cost $1.40. In 1919, the company was in financial difficulty and was reorganized as the Rochester, Lockport and Buffalo Rail Road. It stopped running in 1931.
An event related to the arrival of the interurban railroad was the suicide of Wilson H. Moore, a leading Brockport businessman. Moore founded the Moore Subscription Agency in 1878 and was a partner in the Moore-Shafer Shoe Manufacturing Co. that was formed in 1888. He was also a partner in the Brockport Piano Co. and the Moore-Kimball Hardware store. The subscription agency claimed to be the largest in the world and the shoe factory was Brockport’s largest employer with 400 workers. Moore attempted to prevent construction of the interurban railroad in front of his home on State Street and, when he realized that he had failed, went to Canada and shot himself in 1907 at age 48. His widow merged the agency with D.C. Cottrell in North Cohocton and it survived until 1974. The shoe company failed in 1929.
The turn of the century was also the occasion for founding Brockport cemeteries. The first graveyard in the village was located where local tradition says an Indian burial ground had been, and was replaced, first by the village’s first schoolhouse, then by the First Baptist Church. In 1829, the bodies were removed from there to the Brockport Cemetery on High Street, which remains the only graveyard in the village. Five cemeteries had been founded in the Town of Sweden outside the village limits by 1880. In 1882 a Brockport Rural Cemetery Assn. was incorporated and created a graveyard intended mainly for Civil War veterans. In 1894, a 52-foot Soldiers Memorial Tower was erected at that site. However, very few soldiers were buried there and the cemetery was pretty much abandoned after the Lake View Cemetery Assn. was organized in 1891 on the hill south of the village and a new Catholic cemetery was founded east of the village in 1892.
World War I did not have as great an impact on the village as had the Civil War. Nevertheless, it was much involved through the military service of its young men. The Town of Sweden Sesqui-Centennial Celebration booklet lists 171 men from the town, including village residents, who served. No separate list for the village is available. A similar roster for World War II servicemen contains 490 names.
Consolidation of Schools
In 1927, the state legislature set in motion a process that would have a profound effect on public education in Brockport. It passed a law promoting the consolidation of school districts and ordered the phasing out of the laboratory schools for secondary education at the normal schools. Until 1915, elementary education in the village had taken place in the three district schools. In 1915, they were consolidated into a “Grammar School” at the corner of Utica and Holley Streets. Secondary education was provided by the laboratory school at the normal school. In response to the 1927 act, the Brockport Central School District was formed and a junior-senior high school was built. In 1967, a new high school was built and the old building became the Oliver Middle School. Also, in 1955, the Grammar School was replaced by the Elizabeth Barclay Elementary School.
The most notable Brockport event of the 1930s was, perhaps, the trial in 1936 of the dog, Idaho, for having caused the drowning death of a small boy. Idaho was convicted and sentenced to death. The trial, as an oddity, attracted nationwide media attention.
In the period after World War II, two developments profoundly affected the village’s economy. The first concerned higher education. In the 1930s, enrollment at the Normal School had declined and the state was considering closing it. Village residents organized a campaign to save it. A delegation met in Albany with Vincent Dailey, political secretary to Governor Lehman. Dailey had been born and reared in Brockport. He told the Brockporters that they could keep their school, but would have to demolish the old building and have built a new one on the same architectural plans as one in Potsdam. In their presence, he called the state budget director and instructed him to include that in the budget.
In the process, the three-year Normal School became a four-year State Teachers College in 1940.
As a result of that change, the handsome new building, and the influx of World War II veterans studying under the G.I. Bill, the school grew rapidly. From about 200 students in the 1930s, it grew to 2,900 in 1966. In 1962, it was designated one of the thirteen comprehensive colleges in the State University of New York. Under the leadership of President Albert W. Brown after 1965, it shot up to over 12,000 students about 1970 before settling down to a steady enrollment around 8,500 thereafter. To accommodate the increased enrollment, a major building program was undertaken and the campus was expanded greatly, involving the demolition or removal of many village homes west of the old normal school campus.
The second major postwar development was a resurgence of the manufacturing industry. General Electric came to Brockport in 1948 with a 150,000 sq. ft. plant that produced all of its small appliances for the domestic market and employed as many as 1,100 workers. In 1961, Owens-Illinois built a 350,000 sq. ft. state-of-the-art glass factory that employed 700 workers at its peak. GE sold its plant to Black & Decker in 1984 and Kleen Brite produced cleansing powders there from 1989 until 2001. The building has been vacant since then. Owens-Illinois closed in 1985 and its plant was demolished. The only remaining industrial facilities in the village are the Bonduelle food packaging plant that employs about 270 workers and a very small food sauce company.
In the 1960s, Brockport became infected with the “urban renewal’ fever. The Village Board adopted a plan to demolish much of the historic downtown commercial district and open the area up to a marina on the canal. They had detailed plans drawn up and had arranged for the financing when the citizenry rose up in revolt. They “threw the rascals out” and elected Frank Sacheli as mayor on a write-in vote. Thus was saved the finest array of Victorian commercial buildings in the area. Forty-five of them are now on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.