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A look at 1861 Ogdensburgh on the eve of the Civil War

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A little over 150-years ago, Ogdensburgh had grown from a rough frontier settlement on the edge of the wilderness to one of Northern New York’s major commercial centers.

The community’s major business leaders, led by former U.S. Congressman Henry Bell Van Rensselaer, pooled their money to construct a railroad across Northern New York from Vermont to Ogdensburgh.

The arrival of the first train on Sept. 26, 1850 transformed the community, providing a way for area farmers and businesses to ship goods to the East Coast.

The arrival of the railroad meant that communities on the Great Lakes could ship goods by water to Ogdensburgh. Before the construction of the Seaway, 40 miles of rapids between Ogdensburg and Massena blocked ships from sailing east of Ogdensburgh.

Just 11 years later, in 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, Ogdensburgh was one of upstate New York’s success stories.

Historian and author Harry F. Landon described Ogdensburgh in the 1850s in his book: The North Country: A History Embracing Jefferson, St. Lawrence, Oswego. Lewis and Franklin Counties, New York.

Landon’s description follows:

“Ogdensburg was a waterfront town. As the first life of the village had centered about George Parish’s big stone warehouse at the river’s edge so now in the fifties Ogdensburg still looked to the river, where now thousands of feet of wharfage had been built and elaborate warehouses and other terminal structures had been built by the proprietors of the Northern Railroad. Daily the great boats of the St. Lawrence Steamboat Company, with their thirty-foot paddle wheels, steamed slowly up to the new wharves. Before the Northern Railroad had been built, the Oswego boat always awaited the arrival of the Syracuse train at Oswego before leaving that port and there were always passengers to alight when the Northerner or the Ontario or the Bay State or the British Empire, or some other boat, docked at Ogdensburg.

“Jean Jacques Ampere, accomplished man of letters who visited Ogdensburg in 1851, wrote a graphic description of the town of that day as it appeared to him. ‘We have here,’ he writes, ‘the transition from a village to a great city — the skin of the chrysalis still covering the butterfly which just begins to open its wings . . . In this expanding city everything is new and unfinished. In German they would say it is going to be. It is like a house, where they begin to furnish a room before the roof is finished. Imagine broad, straight, and well laid-out streets; in their midst a black mud-on the borders, plank walks; here and there ravines with groups of trees that belonged to primeval forests; fields scarcely enclosed, with an abandoned look, as if not yet taken up, or yet to be cultivated, and on every hand beautiful gardens and elegant cottages, with every appliance of the most refined civilization — on a place cleared but yesterday, and close beside an unimproved waste. Some cows were straying along the street, near a store of novelties, where the fashion plates of the Journal du Modes were displayed in the windows, by the side of portraits of members of the local government; and bales of merchandize lay in the streets among the trunks of overturned trees. It was a strange mingling of departing savagery and of industries yet to come. In these carefully alligned and half-filled streets, we see at once the rudeness of primeval life, and the rising splendors of the orient; for they have got the idea that this city which they are building, will be a great one.’

“Ogdensburg at this time had about 4,000 inhabitants. It was no insignificant place, with nearly 500 dwelling houses and some eighty stores and shops displaying goods from Montreal and often linens and woolens from abroad. A steam ferry was running between Ogdensburg and the quaint, little Canadian village of Prescott, and many Canadians came across the river to shop in Ogdensburg even as they do today. Most of the travelers stopped at the St. Lawrence Hotel at the corner of State and Ford streets to which a four-story addition had just been built. Here there were eighty-six sleeping rooms and on the roof an ‘observatory’ from which there was a splendid view of the Canadian shore for many a mile.

“There were five churches, all substantial structures, the latest being the large, stone Roman Catholic church, which had been dedicated in 1855. This was the present St. Mary’s Cathedral and when completed it was considered the handsomest Catholic church in all Northern New York. Then there was St. John’s Episcopal Church with its high, square tower and its organ, the Gothic edifice of the Presbyterians with the clock in its steeple, the new brick church of the Methodists on Franklin street and the stone church of the Baptists in State street.”

To be continued next week.

James E. Reagen is a former managing editor of The Journal and Advance News. He is the author of “Warriors of La Presentation” and “Fort Oswegatchie.” He is currently employed by the New York State Senate.

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