HAND GRENADES, HORSE SHOES, TAYLOR AND MONROE
The old adage says that “close only counts in hand grenades and horse shoes”. But perhaps to this cliché we can add that close also counts for presidents who almost, but not quite, made it to Rochester. The cases in point being Zachary Taylor and James Monroe (yes, THAT Monroe, the one the county is named after).
Both men passed through Western New York during the first year of their presidencies. Both sailed by the mouth of the Genesee River, probably within shouting distance. And sadly, both failed to stop.
I will not say I would not serve
if the good people were imprudent enough to elect me.
Following on the footsteps of Andrew Jackson, and William Henry Harrison (and to a lesser extent, George Washington), Zachary Taylor was elected president based on little more than his reputation as a successful general.
Taking office in 1849 in the midst of a national cholera epidemic (150,000 American died, including 8,000 in Cincinnati 5,000 in New York City, 3,500 in Chicago, plus Taylor’s immediate predecessor, ex-president James K. Polk), the 64 year old Taylor nevertheless decided to escape the oppressive heat of Washington by launching an August tour of the northern states, utilizing the era’s new transportation system, the railroad.
However, within a week of leaving the capital, Taylor began to exhibit symptoms of cholera. Undeterred, the old warrior forced himself to endure days of innumerable handshakes and tiresome speeches, and nights of more bloviating politicians and boring banquets. Arriving in Niagara Falls after three exhausting weeks of travel, it appeared Taylor was recovering, at least sufficiently to be given a tour of the cataract by his vice president, the less-than-legendary Millard Fillmore. But then, following a carriage ride to Canada over the newly-constructed Niagara River suspension bridge (becoming the first US president to visit foreign soil while in office, an accomplishment mistakenly credited to Theodore Roosevelt), Taylor suffered a relapse severe enough that the rest of his itinerary, including a stop in Rochester, had to be cut short. As a result, instead of being jostled on a smoky train trip through western New York, in early September Taylor was carried aboard the Lake Ontario side wheeler, the Bay State, for a restful cruise from Lewiston to Oswego. From there, avoiding receptions and speeches, he traveled to Syracuse, then to Albany, and finally south back to Washington.
We can only speculate whether Taylor expressed any regret at missing the opportunity to visit the boom town of Rochester, the “Young Lion of the West”, or whether he was too ill to even give a damn.
It’s been suggested that his illness during this trip may have weakened Taylor’s immunity enough so that a subsequent attack of cholera resulted in his death on July 9, 1850.
For those who remember their high school history lessons, James Monroe’s presidency was known as the “Era of Good Feelings”, the last time American politics were so unified and nonpartisan that a president could run for re-election unopposed.
In the spirit of the People
In the wake of the recently-ended War of 1812, President Monroe set out a few months after taking office for a lengthy inspection tour of the country’s military defenses in New England and New York (and to scope out the political climate in the heartland of the soon-to-be-defunct Federalist Party). Boarding the US Navy brig Jones at Sackets Harbor, America’s chief Great Lakes naval base, Monroe set sail on August 6, 1817 for Fort Niagara. Given the still wild condition of upstate New York where the roads were few and poor, with a serious lack of an infrastructure of bridges and inns, a trip across Lake Ontario was clearly the most practical, to say nothing of fastest, way for Monroe to reach his goal.
With relations between the United States and Canada on a “cold war” footing (our recent repeated and unsuccessful invasions of Canada being held against us for some reason), the Jones would have sailed close to the American side of the lake, where Monroe was no doubt regaled with stories of the naval and land battles stretching along the eastern and southern shore of Lake Ontario from Sackets Harbor to Oswego to the Genesee River to Fort Niagara.
Likely the navy officers aboard would have told Monroe of the repeated raids by Great Britain’s Lake Ontario fleet against the American supply depot established at Charlotte, raids in which hundreds of barrels of flour, salt pork and rum, and even a handful of sailing vessels, were seized. Or perhaps they entertained him with an account of the “Battle of Lake Ontario”.
During the war, the American and British fleets had played a game of cat and mouse in which one side, and then the other, would pursue their opponent up and down Lake Ontario, with significant damage seldom being inflicted on anyone. On September 11, 1813, in one of these episodes, the British fleet became becalmed off Charlotte. The inhabitants, fearing another raiding party was about to strike, grabbed their muskets and, in the words of a local historian, “in a few hours a considerable number of men collected ready to fight or to run, as chances of invasion should make it expedient”, when unexpectedly the American fleet hove into view and opened fire on the British, the roar of the cannonade being heard far inland. After several hours of inconclusive firing, the fleets disappeared to the east running before a freshening breeze.
Not to be out done, conceivably Monroe’s army escort extolled the bravery of the area militia who “repulsed” a British attack in the “Great Battle of Charlotte” of May 14, 1814. Rumors had swirled through Western New York that the British were planning to disrupt the flow of US troops to the Niagara frontier by burning the Genesee River bridge at Rochester. Armed with two cannon, the militia set up defensive positions in Charlotte and near High Falls (the log and dirt breastwork being grandiloquently named “Fort Bender”). Less heroic for all concerned perhaps was the fact that, having sailed into Charlotte and demanding that locals turn over all military supplies stored there, the British raiders departed empty-handed after being the recipients of several harmless cannon shots.
Coincidently, Monroe came by at the time when the settlers in the general vicinity of the falls of the Genesee (the population of Rochester proper than being only about 300 to 400) were petitioning New York State to create a new country by chopping off territory from Ontario and Genesee counties, thereby eliminating the need for those on the west side of the Genesee River to travel to their county seat at Batavia, while those on the east side were required to make the trip to their county seat in Canandaigua. After years of negotiations, in 1821 the state legislature agreed to erect the new county, to be named Monroe in honor of the president who had been too busy to drop by to say hello.
Oh, and as a fringe benefit, an application to the president requesting that the federal government build a lighthouse at the mouth of the Genesee River, which had been lost in the bureaucracy for several years, coincidently was approved by Monroe soon after the county was named in his honor.
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