[View of Rochester’s Market Bridge. Images provided by Michael Nighan]
The old cliché says that if you ask a real estate agent to list the most important factors for determining the value of a property, the response will be, “Location, location, location.”
That same cliché can be used to explain why it was that during the decades following the War of 1812, Rochester, although situated hundreds of miles from the population centers of the Atlantic seaboard, and only recently carved from the virgin forests of Western New York, nevertheless hosted so many famous and soon-to-be-famous men and women. A classic example of location, location location seems the logical answer. First, Rochester’s location as a “boom town” port along the Erie Canal, for many years the country’s primary east-west transportation route. Secondly, the location where the Falls of the Genesee provided scenic vistas and waterpower. And finally, the location as the eastern gateway to America’s most famous 19th Century tourist attraction, Niagara Falls.
First by road along the glacial ridge that forms today’s Ridge Road, later by canal, and finally by train, over the years sightseers (and of course honeymooners) from the East passed through Rochester on their way to view the awesome sight of the waters of Lake Erie dropping 170 feet on their way to the Atlantic. (1)
Earlier this year, I described the convoluted September 1832 journey through New York State of the then virtually-unknown writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and how his travels eventually brought him to the village of Rochester and to Niagara Falls. Had his timing (which can sometimes be as important as location) been better, the aspiring scribe might have arrived in Rochester in August and crossed paths with the most famous American author of his day, Washington Irving. Like Hawthorne, a tourist bound for Niagara Falls.
“I believe that eight cases out of ten reported as spasmodic cholera are the ordinary complaints of the country & season.” – Washington Irving [from Hawthorne and the Pandemic Visit the Instantaneous City]
1832 wasn’t the best of times to be visiting Niagara Falls. In my article on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s visit to Rochester, I detailed the spread of that year’s cholera pandemic, the “Blue Death”, across New York State to the Niagara frontier. (2) To recap, in June 1832 cholera-infected European immigrants arriving in Montreal and Quebec inaugurated a pandemic which rapidly spread from Canada through New York State, down the Hudson River to New York City, along the Erie Canal from Albany to points west, and by ship across Lake Ontario to the Niagara region where the first cases of cholera were reported in later that month.
Rochesterians knew it was only a matter of time before cholera hit town, the village leaders announcing that, “The great intercourse of Rochester with Canada…forbids the hope that we should be long freed from the scourge unless the most vigorous policy is instituted and maintained”. [from Hawthorne and the Pandemic Visit the Instantaneous City]
A “vigorous” attempt was made to shovel away the debris and filth in the streets that were thought to be a cause of cholera. But little could be done about the equally-suspect “bad air”, “miasmas” and “vapors” arising from those pungent civic cesspools, the Erie Canal and the Genesee River. However, it was suggested that heavy doses of laudanum (alcohol mixed with opium), and a concoction made from sulfuric ether, ammonia and cinnamon might be efficacious in stopping the disease!
Meanwhile, the reports of cholera outbreaks drew closer and closer. Two weeks after appearing in Quebec and Montreal, it was reported in Burlington and Plattsburgh. By June 18 it was at Albany where the deaths from cholera of canal passengers were reported. On June 22 there were fears it had reached Niagara Falls via a boat load of immigrants. On July 8 at Seneca Falls. And on July 10 at Buffalo.
Despite a quarantine which had been imposed on roads and waterways leading into Rochester in the hope of warding off cholera carriers, on July 12 Dr. Reid, the village health officer, reported to the civic authorities that, “I have just been called to see a traveler…said to have the cholera. It is even so…Drs. Coleman, Elwood, Backus, Smith and others have also seen the case and all agree that it is Malignant Cholera.” [from Hawthorne and the Pandemic Visit the Instantaneous City]
The peak of the pandemic was reached on August 15 when 15 deaths and 26 cases of cholera were reported in Rochester within 24 hours. Between July 12 and Sept. 3 when it was announced that the peril was over, Rochester experienced an estimated 388 cases of cholera, of which 108 or 116 or 121 (depending on the source), proved fatal. While not stunningly large figures, taking into account that Rochester’s population in 1832 was only about 12,000, if we extrapolate using Rochester’s current population figure that would equate to almost 2,000 deaths in 2021. And all in just over seven weeks!
As those of us living through the Age of Covid know, traveling during a pandemic is problematic at best. With travel restrictions, vaccines, hand sanitizers and masks, staying home was, until recently, the occupation of choice for most Americans. That being the case, how startling is it to realize that, whether from wishful thinking or simple ignorance, during the pre-vaccination cholera pandemic of 1832, most Americans who needed or wanted to travel, by and large continued to do so as if no pandemic was occurring.
Some of those travelers at least took the precaution of trying to dodge cholera by waiting until it seemed to be waning. Among these more circumspect individuals was the soon-to-be famous author, Nathaniel Hawthorne who waited until things had quieted down before setting out on his journey. On the other hand, Washington Irving, preceding Hawthorne by a month, dismissed the pandemic and traveled through Rochester on his way to Niagara Falls as the pandemic was at its worst.
“I am always at a loss to know how much to believe of my own stories” – Washington Irving
Despite being the first internationally-recognized author (and a best-selling one at that) produced by the young United States, most Americans today remember Washington Irving, if they remember him at all, simply for his tales of Rip van Winkle and the Headless Horseman.
Born in New York City in 1783, Irving started life with a rare privilege. At age 6 he was introduced to George Washington who had just been inaugurated as the country’s first president (Given how many children must have already been named after him by this point, it’s doubtful whether George saw anything remarkable about this particular meeting).
Growing up in a family of merchants, the youngest child of eight, Irving began his literary career writing the equivalent of letters to the editor. In questionable health, he was sent to Europe in 1804, spending two years visiting various spas, but spending even more time working to turn himself into a continental gentleman, a raconteur and a bon vivant.
Back home in America, Irving studied for the bar but eventually decide to become a full-time author, founding Salmagundi, a short-lived literary magazine (described as an early 19th Century Mad Magazine) with one of his brothers. While writing for, the magazine, Irving published his first book, the literary parody, “A History of New York: From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, also known as “Knickerbocker’s History of New York”. Sadly, as his career was taking off, Irving’s fiancé died. He remained a bachelor for the rest of his life.
The War of 1812 left the Irving clan, like many merchant families, in dire financial straits. Leaving for Europe in 1815 to see what he could salvage of the family’s fortunes, Irving ended up staying there for the next 17 years. Failing to save the business, he turned back to writing. His next book, “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.” , became his most famous work, containing as it did his short stories, Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Gaining a reputation in Europe as “an anomaly of literature: an upstart American who dared to write English well”, over the next decade Irving sought to become a more serious writer, publishing histories of Spain and a biography of Christopher Columbus, a work so popular that it went through a phenomenal 175 editions over the next 80 years. (3) These books helped to reinforce his growing European reputation, with the added benefit that American literary critics were quick to praise any author who had a continental following. (Irving’s familiarity with Spain and Spanish customs would eventually be of great value when he served as US minister to the Spanish court from 1842 to 1846.)
In 1829 Irving was appointed to the position of secretary to the American legation in London. After three years at that post, and after receiving various medals and honorary degrees, Irving decided it was time to go home. Forty nine years old, he had by then spent over half of his adult life out of the United States. Like an awakening Rip van Winkle, Irving would find a country far different from the one he remembered.
Sailing out of a French port, Irving made the acquaintance of a young Swiss nobleman, Count Albert-Alexandre de Pourtalès, and an Englishman, Charles Joseph Latrobe, hired by the count’s parents as a tutor and to keep an eye on their somewhat reckless son. The two men were part of a swarm of Europeans who had been traveling to the United States to see what the evolving democracy was up to.
In an era when people walked around with newspapers and books, not cell phones, in their hands, the arrival of the acclaimed author Irving in New York on May 21, 1832 was Big News. So big in fact that when contrary winds delayed his ship from docking, one of the city’s newspaper’s scooped their competitors by chartering a boat to sail out to Irving’s ship to bring him to shore. “It was fitting that he had been brought ashore by a newsboat,” Irving biographer Brian Jay Jones later wrote, “for Washington Irving was all that New York could talk about.” In that same vein, the New-York Mirror hailed Irving’s arrival as being, “almost like the coming to life of some of those departed poets and authors whose works enrich our libraries, and whose names are cherished as something sacred and apart from those of the living.”
In later years some biographers would wonder about this enthusiasm for Irving given that his writings tended to satirize the American culture and poke fun at the beliefs of his fellow country. And even as Irving was returning from his European exile, he was aware of criticism in some literary circles that he was becoming less an American author and more an Old World one.
“There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse. As I have found in traveling in a stagecoach, it is often a comfort to shift one’s position, and be bruised in a new place.” – Washington Irving
After two months of being lionized by New York society, Irving decided to hit the road, anxious to begin a tour of America to see what changes had been wrought in his 17 year absence. “I passed through places that ought to be familiar to me, but all were changed,” he later recalled. “Huge edifices and lofty piles had sprung up in the place of lowly tenements; the old landmarks of the city were gone; the very streets were altered.”
Indeed, so impatient was he to start that he disdained the many newspaper stories of how cholera had begun to spread through the country, including New York City. Indeed, sounding like the many Americans who today downplay the seriousness of Covid, Irving wrote to his friend (and future president) Martin van Buren, “New York is almost deserted through the exaggerated alarm concerning the cholera, which is no more to be dreaded by decent people here than it was in London. I believe that eight cases out of ten reported as spasmodic cholera are the ordinary complaints of the country & season.”
Sailing up the Hudson River through the Catskills, land of Rip Van Winkle and the Headless Horseman, with his new friends de Pourtalès and Latrobe in tow, Irving then set off to Boston and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Eventually ending up at Saratoga Springs, where he planned to begin a trip west to Niagara Falls.
Leaving Saratoga by coach on August 10, Irving and his companions jolted down the roads to the Mohawk River. At this point Irving could have opted to take the more comfortable, if slower, mode of travel via packet boat along the Erie Canal. But perhaps he had second thoughts about the cholera threat, known to be infecting canal boat passengers. Whatever the reason, Irving decided to continue with the faster, if dustier, stagecoach.
Although coaches were certainly not an agreeable means of transportation, things had been getting better. A few years earlier the Troy Sentinel had remarked that, “improvement in the mode of conveyance in this country is not confined to steamboats and the water, as those may well testify who recollect the differences between our light, elegant and convenient stage-coaches, with their spring seats and easy motion, and the lumbering vehicles which were in use for the purpose some twelve or fifteen years ago.”
Stepping into the stagecoach, it’s possible that Irving had in his pocket a copy of “The Fashionable Tour”, one of the most popular regional travel guides, which gave descriptions of the sights to see in upstate New York, along with detailed listing of the departure times, travel times and cost for the various stagecoach and canal packet boat lines. For example, traveling west to Niagara Falls, Irving could choose from the Diligence Mail Coach, the Pilot Coach, the Eagle Coach or the Union Line coach. Fare from Utica to Buffalo was $6.50 with the trip from Utica to Lewiston via Rochester taking two days 2 days by express. More interested in sight-seeing than speed, Irving apparently opted for a slower coach.
Journeying down today’s Route 5, Irving (still sounding like many in Covid Days) opted to bypass Utica, writing his bother Peter that, “I shall leave that place out of my route…though hitherto I have never avoided the malady, nor shall I do so in the course of my tour; simply observing such genteel diet and habits of living as experience has taught me are best calculated to keep my system in healthful tone.”
Detouring around Utica, Irving arrived at Trenton Falls on August 14, a famous resort of the day, renown for its waterfalls and fancy hotels.
Leaving Trenton Falls for Rome on August 18, the party skirted Syracuse (4) to arrive at Skaneateles on Aug. 19. The next day, traveling along what is now Route 20 past Auburn, Irving made notes on the towns they passed through, such as Seneca Falls (“thriving town”), Waterloo (”a very neat town”) arriving at Geneva (“(fine) thriving place. large Shops- pavd streets, excellent Hotel (Franklin))” at dusk on Aug. 21.
Writing in his journal for August 22, Irving hurriedly, and not very clearly, wrote:
“Leave Geneva at ½ past 9. in Stage coach; to Canandaigua – (There take) pretty town – Court in session – There take an extra and (keep on till until 10 at night when we stop)- Stop at Rochester – dine there and continue on to Sandy Creek where we (dine) sleep – comfortable Inn-“
Arriving in Canandaigua (“The Fashionable Tour” had written that, “In the richness and variety of natural scenery, and the taste and elegance of its edifices, few villages can compare with Canandaigua.”), Irving would have found an early transportation “hub”. The Ontario Repository had noted in reference to the 80 stagecoaches which arrived and departed Canandaigua each week, ““The number of these vehicles, for the conveyance of passengers, increases of late with astonishing rapidity….the number of “exclusive extras,” or stages hired by individuals, also was growing at a rapid pace.” The confusion and bottlenecks caused by the coaches prompted an English tourist in the early 1830s to write, “When we arrived at Canandaigua, there was a great confusion in consequence of four or five stages being at the door at the same time. As they were going in different directions, the passengers were hunting for the agent, and the agent for the passengers. After the bustle had ceased and I had seen my luggage properly stowed away, I observed to the agent, that it would save much trouble and prevent mistakes, if the names of the places were put upon the coaches, as is done in France and England. His reply was… ‘very likely, but we have different customs here,’ as if I wanted to be informed of the very thing my suggestion implied.”
Overlaying today’s road system on that of the 1830s shows that Irving’s 27 mile trip from Canandaigua to Rochester likely took him north along Route 332 to Route 96, west along that road to Pittsford, then west again along Monroe Avenue/Route 31 to Rochester.
Now we reach a question, the answer to which can only be a matter of speculation. Which bridge did Irving use to cross the Genesee River? There were three possibilities. First, the original Court Street Bridge, built in 1826. A narrow structure, unlikely to be a route for stagecoach traffic. So I vote against it. The second option, the Falls Bridge (an early predecessor to the Inner Loop Bridge by High Falls) is a bit of a mystery. It shows up on a map of the period, but seems to have been little more than a glorified footbridge. It’s also out-of-the-way for stagecoach traffic from Canandaigua. So let’s nix that one.
That leaves the third candidate and Irving’s assumed crossing point. Known as the Market Bridge, it connected Main Street on the east side of the Genesee to Buffalo Street on the west. (The Main Street name would eventually be applied to Buffalo Street as well, with the bridge becoming simply the Main Street Bridge.)
The Market Bridge was a sight to behold. A rarity in America, perhaps even unique, the bridge looked like something out of medieval Europe. A river span bordered on the north side by stores and workshops (powered by waterwheels under the bridge) and an open air market where local farmers could rent stalls to sell their produce and fresh meats. Constructed on the site of Rochester’s first bridge across the Genesee, which had been destroyed by repeated flooding and poor construction, the Market Bridge was built in 1824. Eventually fire, and more flooding, caused the Market Bridge to be replaced in 1837. This third bridge in turn was replaced in 1855-1857, the new bridge designed to mimic the architectural style of the Aqueduct (the Broad Street Bridge).This bridge remains in use today. Carrying on the tradition, both sides were eventually built up until no sight of the river remained. Rochester officials finally opted to remove them and open up the view of the Genesee in the 1960s.
With his coach stopping in Rochester for the noonday meal, a quick glance at the “Fashionable Tour” guide would have given Irving a list of the best public houses in town; The Rochester House, The Mansion, the Merchant’s Exchange, Eagle Tavern and the Franklin House. There’s no way to know which of these, if any, Irving’s stagecoach line would have directed their pass
engers to. Nor did Irving leave us any hint of where he and his friends dined. But with the cholera pandemic still raging in Rochester, the insouciance of these three men to dine anywhere in town was surprising.
While the Mansion Hotel had been Rochester’s premier hostelry for years (Lafayette had stopped there during his 1825 visit to America, as had DeWitt Clinton when he traversed the state later that same year celebrating the opening of his Erie Canal. And Sam Patch stayed at the hotel just before his fatal fall down the High Falls), by 1832 the best place in town was the Eagle Hotel and Tavern (located at the corner of Main Street and State Street where the Powers Building now stands), directly at the end of the Market Bridge. I have no reason to believe that Irving, the count and the English gentleman would have opted for anything but the best.
Finishing their noonday meal and back in their coach, Irving, de Pourtalès and Latrobe would have traveled up State Street. While there’s no record that they stopped to view the famous and scenic High Falls, it’s difficult to believe that these three tourists would simply have blown off such a sight, particularly coming less than three years after nationally-known showman Sam Patch had plunged over the falls to his death.But Irving made no mention of it. Maybe they simply didn’t have the time. However, another tourist did. A month later, on his own version of The Fashionable Tour, Nathaniel Hawthorn would arrive in Rochester. He would view the High Falls and later give Sam Patch and Rochester a write up, labeling us the “Instantaneous City”. Obviously less impressed, Irving ignored Rochester and went on his way. Never publishing a word about his visit.
Turning off State Street onto the “Great Ridge Road” (now Route 104), the group traveled along the most well-known route in Western New York. The “Ridge” is the south shore of Lake Iroquois, the glacial predecessor to the smaller Lake Ontario. A flat topped wall of sand, gravel, rock and even clam shells, the Ridge had been a natural transportation route for Native Americans long before Europeans arrived to make the Ridge the region’s main east-west artery until its replacement by the Erie Canal and later the railroads.
After spending the night at that unnamed “comfortable inn” in Sandy Creek (5), on August 23 the party re-boarded their stagecoach and completed their journey along the Ridge, passing through Lockport and Lewiston before arriving at Niagara Falls in the early evening.
When Irving’s stage pulled into Niagara Falls, he found the place nearly-deserted and the locals bemoaning the economic impact that cholera was having on tourism. Wrote one Buffalo paper, “It is stated that there is a total absence of all visitors and strangers at Niagara Falls. Although no sickness has reached that place, one gentleman with two companions, was the sole occupants of the saloon where, at the same season, it is usual to meet 300 persons, of different nations and languages.” Obviously not all travelers shared Irving’s disregard for the pandemic.
Whether by dumb good luck or simply because the odds were against contracting cholera, Irving and his companions remained hale and healthy as they had traveled across the state, and remained so when three days later they again took a stagecoach, this time for the short hop to Buffalo.
There Irving, with the ever-present de Pourtalès and Latrobe, met members of the “Commission to the Indians”, a group of federal representatives being sent west by President Andrew Jackson to gather information on western lands scheduled to be used for the resettlement of Native American tribes who his administration was forcibly removing from the southwest United States. Apparently inviting themselves along, Irving – who was looking to write a solid American book to reinforce his credentials as a true American author, managed to get himself appoint an unsalaried commission secretary. Following a two month sojourn through Missouri (at St. Louis Irving met William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame), Oklahoma and Arkansas, Irving and his friends then returned to the East by way of New Orleans and the muddy roads through the South to Washington, DC. (The idea of the genteel Irving and his high-born European companions roughing it in the wilds of the North American frontier makes for an interesting mental picture.)
It’s clear that Irving was aware of the sordid aspects of the Commission’s work, writing to his sister that, “I find it extremely difficult, even when so near the seat of action, to get at the right story of these feuds between the White & the red man…and my sympathies go strongly with the latter.” But when Irving published “A Tour on the Prairies”, part travelogue, part adventure story and part elegy for the passing of a way of life, he nevertheless exhibited a degree of condescension that was not unexpected from a man who had spent almost two decades in the rarified atmosphere of European intellectual society. But the book remains a classic description of the early 19th Century frontier and has remained in print since it’s publication in 1835.
“Who can tell, when he sets forth to wander, whither he may be driven by the uncertain currents of existence…? – Washington Irving
Irving would visit the Rochester area (more or less) at least two more times.
In August 1838, following a visit with William Seward in Auburn, he continued on to Geneva to attend the wedding of his nephew Theodore Irving. Theodore was professor of history and modern languages at Geneva College (Hobart). Keeping matters in the family, the wedding was conducted by Theodore’s brother, the Rev. Pierre Irving, rector of Trinity Church in that village.
Lastly, in August 1853, needing a rest from the long hours of research and writing he had been putting into a biography of George Washington, Irving again journeyed to “take the waters” at Saratoga Spring and then traveled through northern New York to Ogdensburg where he took a steamboat across Lake Ontario to Lewiston and Niagara Falls. Whether his ship sailed close enough to the southern shore of Lake Ontario to remind him of his trip through Rochester and along the Ridge is anyone’s guess.
“The idol of today pushes the hero of yesterday out of our recollection; and will, in turn, be supplanted by his successor of tomorrow.” – Washington Irving
By the time of his death in 1859, Irving had written over a dozen books, including his last work, the above-mentioned monumental five volume biography of his namesake, George Washington, and had become an inspiration and mentor to the next generation of American authors.
Although our two tourists, lrving and Hawthorne never met, they appear together, along with 13 other American writers (who never gathered together as a group) at Irving’s Hudson Valley home in a fictionalized painting entitled, “Washington Irving and His Literary Friends at Sunnyside”, painted in 1864 by Christian Schussele. With Irving seated benignly in the center, and Hawthorne relegated to peeking out from the back of the crowd, the painting represents Irving’s role as the central figure in the development of American literature.
Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, despite an equally tenuous connection to Rochester, would end up with a local school named in his honor. Washington Irving Elementary, built on Chili Avenue in today’s Gates-Chili School District. And like Hawthorne, Irving’s school would fall on dark days and end up being shut down. Closed in 1986 because of declining enrollment, Washington Irving Elementary was reopened in 1992, and closed for good in 2008. Today the building houses the Archangel School.
(1) By comparison, the total drop of the Genesee River’s High Falls (96 ft.), Middle Falls (20 ft.) and Lower Falls (110 ft.) in Rochester exceeds the height of Niagara Falls by over 50 feet.
(2) Cholera is a bacterial intestinal infection caused by sewage-polluted water or food, and poor personal hygiene. By early fall when the scourge finally burned itself out, an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 Americans had died, perhaps half of that number in New York City and State alone.
(3) Irving’s biography of Columbus would also help spread the myth that Europeans in the 15th Century believed the world to be flat. A canard that became gospel in American grade school class rooms for generations.
(4) Irving must have received travel advice prior to making his trip. On the inside cover of his journal is written “From Utica go by Onondaga Holl(ow) & not thru Syracuse”. Onondaga Hollow is now Nedrow, the southern-most part of Syracuse.
(5) Sandy Creek in the Town of Murray, Orleans County was once a thriving community with grist and saw mills, a distillery and a fabric manufactory. Today it boasts little but a gas station, a convenience store, and an auto repair shop.