Early Days in Fairport - 1800-1872
(Settled in 1789 - Incorporated in 1867)
By Marjorie Snow Merriman
In 1800, there was a small group of families living on widely scattered farms in our township. Captain Caleb Walker had come in 1789 accompanied by Glover Perrin whose brother Jesse followed soon in l792 -- the first settlers on Perinton soil, on land they cleared on Wapping Road (1). In 1793 came Philip and Elizabeth Piester. Abner Wight settled closest to the future Fairport locality when he selected his site at the top of South Main Street hill on the present Charles J. Clark farm (2) Jesse and Levi Treadwell came in 1796; Major Nathan Norton and John Scott the surveyor soon appeared. Two more Perrin brothers, Asa and Edward, were here by 1800 and also Thomas Ramsdell.
No doubt the woods rang with the sound of the axe, and the much storied black squirrels chattered vindictively at these intruders. All the future seemed to hang on the endeavors of these few men. That a little village should spring up to the north was undoubtedly the last idea entertained by these farmers and woodsmen. To hew out farm lands and make their ever increasing families more comfortable (or perhaps we should say less uncomfortable) was their engrossing thought. If they had homesickness for their own kind, a trip to the county seat in far away Canandaigua or perhaps a day in the year-old Pittsford settlement had to suffice. For Sunday meeting they must go to Palmyra and for milling to Honeoye Falls. Anyway, if a nucleus of families should gather in this new township, why not in the fertile valley along the southern foothills which we now call Egypt where there was passing from Canandaigua to the west, or at the cross roads by Glover Perrin’s newly planted apple orchard, later the Center? Surely the low wet lands were not appealing.
So, the valley to the north of Abner Wight remained a low swampy ground. Black ash abounded with scanty oak woods on the higher risings; a few trappers’ huts occasionally yielded a thin trickle of smoke. Dark, dismal and dull it must have been, with instant reprisals of fever and ague and even malaria, to him who meddled with it. Quicksands were there to discourage not only settlers, but later the canal engineers.
1808 - 1822
For ten years it was thus, and then our virgin village site was seen by a distinguished traveler, James Geddes, appointed by the canal commissioners, came through in the winter of 1808 to lay out the probable course of the canal, for New York State was at last to have its long dreamed of waterway. And in 1810, DeWitt Clinton himself came with perhaps Gouverneur Morris along the proposed route for further explorings in the interest of the canal. In 1817 the project was authorized, and construction east of Rochester was in progress during 1820 and 1821.
In the meantime, some land had been taken up by a few men on the north and south hills of the present village. Peter Ripley was perhaps the first settler. He had come in 1810 to Penfield from Pompey, New York, but “after a brief sojourn” came to Perinton where he built a saw mill and a log house. His neighbors in Penfield helped him “cut a road" (perhaps this was the present North Main Street or possibly Whitney Road) “thro" the underbrush to let him through.” A few years later, probably after 1822, he built a frame house which the Rev. Mr. Butler spoke of as the first one of consequence in the village. It stood at the north corner of Parce Avenue and North Main Street. His “farm” was north of Thomas Creek and west of Main Street. Across from him to the east lay the farm of Larry Wilcox who came in 1815 from Dover, Dutchess County, New York. On the south hill, west side, in 1817, came Martin Sperbeck and built himself a block house. (3) His land extended north, down the hill as far as West Church Street. Whether Ripley, Wilcox and Sperbeck were shrewd enough to foresee the rise of a village here we cannot say. The canal was “in the news” and they were interested in the Genesee country. It remained for Isaac Beers, perhaps as early as 1816, to brave the unfriendliness of the lower land between the hills. He bought the portion between East Church Street and Thomas Creek on the east side and also fifty acres directly across to the west. His log house was near Mr. Sperbeck, probably on the west piece, for the next year (1817) he built the first frame house in Fairport, on the site now occupied by the Green Lantern Inn (4). Mr. Beers became discouraged by a cold summer in this damp unpromising location and sold to Oliver Tomlinson in 1820 -- at least all his land on the east of Main Street. It was not until 1822 that we find Salmon Mallett on the west piece of Mr. Beers’ holdings in his log house which Jesse Hanford had built, on the site now occupied by the A&P store. (5). In the meantime, Col. John Peters had bought in 1820, south of East Church and east of Main, across from Mr. Sperbeck.
By 1822, Rochester had been reached in the digging of the canal, and a first cargo of flour shipped from there to Little Falls. Now the low swampy valley lying east and west through our township became, instead of a menace, a life-giving belt, quickening and energizing all adjacent lands. The quicksands had been conquered; the doubtful balance of flow between the Genesee River and Mud Creek, which had harassed the engineers and made our township a thorn in their flesh, was finally successfully established. (Note: This was a gigantic task; it meant getting the water from the Genesee River over the Irondequoit Creek in some fashion.) And so, the making of the canal was the real cause of the birth of Fairport. For where you have a waterway, you must have bridges, and bridges precipitate and localize human activities, and centralized activities make villages. The whole length of the canal, villages sprang up at an unbelievable rate - their very names often implying their birth as canal ports, viz. Fairport, Middleport, Lockport, Port Gibson.
What a picture the little narrow winding stream, only three and one half or four feet deep and forty feet wide, must have made -- with boats that must have seemed oversized barging slowly along, decks gay with ladies in swishing skirts, flowered bonnets and gay parasols. The canal packet boat instead of the stage coach became the mode of travel and drew all kinds of people for passengers - wily land agents, speculators, gamblers, as well as honest ambitious men seeking a foothold in the abundance of the newly opening Genesee country. It carried many through Fairport on their way west -- this miniature canal with its grass adorned banks. Time was no object, or need not be, since the rate of speed was only about four miles an hour, and many interesting accounts of life on the packets exist. A contemporary picture of the canal near Pittsford has recently turned up in an old New York print shop. It was quickly seized by the New York Historical Society and now hangs in their central headquarters at Cooperstown. It is a watercolor painting by George Harvey in 1837, when the canal was twelve years old. Mr. Frank Pugsley of Pittsford was able to identify the location of the artist's easel.
And so the canal drew the nucleus of population away from Egypt and the southern and central parts of the township. It tied the old south part and the newly settled north part into a knot, soon to be called Fairport. And all by means of the bridges. They were little ones, too, the height of them causing much anguish among the passengers. But each had its store, warehouse and boat barns. The first was east of Fairport (Knapps). Soon came three, fairly close together, known to us as Cobbs, Main Street, and Fullamtown (6). So quickly and tenaciously did the business at each bridge take root that we soon find the three vying with each other for the location of the permanent settlement. Cobbs, then known as Peter's, lost out, but Fullams Basin gave a good run for its money, having the first post office for some years until 1829 in the Fullamtown tavern, where letters were stuck into tapes, nailed cross-wise, and everyone helped himself! An old pocket manual for travelers, published in New York in 1830, gives in its western canal route from Albany only Fullams Basin between Palmyra and Pittsford. It reads: "Fullam's Basin, 13 miles from Palmyra. The distance by canal to Rochester is 16 miles and by land only 71/2 miles; in consequence of which passengers frequently take stages from this place." This was probably why Fullamtown persisted so long in its ambition to be the future village.
We have seen that Fairport really started in 1822, though the canal was not finished until 1825. What did it look like in 1822? The village was cleared all along the north side of the canal and the property belonged to the six farms. There were six or seven log houses, a frame house, and a block house belonging to the men who had settled the six farms. Mr. Abishai Goodell had just started the first store, and Henry Amsden opened his blacksmith shop that year. There was undoubtedly a warehouse and a boat barn to service the canal. The boat barns were 12 miles apart; the next one east was in Palmyra. We shall try to get a true picture of this little new hamlet to contrast with the 1944 Fairport. Main Street was just a rough muddy path running north and south at the intersection of the six farms. A little stream crossed Main Street at the foot of the south hill and found its way ultimately into Thomas Creek.
All stock ran at large and was branded so as to be easily identified. Our Town Clerk now preserves a book of records to this effect. Cropping and ear- slitting were marks of ownership. Deer were so plentiful that they mixed with the cattle in the clearings. Bears were abundant, intent on consuming only hogs and corn. Wolves troubled the settlers some, and until 1816 a bounty was offered on them. Fleas and mosquitoes were rampant. Indians were all about, to be treated warily and with respect. Life was not without its brighter side. The hills south of the village furnished some sleigh rides and coasting parties. Since we are told that not much wheat was raised as the stumps had never been removed after the trees were cut, we may assume the coasting perhaps wasn't too smooth. We must remember that during this time, in 1813, the township had been organized over at the Center. (7). Town meetings were held either in Egypt or at the Center until the early 1840's with the exception of one meeting held at Col. Peters' in 1822.
1824 - 1827
There is a description of the village in 1824 (although only Fullam is mentioned in Spafford's Gazeteer for that year). Chadwick's old store had been built between the Main Street end of West Avenue and the canal, though the subsequent widening of the canal took most of the land on which it stood so there is no present site of this store to point out.
This was also the year the Congregational Church society was formed. Previously the settlers were accustomed to go wherever they could find preaching. "At first an occasional missionary would pass through, and all the little settlements would go to hear the Word. Pittsford was one point for the settlers, though in the end more joined the church in Penfield."
That year a Mr. Couch shipped shingles from Geneva, pushing his boat down through the Seneca River with poles and towing it up from Montezuma with a horse. He spent the night that he remained here in a log house which stood where Ansel Howard's now does. (8). "He tried to stay on the boat but could not for the mosquitoes and he came near being eaten up as it was."
After 1825 the town, and probably the village, grew rapidly but it was not until 1827 that we had our first tavern, erected by Cyrenus Mallett, son of Salmon. This later became Pritchard's Hotel and was on the location of the Millstone Block. (9). In 1829 the Post Office was moved down from Fullamtown.
A school meeting was first held in 1826 at the home of Cyrenus Mallett. A stone house 24 by 30 feet was proposed and built on land now the site of the Saleno home in East Church Street. (10). The clerk's book for district number 9 has fortunately been preserved and provides most interesting reading. Through the kindness of Mr. Sheldon Fisher a hand drawing of this early school has been presented to the Perinton Historical Society. It was not until 1852 that the land was purchased next east to the old school, and not until 1855 that the Hicks or Rightmire house had been built for a school to succeed the original one. It was so used from 1855 to 1870 (11).
1834 - 1836
The canal maps of 1834 made by canal engineers, Holmes and Hutchinson, who surveyed the entire length that year, furnish interesting details for the section through Fairport. The only named business was that of Carpenter and Tomlinson - on the south bank, west side, just west of Chadwick's store. This was a mercantile business. There were also four buildings on each side of Main Street south of the canal, but we cannot be sure how far south the map portrays. They are rather close together, indicating shops rather than homes. North of the canal there is one building on the west side, presumably the Mallett Tavern, and there are two on the east side of Main Street, one of which is a cluster of three adjoining buildings. There is a distillery at the west end of the Mill Pond on Thomas Creek.
It may be noted here that the two sets of survey maps of the canal, the one by Holmes-Hutchinson, 1834, and the other by Evershed in 1867, have been photostated in the Perinton sections and are kept by the town clerk in the vault at the Town Hall.
In 1836, Gordon's Gazetteer mentions Fairport as having a warehouse, a store, a tavern, and "several buildings." A population schedule shows the growth for the next fifty years.
In 1840 - less than 300 inhabitants
1848 - 200 inhabitants
1860 - 600
1861 - 685
1867 - 1,000 when incorporated
1880 - 1,920
1890 - 2,552
1892 - 2,743
The early church history was identified with the town as well as with the village. We note, in passing, the dates when the different societies had their first church in the village.
Although the Congregational society had been formed in 1824, the first house of worship was not raised until 1832; two years later it was enlarged and the present church was built in 1868.
The Universalist society organized in 1833; they built a house in 1834 on a lot given them by Oliver Tomlinson from his property on East Church Street. It was on the site of the present Episcopal church (12) but, except for a brief period of prosperity in 1865 and a few succeeding years, there had been no good years since those of 1843. No services were being held by 1877 when the McIntosh history was published. An old book has turned up recently in the Rochester Public Library - the Memoirs of Rev. Tames M. Cook by his brother, Theodore Cook, published in Boston in 1854. Mr. Cook was pastor of the Universalist Church here from 1841 until October 1845 -- a brilliant forceful preacher who did much for the village intellectually besides increasing his own congregation to well over one hundred persons. It was one of the largest societies in western New York.
The Memoirs give an interesting sidelight on village life in that period when theological discussions were tea table topics and feeling ran high among the more orthodox groups over the claims of the Universalist brethren for final salvation for all. Fairport is pictured as having “a very neat and tidy appearance with the quiet charms of a surrounding country accented by the white steeple of the Universalist Church pointing heavenward."
In 1842, the Baptist Church, which had been organized in 1820 in the eastern part of the town, built their first church in Fairport on the corner of West Church and Main Street. In 1876-77, the present church was erected.
The Raymond, or Free, Baptist Church had been organized early in Egypt. It came to Fairport in 1848 and built on the present site in East Church Street.
In 1849, the first mass was said in Smith Brennan’s house (13) but the Catholic Church was not built until 1856 when it was erected on High Street, near Main.
The Methodists organized a society in the school house in Fairport about 1826 and had a house of worship not far from where Mr. Hawkins’ store was - on the east side of Main Street, south of the canal. But the society by 1842 had ceased to exist. However, the Egypt church organized in 1825 flourished, and Methodism remained in the vicinity until another society was formed in Fairport many years later.
1853 - 1872
The next great improvement was the coming of the railroad in 1853. The first rails laid were the present northernmost ones; these were the New York Central and were laid as two tracks in 1833, and two more were added making four in 1873. The present freight house on the west side of Main Street incorporates the old original passenger depot (14). In 1882 the West Shore was laid as two tracks. Later one track was taken up; the remaining is the southernmost one of the southern group of rails. The other two in this group are one each for east and west bound traffic belonging to the New York Central. The railroad quickened the pace of life in the village, and the Incorporation took place in this era.
July 31, 1866 a petition was signed for a special election to determine whether the village of Fairport should be incorporated. The election took place on August 28, 1866, and April 30, 1867 the new organization went into effect. The name, Fairport, was now fully assured. The old records show that the name Perinton clung even to the little village for some time after the canal was finished, although “Fairport” was also used from the first.
The first officers were:
President: Augustus C. Hill
Board of Trustees: O.P. Simmons, T.Y. Parce, I.E. Howard, Lewis Tones,
T.L. Hulburt, J. M. Swinnerton
Assessors: L.B. Herrington, R.B. Hewes
Treasurer: H. Montague Mosely
Police Constable: T.C.VanNess
These officers met as a board for the first time on May 7, 1867. At this meeting L.E. Moore was appointed clerk; W.S. Storms, firewarden; S.R. Sanford, poundmaster; T.C.VanNess, collector. The first board meetings reflect to us something of the village's physical condition. Their whole burden was to get sidewalks. There must have been some previously, but so many of the owners were compelled to build or rebuild them at this time that we judge there were few and perhaps no two alike. A standing committee of three for sidewalks included O.P. Simmons, J. Y. Parce, and I.E. Howard. The walks on Main Street were to be five feet wide of one-and-a-half inch pine or hemlock planks laid down lengthwise on stringers not more than three feet apart.
The streets were well provided for in the choice of Thomas H. Arnold as street commissioner. There was no paving, but we hope firm road beds had by this time evolved from the crooked muddy paths of the earlier days. Apparently there was already, or soon would be, some provision for their drainage, since Parce, Tones, and Swinnerton were made a committee on sewers and drains. Evidently animal life still presented its problems as Parce and Hulburt were named a committee on pounds. And sadly we note a lock-up committee, Jones and Howard.
The canal survey maps by Evershed in 1867 give a more extended array of buildings around the Main Street bridge than in those of 1834. There were eleven buildings on State Street between Main and the waste weir and three on the west side, still north of the canal. On the south side, three west of Main and five east - these were only those close to the canal bank.
This same year the village was surveyed and mapped by Charles P. Titus. There were ten streets and one thousand inhabitants. In 1872, from the surveys of F.W. Beers there was published in New York an Atlas of Monroe County which contains a good map of Fairport with all the residents in their own locations (15). One can see how rapidly the village had grown in the last ten years. This is a story perhaps not so different from that of our neighboring villages; however, it is our story, and one may still hope that the composition of it may be filled in for a long time to come from facts not yet lost but only brushed aside.
- Anniversaries and Forefathers Day. Congregational Church. Rev. J. Butler. Fairport Herald, January 1, 1875.
- History of the Town of Perinton. Rev. J. Butler. Fairport Herald, July, 1876.
- The Laws of the State of New York In relation to the Erie and Champlain Canals with annual reports of the Canal Commissioners, etc. 2 vol. Albany, 1825.
- Accounts of the Centennial, Town of Perinton. Monroe County Mail, April 10, 1913. Fairport Herald, April 9, 1913.
- Early History of Perinton. Onetah DeLand. Monroe County Mail, Oct. 23, 1924.
- Gazetteer of the State of New York. Thomas F. Gordon. 1836.
- Gazetteer of the State of New York. J.H.French, 1861.
- Gazetteer of the State of New York. Horatio G. Spafford, 1824.
- Fairport, One Hundred Years Old. Charles Hawkins. Monroe County Mail, July 27, 1922.
- Landmarks of Monroe County. 1895.
- The Great Embankment. Helen M. Martin. Fairport Herald-Mail, January 19, l939.
- History of Monroe County, 1788-1877. McIntosh. 1877.
- Sketches of Rochester and Monroe County. Henry O’Reilly. 1838.
- The Geographical Influences on the History of the Town of Perinton. Elizabeth Merriman Davis. Fairport Herald-Mail, July 27-August 12, 1939.
- Historical Collections of the State of New York. Barber and Howe. 1841.
- The Memoirs of Rev. James M. Cook. Theodore D. Cook. 1854.
(1) Now Ayrault Road west of Moseley Rd.
(2) 1945 Fairport Directory lists Charles J. Clark living at 249 South Main Street.
(3) Site of 200 South Main Street.
(4) Beers house moved to 39 East Church Street when Green Lantern built.
(5) A&P Store was at 36 South Main Street.
(6) Knapp’s bridge was at Lyndon Road. Named for Lorin Knapp who lived there. Cobb’s bridge at Turk Hill Road. Also called Peter’s for Col. John Peters, 1814 settler. Fullamtown Bridge at West Church Street. Named for Elisha Fullam.
(7) Perinton Center was at Turk Hill and Ayrault Roads.
(8) 1913 Directory lists Ansel Howard as living at 38 East Avenue. This may not be the site referred to.
(9) North-west bank of canal at Main Street.
(10) 1945 Fairport Directory lists Saleno home at 32 East Church Street.
(11) 1945 Fairport Directory lists Rightmire house at 38 East Church Street.
(12) The Episcopal Church in 1944 was located where the present fire house is on East Church Street.
(13) Smith Brennan’s house was supposed to have stood “somewhere near the canal.”
(14) The freight house was between the tracks on the west side. A later passenger depot was built on the east side. It is no longer there.
(15) Copies of the 1872 map of Fairport are for sale in the Fairport Museum Gift Shop.
Written by Marjorie Snow Merriman of Fairport in March 1944 and published in the Fairport Herald-Mail, June 8, 1944. Devoted to historical research, Mrs. Merriman was one of the founders, and the first president, of the Perinton Historical Society, organized in 1935 and incorporated in 1950.
Edited February 2001, by Perinton Historical Society Trustee; John Jongen