A walking tour around Watkins Glen
WATKINS GLEN--A dozen people gathered at the Watkins Glen pier Saturday, July 28, for the first historic walk of the village, led by Schuyler County Historian Gary Emerson. The program encompassed the era of the Sullivan campaign to the present, exploring the many functions served by downtown buildings.
After the Revolutionary War, soldiers were granted military tracts in lieu of payment, including property on the east side of Seneca Lake to Burdett. These were often sold by owners who lacked financial means to relocate, but the marshy area comprising present-day Watkins Glen (then known as the Watkins Flint Purchase, after John Watkins, brother of Samuel) was uninhabitable until the 1830s. The advent of the Chemung Canal in 1833 lowered the lake level and stimulated growth of the settlement. The only part of the canal still in use today can be found near Walmart on East Fourth Street, and the sunken canal boats in the lake testify to its activity.
By the 1820s, steamboats were crossing Seneca Lake up to six times a day. Numerous ferries crossed the lake at various points, picking up passengers who set out white flags. A red flag displayed from the ferry indicated those desiring rides were out of luck.
Such modes of transportation dwindled in popularity with the establishment of railroads. The Chemung Railroad was completed in December 1849, and by the 1890s, tracks lined both sides of the lake, ending the run of steamers. Among the noteworthy passengers traveling through Watkins were Secretary of State of William Seward and the Liberty Bell, the latter making a brief appearance en route to St. Louis. The Northern Central Railroad station, constructed in 1876 and restored in 1998, now serves as a restaurant. A trolley offered another option for travelers, extending along Franklin Street and the principal streets of Montour Falls.
The trolley was organized by the enterprising Charles Frost, who was also responsible for the construction of the Frost Building in the 1870s as a location for his iron and agriculture works. Members of the Frost family continued operations in the building until 1983.
At the corner of First and Franklin Streets stands the erstwhile William Coon VFW, named after Schuyler County's first casualty of World War I. Built in 1899 and currently vacant, it originally functioned as Thomas Clark's retail and grocery store. No sign remains of its Franklin Street entry.
Two hotels once occupied the site of the House of Hong restaurant, the Kendall Hotel and Hotel Watkins. The brick building across the street, on the northwest corner of Second and Franklin, originated as John Fero's livery business in 1894 and housed a number of auto dealerships beginning in the 1920s. An early photograph of the structure shows a high arched entrance facing Franklin Street. The auto parts store on the next block once was H. E. Pike Livery Hacks; a photograph of a parade on Franklin Street shows a woman at one of its windows on the second floor, indicating people lived above it.
The Glen Theater was built in 1924, six years after the Baldwin Block fire. In the 1970s, when the building's age was becoming evident, the owner attempted to revitalize business by screening adult films, to no avail, and the theater remained empty for years until its sale in 1996. The Watkins State Bank building across the street hosted another theater, which proved too narrow to accommodate the screen. The oldest bank building in Watkins Glen, it was built in 1922 and became a branch of the Elmira Bank and Trust Co. in the 1930s and, later, Marine Midland, which moved to the corner of Eighth and Franklin in the 1960s.
After fire destroyed the Fall Brook House hotel in the early 1890s, the Peelle Building was constructed on the site in 1897. Now the Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce, its first occupant was Durland Hardware. The original door is still in place.
The municipal building, dating from the 1930s, was a project of the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency. At one time, it was the location of the fire department, police department, mayor's office, court and library, which began in 1867 as the Ladies' Library Association, with 35 books.
The Odd Fellows' Temple, the sole survivor of a 1920s Franklin Street fire, replaced the Washington Hotel, which burned in 1851. Built in the 1860s for the Masons, its first floor contained such enterprises as the John L. Smith clothing store and the Olympian ice cream and candy shop. It stands at the four corners, once the converging point of three counties--Chemung, Tompkins and Steuben. An elm tree marked the site, where law enforcement officers hid to catch people attempting to sneak across county lines.
The Flatiron Building on South Madison Avenue originally functioned as a post office when it was constructed in 1874 (until that decade, mail was carried by steamboats). In subsequent years, it became a tailor's shop, a livery for the Glen Springs Hotel, the office of the county historian, an antique shop and, currently, a law office.
At a time when every village had an opera house, Freer's occupied the stone building on the southeast corner of Fourth and Franklin. (George Freer, the lawyer who handled Samuel Watkins' estate, married Watkins' widow, thus acquiring her property.) The auditorium, on the third floor, hosted speakers such as Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass and Alice Paul, as well as 3,000 delegates of the Freethinkers Association in 1878. In the 1890s it was renamed Love's Opera House, after John Love, who also ran the Jefferson Hotel. Motion pictures were introduced in 1908. Throughout the 20th century, the lower level was occupied by dry goods stores, a toy store and several restaurants. A second opera house existed where Watkins Sporting Goods now stands. When it burned in the 1920s, the steeple on the neighboring Methodist Church was a casualty.
Another building with a colorful history was the Jefferson Hotel, built by Samuel Watkins in 1835. The Greek revival building, which at one time had the post office in its basement, offered 60 rooms for two dollars a day by the early 1900s. In its later days, it was known as the Jefferson Motor Inn, until it was demolished in 1978.
One of the oldest structures in Schuyler County is the brick building on the north side of Fourth Street, dating from the 1830s. It was occupied by Samuel Watkins while his mansion was built on the adjoining property, and his vegetable garden extended to the west, where houses now stand along Decatur Street. The estate became another of George Freer's acquisitions upon his marriage, and in 1863 he sold it to John Magee, the year the former congressman moved to Watkins. Magee, whose office was in the brick building next door, also built the village's Presbyterian church with the intention of having an ideal place for a funeral when he died (the church was completed barely in time before his death in 1868). His property was bequeathed to his son Duncan, who transformed the mansion into the Glen City Hotel. Though the hotel was burned New Year's Day, 1906, its iron fence still stands. A controversy arose during World War II when the fence was in danger of being salvaged for scrap metal, but it was spared the fate of the cannon in Montour Falls.
Samuel Watkins gave Lafayette Park to the village, anticipating it would be the green space of a future city. The original bandstand was erected in the late 19th century and replaced by the present stand in 1947. Among the speakers the park hosted were Frederick Douglass and his brother.
The final stop on the tour was the brick carriage house on Third Street, constructed by Duncan Magee in 1870, the year of his death. His property was passed to his uncle, George Magee, who continued the family's business interests.