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Talk About A Piece of River History!

I accumulate stuff.

Thirty years on the staff of the United States House of Representatives in Washington, gave me an opportunity to collect a lot of notes, letters, memorabilia and papers along the way. I’m finally organizing some of it and having fun looking at it from the renewed perspective of nearly 15 years of retirement.

My little slice of heaven along the St. Lawrence, near Clayton, provides me a 24/7 opportunity to sit on my deck, always being mesmerized by the flow from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic, while discovering something “new” every time I dig through those old yellowing files.

One day back in the eighties---I don’t remember the exact day, other than it being in the winter---I received a call from the Doorkeeper of the House. That’s not a glamorous title for a job which is prestigious in Washington terms---he is known mostly as the person who announces the President of the United States to the Congress, every January for the State of the Union Address: “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States.” The Doorkeeper has a staff of hundreds who perform the tasks of running the House and its environs as the center of the most important and powerful legislative body in the world.

He called with the question “doesn’t your Congressman’s (Congressional) district border the St. Lawrence?”

“Sure does,” I answered, “why, what’s up?”

“I just found something which you might like to copy,” he said, “it’s from the 1800s and it has something to do with the river. You wanna see it?”

“Sure,” I said, “I’ll be right over.”

“Take a look at this,” he said a few minutes later, “We found it in a box of documents in dusty storage.”

The discovery was House Document 56 of the 23rd Congress, 1st session, entitled “Memorial of inhabitants of St. Lawrence County concerning the improvement of navigation of the St. Lawrence River.” Dated January 20, 1834; it was a report printed as an official document of the Congress, outlining the conclusions of a December 18, 1833 meeting in Canton, N.Y. The stated purpose of that meeting was “to consider the project of improving the navigation of the river by constructing a canal round (sic) the Long Sault rapids.”

Most historians trace the first proposals for the modern Seaway as a bi-national deep waterway to the 1890s; the St. Lawrence County meeting was six decades earlier!

Residents along the New York shoreline of the St. Lawrence River never envisioned what they had talked about some 180 years ago would eventually lead to the Seaway of today.

The Players & the Meeting

Jabez Willes was chair, Preston King served as Secretary while David Judson “opened the business of the meeting by exhibiting the measures which had previously been perused for the purpose of obtaining information of the feasibility and expense of constructing a canal to overcome the rapids.”

It said:

“…having explained in a full and clear manner the practicality of the improvement and the great facilities it would afford to the navigation and commerce of the Northern Frontier, a memorial to Congress, petitioning for an appropriation…was read…and a map of the route, and estimate of the expenses made by a competent surveyor and engineer were exhibited.”

One can only speculate why the amount of the estimate was not included in the document.

After discussion, a resolution expressing support for the proposal was presented, stating that, “we are constrained to believe we are entitled to look to the government of the United States for such aid…”

Entitlements are very much in the lexicon of today’s Congress! Jabez, Preston, David and their St. Lawrence County neighbors were way ahead of their time!

A not-too-subtle verbal shot was aimed at Quebec in the statement:

“the importance of the proposed improvement is much enhanced by the considerations that we shall not only be enabled to pass our own productions down and the return freight up, through our own waters, to and from the jurisdiction of the lower province of Canada, thereby avoiding what experience has taught us to dread, the provincial laws and regulations of the upper province, but that we shall by accomplishing this improvement at this time probably secure to ourselves the transit of the freight of our upper Canadian neighbors with all the advantages resulting therefrom.”

The document went on to say the St. Lawrence County residents “have ever borne their share of the public burdens, in peace and war, without calling on (Washington) for that aid which has at all times been liberally bestowed to promote the foreign commerce of other sections (of the United States.)”

The meeting concluded with instructions for Willes and King to sign the resolution and dispatch it to their Representative in Congress, Ransom H. Gillet of Ogdensburg, then a freshman in the House of Representatives.

Who were these pre-Seaway trailblazers?

Jabez Willes (1790-1842) was a businessman who established a foundry in Potsdam in 1819, served as an associate judge of the county court, served in the New York State Assembly in 1828 and 1834 and in the State Senate from 1835 to 1838.

Preston King (1806-1865), the most colorful of the three, established the St. Lawrence Republican newspaper in 1830, was Ogdensburgh (the h was later dropped) Postmaster from 1831 to 1834, a Democratic member of the New York State Assembly from 1835 to 1838, a Democrat member of the House of Representatives from 1843 to 1847 and a “Free Soiler” party member again from 1849 to 1853. Changing parties again, he was elected as a Republican to the United States Senate where he served from 1857 to 1863. He was considered for the Vice Presidential slot in 1860 and was a Presidential elector on the Abraham Lincoln ticket in 1864. After Lincoln’s assassination, he served as effective White House Chief of Staff in the early days on the Andrew Johnson administration. It is said Johnson appointed him Collector of the Port of New York in August 1865 in an effort to eliminate corruption at the port and to heal divisions in the Republican Party. Anticipating no success, he reportedly took his own life three months later by tying a bag of bullets around his neck and leaping from a ferry in New York harbor.

David Judson (1786-1875) was Sheriff of St. Lawrence County around 1818 and in the 1820s became a State Senator, declining renomination after his first term. He also served as County Judge, bank cashier, Collector of the Oswegatchie Customs District, established the Judson Bank with his two brothers and served as President of the Village of Ogdensburgh.

Ransom H. Gillet (1800-1876) practiced law in Ogdensburg where he served as Postmaster from 1830 to 1833 and was as a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions in 1832 and 1840. He was elected as a Jacksonian to the 23rd and 24th Congresses from 1833 to 1837, later serving as an Indian Commissioner, Solicitor of the Treasury, Assistant Attorney General and Solicitor of the Court of Claims before retiring from public life in 1867 to engage in literary pursuits.

By Cary R. Brick 

Cary Brick resides with his wife, Clayton Judge Janet Brick, on the river at Sawmill Bay.  Cary retired from the US Congress where he was Chief of Staff to three successive Upstate NY Members of Congress. He is a freelance writer; Chairs both the Thousand Islands Foundation and the Jefferson County Chambers of Commerce, serves as a member of the Clayton Local Development Corporation and is an elected Commissioner of the Clayton Fire District. Earlier in his retirement he was a Thousand Islands Land Trust Board member, adjunct Professor of Government, library trustee, acting Village Judge, first mate on a Clayton fishing charter and co-founder of Clayton's “Great New York Food & Wine Show”. His article about the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation’s advisory board appeared in the May issue of Thousand Islands Life.

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marilyn colangelo
Comment by: marilyn colangelo
Left at: 11:36 AM Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Most interesting! Thank you for writing.