A Looted Legacy: Most of Niagara Falls' historical artifacts lost, strayed or stolen - The Buffalo News

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A Looted Legacy: Most of Niagara Falls' historical artifacts lost, strayed or stolen

Maureen Fennie keeps finding artifacts.

Just the other day she stumbled across two -- a hatchet that once belonged to the pioneering Porter family and a dollar bill signed by Benjamin Rathbun, a prolific and colorful Buffalo builder.

The two pieces are worth between $2,000 and $5,000, according to Bob Brittain of Cash Auctions in Buffalo. Not a bad day's work for Fennie, who is manager of the local history department of the Niagara Falls Public Library.

Unfortunately, Fennie doesn't find the artifacts themselves. What she finds are mentions of the artifacts in newspaper articles, the only remaining way to document the relics that were preserved for almost a century by the Niagara Falls Historical Society before being lost, loaned and looted over the past 30 years.

A few of the artifacts were given "on permanent loan" to a former officer of the Historical Society who displayed them to paying customers in his downtown wax museum.

But one of the most valuable items -- the sword and scabbard presented to Niagara Falls hero Col. Peter A. Porter by his officers on Christmas Eve 1863 -- nearly hit the auction block.

"If it were not for Maureen Fennie, the sword would not be here," says Betty Babanoury, director of the Niagara Falls Public Library, which now owns Historical Society artifacts that have been recovered.

Fennie's alertness is all that kept Col. Porter's sword, once entrusted to the Historical Society, from slipping into a private collection, no doubt to vanish forever.

Western New York has a notorious record of mishandling artifacts of its rich past, through bad decisions, reckless behavior and outright destruction.

But for the sheer number of artifacts lost and their historical significance, the destruction and theft of the legacy of Niagara Falls may be the most disgraceful.

The mass looting of Baghdad's Iraq National Museum after Saddam Hussein's fall prompted worldwide outrage; images of smashed cases and bits of broken antiquities caused pangs of loss, even among those people who would never see them firsthand.

In the case of Niagara Falls' looted legacy, there are no smashed glass cases, no sharp contrast between what the community had yesterday and what it mourns today. Instead, there was a slow erosion of values, a gradual abandonment of the care it takes to preserve the past.

Like so much of what went on in Niagara Falls in the 1970s, when the city was being gutted by urban renewal, it's hard to understand exactly how it was allowed to happen.

But there are clues.

Vanished

The Niagara Falls Historical Society once kept a list of thousands of items it owned. "As they kept getting things over the years, the list went up to 60 typed pages," says Fennie.

Like most of the artifacts themselves, the list is missing.

But through exhaustive research, Fennie has identified 63 items once owned by the society. Sixteen of those items are collections containing up to 500 separate artifacts each.

Most of the books and other documents the Historical Society held were preserved and are now secure in the Niagara Falls Public Library. But many of the non-paper artifacts, impressive and valuable relics of the early days of the Niagara Frontier, have vanished.

* Gone: Hundreds of antique rifles and handguns from a collection left by Niagara Falls dairyman Charles E. Carrigan, last documented in a 1960 photo that shows dozens of flintlock guns and long-barreled revolvers. Antiques appraiser Brittain says assuming each is worth just $1,000, a modest amount for early guns, a collection of "hundreds" would today be worth at least $200,000. "The market for these has just gone wacko," says Brittain.

* Gone: A 9-foot-long swivel gun that was chained to the American end of the Suspension Bridge during the Civil War to discourage possible rebel raiders, last seen in 1966. The gun was donated to the society in 1900. "This is amazing," says Brittain. "I'm going to say $25,000 to $30,000, and it could be worth $40,000."

* Gone: The original fireplace from the home of Augustus Porter, Niagara Falls' first resident judge in the early 1800s. "Where is there another one of these?" asks Brittain. "There isn't another one. It could be worth $10,000 to $30,000."

* Gone: A vast hoard of early firefighters' memorabilia dating back to the early 1800s, including a case of engraved silver trumpets, a length of leather hose, medals, helmets, banners, hurricane lamps and countless photos entrusted to the Historical Society in the 1950s. "This sort of thing is extremely desirable to a collector," says Brittain. "So I'd say between $50,000 and $100,000" for the collection.

Brittain tallied up the partial list of missing artifacts. "From just going through here," says Brittain, "you've got to have a monetary value of a million, maybe $1.5 million. But the historical value of those items to this area is literally priceless. Because where are you going to get replacements for any of these? You're not going to.

"And it's all gone. Unbelievable."

World Crossroads

It's not surprising that the story of Niagara County's missing legacy begins and ends with the Porter family.

The Porters were the most prominent and influential of Niagara Falls' pioneering families. In 1897, when a group of local men gathered in Niagara Falls to form a historical society, they were led by the Hon. Peter A. Porter, son of the Civil War hero.

And even at that point, the Historical Society had a wealth of memories to chronicle.

In the early days of travel, Niagara Falls occupied a pre-eminent position in the world. Its thundering cataracts entranced Victorians. Citizens of the prosperous city included war heroes, industrialists, inventors, visionaries and abolitionists; it attracted stunters and daredevils, flamboyant showmen, musical and theatrical superstars, acclaimed authors, starry-eyed honeymooners and royalty from every nation.

If only the men who established the Historical Society had set aside a building for the artifacts they were collecting, or one had been purchased anytime in the next 70 years.

Instead, the artifacts were moved from place to place, in some cases hastily, with a little less care each time. Along the way, they were stolen and damaged by weather and vandals.

Ultimately, when their final storage place was about to be demolished and the elderly and exhausted members of the Historical Society felt they could do no more, the artifacts were abandoned, for treasure-seekers to salvage or for the wrecking ball to destroy.

* From 1898 to 1905, the Historical Society had a prestigious address for its meetings and artifacts the Arcade Building on Falls Street.

* In 1905, the city's newly opened Carnegie Library on Main Street was the place to be, and the Historical Society displayed its collection in the library's basement.

* By the 1930s, the Carnegie Library was bursting at the seams, and needed the basement. Coincidentally, Paul A. Schoellkopf was vacating his offices in the Adams Power Station on Buffalo Avenue, and he offered the rooms to the society. There the artifacts had their heyday, catalogued and displayed to the public in glass cases.

This small museum was open until World War II, when security required that power plants be fenced and guarded. After the war, the museum opened again for a few years, but was closed again during the Korean war.

Even though the items were not accessible, at least they were secure. Things were about to get much worse.

* In 1960, the Adams plant closed, and the artifacts were moved to a city-owned vacant house at Pine Avenue and Seventh Street, where they were damaged, destroyed and stolen, mostly by neighborhood vandals.

* After a public outcry over the destruction, what remained was moved to the vacant Police Station No. 2 at Main and Ontario streets. The building opened to the public in February 1964.

"We finally realized a dream of more than 50 years to have a building of our own to exhibit our historical treasures," said then-Historical Society President Frank Flay at the time. But the circa-1930 building was deteriorating, and the city balked at paying to heat and secure it. In the late 1960s the city condemned the police station.

The artifacts had to move again, but it's possible that some were still in the building when the wrecking ball hit. Many large items, including Niagara Falls' first piano from the home of Gen. Parkhurst Whitney and a wall mural of Seneca chief Red Jacket from the home of Judge Theodore Hulett, were never seen again.

* The final refuge of what remained of the collection was the third floor of the Elks Club at Main and Cherry streets (later Elk Place), at the spot where the Native American Center for the Living Arts, "the Turtle," now sits vacant and deteriorating.

But as urban renewal swept entire down-town streets clean of buildings, the Elks Club was targeted for destruction. The society's board, dispirited and depressed at the erosion of the collection and lack of financial support from the city, considered abandoning the artifacts, recalls Teresa Lasher Winslow, who served on the board from late 1974 to early 1978.

"I remember being at the meeting," says Winslow. "When they said, "We can't do it anymore, let's just let everything go down with the building,' I said, "No, no, you can't do that!' "

Winslow, who was younger by three decades than the other board members, began a mad scramble to save what she could. She phoned other local museums seeking homes for the Falls' orphaned artifacts. She enlisted the help of her brother and a friend, and used her own car and her father's pickup truck to deliver items to the Niagara County Historical Society, the Lewiston Historical Society and Bergholz's North German Settlements museum.

"We took out as much as we could carry, and as much as we could find places for," Winslow says.

The artifacts left behind were smashed to bits when the Elks Club fell. Others may have been looted from the building.

No one knows.

The "Swell Haunted House'

The only loss that compares to the final destruction of artifacts in the Elks Club is what happened earlier in the vacant house at Seventh and Pine.

When it was proposed as Historical Society headquarters, workers ripped open walls and ceilings to examine the building. Then the city refused to appropriate money to restore it.

"Our things had to be moved in on top of the rubble," wrote Marjorie Williams, who became city historian in 1950 after the death of her father, journalist Edward T. Williams.

During the frigid winter of 1961, the house's water pipes burst and the flood destroyed documents.

Then neighborhood children discovered that the building contained piles of intriguing treasures.

On Nov. 13, 1962, city workers who arrived to fix a broken window found the building ransacked. More than a dozen neighborhood youngsters were summoned to the police department, where they told shocking stories of destruction and theft, according to published reports.

One boy told police he was taken to the "swell haunted house, full of old stuff that nobody wanted," by an 8-year-old neighbor. "We found a room full of everything about Abraham Lincoln." The 8-year-old "picked up something and busted it. We thought it was mostly junk."

Another boy said he had worn a Civil War general's hat he took from the house as part of a Halloween costume.

After the thefts were discovered, some artifacts were returned by the young vandals' parents, including an Indian bow, six silver firefighters' trumpets, "a sword in its rusty scabbard," and "bags of everything from arrowheads to toy steam engines."

That week, Marjorie Williams announced plans to begin a fund drive to raise $25,000 so the society could buy a building in which to store what remained of its collection. That drive, too, failed.

Silver Trumpets on Loan

Other artifacts were also dispersed, in violation of the bylaws of the society.

On May 26, 1962, Society President Flay wrote a letter giving several artifacts to board member Paul E. Morden "on permanent loan" for Morden's wax museum.

Morden was "loaned" an 1857 horse-drawn hand-pumper fire engine and matching hose-reel, an ornate desk said to be from Commodore Perry's fleet, a wooden ship's masthead, a 2-foot section of the tightrope Blondin used to cross the gorge in 1859, and some firefighting relics, including at least one silver trumpet, two helmets and several dozen medals and ribbons.

Even though the public had to pay to see the artifacts, at least the items were safe and in Niagara Falls.

The path by which Porter's Civil War sword almost went to the highest bidder on an Ohio auction block was much more harrowing.

A Joyful Return

Col. Peter A. Porter's men loved him.

The handsome, dashing young Niagara Falls officer had a military pedigree. His father, Gen. Peter Buell Porter, led the defense of Buffalo during the War of 1812. When President Lincoln called for men to fight the Civil War, the younger Porter raised the 8th New York Heavy Artillery from Niagara, Orleans and Genesee counties.

On Christmas Eve 1863, 35 of his officers presented Porter with a rosewood case containing the sword, two scabbards, a belt, a sash and a pair of spurs.

"In coming years, when this cruel war is over, and the flower of peace, fresh and fragrant, shall have been plucked from this thorny bush," said Major James M. Willett, "may the trusty sword remind you how we clung ceremoniously together in the service of our country."

Porter and many of his men would not live to see "the flower of peace" blossom. On June 3, 1864, the 8th New York was cut to pieces at the Battle of Cold Harbor.

As Porter fell, mortally wounded, he urged his soldiers, "Close in on the colors, boys." The next evening, a few of his soldiers crawled onto the battlefield under rebel sniper fire, tied ropes to his feet, and dragged their beloved colonel back to Union lines.

The sword itself is a magnificent piece, from the tip of its finely worked Damascus steel blade to the sizable cut amethyst that caps its grip. Both the sword and its scabbard feature intricate carvings.

Even today, the community's affection for the Porter family is so strong that the sword will be welcomed back next Sunday with a joyful party starting at 2 p.m. in the library, followed by what promises to be a moving graveside service at the Porter plot in nearby Oakwood Cemetery.

Path of Least Resistance

The odd thing about the Porter sword is that very few people knew the Historical Society had it.

It was welcomed with great fanfare in 1943, when Peter A. Porter Jr. of North Tonawanda, the grandson of the Civil War hero, presented the sword to the society.

But then it was quietly removed from public display. By the 1960s, when the artifacts began their trek from pillar to post, most people had forgotten the sword.

"I was in the society for many years, and I didn't even know that the Historical Society had the piece," says William Gillett, who was given the sword by President Frank Flay in the late 1970s, around the time the artifacts were being evicted from the Elks Club. "It was kept very quiet, because they were afraid somebody would try to get it. It was a small enough piece that it could take legs and walk."

Flay had kept the sword at his home. "He didn't dare keep it with the collection, because the security never was that great, wherever we were," says Gillett.

This squirreling away of artifacts and assets entrusted to the Historical Society is both good and bad. On the one hand, the sword was never exposed to the kind of depredations that the other treasures suffered. But allowing society officers to keep the group's artifacts in their homes, among their own collections, certainly blurred the line between what they owned and what the society owned.

The precedent had been set in the 1960s, when 24 cartons of documents and books were moved to the basement of the Jefferson Apartments in downtown Niagara Falls, where Marjorie Williams lived. She also stored other documents and some furniture belonging to the Historical Society in her apartment.

"She and her father, Edward T. Williams, they kept everything," says Fennie. "Everything."

Flay seemed to have a different attitude toward artifacts.

Winslow says, "Frank Flay, as much as I liked him personally, he was grouchy and angry, for some reason. He once showed me his extensive personal collection, and he said he had instructed that when he died, it was all to be burned. I said, "You can't do that!' and he said, "Oh, yes, I can!'

"I often wondered what happened to his personal collection when he died."

Porter's sword was not part of anyone's personal collection. Yet when Flay and other board members decided to disperse the society's artifacts, they chose the path of least resistance. They gave the sword to Gillett, whose wife, Janet "Jane" Porter Coe Gillett, was a descendant of Judge Augustus Porter, the uncle of Col. Peter A. Porter. "She was the only Porter in the society at the time, and so Frank Flay gave it to us," says Gillett.

No effort was made to trace the descendants of Peter A. Porter Jr. of North Tonawanda, who had donated the sword to the society.

Gillett says Flay specifically instructed him not to give the sword to any other local historical society, "since they had not helped Niagara (Falls) to realize its dream for its own museum. He also felt the Niagara Falls Public Library was not the place for a sword."

One of the most frustrating aspects of this wholesale abandonment of Niagara Falls' legacy is that the Historical Society had more than enough money to move and store its artifacts.

Winslow estimates that the society had about $48,000 in its treasury at that time, $135,607 in today's money.

Why didn't the board spend its assets to keep the artifacts safe?

"I don't know," says Winslow. "It drove me crazy. I think it was because of their ages -- I was the youngest member of the board by 20 or 30 years -- and the fact that they had been forced to move everything four times. They had been active in their 40s, 50, 60s, and by the time they got into their 70s, they just couldn't do it anymore."

When the new library building on Portage Road opened in 1974, the Historical Society turned over many of its documents. With the dispersal of the artifacts, the Historical Society removed itself from the public arena.

Marjorie Williams died in 1978, her lifelong dream to house the artifacts unfulfilled.

On the Auction Block

After keeping the sword for years, the Gilletts, who live in Orlando, sold the sword to antiques dealer Mark Spahr of Seminole, Fla., for $1,000.

Spahr said he kept the sword for at least a year, at one point showing it to his son's grade-school class. After briefly considering selling the sword on the online auction site eBay, he consigned the sword to Ohio auctioneer C. Wesley Cowan.

In the spring of 1999, Cowan called the Niagara Falls Public Library to get information about Col. Porter for his auction catalog listing.

He spoke with Fennie, who located the story written by Edward T. Williams documenting the presentation of a Porter sword to the Historical Society in 1943. It matched the sword Cowan had, down to the inscription.

"I said, "There could be a problem here. This sword appears to belong to the Historical Society,'" says Fennie.

When they realized the sword was about to go on the auction block, several Niagara County residents prepared to raise money and travel to Ohio to bid on it. Instead, the state attorney general's office intervened, instructing Cowan to pull the sword from the auction, which he did, returning it to the Gilletts.

Although William Gillett repaid Spahr the $1,000, Spahr is still resentful.

"My lawyer thought I had a case that the Gilletts owned the sword, in light of the fact that they had had it for so long," says Spahr. "But how was I going to fight the attorney general of the State of New York?"

After the attorney general's probe found that the sword was the property of the Niagara Falls Historical Society, Gillett returned it to the library. State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer sent the Gilletts a letter that says, "Thank you for safeguarding the sword while it was in your possession and returning it to New York State."

Donald E. Loker, who between 1979 and 2000 served as city historian, manager of the library's Local History Department and president of the Historical Society, says while he is happy to see the Porter sword returned, it has assumed a significance it never had. "It has suddenly gotten important," he said. "I never saw the sword before this, or heard of it, so I can only assume that it's the correct sword and got hooked up with the right family."

Betty Babanoury has no doubt that it is the correct sword. "It's a real find to be able to bring this back to citizens," she says.

The Silent Amnesty

When the furor over the sword again focused attention on the Niagara Falls Historical Society, things got very strange.

Loker, a spry retiree who still volunteers three days a week in the library, insisted that the society still existed. But he refused to allow anyone to join, name any board members, produce any financial statements or announce any meetings, all in violation of the state Not-for-Profit Corporation Laws.

Loker said the number of public meetings had been reduced in the 1970s, partially because "most of the elderly members would not go out nights in our community as they just did not feel safe."

But if he was trying to ease the burden on elderly members, Loker also blocked the infusion of young blood. He told one applicant, published Niagara Falls author Daniel Dumych, "It is just a few old people who meet once a year, and that it wouldn't interest me," Dumych said in 1999.

After that, Loker refused to answer any questions about the Historical Society. He maintained he had "no authority" to divulge information about the members and board of directors he insisted the society still had. "I can't understand why anybody would be so interested in something they know nothing about," he said repeatedly.

Local historians were outraged, and some formed a group called Friends of Local History to fill the void left by the inactive Historical Society.

Loker was among those served with a court order offering him the opportunity to comment on the attorney general's move to dissolve the Historical Society. Ed Garde, an investigator with the Niagara County District Attorney's office, recalls handing the court order to Loker outside his apartment. "He just laughed," says Garde.

"Loker wasn't cooperating with anybody," says Garde. "There is no affidavit from him. He just laughed and shrugged it all off."

In the summer of 1999, the district attorney's office announced an amnesty period, during which anyone who had Historical Society property could return it without criminal liability.

"They can just pile them in a bag and drop them off on the courthouse steps," said County Legislator John W. Cole III, D-Lockport, at the time. "We're just giving them the opportunity to do the right thing."

Not only did Garde not receive any artifacts, he did not get a single phone call.

Brad Maione, a press spokesman for Attorney General Spitzer, says his office's main concern was recovering the Porter sword and the artifacts that were still in the wax museum in 1999.

"We did subpoena the records of the organization," says Maione, "but the records were in such disarray that it may be impossible for anyone to find out where these assets are."

"Everything was bottled up with Don Loker," says Garde.

Loker denies he has any assets or artifacts that belonged to the Historical Society. "Oh no, I have enough stuff to pay rent for!" he says.

Loker, who was president of the Historical Society from the late 1970s until it was dissolved in 2000, may be the only person who might be able to provide answers about the loss of the artifacts.

But no one in any official capacity has sought to question Loker.

Lincoln's Barber Chair

On July 14, 2000, State Supreme Court Justice Amy J. Fricano ordered the Historical Society dissolved on the grounds "that it has carried on, conducted and transacted its business in a persistently illegal manner [and] its officers, directors or members have wasted corporate assets."

The Public Library was given ownership of all of the Historical Society's collections, and "the right to recover all assets of the Niagara Falls Historical Society, both identifiable and not currently identifiable."

Paul Morden, operator of the wax museum, was ordered to turn over to the library the items that had been loaned to him by the Historical Society.

In June 2000, he turned over several items, including a silver firefighter's trumpet and two fire helmets. A second trumpet and a third helmet that were on display in the wax museum in April 1999 were not ordered returned, and their whereabouts are unknown.

An upholstered chair, labeled as the barber chair in which Abraham Lincoln was shaved when he stayed at the Cataract House, is still on display in the wax museum. Auctioneer Bob Brittain says it could be worth up to $15,000.

Morden has always maintained he purchased the barber chair from "a private collector" he refuses to name, but newspaper reports from 1952 and 1963 list the chair among the Historical Society's holdings. "Oh, yes, I remember the barber chair being in the Historical Society's collection," Winslow says. "It was up on the third floor (of the Elks Club). I remember looking at my brother and my friend and saying, "How would we ever get this out of here?'"

Maione, Spitzer's spokesman, says, "If the library sees things somehow or it comes to their attention that there are still things out there, they can certainly file suit to recover them."

Dolores Marino, president of the library's board of trustees, said the board has now instructed library director Babanoury to follow up with Spitzer's office.

The Vanishing Money 

And then there's the matter of the money.

Winslow says that there was about $48,000 in the treasury of the Historical Society when she left the board in 1978.

Loker says if the society had such money, "I never saw it."

Investigators for the attorney general traced the money for a few years after 1978.

The society kept its money in at least four places. Small amounts were kept in two accounts, but what catches the eye is a Permanent Savings Bank money market account for $31,376 that was transferred to a checking account in the same bank on April 27, 1983. By early 1985, that account was empty of all but $4,013. What happened to that final $4,013 is unknown.

"The accounts were dissolved," says Maione, "and banks are not required to keep records for longer than six years, so the bank records had been destroyed."

"I know nothing about any of that," says Loker when asked about the four accounts. "I doubt that the society had that kind of money."

Where did the money go?

David Palmquist, chief of the State Education Department's chartering program, which now charters historical societies, says it's possible that Loker used some of the money to purchase historic documents or books that then wound up in the library. "But the truth is no one really knows."

Like all the other things the Historical Society held in trust for the people of Western New York, that money, too, is gone.

 

Anne Neville's last article for First Sunday was Fatal Fixation, the story of the dark obsession of Joe Traver.

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