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Niagara County historians check out how times have changed

LOCKPORT – In the last 136 years, a lot has changed in Niagara County, but surprisingly, quite a bit hasn’t.

The county Historian’s Office has made an effort to chronicle the changes in its new book, “Sanford’s Niagara: A Then and Now Collection, 1878-2014.”

Sanford’s History of Niagara County, published in 1878, was a detailed 397-page history of the county up until that time. But what made the book especially interesting were the pictures.

They were etchings, line drawings that depicted homes and public buildings in the county. In a two-year project, County Historian Catherine Emerson and her deputies, Craig Bacon and Ron Cary, traveled the county to attempt to take photos that duplicated the views used by the unknown artist who did the etchings.

The result is a 246-page, spiral-bound book that reproduces the etchings on the left-hand page and pairs them with current photos on the right.

“It wasn’t as simple as we thought it would be when we started,” Emerson said.

For one thing, the artist who did the original etchings used his imagination to some degree. Many of the depictions are from an aerial perspective, but the airplane hadn’t been invented yet.

“We don’t know if they used balloons,” Emerson said.

In some instances, it was hard to be certain what the building in the picture was. One drawing, for example, shows “Our Lady of the Angels Seminary,” and places it on the shore of Lake Ontario.

Emerson said it turned out that the drawing was of the main building at Niagara University, and the placement on the lake was just artistic license. But at first, the historians wondered if the picture was supposed to be of a building at what is now Stella Niagara Education Park in Lewiston. That’s not on the lake, either, but it’s certainly closer to it than the university is.

There’s no question that the road past the university was less traveled in 1878 than it is now. Emerson said, “Ron almost got run over on Route 104 taking a picture of NU.”

The historians didn’t make any effort to obtain permission from the current owners of the sites they chose, taking most of their photos from the roadside or other public places. The exact addresses of the private homes depicted in the book aren’t listed, for privacy purposes.

Addresses generally weren’t given in the original work, either. A typical picture caption might say, “Res. of Mrs. E.A. Gamble, Town of Newfane.”

Then it would be up to the historian’s staff to figure out where that was.

“The 1875 Niagara-Orleans Atlas was priceless in doing this,” Bacon said. “It lists all the property owners and where they lived.”

So how did Mrs. E.A. Gamble rate a picture of her house in the original book? The answer is easy: she paid the publisher for a mention.

Sanford, which was a publishing company, not a person, “was one of these companies that come along and go from community to community to write their history,” Emerson said. “They included prominent businessmen and homes and farms, and you could be one of those prominent businessmen and homes and farms if you paid them. That’s why it’s interesting to us today. They included stuff that you wouldn’t have thought of. It was the original vanity publisher.”

Since people were paying for mentions, the artist included little tidbits that might otherwise have been left out. For example, the etching of the Peter Tower Farm in Porter, again an imaginative aerial “shot” of the farm, includes a drawing of a bull standing in the road. In tiny letters above the animal is printed, “Nimrod, Weight 3,000.”

Every town and city in the county is represented in the original Sanford book except Pendleton, probably because nobody in Pendleton paid the fee, Emerson said.

In researching the locations and checking out the sites, the historians found that some of the buildings depicted in the 1878 etchings still exist, just not in the same place. “In Somerset, there was a lot of moving of houses because of the power plant,” Bacon said.

Several of the homes and farms depicted, especially in western Niagara County, are now industrial or commercial sites. The original book, for instance, shows a huge Victorian house on Walnut Avenue in Niagara Falls. The modern photo is that of the main Niagara Falls post office.

Emerson said, “That’s the post office that’s now on the National Register (of Historic Places).”

Where houses have survived, they often look different.

“The biggest change,” Emerson said, “other than total obliteration, is they’ve lost all their wonderful Victorian gingerbread (trim). It’s so fun, but I wouldn’t want to paint it.”

But she acknowledged, “A house doesn’t live for 150 years without changes. It’s not static.”

The unknown author of the history, whose work is not reproduced in the new book, did a fairly good job. “It’s not the most up-to-date scholarship, but it’s decent,” Emerson said.

She said the Niagara County Pioneer Association probably was behind the Sanford work in the first place. “People wanted a history of the early settlement of the county and what had gone before, because they were afraid it would get lost in the influx of eastern Europeans,” Emerson surmised.

Discarding the text of the 1878 work, the new book contains newly written short articles on each two-page spread, based on new research. Emerson said she wanted “to talk about the people a little bit, something of interest about the building.”

The cover art, of the “Res. and Fruit House of J.W. Shafer Esq., Town of Royalton,” depicts a cold storage building on Bolton Road, next to the Erie Canal, where Shafer erected the second cold storage building in the United States. The original was in Bucks County, Pa., Emerson said.

The new book, priced at $24.95, is available at the Historian’s Office at Niagara and Hawley streets in Lockport, the Old Fort Niagara gift shop, Ticklebridge Co-Op in Lockport, the Dory Trading Post in Youngstown and other outlets.