A summer family reunion? No news there. But a gathering to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the arrival of an important figure in Niagara County history? Now, there’s a story.
Descendants will gather next weekend to learn more about Robert Nichols, a stonemason best known for building the famous Terrapin Tower, a dramatic stone landmark that stood at the brink of the Horseshoe Falls from 1833 to 1873.
And the family’s three-day gathering will include a public event at 10:30 a.m. June 6, when state and local dignitaries gather near the site of the former Terrapin Tower to unveil a draft interpretive sign describing the structure’s history.
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo; Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster; Niagara Falls Historian Elaine Timm; Mark Thomas, Western director of New York State Parks; and a representative of Assemblyman John Ceretto, D-Lewiston, are expected to speak. The event is sponsored by the BRI-NK Foundation and Museum and Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Society.
Nichols was working on the First Presbyterian Church in Lewiston – where some of his descendants are still congregants -- when he died in 1834. He also started the family fruit farm business, and agriculture still plays a role in the lives of some of his Niagara County heirs to this day.
The 200th-year reunion will draw relatives from across the U.S. and from as far as the Netherlands to tour the area, learn of Nichols’ life and visit his burial place in Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls. They will convene at the Cambria Fire Hall on Saturday to get reacquainted.
The weekend plans also include a visit to the new BRI-NK Museum in the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center (NAAC), Niagara Falls, founded by one of their relatives, Lewis Buttery. The museum is dedicated to the preservation of the history of the Nichols, Pierce and Buttery families – and, therefore, tales of Niagara County’s past.
Buttery established the BRI-NK Foundation (Buttery Research Initiative – Niagara Knowledge) in 2013 and settled in three rooms in the NAAC in 2014. His collection contains myriad photos, documents, artifacts, paintings and prints.
Included in the collection are renderings – prints and originals – of the famed Terrapin Tower.
“It’s amazing what you can find on the internet,” said Buttery. “I scour eBay every day. I have pre-tower art and then some where the tower becomes the main focus of the art. I have the works of Frederick Church and William Bartlett and Currier and Ives. The walls are lined with this art and I have 300 more images on my hard drive.”
Nichols was the brother-in-law of Gad Pierce Jr., who owned the Gad Pierce Tavern on the site of today’s main branch of the Niagara Falls Library and for whom Pierce Avenue was named. Pierce also fought in the War of 1812. Relatives believe Pierce lured Nichols to this area from Roxbury, Vt., and Nichols came by himself first – later bringing his wife, Esther Pierce Nichols.
The Nicholses had three children. 0ne of the children, Gad Pierce Nichols, is buried at First Presbyterian Church in Lewiston. Another, Priscilla Nichols Buttery, married John Milton Buttery. It is these two lines who will be represented next weekend. No descendants of the Nichols’ other daughter, Esther Nichols Williams, are able to attend.
Buttery is also an important name in local history. John and Priscilla Buttery built the famed Buttery Elevators at the Whirlpool Rapids and the Butterys also provided stone from their gorge quarry for the construction of the seawall and hotshot furnace at Old Fort Niagara.
In 1818, Pierce and Gen. Parkhurst Whitney were hired to build a bridge to Goat Island, which was owned by Judge Augustus and Gen. Peter Porter. They built a 300-foot plank walkway at Terrapin Point that extended 10 feet over the crest of the falls.
In 1833, Whitney and Nichols were hired to construct a 45-foot-tall, circular tower on several large, exposed rocks near the end of this walkway. The tower was constructed of rough stone from the area and provided a thrill for those brave enough to travel the walkway over the rapids and climb to the top of the tower. The experience was immortalized in Jules Verne’s novel, “A Floating City,” in 1871.
In 1873, the tower was purposely blown apart by gunpowder to make way for a new tower at the recently purchased Prospect Park by a new company, but plans fell through and the tower was never replaced.
Terrapin Tower is just one of 18 topics featured throughout the three rooms in the BRI-NK Museum, Buttery said. The museum is a work in progress and is open by appointment only. Buttery said he is hoping to create an internship program to get help with labeling and cataloging his findings in preparation of opening it to the public on a regular basis. A retired systems analyst programmer with a master’s degree in American history, Buttery said he has more than 10,000 files of family history on his computer hard drive. He also designed the draft interpretative sign for the Terrapin Tower.
Buttery recalled that the first Nichols reunion was held in 1916, at the Lewiston home of A.J. Nichols.
“We have beautiful photos of the whole family gathered on the front porch of the house,” said Buttery, a Lockport resident. “They had at least 150 or so there.”
Wilson resident Grace Austin said they will have an equal showing at this year’s reunion.
Participants will include their cousin, Cheryl Steeman-Bash, who grew up in Niagara Falls and moved to Holland.
“She hasn’t been here in nearly 40 years,” said Austin.
“l sent out 202 invitations and have 150 confirmed coming,” added Austin, who said she has been studying family genealogy since 1977. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime event.”