<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> Hornell History

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A Little Bit of Hornell History

Glaciers and Settlers

Hornell is located at a northern latitude of 42.32 degrees. That means that it was covered by glaciers in each of the numerous epochal ice ages. The last glacier receded at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, some 10,000 years ago. The local geology is reflective of that.Succeeding onslaughts of glaciers have chiseled the area smooth, save for the gently rolling hills, and the ditches and gouges that filled with water. The dense forests and abundant lakes and rivers were heavily populated with wildlife. The soil was rich and fertile. When the climate warmed, this became very attractive land for the ambitious wanderer from afar.The first settlers are believed to have arrived in North America via ancient Siberian land bridges to Asia. The most recent evidence suggests there were actually three distinct waves of settlers in the Americas. The first and oldest migration was by boat along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. These were not seagoing vessels so they presumably followed ancient coastlines from Europe to North America via Iceland and Greenland. Archaelogical evidence at least 18,000 years old has been found along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. The second migration was also by boat, but these adventurers travelled from Sibera down along the western coast of the Americas, all the way to the southern tip of South America. Human remains approximately 14,000 years old have been found there. Both of these migrations took place with the continental ice pack still in place. The most recent migration was via a land route that had opened up by melting of the ice pack. This migration is probably linked to the Clovis people whose artifacts are approximately 10,000 years old.One of the earliest cultures indigenous to this area was the Eastern Woodlands culture. These early people, although fairly primitive, achieved an agricultural expertise vastly improved over their predecessors. Their greatly expanded food gathering capabilities resulted in the cultivation of more grains and plants than ever. They created ornaments, blades, and other doodads, from copper and minerals. They built large trading networks. These people constructed large earthen burial mounds, many of which still exist. Then, as it is with most archaic cultures, they entered a period of decline. Probably due to a cooling of the climate.By 1000 AD a new culture had taken root in the area. The Mississippian culture developed in the Midwest, as an evolutionary descendent of the earlier woodlands culture, and spread eastward to this area. These folks were also prolific mound builders, with some of these mounds topped by elaborate wooden temples. (See Cahokia Mounds State Park in Illinois.) The Native Americans of western New York are the descendents of both these cultures.

 

The Iroquois Nation

The Iroquois Nation ruled this part of the country up until the white man assimilated them. The League of Six Nations was established in the 16th century and included the Iroquois tribes: Seneca, Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida, and Tuscaroras. The progressive political system established by the Iroquois is a model even today. They were a power to be reckoned with when the Europeans descended upon them.The earliest European visitors were probably trappers, arriving as early as 1000 AD. The main wave didn't arrive until much later, starting in the mid 1600's. Fortunately for these new arrivals, their welcoming committee was a lot less savage and xenophobic than their western counterparts, and folks generally got along. The Iroquois saved their war skills for tribal fighting. The Seneca had long been at odds with the Erie nation of the land to their south, and so in 1654 they started a tribal war to the death. The Seneca were victorious, virtually exterminating the Erie nation. It is very likely, that if there were Indians encamped in the Canisteo Valley during this time, they would have been Erie. So, perhaps, the Seneca are responsible for the extermination of Hornell's first residents. The Erie namesake would live on however, as the Erie Railroad.Red Jacket, chief of the Senecas, is a well-known historical figure of significance. He was famous for his oratory, his wit, and his colonial political shrewdness. He was the intellectual equal of any white man, and therefore became a noted curiosity, disproving any notion that the native savages were lesser beings. Red Jacket, or more accurately Sagoyewatha, is also famous for his retort to the Christian missionary who tried to convert him. You can view it at: http://hawk.hama-med.ac.jp/dbk/redjacket.html(Assuming the link is still good!)Most of the Iroquois sided with the British during the French and Indian War. So it was no surprise when they elected to support the British in the Revolution also. They chose poorly. They redeemed themselves however by supporting the Americans in the War of 1812.The Indians were decimated by the diseases the Europeans brought with them, and were generally taken advantage of by settlers and land speculators, until finally they ceded most of the land of western New York in 1768.There were 22 million Native Americans, comprising 500 tribes in North America when the Europeans invaded. Today, there are 2 million Native Americans reported on the census.Today, the only lands the Iroquois own are the numerous reservations scattered throughout the state. Salamanca, to the west of Hornell, is the only city in the country that is on an Indian reservation. Many descendents of the Iroquois live today as American citizens. By the mid 1800's, Indians and revolution were not the news. It was the railroad.

 

George Hornell, Entrepreneur

At about the same time the Indians were giving up their land claims, European settlers were moving into the Canisteo Valley. In 1790 a man by the name of Benjamin Crosby cleared the land that would be the site of St. James Mercy Hospital, making him the first permanent European settler in what is present day Hornell. Crosby Creek, and Crosby Road bear his name. The original settlement that took root here was named Upper Canisteo by its residents. What is now Canisteo was called Lower Canisteo and was reportedly inhabited by renegades and thieves.In 1794 an Indian trader and entrepreneur by the name of George Hornell arrived in the valley with big things on his mind. Sensing promise in what he saw, he purchased more than 2000 acres of prime land that same year. The City of Hornell sits on a portion of this property. George Hornell was born in York, Pennsylvania in 1768. His father was Nils Hornell, a native of Hör, Sweden. George married Martha Stevens, daughter of Uriah Stephens, Sr, one of the original twelve settlers in the Hornell area.George and Martha had five daughters and four sons. Son William drowned while attending Williams College. George Hornell, Jr. became a lawyer. Daughter Emily married Ira Davenport, another prominent local settler. Daughter Martha married Major Thomas J. Reynolds, daughter Betsy married Augustus Newell, and daughter Anne married a General Hartshorn. Sons John and Vincent, and daughter Patience died before age 25.George Hornell, being of strong Scaninavian stock quickly established himself as a mover and shaker of the area, building a profitable sawmill, gristmill, general store, inn, and a home near the west end of what is now Main Street. George also takes credit as Hornell's first postmaster.In addition to the position of postmaster, George also represented the Hornellsville area in the 1808 state legislature, as a Member of the Assembly. In 1796, George was appointed Associate Judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Steuben County. George was by all accounts, a kind and generous soul, never failing to help the poor and unfortunate. Since he owned virtually everything in town, the settlement's name was soon changed to Hornellsville. George died in 1813 and was buried in Hope Cemetery. His widow, Martha (Stephens) continued George's charitable works until she died some thirty years later. She was buried alongside her husband in Hope Cemetery.There are many stories and legends surrounding Judge Hornell's dealings with the locals, and especially the Indians. Judge Hornell was well respected among the Indians as well as the white locals. Many of these stories bear some resemblance to the exploits of another frontier judge a little further west--Judge Roy Bean.

Hornellsville remained a small town involved in lumber, fur and agriculture until the Erie Railroad arrived.

 

The Erie Railroad - The Hornell Station, 1939

The first half of the 1800's saw the explosive development of the railroads. The robber barons were yet to come, these were the days of the true entrepreneurs, financiers, progressive thinkers, and engineers that built the railroads. A railroad link between the Atlantic and the Great Lakes seemed like a good idea to all involved (with the exception of the Erie Canal and barge operators), and it was in pursuit of this dream that a group of investors from Jamestown received a charter in 1832 to build one. The New York & Erie Railroad would be the longest railroad in the world at 483 miles, and it would pass through the Southern Tier of the state. The railroad would go bankrupt many times over the years, each time being resurrected as a new railroad under a different name. But the word "Erie" was always a part of the name.Wild speculation enveloped the process of selecting both the eastern and western terminus of the railroad. There was much back room dealing and shenanigans. Those who bet on Dunkirk in the west, and Piermont in the east, won fortunes. Those who bet on other locations, lost big. Once that was settled, the action moved to the track routing. Which towns would the track run through? The railroad caused each town that it passed through to explode in commerce and wealth. There was much incentive for doing "whatever it takes" to land the track in your town.I don't know what dealing went on with the decision to lay the track through Hornell, or what compelling reason there was to do so, but Hornellsville became a stop on the Erie Railroad. At the time, Hornell was just an unincorporated settlement. But Hornell would not just be another whistle stop. No sireee. The Hornellsville Yard would be the primary maintenance facility for the entire Erie line! Why was Hornell selected for this honor? Wish I knew. Did somebody get rich over the selection? I would bet on it. The first shops were built in 1849, even before the track was laid.Numerous presidents and politicians, luminaries of all sorts, the rich and famous, and just plain folk all passed through Hornell while riding the rails. The very first train to make the entire trip from Piermont to Dunkirk arrived in Hornellsville on May 15, 1851 to a tumultuous reception. On board were President Millard Fillmore, and Secretary of State Daniel Webster, who reportedly rode in a rocking chair that had been affixed to a flat bed car--the better to view the scenery. While the politicians gave speeches, and bands played triumphant marches, the train changed engines and continued on it's way to Dunkirk, for yet another high-energy reception. These must have been exciting times.In 1852, Hornell was selected as the southern terminus of a new branch line to Buffalo, further enhancing Hornell's prospectus. In the same year, the Village of Hornellsville was incorporated. These events are not coincidental. The Erie shops were about the greatest thing to hit Hornell since cream cheese.If anything broke on the Erie, they would send it to Hornell, where the engine shops alone could handle 20 steam locomotives at once. Now, as the fortunes of the railroad go, so go the fortunes of Hornell. And for many years the relationship was good. With the railroad came industry, and Hornell's fortunes grew along with the railroad. The population grew, and the village achieved city status in 1888. The name remained City of Hornellsville until 1906 when it was changed to the City of Hornell.During this period, Hornell took on all the trappings of a medium size city--home to three hotels, three banks, five silk mills, several woodworking factories, a fairgrounds and a horse racing park, a brewery, a shoe factory, a tannery, and even an opera house. Hornell flourished, life was good.The Erie and the City of Hornell hummed along for many years. Then, in the early 70's, all hell broke loose for the country's railroads, including the Erie. The Erie had always been a freight line, so when the freight traffic drained away, a severe cash crunch ensued. And with that, the Erie filed for bankruptcy, one last time, on June 16, 1972. As though fate had not been cruel enough, on June 20, 1972--four days after filing bankruptcy, hurricane Agnes struck the east coast, hitting the Southern Tier particularly hard, including the Hornell area. Two hundred miles of track was partially washed out, especially between Hornell and Elmira. The estimated damages to the Erie were put at 11 million dollars. This sealed the railroad's fate, all hopes of survival now seemed slim.There were several half-hearted attempts to save the Erie, by the millionaire Hunt brothers of Texas, the Santa Fe Railway, and the Chessie System among others. But ultimately, most of the assets of the Erie were disposed of by the bankruptcy court. Much of the rail system and rolling stock was passed to newly formed ConRail on April 1, 1976. The last assets of the Erie were disposed of by late 1992.

The Erie no longer stops in Hornell ending a 120-year run. The heady railroad days of Hornell are but history. A very sad turn of events for Hornell and all railroad lovers.

 

The Floods

The Canisteo River has overrun its banks flooding Hornell and the surrounding area many, many times over the years. Usually minor in nature, these floods were nevertheless costly and a nuisance for everyone. However, on June 7, 1935, the heavy rains and swollen rivers proved too much and the ensuing flood devastated Hornell. With parts of the city under 6 feet of water martial law was declared and the Red Cross and other relief agencies moved in to provide assistance. Amazingly, only two people drowned, but hundreds of families were displaced, and the property damage ran into the millions. The governor of the state and other officials made a visit, promising the usual things to the victims. However, this time they were more than hollow promises. The City of Hornell, the State of New York, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other parties devised and built a system of levees, dams and retaining walls meant to keep future floods at bay. I have seen those dams get pretty full, but so far, they have succeeded in keeping Hornell dry. And the levees are greatly appreciated by the town youth, as they make great hills for sledding in the winter, and for cardboard "sledding" in the summer. I know this from experience.

This flood control system saved Hornell from any catastrophic effects of Hurricane Agnes in 1972, while some other parts of the Southern Tier suffered immense damages. Corning was particularly hard hit, and we already know how it affected the Erie Railroad. The "Great Flood of '72" caused 118 deaths, and more than $1.5 billion dollars in property damage. But Hornell survived with minimal damage.

 

Hornell and Baseball

Hornell seems to have an affinity for baseball. Professional baseball had an 80-year run in Hornell, beginning with the International Association in 1878, and ending with the Hornell Redlegs in 1957. The city hosted numerous teams and leagues over the years. Maple City Park was built in 1942, partly to host the newly franchised Hornell Pirates farm club. That stadium was destroyed in a fire and was rebuilt. It stood until the early 60's when it was demolished to make way for the new high school. The Pirates played in Hornell until 1947 when they were replaced by the Red Sox for a two-year run. In 1950 the Hornell Dodgers materialized as farm club of the Brooklyn Dodgers and totally reinvigorated baseball in Hornell. The 1950 Hornell Dodgers won the pennant by a margin of 10 1/2 games, and the 1951 winning team included player Maury Wills. Attendance at Maple City Park for those two seasons was 97,000 and 74,000 respectively. Wow. The Dodgers left in 1956, making way for the last team to make Hornell home, the Hornell Redlegs. The Redlegs moved to Geneva in 1958, thus ending the era of professional baseball in Hornell.