EARLY HARBOUR DAYS
Never was nature kinder than when she fashioned Silver Creek’s
natural harbour with its graceful bay ever receiving the waters of Silver
and Walnut Creeks at their outlet. The vacationists and fisherman’s paradise
of today was a busy important mart of yesterday.
Lake Erie, from the time the Indians first beached their canoes on the creek-side,
was commonly used as a highway by the first settlers of Fayette. From this
same port hardy settlers in the earliest days set forth on grim occasions
to row to Canada for much needed supplies.
Rowing or driving on the ice to Buffalo or Dunkirk, according to the season,
was the most direct route and the most efficient; roads and trails were often
impassable. This was the shore from which row boats set out for Chadwick Bay
(Dunkirk) or Dribble’s Bay (Angola) to transact business or to indulge in
an interval of social intercourse, though there was little time for light
living in those rugged days.
This was the extent of harbour life at Fayette until a Sunday in 1828 when
Oliver Lee walked from the Cross Roads (Westfield) to the Western Point, and
there from the cliff, saw spreading before him a harbour created by nature,
more perfect than any engineer could conceive.
A pioneer from New England, an early settler in Warsaw and later an early
merchant at the Cross Roads, this man of enterprise grasped with quick business
intuition, the rich possibilities of his discovery. A man of action, he lost
no time in purchasing from John Howard, the first permanent settler, three
hundred fifty acres including the lake front. He moved his family temporarily
to the “Howard House”, the first tavern, until a home could be built. He erected
a brick structure for his store and set about to develop the harbour.
The smooth rock bottom of the lake proved an obstacle not to be coped with
lightly nor with speed. So uncompromising was this obstacle that to a lesser
mind, it would have passed as insurmountable but not to Oliver Lee, the commerce-minded,
not-to-be-daunted young pioneer of resourcefulness and, fortunately, capital.
He conceived the idea of forming cribs from timber, filling them with stone,
aid sinking them as foundations for the wharf.
The experiment having proven satisfactory, contracts were speedily let for
the delivery of large numbers of square hewn timbers and for the quarrying
of unlimited amounts of stone from the cliff on the west shore.
Such a scene of fevered action as the lake front became: timbers being delivered
in great numbers, squads of men preparing the same by hand with their crude
implements, the quarrying going on to the west to the sound of ringing sledge
and falling rocks.
Every condition favored the progress of the undertaking. December first
brought good sleighing which was advantageous for hauling timber to the scene.
Heavy and early ice formation was of paramount importance as the point established
for the wharf was three hundred fifty feet from the shore where the water
was of sufficient depth to float the largest sailing vessels or steamboats
of that day. Twelve or fifteen ox-teams were employed hauling stone on the
ice. With steady patience they plodded back and forth over those three hundred
At no time were there less than fifty men employed in framing the cribs,
putting them into position and in sinking them through the ice, a tricky job
at best. Work continued uninterrupted until after the middle of March when
the early sloughing of ice gave warning that safety could no longer be insured.
The work, of necessity, was compelled to end; but what an achievement! In
less than four winter months enough cribs were built and successfully sunk
to support a hundred fly feet of pier running toward the shore with an eli
portion of about seventy-five feet on the outer end, running down the lake
toward the east. This was little short of an herculean accomplishment. What
pride and gratification must have surged through Mr. Lee and his rugged employees
as they realized their achievement.
The race against the season’s hazards being accomplished, the wharf was
then completely planked over at a more leisurely tempo. Although a perilous
gap of two hundred feet yawned between it and the land, with no communication
row boat, it was ready for business when spring transportation opened, and
business was actually carried on.
The very first season the steamboat “Pioneer” which ran regularly between
Buffalo and Barcelona, commenced stopping experimentally and lying over for
awhile at the harbour which was now known as Silver Creek. Freight, if it
could be called that, and timorous passengers began to appear. The “Pioneer”
found, to Mr. Lee’s proud satisfaction, that despite the limitations and the
hazards of communication between wharf and shore, there was sufficient business
to warrant its repeating the experiment, with the result that before the
season was too advanced, the “Pioneer” could be relied upon to dock in passing.
Imagine the sensation of those early inhabitants, farmers and woodsmen for
the most part, as they stood on this very shore in awed, excited knots, watching
the first vessel warped cautiously into the new untried pier two hundred
feet distant. Imagine, too, the busy scows and sculls, eagerly plying between
dock and shore. Imagine the captain and the experienced lake seamen trying
the timbers under foot, inspecting the newly sunken piles, and generally appraising
the situation as they congratulated Mr. Lee and acknowledged the greetings
of the welcoming group waving and hallooing from the shore.
This first summer proved that Mr. Lee’s aspiration was no idle dream but
a practical business venture, destined to great success. On the strength of
this promise, work was resumed with the return of winter’s sleighing and ice
formation and was continued unremittingly during the severe winter months.
It was a long, severe winter; the ice held well into spring, enabling the
entire communication to be completed between the shore and wharf proper. With
the advent of spring 1831, teams loaded with wood, lumber, farm products,
potash and other homely but necessary commodities could be driven from Jackson
Street to the far end of the pier where they could be unloaded directly onto
the waiting schooner. This meant business in earnest. Silver Creek was now
ready and adequately equipped to compete with other harbours for the lake
Though still in its infancy, this rudimentary wharf marked the beginning
of a new and spectacular era for the scattered little community of Silver
Creek; an era of lake commerce, lake travel and of direct intercourse with
the outside world. Without doubt, much of the town’s manufacturing success
of later years and the present day dates back to that early and primitive
It was soon apparent, however, that to carry on lake commerce full scale,
one more feature was necessary -- a warehouse. True enough, the commodities
could now be loaded onto the boats directly, and in turn the cargo could be
unloaded onto the waiting teams, but sailing vessels were unpredictable, arriving
when the wind permitted. Steamboats, though more reliable, were still sporadic
as to their arrivals and departures. While teamsters waited for days in the
uncertainty of the earliest hipping, they were bound to become impatient
with the passage of time, especially ii their commodities deteriorated under
unfavorable weather conditions while their unattended chores waited at home.
A warehouse was an absolute, indispensable necessity if the wharf was to
yield full value.
This building was erected that second summer at the land end, approximately
where the Fish and Game House now stands and became the center of a very busy
commercial life. As this activity increased and more ships docked, the whole
locally assumed a business appearance. Several buildings were erected for
family use, two of which are still standing to testify to the life that once
was in those far away shipping days.
Jackson Street, already mentioned, had been laid out meantime by Mr. Lee
as an approach highway leading directly from Dunkirk Street (Central Avenue)
on to the wharf. This street was literally hewn and blazed through a solid
tract of Black walnut trees which ware held of so little value that they were
burned as they were felled -- the readiest means of disposal.
As the lake commerce increased, there came a growing need for accomodations.
The wharf was a busy spot indeed with lake travel becoming steadily preferable
to stage coach, oxcart, or horseback. In consequence, the “Steamboat Hotel”
was built nearby, and a famous old water-front hotel it became, widely known
in the annals of harbour life. Facing the lake, a little way to the west of
the club house still stands a part of this historic building.
Silver Creek harbour became a thriving port, a famous lumber market to which
New England, in particular, looked for much of its lumber. This came not from
Hanover alone, but from the south-east towns of the county and from portions
of Cattaraugus County as well.
Shipping became so extensive it was not unusual for two or three of the
largest sized sailing vessels to be lying at the Silver Creek pier at one
time taking on cargoes of lumber or discharging cargoes of grain so necessary
to the well-being of every settler. Purchasers came from unbelievable distances
inland to procure grain, sugar and tea from this point. From as far inland
as Cherry Creek and Randolph merchants came with their teams to procure stock
for their general stores from the incoming vessels.
In 1833 or 1834, through Mr. Lee’s untiring efforts, the government granted
an appropriation for the erection of a beacon light at the furthermost extremity
of the pier. The year following, realizing the importance of this harbour
and the bulk of shipping being handled, a second appropriation was passed
for the erection of a light house on the extreme point of the west cliff.
Through the years this has been known as “Light House Point”. Both lights
were maintained by the government for many years until the advent of the railroad
-- the knell of harbour life.
What a stunning sight the harbour must have presented on a moonless night
in the late 1830’s -- the sweep of bay with the wharf stretching far
out into the black water, the masts of the sailing schooners rising and falling
in the slip, the Steamboat Hotel shedding light and hospitality from its many
twinkling panes, and overall the majestic light house, casting its rays far
over the vast expanse of water and highlighting the shore as well.
In the 1830’s lake traffic became “immense”, to quote an early writer. It
is easy to see how this might be true with no railroad running west of Utica
and with the Erie Canal, the greatest artery of travel across the state, terminating
at Buffalo where the lake steamers took over.
Silver Creek came to be an outstanding port and often the most congested.
For four successive springs, 1835—40, no lake traffic was available to Buffalo
due to the ice jam in the harbour. The Erie Canal disgorged its passengers
at its western terminus only, for them to find that was their journey’s end,
seemingly. “The city,” to quote the same early writer, “became filled to overflowing
with its impatient strangers anxiously waiting to proceed on their western
journey. They all but lost their minds as the delay continued and the completely
blockaded harbour showed no prospect of ever opening.”
When the news reached the city that first year, that boats from western
ports were coming east as far as Silver Creek and were lying over there for
two or three days picking up cargo and passengers for the return trip, it
is not hard to imagine the effect it produced. Pandemonium broke loose among
the stranded travelers as they competed for transportation to the Silver Creek
harbour. At best it was a tortuous journey over the frozen ruts or through
the oozing mud of early spring. Those who had to remain in Buffalo until
their funds were about depleted had no alternative but to cover the distance
Little can we imagine, I suppose, how the shambling nags and plodding oxen
were urged on; how the anxious travelers pressed forward in the desperate
hope of being among those to reach the destination in time to get on board.
These stranded transients milled around the little town for days, wandered
along the shore and haunted the outer pier and Light House Point, straining
their eyes westward for signs of a distant vessel.
Hardly was the first crowd dispersed on its westward way and the natives
recovered from this human avalanche before there was a second influx and the
drama was re-enacted. The caravan of ancient vehicles was again disgorging
its travelers, beset by the same hopes and fears as those who had preceded
them. This sorry tide of frustrated travelers and attendant excitement lasted
unabated for about three weeks, during which time business at Silver Creek
was lively to the point of fevered activity. The Harbour fairly seethed with
excitement by day and by night, for no hour was too unearthly for some sagging
mare to draw up with her rider or for some antiquated conveyance to come to
its last swaying stop at wharfside. To find housing for such numbers was a
serious problem, almost a desperate situation in a community so small. For
four incredible springs in succession this congested drama was repeated.
Probably no period in Silver Creek life was ever as picturesque as that
of the Harbour Days: the busy wharf heaped with barrels, casks, kegs and
chests; the warehouse with its office of “Counting House” flanked with high
piles of outgoing lumber; the colorful “Steamboat Hotel” with its changing
clientele and sometimes staggering seamen; the shipbuilding going on in the
background, with masts and spars Iending romance to the scene.
As early as 1826, before Mr. Lee ever set forth upon the fateful Sunday
walk that brought him to Silver Creek, shipbuilding was in progress. The
ship-yard was erected on the east side of Silver Creek not far below the
juncture of Walnut Creek, very much on a line with the Rumsey Street of today.
Here the well-known “Victory” was started in May 1826 and successfully launched
in September. The owner and first ship builder, Mr. Holman Vail, a millwright
and native of Otsego County had to have the channel excavated to permit the
ship to enter the lake. With this channel deepened, a more ideal location
for a ship yard could not be desired. It was as ideal for Mr. Vail’s purpose
as the bay with its protecting west cliff was to be for Mr. Lee. Though this
first ship was lost by its owner because of the great expense involved and
two unsuccessful shipping seasons, it was a very fine vessel indeed. It had
a fine record through the years and was the forerunner of others which were
to come from that same shipyard. The schooner “Victory” has gone down in history
as the first lake vessel to be built in Silver Creek and the first sail craft
to be floated from our creek. Holman Vail with his brother John have also
their place in history as the pioneer shipbuilders; there were none before
Fortunately for the Vails whose all had been lost with the “Victory”, as
well as their heart for shipbuilding, Mr. Lee was not interested in lake commerce
alone. Before he ever saw Silver Creek’s bay, he was already part owner of
the “Liberty”, a successful coasting trade vessel running between Ashtabula,
Ohio and Buffalo in 1826 when the Vails were just entering the shipbuilding
business. With Mr. Lee’s coming in 1828 came encouragement for the Vails
and a new impetus for shipbuilding. Mr. Lee’s shipping experience proved
how successful a coasting trade schooner could be, and it renewed the Vails’
zest for building. With his interest, encouragement and financial backing,
the Vails again applied their skills to the building of other schooners. Emphasis
enough cannot be laid upon the new prosperity and development which came
to Silver Creek with the advent of Mr. Lee and his mercantile interests and
ambitions for shipbuilding and shipping life. To his far vision, perseverance
and gift for organization, the growth of the village is indebted.
As a result of Mr. Lee’s backing of the Vail brothers, between the years
of 1828 and 1844 there were fourteen or fifteen different sail and steam boats
built and launched at this port. Those must have been thrilling days -- the
day of the year when the annual launching took place! How the date must have
been rumored through the countryside and how eagerly the settlers must have
assembled on the creek bank and shore to watch the schooner’s launching!
Launchings, coast trading, water travel; sails, rigging, schooners,and steamboats;
humming wharfs and bulging warehouse; captains, seamen, wharfhands and teamsters;
excitement, risk, romance and high adventure -- these were the ingredients
of harbour life when Silver Creek’s shipbuilding and commerce ranked with
the best kown on the Lakes.
Real fortunes were made in that day by wharf masters and fortunate ship
owners for each ship was individually owned, partnership owned or owned by
a private company; there were no shipping lines in existence then. Fortunes
were made and alas in many cases lost, for all was not flambouyant success
even in that shipping hey-day. Ships sank at sea; schooners were battered
against the cliffs; boilers exploded and steamers went up in flames; many
a hopeless passenger clung to a floating spar in vain.
Shipwrecks, disasters and heroic rescues had their place in the harbour
life saga. One ghastly August morning in 1841, two hundred fifty bodies washed
up onto Silver Creek’s shores. This was due to a flaming excursion boat, the
Erie”, which failed to reach shore before it was consumed. Yes, industry,
success, prosperity, fame and tragedy were all known to this port.
Gone now are the wharf and the beacon, the warehouse, hotel and shipyard.
Gone are the lighthouse and the lights far-streaming. The railroad embankment
has supplemented the wharf; the trains have succeeded the sailing schooners;
the warehouse has been replaced by the Fish and Game Club House on its very
site; and the hotel has given way to a line of tourists’ lodgings. The cliffs
are with us still, their dignity little impaired with age; the bay is as magnificent
as in days of yore; the curve of the shoreline is as graceful as ever. The
creeks still empty into the bay; the’ sun still sets behind the point; and
the afterglow still dyes sky and water alike in indescribable hues as it
did in the busiest shipping days of the 1830’s.
Gone, too, is Mr. Lee, that remarkable figure of business genius who was
not only responsible for the wharf, all the commercial life of that day, and
the success of the shipyards, but for all the thriving prosperity they brought
to the whole, far-reaching locality. He established the first permanent general
store, the first real hotel, the first bank (second in the county), promoted
the first church (Presby.terian, 1831). He laid out Dunkirk Street and extended
Main Street to meet it, thus creating the intersection which, before the
Thruway, reputedly was the busiest traffic center in the state, outside of
New York City. With his genius for organization his lake shore settlement
and the original upper Main Street settlement were drawn into one united
community and incorporated as the Village of Silver Creek in 1848.
Published July 1953.