Preston E. Pierce, EdD
Ontario County Historian


Originally produced for the 2002 Finger Lakes History Day Participants


Start on the front steps of the OCHS Museum, 55 North Main Street.  The Historical Society was founded in 1902 and held its meetings, and housed its collections, in several small buildings before the construction of the present museum.  One of them was a former law office about where the present YMCA connects with the old Post Office across the street. 

Now demolished, there were more than two dozen little law offices along Main Street in the early 1800's. The office where Stephan A. Douglas studied law has been preserved behind the Granger Homestead on North Main Street.  Douglas, who lived in Phelps, attended Canandaigua Academy, then studied law here before moving to Illinois about 1835.  A photograph showing the early museum can be seen at the Historical Society.

Rochester architect Claude Bragdon who designed many local landmarks built the current museum building in 1914.  For 59 years the Wood Library shared the building.  Now up the street, it is named for philanthropist, William Wood, who gave money for many causes including public libraries and planting trees along Main Street.  He lived just across the street, on Greig Terrace, for many years and was known as “Uncle Billy.”

Walk down the street heading south (left out of the museum, toward the business district).  You will pass several houses now used as law offices and a funeral home.

The Johnson Funeral Home belonged to Myron Holley.  Built between 1810-1820, this was home to a controversial figure who was a newspaper publisher for a while, then spent many years as a state commissioner for the Erie Canal.  olley was also a staunch abolitionist.

The white brick house next door is often referred to as the Paul house and was built in 1808.  It was the first brick house in Canandaigua and was also a store for a while.  Later prominent lawyer, Mark Sibley, owned it.  Before 1819 the local Masonic lodge met here.  Until the Civil War, the land from here north was farmland with a few large homes.  The houses you see on North Main Street were built after 1870 for the most part.  Many of the side streets did not exist before the Civil War.

At the corner of Gorham Street is a large brick building.  Built in 1812, this Federal style building was the home and office of Nathaniel Gorham II, son of Nathaniel Gorham.  The elder man was a partner with Oliver Phelps in purchasing all of Western New York from Seneca Lake to the Genesee River.  The older Gorham was also a signer of the US Constitution from Massachusetts.  After two generations of use as a store, warehouse, and residence this house became the home of the Red Jacket Club late in the 19th Century.  An exclusive social club for men, its members were the elite of the area.  From 1926-1947 American Legion Post #256 was located here and its name can still be seen carved above the Gorham Street door.

Cross Gorham Street and continue walking south, past the Court House.

The building you see here was enlarged to its present size in 1908.  When it was built in 1857-58 it was only half as big.  As you look at the front of the building you can see a “bay,” as architects call it, on each end.  Those were added in 1908-09.  At that time the inside was completely remodeled with new courtrooms.  The brick on the front was taken from the sides and back and applied to the new sections to give it an even color in 1909.

There have been many dramatic trials in this building.  The most famous was the trial of Susan B. Anthony for voting in 1873.  Her trial was held in the old north courtroom, which no longer exists.  It was on the second floor about where the window closest to the pillar is located. 

Anthony was tried here because the federal district attorney could not get an impartial jury selected in Rochester.  Justice Ward Hunt directed the jury to find Anthony guilty after she admitted to voting, and in consideration of several recent Supreme Court precedents.  It was a very unpopular decision in this region even then. 

Hunt was a newly appointed Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court.  When the court was not meeting in Washington, its Justices rode circuit presiding over other federal courts.  Anthony refused to pay the fine Justice Hunt levied, but he refused to put her in jail as she wanted.  Had he done so, she could have asked for a writ of habeas corpus which would have allowed her to come back into court.  Hunt wanted to prevent that and all the political turmoil it would have caused. 

Anthony was actually tried under a federal statute known as the “Ku Klux Klan Law” enacted after the Civil War.  That law made it a federal crime for anyone to vote if they knew that they were not entitled to vote.  It was aimed at suppressing the Klan in the Reconstruction South.  In New York there was no statute that said that women could not vote, but “everyone knew it” under common law.  Anthony claimed that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution gave her the right to vote.  The Supreme Court disagreed with that point of view several times in the 19th Century.  Women finally got the right to vote in New York in 1917.  For many years, the 14th Amendment was not applied to the states.

Look at the large boulder on the lawn.  That was placed there in 1902 by Dr. Dwight R. Burrell, a well-known local physician.  Burrell loved large rocks.  He had four two-ton boulders brought to Canandaigua by rail.  One is here and commemorates the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua also called the “Pickering Treaty.”  Still honored by both the Iroquois Indians and the US government, it is celebrated here each year on November 11, the anniversary of its signing.  An original copy of the treaty is at the museum.

One of Dr. Burrell’s other rocks is out on Squaw Island and tells why the island became a special state reservation.  Another rock is in Woodlawn Cemetery and serves as Dr. Burrell’s tombstone.  The fourth rock was placed in the middle of a highway intersection on the west side of town.  It served as a historical marker for the Sullivan Expedition of the American Revolution.  When the road was widened in 1968 that rock was broken up and buried.

Up Ontario Street, just over the crest of the hill, is the county jail.  It has been in that location since 1815.  There, Ontario County carried out its only two hangings.  The last one, in 1889, was so gruesome it was used as an argument for the introduction of the electric chair.

Cross over Ontario Street.

The parkland in front of the police station is part of the Public Square, Canandaigua, was laid out by two men from New England who wanted the town to have a large public square.  Early county fairs were held here and militia units and public celebrations were organized here.  The square actually includes this part, the land around the courthouse, the park across the street with the bandstand, and the land around City Hall.

Several hotels were built on the site of the police station.  The last one burned in 1971.  Canandaigua had several hotels in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.  It was a hub of stagecoach travel when routes 5 & 20 were a private turnpike, and most other roads were muddy and rutted.  In some areas around Canandaigua there were plank roads.  One of those started in “Pumpkin Hook,” ran into Victor, over the hill to Bloomfield, then down the Bristol Valley.  They were very popular in the 1830’s and 1840’s.

In 1841 the Auburn and Rochester Rail Road entered Canandaigua from Victor.  It continued on to Shortsville, Clifton Springs, Phelps, Geneva, Waterloo, Seneca Falls, and Auburn.  Later extended to Syracuse, it became part of the New York Central system.  In 1853 another line started here and ran to John Roebling’s new suspension bridge at Niagara Falls.  Taken over by the New York Central it was called the “Peanut Line” because, as one Central director said, it was too expensive for such a peanut of a line. 

At one time trains came and went every few minutes here.  A line from the Pennsylvania coalfields connected Canandaigua with Baltimore and brought fresh seafood to Flannagan’s Oyster House downtown.  As late as 1950 it was still possible to get an overnight sleeper from Canandaigua, through Watkins Glenn, Elmira, and Harrisburg, to Baltimore and Washington.

Walk down one block into the business district.  Cross Niagara Street.  Look at the second building. A three-story yellow brick building, this was the location of a barbershop kept by Henry W. Johnson, the first African-American lawyer in Western New York.  A self-made man, he read law, like Lincoln did, in the office of Henry Chesebro downtown.  Admitted to the bar in 1864, he was a noted speaker who often appeared with Frederick Douglass.  In 1865 Johnson emigrated to Liberia where he became the Attorney General for a short time.

Look across Main Street at the Bemis Block.  That is the large building in the next block south.  The name is spelled out on the face of the brick.  Built by the family of pioneer printer, James D. Bemis, there is a large ballroom upstairs.  There Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Parker Pillsbury, and Wendell Phillips often spoke at public meetings concerned with woman suffrage and the abolition of slavery. 

Many former slaves and free African-Americans lived in Canandaigua before the Civil War.  The Underground Railroad was active in the region.  At least one near riot took place at the Court House when agents from the south caught a fugitive slave.  New York abolished slavery in 1827.  Before that, many slaves lived in Ontario County.  Myron Holley, who lived near the museum, was an Erie Canal commissioner and an active abolitionist.  However, not everyone agreed with that radical position and there was a segregated “colored school” in town during the 1850’s.

Cross Main Street, then turn right and cross Chapin Street.  Walk north across the railroad tracks and stand in front of City Hall.

City Hall was built in 1821-22 as the second County Court House.  In 1827 this building was the scene of several sensational trials with national repercussions.  Several men, including Nicholas Chesebro (father of attorney Henry Chesebro) were convicted of kidnapping a man named William Morgan from the county jail.  With help from men from Farmington and Victor, Morgan was taken by stagecoach to Rochester, out Ridge Road to Fort Niagara, and imprisoned in the dungeon of the fort.  He was never seen alive again.

The men who kidnapped Morgan were all members of local Masonic lodges.  Morgan had threatened to expose “secrets” of the Masons, a rather phony claim.  However, he was obnoxious, and his kidnappers were angry with him on several accounts.  Many of the people who participated in the kidnapping, or the later cover-up attempts, were public officials and politicians.  Heated debate and arguments followed.  In the end there were indictments, trials, and prison terms for some participants.  Those who kidnapped Morgan all got two years or less in county jail.  No murder was ever proven since there was no body and no witnesses.  The longest any of them ever served was a few months.

The incident sparked the formation of the Anti-Masonic Party, however, which was opposed to Andrew Jackson.  Many of its members became Whigs in the 1840’s, and Republicans in the 1850’s.  Judge Throop, who presided at the trial, lived in Auburn.  The political career of William Seward (Lincoln’s Secretary of State who purchased Alaska) was given a boost by the Morgan affair.  William Morgan’s young “widow” eventually moved to Nauvoo, Illinois and married the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Cross West Avenue and stand in front of the park.  Down the hill, under the railroad, are two cemeteries.  One is called Pioneer Cemetery and contains the graves of many veterans of the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. 

Across the street is West Avenue Cemetery with more veterans of those, and later conflicts.  Commodore Salisbury, one of the first American naval governors of Guam is buried there.  So, too, is Austin Steward, a freed slave, grocer and abolitionist that wrote a book about his own life that is still in print.  He lived in Rochester, then moved here.  In 1841, when the cemetery was created, the village passed an ordinance prohibiting the burial of “colored” people there.  The village board changed the rule in 1856.

The bandstand in the park is the second to be located there.  John Philip Sousa’s band once played here while they were on a tour.  Theodore Roosevelt spoke near here during a presidential campaign.  This bandstand was given to the village as a memorial to Alexander Grieve, a local businessman, in 1912.

The water fountain at the corner once stood in front of City Hall.  When the street was widened it had to move.  The pump by City Hall, and the stone fountain in front of the police station, reminds us of the importance of water.  Both stone structures were built by landscape architect, John Handrahan, who built much of Sonnenberg.  Landscape architecture was a new idea at the turn of the Twentieth Century and Handrahan copied much of the style of the better known Frederick Law Olmstead.  Gone now are the “wells” in the center of the street where rainwater collected for the use of

Look directly behind the old Post Office.  There is a rambling two-story house that once stood on the site of the Post Office.  It was moved and turned about 1850 when a large office building called the Atwater Block was built on the site.  The old house had been the Sanborn Tavern and was later the home of pioneer physician, Dr. Moses Atwater. 


The Atwater family came from Connecticut in pioneer times and established homes and offices here and in Geneva.  They owned much of the land around the north end of Canandaigua Lake for years.  A descendent, Lydia Atwater, painted many pictures of Canandaigua which give us our only good image of the town before photography was invented.  At the museum they can show you a print of an Atwater painting, now a primary source in addition to a work of art. 

Atwater Hall was torn down in 1910 to make way for the new Post Office.

The old Post Office was one of several gifts given to Canandaigua by Mrs. Mary Clarke Thompson.  She donated the land and the services of an architect so that Congress would authorize the Post Office to move out of the Court House.  Here the federal court met for many years.  Here also draft boards sent county men off to fight in World Wars I and II, as well as the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.  The Postal Service left this location in 1991 and it now serves the YMCA.

The Canandaigua YMCA started as the “Fairley Class,”  an outgrowth of a local Sunday School.  Determined to build healthy bodies to house healthy minds, the YMCA provided a place to take “physical culture” as they called it in 1907 when this "Y" was chartered.  The scouting movement was closely associated with the YMCA when it first came to America in 1910.  The first Boy Scout troop in Canandaigua was really a club in this "Y" in 1911. 

James Naismith, inventor of basketball, created the sport specifically for use in the YMCA.  In larger cities there was often a YWCA for young women.  The Canandaigua YMCA allowed women to participate in most of its activities from the start.

The “Y” building sits on the site of the old Union School, the first public high school in Canandaigua.  Opened in 1876, it provided the first few years of high school at a time when no one was required to attend school after 8th Grade.  Until 1899, most boys wanting to complete high school attended Canandaigua Academy, then a private college prep school.  There were many small private schools in town in the Nineteenth Century.  Most served just one sex.  In 1899 the old Academy closed.  In 1907 as a new public four-year high school, open to boys and girls, was opened on the site of the old Academy just up the street several blocks.

A little ways up the street, across Grieg Terrace, is the First Congregational Church.  Built in 1812 the church was founded in 1799 by Rev. Zadock Hunn.  Hunn was hired by the land developers, Phelps and Gorham, to organize churches so that the proper atmosphere could be created for a “God-fearing” prosperous community.  He was responsible for the creation of many churches, Congregational and Presbyterian.  Boston architect, Francis Allen, who also built Sonnenberg mansion, designed the stone chapel, built in 1872.  One of the distinguished early pastors of this church was Timothy Field.  A noted Yale alumnus, he was the brother of Cyrus Field who laid the Atlantic Cable in 1869.

Cross Main Street at the corner of Main and Gibson Streets.  Where the grassy mall is located trolley tracks ran until 1930.

Across Gibson Street is the old home of General John A. Granger, a local militia leader and gentleman farmer.  For many years the house was an orphanage and the convent for St. Mary’s Catholic Church.  Today it is owned by the church, but serves as a community center.  The school behind the church was built in 1880 by a new order of Nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph, who came to Canandaigua in 1854.  Their headquarters is now at Nazareth College.  The parish opened its first school in 1849.  The school was enlarged in 1910, and again in 1958.

Bishop McQuaid (1848) founded St. Mary's parish, like many Catholic parishes in this area, in response to the great waves of Irish immigrants who came here in the 1840’s.  Driven out by English land laws and famine, the Irish were attracted to New York by canal construction jobs and other opportunities.  In the 1890’s great waves of Italian immigrants came to the area.  Like other “new immigrants,” they were predominately Catholic and often encountered discrimination at first.  The church was first located at the corner of Saltonstall Street and South Main Street.  In 1903-04 the present church was built.

As he escaped, John Surratt, one of the Lincoln assassins, followed the Northern Central Railroad to Elmira and Canandaigua.  He stayed over night here and even attended mass at the old St. Mary's Church.  Evidence of his stay here was introduced in his later trial

Gibson Street was opened through farmland in 1825.  It is named for local banker, Henry B. Gibson, who helped finance the Auburn and Rochester Rail Road.  He lived across the street near the Congregational Church.  When the Erie Canal was built, Gibson developed an entire village, Port Gibson north of Manchester, to give Canandaigua a canal port.

Facing St. Mary’s across Gibson Street is the United Church (Presbyterian, American Baptist).  Founded in 1871 by members of the Congregational Church, which was overflowing, this church united with a local Baptist congregation that lost its church to a fire in 1943.  Distinguished former members of this church include John N. Willys whose automobile company (Willys Overland) invented the Jeep, and gave Walter Chrysler a job after he was fired by GM.  This was also the home church of Dr. John M. Clarke, a pioneer paleontologist, and founder of what is now the New York State Museum in Albany.

The United Church sits on the site of the Abner Barlow farm house.  Built in 1792, the house was moved across the street, and still stands down the little side street called Daily Avenue.  It may be the oldest house in Canandaigua. 

In pioneer days it was not uncommon to move whole buildings.  The first court house was sawed in half and rolled down Main Street on log rollers so that it could be used as a barn behind an old hotel in 1860.  Barlow Brook still runs under the United Church and often defies human efforts to control it.  Every Spring area buildings suffer the effects of the attempted rerouting of Barlow Brook.

As you return to the Historical Society museum, take some time to reflect on the lives of those who promoted changes in society, business, and politics through “Revolution, Reform…”  The accomplishments of local people have made Ontario County proud.  However, similar stories can be found in every community.  Cherish your history every day!

[The information in this tour comes, in part, from the “Walking Tour of Historic North Main Street,” and the “Historic Public Square” pamphlets developed by the Ontario County Historical Society.  It also incorporates information from  Dr. John H. Jewett’s 1906 “History of Main Street.”]

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