The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2005

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The Rebel of Rose Ridge

Myron Holley's Days in Rochester


Donovan A. Shilling

There are many men whose lives seem insignificant. They make no especially notable contributions to their fellow man. That, however, was certainly not the case with Myron Holley, a true gentleman, a mover and a shaker. He was one of those rare few destined to change the world around them. How he did it is the subject of our tale.

Born in Salisbury, Connecticut, and educated at Williams College, Holley also went to law school in New Haven. After a brief practice in his hometown, Myron Holley sought his fortune on the frontier in a then small community in Ontario County—Canandaigua. Here he met 18-year-old Sally House and soon they were married. Eventually they had a family of six sons and six daughters.

To support this growing family he started a bookstore in the community in 1804. He began a political career in 1810, starting as county clerk for four years. Then in 1816, he was selected as the county's representative to the State Assembly. He met DeWitt Clinton and soon became a vigorous canal advocate.

When canal work stalled in 1819, it was Holley that wrote a convincing report to a foot-dragging legislature pointing out the wonders that newly invented mechanical devices were doing in aiding canal construction. The massive stump puller, the three-wheeled wheelbarrow and a remarkable windlass device to lift tree trunks and rocks aside were mentioned in his persuasive report.

It was shortly after this success that he was noticed by his peers. It was then that Holley's appointment with destiny began. He was made a canal commissioner to serve with Joseph Ellicot, Samuel Young, Stephen Van Rensselear and DeWitt Clinton. The group met in New York City where they elected Clinton their president, Young, their secretary, and Holley, their treasurer. From that moment on the trio would become key figures in the construction of the grand Erie Canal.

As work proceeded on the fledgling canal, it was up to Myron Holley and Samuel Young to supervise and pay the dozens of contractors and hundreds of workers engaged in digging the 363 mile artificial river, the longest canal ever to be built. For eight years the two commissioners, with occasional help, had to travel continuously along the canal through often wild, unsettled countryside. They traveled by open wagon, on horseback and often, when the terrain was too rough, they had to tramp through the underbrush burdened with their money chests, their portfolios and their account books. In freezing cold, in soggy heat and with little or no protection from the elements, they settled their accounts, many times at the end of the day in candle-lit shanties paying out small notes and silver coins. The annual pay for this huge responsibility was $2500.

During the seven-year period from 1818 to 1824, Holley had personally handled over two and a half million dollars. Much of this amount was in coin or in one, two, three and five dollar notes. Then one day in March of 1824 he was unaccountably short $30,000. Myron was absolutely unhinged, distraught and unable to explain the funds disappearance. So upset was Holley that he turned his entire estate in Lyons over to the State in partial restitution. Half of the money lost was in notes personally signed by Holley. In 1828 the legislature, eventually convinced of Myron's innocence, ordered that his property be restored.

Holley was in charge of the construction of the canal west of the Seneca River for 158 miles to Buffalo. It was Holley who made certain the canal went through Rochester. Holley wrote: "…in July (1819) I directed Mr. White (Chief Engineer for the canal) to proceed to Rochester and ascertain carefully where the Genesee should best be crossed, and thence to lay out the line easterly as far as he could, marking its dimensions by stakes, and dividing it into suitable sections for actual contract. To these directions he industriously conformed."

Thus we owe the route of the Erie Canal and all the commerce and growth Rochester therefore enjoyed to Myron Holley. The canal's northern route, bypassing Canandaigua and Batavia, was essential. It enabled the builders to take advantage of a continuous water supply provided by the creeks and steams coursing through that area.

With the completion of the canal in October, 1825, a weary Myron Holley would turn his interests to other areas. By 1837 he had decided to retire from public life and focus his energies toward horticulture. He purchased a 120-acre farm on the Genesee's east bank near the Ridge Road - St. Paul Street area, then called Carthage. Myron named his little estate Rose Ridge and settled down enjoying his grandchildren and raising choice fruits and vegetables.

In her 1884 book on Rochester, Jenny Marsh Parker provides a happy glimpse of Mr. Holley, stating: "His customers were among our best citizens, and one bright woman used to say that Mr. Holley sold his peas and asparagus in the morning as gracefully as he delivered his lyceum lectures in the afternoon." She continues by relating the story of the wife of a Dr. Whitehouse who was unsure of the quality of the citizens in the fledgling city in which she had just arrived. The wife rushed excitedly into her husband's office and exclaimed, "I have seen a true gentleman! He came to the basement door selling vegetables!" "Oh yes," replied her husband. "That was Myron Holley."

Another impression of Holley is provided by a yarn he often enjoyed sharing with his friends. While romping along the lower banks of the Genesee River one afternoon with his grandchildren one of them turned to him and posed this thoughtful question. "Grandpa, why don't 'oo sow hair seed on your head?"

Myron was never one to shirk an issue or cave in to popular opinion. When the religious revivalists swept through the area Holley voiced his displeasure at their disruption of regular schooling through their use of school houses as headquarters for their revival meetings. He gained wide popularity with the young folks after one revivalist preached a scathing sermon condemning dancing as a sin. Myron answered the threat of fire and brimstone saying: "It's as natural for young people to dance as for the apple-trees to blossom in the spring."

While at Rose Ridge he became friends with a number of city dwellers who were strongly opposed to slavery. Holley, once ignited by this spark, soon became a fiery fanatic in the abolitionist movement. The gentleman farmer from Rose Ridge was becoming a rebel. He hated bigotry and ignorance. Always a man of action he wasn't content in just discussing the Anti-slavery issue with the neighbors. Myron pressed his vigorous protests throughout the Genesee Valley with lectures and writings.

On January 19, 1837, Holley gave an address before the Rochester Anti-Slavery Society. By public request, he repeated the address at the court house on February 5, 1837. A tattered and yellowing copy of that 22-page speech is still quite legible. The following quotes will provide some of the flavor of that eloquent and classic deliverance: "The admission of the states of Louisiana, Missouri and Arkansas into the Union, without a prohibition of slavery, has operated and will continue to operate, as a most extensive encouragement of the domestic slave trade. These admissions were gratuitous and enormous sins…against the highest rights of mankind."

Holley continues: "If a just Providence controls human affairs, the only way to exclude the most dangerous disquiet and disturbance among the southern slaves, is to free them.

He also darkly predicted a war between the states: [Slavery] "has roused the humanity of the civilized world to extinguish it; for though it has not yet struggled through war, and conflagration, and national ravage, to its object, it threatens all these soon…."

Finally he concluded: "Give it up, [the anti-slavery movement] and the best hopes of man on earth would wither…slavery would be rapidly extended…all ordinary labor would be scorned…the rights of the poor would be crushed…free principles would be abrogated…usurpation, conflict and crime, would be let loose upon everything most precious in the legacy of our immortal ancestors…and all thoughts of establishing free government, would be forever banished from the earth."

So intense were his feelings that he sold his beloved Rose Ridge estate, moved to Johnson Park (present site of the Clinton Square Building) in 1839 and used the proceeds to purchase a printing press.

With this he printed an abolitionist paper, called the Rochester Freeman. It carried the banner for anti-slavery into the hearts of many Rochesterians and introduced these ideas into many other Northern cities.

The Freeman was also of great benefit to a later freedom—fighter Frederick Douglass. Through his paper Holley had laid the foundation for the Underground Railroad in our area.

Speaking in Rochester in 1874 Douglass stated: "The ground had been prepared for me by the labor of others, notably Hon. Myron Holley. I know of no place in the Union where I could have located with less resistance, or received a larger measure of sympathy and cooperation."

Not only did Holley use the press to raise the conscience of his fellow citizens, he also founded a new, independent political party dedicated to wiping out one man's ownership of another. His efforts resulted in the formation of the Liberty Party and his writing of its platform which had but one plank—the complete abolition of slavery.

In 1839 it was Myron Holley's zeal and enterprise at the Warsaw, New York, convention that resulted in the nomination of James G. Birney for President of the United States and Thomas Earle, his running mate. Ironically, it was on the morning of March 4, 1841, that Myron Holley, gentleman, statesman, abolitionist and rebel from Rose Ridge passed away. It was just 8:00 a.m. and the bells in Rochester's churches and City Hall were ringing to announce the inauguration of President Harrison.

One last tribute to Mr. Holley was the honor provided him by the canalers on his beloved Erie. A small hamlet on the east branch of Sandy Creek in Orleans County had been called Salt Port. A salt spring near the creek led to this name. In 1827, Areovister Hamlin would purchase 100 acres there. He employed Elisha Johnson, a Rochester surveyor, to lay out a village. It was that canal-side village, just four miles west of Brockport and incorporated in 1850, that was to be renamed Holley, a fine village honoring a fine man.

© 2005, Donovan A. Shilling
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