August 1993

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The Williamson Road


A. G. Hilbert

Part I, Part II, Part III

Part II

The Germans wanted no more road building but in the spring they were forced on to Williamsburg, after building the road northward from Tioga instead of west to Osceola. The construction beyond Painted Post consisted mainly in widening the existing ancient Indian trail and the construction of another shelter at Mud Creek (Savona). Being city people and not farmers, their attempt to settle in the Genesee Country was almost a complete failure. When provided with seed grains and breeding cattle, they ate both. They wanted some kind of welfare system rather than hard colonial agricultural work. Many, when invited, drifted on into Canada where they were lured by Governor Simcoe with promises of land and supplies.

The road from Blossburg to Painted Post, then up the Cohocton through Bath and onto Williamsburg at the junction of the Genesee and Canaseraga was completed by fall of 1793 but it was not much of a road. It was almost impassable to wagons. One description said, "It was really nothing but a cart-way one rod wide, and a poor one at that" Another described it as "mirey, stoney, rough and rocky, frequently around huge trees uprooted by storms." An early settler reported that the trees along the road looked as if they had been "gnawed down by beavers," but at last there was a line of communication between western New York and the Susquehanna. The road from Williamsport to Williamsburg was finished, and on a good horse the trip could be made in five days. Under good conditions, a horse and rider could go from Baltimore to Bath in seven days.

Early in the spring of 1793, Charles Williamson stood on a hilltop above the Cohocton sixteen miles north of Painted Post. Before him lay an open basin about fifteen miles in circumference—level land, lightly timbered, a little lake, deep, even bottom soil, fine tall trees, and a rapids in the river wasting desirable water power. The sheltering hills were broken to the north by a valley, which scouts said led to a two-pronged crooked lake and northward to the "Friends" settlement and on to Geneva on the Mohawk route from the East. Here, he decided, he would establish the headquarters of his company. There was no one to tell him that, while this seemed and was fertile soil, it was poor compared with the limestone soil of the level lands in the north.

The establishment of the settlement Bath, named for the Dutchess of Bath, the wife of his benefactor, Sir William Pulteney, is a story all in itself. The town was laid out, a town carefully planned to rival its namesake in England, a town whose charm is still evident now [200] years later.

Williamson, however, never forgot his job—to sell land—and to sell land he had to make it accessible. North of Bath the emigrants from the east were creating their own roads, but from the Pennsylvania line northward special inducements were offered. Settlers were urged and frequently paid to improve and maintain the existing road. He realized future customers had to be encouraged, not mistreated or exploited as they were by the Pennsylvania taverns. He bought land and equipment to establish at Painted Post a tavern with exceptional frontier comforts. Most taverns allowed travelers to sleep only on the floor in front of their huge fireplaces. At the mouth of Mud Creek all travelers were greeted hospitably and none were turned away, even though they had no money. Bath itself boasted a modern inn but visiting French Duke deLiancourt described it as a "sparrow's nest," consisting of two rooms with six beds for 25 people. It was also noted that while the innkeeper's wife was a good cook, "There was much to be desired in cleanliness." One guest said it was so dirty he slept in bed with his boots on. The frontier scouts frequented the taverns and enthralled the guests with tales of both the Revolutionary and Indian wars plus descriptions of the lands ahead of them. One of the storytellers was Patterson, probably Ben, the scout. He was a hunter, guide, and relative of Daniel Boone. He was said to have been Bath's first innkeeper and built the first still in the area.

By 1796 Williamson advertised that the Bath area numbered 800 individuals and that by the end of the next year there would be 17 frame houses in Bath.

The agency house boasted a servant maid, paid regularly $2.00 per month. An Irish gardener, Edward Quinn, landscaped the grounds and planted apple and peach trees.

Politically, to get a name for the area, the plan was to honor General Schuyler, but he refused the honor, and when the offer was made to General Steuben, he accepted.

By 1796 the land settlement had progressed with exasperating slowness. Most of the sales had been to speculators or to the drifter type. Something spectacular had to be developed. In Williamsburg, to prevent frontier boredom, the Germans had successfully held a local fair, so the idea was to hold one on a more grand scale in the area near the little lake now called Salubria.

Since horse racing was considered the highest form of entertainment at that time, Williamson planned to build at Bath the finest race course in the country. This would attract the most critical sportsmen and gentry and naturally many others would follow and remain as settlers.

A field was cleared, a well dug, a pump installed and land leveled for a race track. Substantial purses for horse and foot races were offered. Horse and cattle exhibits were arranged while wrestling matches, ox roasts, and even plays by strolling players were featured. An open-sided log structure served as the theatre stage. The affair was advertised in all the eastern and southern newspapers, and in the seaboard and Hudson Valley cities guides were offered "to this far-famed city on the upper waters of the Susquehanna in the land of crystal lakes located in the garden home of the lately vanquished Six Nations."

As Williamson himself owned a celebrated southern mare named "Virginia Nell," he challenged the fastest horses in the country and offered a grand prize of 1000 pounds sterling to the winner. When a speedy New Jersey horse named "Silk Stockings," owned by Sheriff Dunn, was entered, the sporting men went wild.

By mid September, 1796, over 3000 guests had arrived. Local records state over 1000 of the racing fraternity alone were present, together with land speculators, home seekers, local settlers, entertainers and negro servants, while Indians in gala attire furnished songs and dances. One juggler could balance three tobacco pipes on his chin. Every form of entertainment or popular vice was made available.

In the feature race, Virginia Nell was the heavy favorite and the southerners, particularly, bet money, goods, and even their slaves on this mare. Madame Williamson and Mrs. Dunn, the wife of the owner of the other horse, made a side bet by dumping $100 each into the apron of a friend. Silk Stockings, however, won and Bath suddenly acquired a colored population, plus a number of penniless Virginians. And to quote the pun of an early historian, "The fact that Silk Stockings could run has been a problem ever since."

With the entertainments and amusements of every kind, the Fair lasted well into October. It is estimated that the entire promotion cost Williamson over $500,000. Land prices jumped from two shillings to over two dollars per acre. The success of the fair and even the defeat of the famous mare focused national attention on the Genesee Country. However, while it brought many more people to the Pulteney lands, it still didn't bring the desired kind of settlers. A clerical visitor during this period is quoted as stating, "Bath's state of society is very dissolute." The "Friends," the industrious religious neighbors to the north in the Penn Yan area, denounced the horse racing, the gambling, the drunken revelry in the tavern, and the sin of the theatre. Jemima Wilkinson said, "The town of Bath hath become the very cesspool of iniquity."

With the money made by the fair, Williamson, the first of the modern promoters, reinvested in building more roads, taverns, mills, schools, encouraged the clergy, established law and order, mail routes and even a newspaper. The original land investment was $175,000. Williamson spent $1,600,000 on promotion, but the profit was three and one-half million. Williamson was known as "Baron of the Backwoods," "Warden of the Wilderness," "Hemlock Prince,", and "King of the Sawmills." The spending of this first great real estate agent so scared his employers that, in spite of the tremendous profits, they replaced him with another agent, but not before the Genesee Country became the fastest growing development of its time.

By 1800, Bath had grown to a settlement of 40 families. A traveling English writer, John Maude, has left us an account of his visit there. He was welcomed as a guest in Williamson's own home, Springfield Farm. The fruit trees planted earlier by Quinn were just beginning to bear. Two acres of vegetables and melons were ripening on Pulteney Square. To find relief from the oppressive heat, there was bathing morning and evening, either in the stream or in Bath's delightful lake. Maude reported hayfields were lush, the woods full of ferns and birds plus "winged fairies" or hummingbirds. He was fascinated by the sugar maple (unknown to Europeans) that gave shade, lumber and syrup. He reported seeing in the Genesee Valley 10,000 acres of grass excellent for hay—some so tall as to cover his head. Here in Bath, Maude reported the vision of a mermaid in Salubria. Later, deLiancourt had a similar experience and it is stated he offered himself to the maid as a temporary husband for as long as he stayed in the area. It has been suspected that the mermaid was Madame Williamson's maid taking advantage of the privacy of the dawn or dusk hours for her bath.

© 1978, A. G. Hilbert
Part I, Part II, Part III
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