The Great Bend of the Tonawanda


Old Mill Dam on the Tonawanda

Old Mill Dam on the Tonawanda


Growing up along its muddy banks, the term “great” never came to mind. I can only imagine in the time of the Seneca it was more impressive. Two of their ancient footpaths converged here, and it was the location of an Indian camp they called DE-O-ON-GO-WA, or The Great Hearing Place. Only one to two feet in width, and worn down 4-6 inches into the ground, these Indian footpaths led across the virgin wilderness of New York State, and became the thoroughfares that would later become Route 5 & 63.

The grassy clearing along the North Bank, was also frequented by Butler’s Rangers during their loyalist raids into New York and Pennsylvania during the revolution. Which may, or may not, explain why I grew up with a distaste for Canadians.

In 1802 Joseph Ellicott chose this spot for his office of the Holland Land Company, and Batavia, Genesee County, and Western New York were born. A Mill Dam was built in 1801, and a lumber mill, and grist mill soon followed. Ellicott moved into his stone land office in 1815, and it still stands today. Built from local Onondaga limestone, it may stand another 200 years.

The Holland Land Office in 1967

The Holland Land Office in 1967


When the Erie Canal was being planned, Ellicott lobbied hard to have it routed through Batavia. But the Tonawanda lacked sufficient flow, and the rise of the Onodaga Escarpment proved enough of a barrier that the canal was routed to the north of town in 1825, using 18 mile Creek as it’s main source of water. As a final injustice, the waters of the Tonawanda would be siphoned off to Oak Orchard creek to provide more flow to the canal.

After the loss of the canal, the future for Batavia did not look bright. But where geology and fate conspired against the village, technology and entrepeneurship prevailed. In 1832 the Tonawanda Railroad was incorporated, and in 1837 the first trains ran from Rochester to Batavia. The line was eventually extended to Attica six years later, and Buffalo in 1853, and the Tonawanda Railroad was absorbed into the New York Central. In the end, the railroads would triumph over the canal, despite the state government’s attempts to recoup their massive investment in the ditch.

NY Central Station - Batavia 1910

NY Central Station - Batavia 1910


The railroads were a boon. Batavia became a stop on the famed Water Level Route from New York City to Chicago, with a four track mainline running right through the heart of the city, crossing the Tonawanda just south of the mill dam. These were the years of Batavia’s rise. The Courthouse was built in 1841, and by 1890, the city was home to a thriving industry of farm machinery, and carriage parts manufacturers. Batavia boasted a population of 6,000 people, two breweries, and both a weekly and daily newspaper. It was the county seat, and the place that farmers came to shop, and bring their produce to market.
The Old County Courthouse

The Old County Courthouse


Immigrants arrived from Ireland, and later Poland and Sicily to work the factories. They were not met with kindness, but instead by a “Know-Nothing” fervor that sought to keep the unclean, lesser races of Eastern and Southern Europe out of the U.S.

But that was a long time ago. And as I have noted before, time has not been kind to Batavia. The post war years saw significant decline as manufacturing moved to warmer and cheaper climates. A wrong headed urban renewal gutted the historic downtown with the best of intentions. Now the city is hoping to merge with the thriving township that encircles it, in the hopes that the tax base of big box stores, and chains out by the Thruway can help float the cost of keeping up the decaying central core. I hope they succeed. Much beauty still exists there. And like a boxer that doesn’t know when to stay down, Batavia keeps getting up off the mat to take more punches. The result isn’t pretty, but it is admirable.

Keep getting up Batavia, and keep swinging. This old coot would be proud.

Joseph Ellicott

Joseph Ellicott

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