By Bryan Thompson
The Oswegatchie River has played a major role in the history of the Town of De Kalb. The river was important for the waterpower it could provide and for the transportation route it provided for heavy goods in an era of very poor roads. Unobstructed transport was so important that one of the earliest laws passed in the town required the removal of all felled trees from the river before the spring ice breakup.
While the Oswegatchie was an important economic asset in the early days it has also been a constant physical barrier dividing the town into two halves. In the first weeks of settlement William Cooper built a road from what is now De Peyster, a bridge over Beaver Creek and another over the Oswegatchie River for a total cost of $1,162. According to Cooper's original map this first Oswegatchie river bridge was located on the Eastern edge of the land Mr. Cooper reserved for the Gospel and School Lots (later disallowed by NYS). Further mapping by Potter Goff and Silas Spencer in 1814 confirm this location. This location is within a few hundred feet of the current bridge in Old De Kalb.
From the time of the first town meeting in 1806 until the early 1840's the total annual allotment for road and bridge repair was $250. That was almost 40 years without an increase!
This first bridge was probable an open wooden bridge as was the custom of the time. (The first covered bridge in the state of Vermont wasn't built until the 1820's.) This was the sole bridge over the Oswegatchie for many years. The bridge must have been well constructed because no repairs were mentioned for it until March 1812 when $10 was expended for repairs.
By 1817 the town had grown and the necessity of building a second bridge was apparent. The Town meeting approved the construction of a bridge near Marvel Thayer's (Lot 13 Goff and Spencer's Map). This bridge was to be constructed from within the yearly $250 budget. After 1825 this bridge was referred to as the Bridge near John Kendrew's. Thus Kendrew Corner's became the second location of a bridge over the Oswegatchie.
By 1846 the old wooden bridge at Kendrew were beginning to show it's age and a committee was appointed to" inquire into the sole (archaic for understructure) on the Kendrew bridge and the work done by Algernon Farr". The committee must have been happy with Mr. Farr's work for they awarded him $100 for his efforts.
By the 1840's the Town was quite settled and growing fast. New roads were laid out in many parts of the town. The annual town meeting began to regularly allot extra money (beyond the required $250) for roads and bridges. In 1846 a road was laid out from the village of Richville to the banks of the Oswegatchie River.
In 1849 the first order of business of the 43rd Annual Town meeting was a resolution to raise $250 extra for the construction of a bridge across the Oswegatchie at Richville. This issue appears to have been hotly contested. The final vote was taken by having those assembled divide into ayes and nays in the street, an option only used for extremely contentious issues.
Photo: Richville Iron Bridge
The motion to construct a bridge at Richville carried but this was not the end of the controversy. In February 1850 a motion was raised to pay David W. VanDuzee for building a bridge across the Oswegatchie near Richville. The motion was not sustained. In September of 1850 a motion was allowed to pay VanDuzee an additional sum not to exceed $50 for repairing the Richville Bridge and completing the same according to the original contract.
Whether due to shoddy construction or just spring flooding February 1858 found the Annual Town Meeting raising an additional $750 for rebuilding the bridge at Richville. This was obviously not a minor repair job. At the same meeting it was resolved to pay Luther Colton $20 he having "born the expense of establishing a crossing at the Oswegatchie River near Richville where the bridge crossed said river".
Concurrently the bridge at De KaIb Village was showing its age. In 1854 $150 was spent repairing it. In 1855 $250 In 1856 $450. And by 1859 the bridge at Kendrew needed replacing at a cost of $750. The work obviously wasn't done then as at the Annual Town Meeting in February 1860 a resolution was passed petitioning The County Board of Supervisors for $1000 to replace the bridge at Thomas Kendrew's. Finally in February of 1861 the Annual Town Meeting paid $750 for the replacement of Thomas Kendrew's bridge.
The burden of caring for so many bridges was starting weigh heavily on the town. To make matters worse enter The Heuvelton and De Kalb Plank Road Company, organized February 6, 1849. The officers of this company were: William Cleghorn, William Thurston, John Pickens, R. W. Judson, Peletiah Stacy, Andrew Rowlston and Lewis Sanford. This company built a private toll road during 1851 and 1852 from what is now the Western end of the Old Northern Rd. (where it connected with the Gouverneur, Richville and Canton Plank Rd.) to Heuvelton. They built a new bridge over the Oswegatchie River near "Cooper's Mills"(Cooper's Falls) with a tollbooth at the Eastern end.
Interestingly we know more about the construction of this bridge than any of the other early bridges. It was described as a "Lattice" bridge. This refers to a particular type of bridge truss. The Town Lattice Truss was developed and patented by Itheil Town. Mr. Town collected a royalty of $1 per foot for every bridge built using his system at this time. This system was touted as "putting bridge building within the scope of every village carpenter". Mr. Town's advertisements claimed that the truss could be "built by the mile and cut off by the yard".
The plank road ventures in the North Country soon became a boondoggle with the building of the Rome Watertown and Potsdam Railroad in 1856-57. Both plank roads in the Town of De Kalb became insolvent and the Town Commissioner of Highways was forced to buy their assets at sheriff's sale. In 1860 $750 was spent on the assets of the Heuvelton and De Kalb Plank Road and in 1862 $345.61 was spent for the De Kalb portion of the Gouverneur, Richville and Canton Plank Road. The Town now owned four bridges over the Oswegatchie and three were only a mile or so apart.
With the advent of the Civil War the town’s financial resources were severely taxed (no pun intended). The Town of De Kalb raised the highest enlistment bounties of any town in St. Lawrence county! In 1863 they paid a $300 bounty for each man who entered the army and by January of 1865 they had raised this bounty to $500.
According to our veterans roll at least 390 men served in the Civil War from De Kalb. The burden of these bounties led to the first recorded issuance of Town Bonds.
During the war the bridge at De Kalb Village continued to deteriorate. $36 dollars was spent on repairs in 1862. In 1864 Henry Burnham's cattle fell through the De Kalb Village Bridge. The town paid him $50 damages for this accident in 1870. If local legend is correct during this time the De Kalb bridge was closed to traffic and a boat was used to cross the river or people crossed by way of Cooper's Falls. This legend seems to be supported by a note from the Annual Town meeting of 1872 "the claim of Andrew Hockins and Edwin M. Gilson for damages sustained by reason of the falling of the Bridge at De Kalb Village on August 31, 1871" were referred to the Town auditors to be audited and allowed. Perhaps Cooper's old bridge was so deteriorated that reasonable people wouldn't use it?
In the spring of 1870 the Lattice bridge at Cooper's Falls must have been severely damaged because a special meeting was held March 5th "for the purpose of considering the propriety of rebuilding or repairing the bridge across the Oswegatchie at Cooper's Falls." A motion carried to build a new bridge, cost not to exceed the sum of $5000. By the 15th of July 1870 the Town auditors met at the newly erected iron bridge built by the company of Z. King and Son. They voted to pay King's agent S. G. Pope of Ogdensburg $4000 for the new bridge.
The iron bridge at Cooper's Falls was not destined to stand for very long. At a special meeting of the Town Auditors on October 11, 1872 consent was given to the Commissioner of Highways "to remove from the river where it now lays the iron bridge near Cooper's Falls". The Town's first "permanent" iron bridge (as they were known at that time) had lasted little more than two years!
At the Annual Town meeting in 1873 the town quickly voted to spend $1000 to repair the Kendrew Bridge. The Kendrew Bridge was the only remaining bridge in the De Kalb Village area of the three that had existed 10 years earlier. Bridges were again a hot issue at the 1874 Annual town meeting. At 12 Noon a resolution was passed instructing the Commissioner of Highways "to build an open wooden bridge across the Oswegatchie near De Kalb Village”. After much debate at 3:30 PM when about 45 electors were still present the resolution was amended by striking out the word open.
At the close of this meeting James Graham offered a resolution to rebuild the bridge at Cooper’s Falls for $4000. The motion was tabled. No further mention is made of a bridge at Cooper’s Falls in the Town records except for a note in July 1874 authorizing the Highway commissioner to dispose of the iron bridge from Cooper's Falls "as best serves the interests of the town".
The controversy over how to build the new bridge at De Kalb continued at the July 1874 special meeting. E. P. Townsley, Highway commissioner, submitted an extensive report to the meeting of plans, estimates and specifications of bridges of different materials. "The Honorable Seth G. Pope of Ogdensburg upon invitation addressed the meeting on the subject of iron bridges." One wonders whether he was also questioned about the defects in the Coopers Falls Iron bridge which he also sold the town? Eventually the meeting rescinded the orders relative to the construction materials of the De Kalb Bridge.
Photo: De Kalb Village Iron Bridge
The building of the iron bridge at De Kalb Village was probably hastened that summer (1874) by "the breaking down of the Kendrew bridge". The condition of which was discussed and a committee appointed to investigate at the February 1875 Annual Town Meeting. It appears possible that in the summer of 1874 there were no functioning bridges across the Oswegatchie River near De Kalb Village. This is in a place that 10 years before had had three functioning bridges!
In February of 1877, at the Annual Town Meeting, it was noted that the bridge at Kendrew was in an unsafe condition and a motion was passed to repair or rebuild it. The following February, 1878, a motion was made to rebuild the bridge of iron. Apparently the electorate had overcome their reservations about iron bridges. The bridge was completed by October 1878. The bridge abutments were built by Mr. Hendricks for $1000. The bridge itself was built by The Iron Bridge Co. of Canton, Ohio for $5,450.
Now the town seemed to get really excited about iron bridges. One year later (1879) they resolved to build a new iron bridge on the Oswegatchie at Richville and also one over Borland Creek in the Village of Richville. The abutments for the Richville Bridge were built by S. V. R. Hendricks for $1400. The bridge itself was supplied by the Groton Iron Bridge co. for $2925. The new bridge at Richville was obviously timely as July 6, 1879 found Andrew Wight and his wife of Fowler falling through the Richville bridge with their horse and buggy. The Town settled their claim with a cash payment of $850. The liability of poorly maintained bridges seems to begin to justify the cost of the new expensive iron bridges!
Alas the Town was to continue their history of bad luck with bridges. Just when the electorate seemed to be fed up with these expensive new road projects (All measures for additional moneys for roads and bridges were defeated at the February 1883 Annual Town Meeting.) An emergency meeting of the town auditors was called April 17, 1883 in Richville to provide a means for rebuilding the bridge at Richville. It was moved to erect a temporary bridge within 20 days at a cost of $200. They also moved to remove the iron bridge from the river at an expense not to exceed $500 by July first. On May 2nd the auditors met and annulled a contract entered into by the Highway Commissioner with the Groton Iron Bridge co. to repair the bridge. The Highway Commissioner was ordered to rebuild the bridge and raise the abutments three and 1/2 feet. and piers 4 feet. Costs were not to exceed $1900. James Roulston built the temporary bridge for $300. S. V. R. Hendricks rebuilt the iron bridge claiming $1802.24. The Town Auditors allowed him only $1702.24.
Finally the budget for the river bridges settled down little is noted for many years except money for paint and bridge planks. In 1892 the new town board voted to immediately repair the damaged ice breakers on the De Kalb Village bridge. In 1910 the icebreakers were also repaired on the Kendrew bridge. In 1911, 1913, 1915 and 1916 resolutions were put before the voters to replace the De Kalb Village iron bridge with a concrete bridge. In all instances the electorate voted down the proposition.
In 1926 the State Highway was built through De Kalb Village, Cooper's Falls and Kendrew Corners. With this highway construction the town turned over responsibility for the Kendrew Bridge to the County and then NYS. The Old De Kalb Bridge became the responsibility of the County when county Rt. 17 became a county road The Old De KaIb iron bridge was replaced in 1966. The Richville iron bridge was replaced about 1963. It also is now the responsibility of St. Lawrence County.
No discussion of the Oswegatchie River bridges would be complete without a mention of the private iron bridge which was built between Lots 268 and 463 or 4 (Goff and Spencer 1814) down stream from Richville. This was built sometime shortly after the Civil War and remained until taken down for scrap just before WW II. The bridge was used by a farmer who owned fields on both sides of the river. Little else is known of this bridge. It is never mentioned in the town record.
The Towns involvement in bridging the Oswegatchie was an expensive and difficult necessity for 160 years. I am sure today's town officials are thankful they no longer have to bear the burden.
County Clerk (nd.) Deed Books 49C p. 331 50A p. 421, 422, 424, 52B p. 310, 60A p. 207, 67C p. 87, St. Lawrence County Clerks Office.
Corbett, Scott (1978) Bridges New York, Four Winds Press. Town of De KaIb Clerk (nd.) Meeting Book One De Kalb Town Clerks office.
Town of De Kalb Clerk (nd.) Meeting Book Two De Kalb Town Clerks office.
Town of De Kalb Clerk (nd.) Town Book Six De Kalb Town Clerks office. Everts, L. H. (1878) A History of St. Lawrence County New York Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co. Hough, Franklin (1853) A History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, New York Albany, Little & Co.
Taylor, Alan (1996) William Cooper's Town New York, Alfred A. Knopf.