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by Bryan Thompson, Historian, Town of DeKalb

The Oswegatchie River bisects the town of De Kalb. Today we think of it as a recreational asset but in the early years it was a vital transportation link. Long before the first European settlers arrived in the area it was an important transportation route of the Iroquois people. It also was the natural boundary between the hunting territory of the Mohawk and the Oneida nations.

Native people used the Oswegatchie canoe route even after the first Europeans arrived in the town in 1803. In 1803 Alexander McCollum established a store on the west bank of the Oswegatchie near Old De Kalb. According to his store ledger during the first year of settlement the majority of customers were Indians presumably passing by on the river.

The supplies for the first store were transported by water, as the roads to the north were so poor. These supplies were shipped up the Mohawk River then transferred to Oneida Lake. From there they were shipped downstream on the Oneida and Oswego rivers to Lake Ontario. Then up the coast of Lake Ontario to the St. Lawrence River eventually arriving at Ogdensburg. From Ogdensburg the boat continued up the Oswegatchie River to the sight of the present Old De Kalb Village. In 1803 Alexander McCollum, Potter Goff and Stephen Cook completed this journey in a little over 3 weeks.

The overland settlement expedition to settle De Kalb found themselves so bogged down in mud when they arrived at Oxbow that they decided to lighten their load by sending all heavy goods down the Oswegatchie from there to the site of the new settlement. Jehiel Dimick, Salmon Rich, John Hewlett and Ralph R. Bell successfully floated the raft downstream over rapids to the site of De Kalb village.

The Oswegatchie was a friend in most cases but it was a foe of the first settlers at De Kalb Village (Old De Kalb) when in the spring of 1804 it rose over its banks and flooded many of the settlers first cabins built in its flood plain. Alexander McCollum described the situation in a letter to William Cooper as follows, “Picture to yourself the deplorable and I may say wretched condition we were all placed in on the bank of a River whose waters after the uncommonly hard winter had spread far beyond its usual bed and drove the greater part of the villagers from their habitations.”

In 1803 under Cooper’s supervision the settlers built the first mill at Cooper’s Falls, a sawmill. The river was used to transport the logs to the mill where a water powered winch and chain were used to raise the logs into the mill for sawing. The same winch and chain was used to pull boats up and over the dam so they could proceed down the river to Ogdensburg.

A freshet washed away the wooden mill in less than a year. In 1804 the Judge had substantial new stone mills built. These mills included a gristmill with two runs of stone and a sawmill. They also blasted a waterpower channel through solid rock that still exists today.

Judge Cooper’s Grist Mill built in 1804 is on right in this photograph.

Judge Cooper's account book describes the work as follows: "For erecting a stone dam across the river, in sixteen feet of water, for blowing a canal six perches (rods) in length. Fourteen feet deep, eighteen feet wide at the top, and ten feet wide at the bottom, through a solid rock. For blowing half the width of the foundation of the grist mill and sawmills, ten feet deep, out of a solid rock, for filling up the other half of the foundation, and thirty feet beyond the gristmill in twelve feet water, with 2630 loads of stone. For erecting the gristmill, with two run of stones and all the appendages. For erecting the sawmill with additional wheels, to draw, with a great chain, of one hundred feet in length, boats, logs &ca into the mills. For erecting a dwelling house, a good frame barn, clearing and fencing twenty-five acres of land around the mills. For the loss sustained by the first saw mill being undermined and overset by a freshet. Provisions and miscellaneous expenses. See Amos Comely's Account of the particular items.” “Amount $9,049"

The river was an important means of transporting all goods. Thomas B Benedict established a store in De Kalb Village in 1805. One of the first improvements he made was to build a wharf in the river at the foot of Jay Street to facilitate transporting goods to and from his store. His letters to Judge Cooper often discuss boat trips to Montreal to purchase goods for the fledgling community. In 1812 he mentions that Elijah Farr has moved 150 barrels of salt up the river to De Kalb from Ogdensburg. These were not insubstantial amounts of freight.

April 25, 1807 the town electors found it necessary to call a special town meeting to discuss navigation on the Oswegatchie River. Apparently the river was so jammed with fallen trees from newly cleared land that it was impeding navigation on the river. The meeting that day passed the following resolution, “Town Law made that no person or persons shall fall any tree or trees on the river within the limits of this town, and the penalty of $1 for every tree he or she or they shall so fall on the river (except) they cut them into fourteen feet lengths and trim them up.”
In April 1807, the first bridge over the Oswegatchie in the township, a covered bridge at De Kalb Village, was completed.

The same year 1807, Gouverneur Morris made a boat trip down the Oswegatchie from Gouverneur to Ogdensburg spending one night in Cooper’s Hotel in De Kalb Village. Morris commented in his diary about the numerous boats he encountered on his trip.

Many of the first houses built in the town were built along the river for ease of access. At least four of these continued to be used long after an adequate road system was developed.

One example still standing today is the former Wall homestead located on the banks of the Oswegatchie River between Kendrew and Rensselaer Falls.

Edward and Mariah Wall with their two-year old daughter Lucy Ann left their home in Prescott, Ontario in 1824. Traveling by boat up the Oswegatchie they arrived at the sight of their homestead in the town of De Kalb (a mile upstream from the current village of Rensselaer Falls). No roads existed within a mile at that time. They built a rude log cabin chinked with moss and shingled with bark on the bank of the river.

They prospered on the land and within a few years they erected a large saltbox style house with a central fireplace chimney and brick oven that survives to this day. They raised a large family there and the property remained in the Wall family for almost one hundred years.

Many of the other riverside homes were abandoned by the end of the nineteenth century as the convenience of improved roads made their locations obsolete. The Wall family simply built a long driveway to the nearby road.

Large amounts of processed potash were shipped from De Kalb down the river to Ogdensburg then on to Montreal where Cooper’s agent Forsythe, Richardson and fils forwarded them to Liverpool. On the return trips bales of consumer goods were shipped to De Kalb. Pearl Ashes were the most valuable local commodity until the late 1830’s and their most profitable and only practical market was by river to Montreal. Local settlers like Russell Goff also traveled to Montreal, in this case to purchase a new blade for his sawmill.

In 1810 the government offered 75 cents per pole for cedar Long Poles (about 18 to 20 feet) delivered down the river from De Kalb to Ogdensburg for building a new stockade.

Even in the winter when the Oswegatchie was covered by ice it was still the best roadway in the town. When Salmon Rich and Jonathan Haskins left Old De Kalb and traveled up stream to start the settlement of Richville they traveled on the frozen river in late winter. The frozen river provided a smooth hard surface that was used by many early settlers for transportation.

A detailed history of the bridges over the Oswegatchie in the town of De Kalb has been covered in a previous article that is available on line. Briefly the first bridge at Kendrew was built in 1817 and the first bridge at Richville in 1849. A bridge was built at Coopers Falls in 1852 as part of a private Plank Road. The last bridge there was washed away in 1872. There was also a private iron bridge erected in the nineteenth century by a local farmer half way between Richville and Old De Kalb. The private bridge was sacrificed to a WW II scrap drive.

By the mid nineteenth century the Oswegatchie lost much of its importance as a transportation route. However in 1864 its waterpower was harnessed to run the bellows of the Coopers Falls Iron works blast furnace. This was a short-lived enterprise ending in bankruptcy in 1869.

Shortly following its demise D A Moore and his family began to buy up the land near the river between Coopers Falls and Old De Kalb. Moore became the NYS Senator representing our county in Albany. The Moore family established a camp on the river and began bringing local dignitaries to visit the area.

The Oswegatchie was a favorite fishing spot. In 1885 the Reverend C H Munson and William Breese strung a line of hooks across the river near the Breese farm on the Old Northern Road. In the morning they had caught 14 catfish, 4 eels, one bass and one pike. The whole catch weighed in over 30 pounds.

Ara J Moore, De Kalb merchant and son of D A Moore, in 1882 married Minnie Day the daughter of a prominent Congregational minister. Soon the St Lawrence County Congregationalist were using the Moore property to host church camps.

The general interest in outdoor recreation fed interest in the Oswegatchie River in De Kalb, especially in the area from Coopers Falls to Kendrew. In July 1889 the Gouverneur Free press ran this item. “What is that? The stranger in our town asks as he hears the shrill whistle of A J Moore’s new steamer. Mr. Moore makes the trip from Richville to this place (Old De Kalb) in one hour and five minutes.” Ara Moore purchased the first motorboat to navigate the river in De Kalb, the steam launch Katie Lee.

By the next year, 1890, there were numerous reports of visitors with Senator Moore touring up and down “our beautiful river” on his sons steamer. The same year Professor Gunnison and L. P. Hale passed through town in a canoe en route from Gouverneur to Ogdensburg.

By 1894 the number of tourists on the river had grown to the extent that Emory Cross had developed Camp Jolly at Cooper’s Falls near the old bridge abutments. The Ogdensburg Journal reported “ The constant visits of pleasure seekers at Camp Jolly show a decided interest in its growing popularity, fast approaching what is termed a summer resort.” Mr. Cross had spent a great deal of time and money to fix the grounds as a private tourist park. “That visitors may enjoy full benefits and beauty of its romantic scenery.”

The romantic scenery included the towering walls of the old gristmill and the thirty-foot high chimney of the old blast furnace.

Camp Jolly became a popular destination for all kinds of picnickers over the next few years. However the river was still being used for one commercial purpose the driving of logs down stream to mills. In the spring of 1903 many logs were hung up at the old mill sight on the river. Ara Moore had finally purchased the burnt out mill buildings from the Union Iron Company of Buffalo in 1900. Following the logjam at the Mill in 1903 he decided to remove the mills. He dynamited the furnace and gristmill 8 times before the 30-foot chimney and walls collapsed. Moore had the stone hauled away to use in various construction projects. This drastically changed the scenery at the Falls.

However the tourists kept coming. The automobile was the new pleasure vehicle of choice. Notices of people motoring to the Falls from all over the county begin appearing in the press in 1904. Included on the grounds of Camp Jolly was the Cross cottage that individuals could rent out by the week. In 1906 a dance platform was added and regular dances were announced at Camp Jolly with famous local musicians such as George Streeter performing.

By 1910 other people were getting in on the tourist business on the Oswegatchie. Fletcher’s Point just down stream of the Falls on the G. Fletcher farm was a competing campground. Several other individuals set up family camps with names like, “Camp Happy Times” and “Camp Hill Delight”. Fred Cross built a new motor lodge on his father’s property to supply the growing auto tourist trade.

In 1914 the Oswegatchie River Improvement Association whose largest stockholders were local river farmers, Herbert Townsley, A. F. Spooner and B. Chandler purchased the waterpower rights to the falls at Coopers Falls. They intended to lower the river level at their farms upstream by blasting the channel at Coopers Falls.

The original dam at Coopers Falls was built on Catfish rock which naturally obstructed the whole channel of the Oswegatchie forcing the river to flow around it against a cliff on the north west bank.

A large number of men were employed in July 1914 to drill and blast Catfish rock and also remove the tons of fill in the riverbed in front of the old blast furnace sight. As the local newspaper described it on July 29, 1914, “The old catfish rock where so many have sat and tried their luck with rod and line for the finny tribe will soon be torn from its long resting place and more than one will miss it.” The removal of catfish rock changed the entire course of the river and the view from Camp Jolly. By 1925 all references to Camp Jolly disappear from the local press.

In the 1930’s when New York State took over what is now Route 812 from St Lawrence County they established a picnic park on the banks of the Oswegatchie River near the Kendrew Bridge. They installed Iron charcoal grills and put in picnic tables. For a few years it was a maintained roadside park. Later when the road was widened the park amenities were removed. The area still attracts many local citizens to swing on the rope and swim in the river.

In recent years many lots have been sold and cottages built on the river. Although it is no longer an important transportation route, it is till a favorite boating and fishing destination for many people in the area.

 
 
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