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Horseheads NY 200 Years Ago
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Article: Horseheads NY 200 Years Ago
Township: Town of Horseheads, Chemung County NY
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Horseheads, N. Y.

200 Years Ago

In 1779 General Sullivan, with some five thousand soldiers, set out to crush the power of the Iroquois, to burn their settlements, and especially, to destroy the abundant crops which had helped sustain the British army.

After the battle of Aug. 29, 1779, the Indians and Tories fled northward through our valley with Sullivan at their heels. They destroyed some forty Indian towns, thousands of bushels of corn, hundreds of acres of squash, beans, pumpkins, melons and other vegetables, besides many fine peach and apple orchards. The ears of corn were over eighteen inches in length; the grass, in places, was horse-high. Even their houses and furniture was about as fine as the pioneer possessed.

The second night after the Battle of Newtown, the army camped where the southern part of our village now stands—south of the Breese marker on S. Main St. They camped in the form of a hollow square with the 1200 pack horses, cattle and supplies in the center where they were protected from wild animals and Indians. There were always Indian scouts around watching for a chance to cut out stragglers, either animal or human, and capture or kill them.

It had been a rainy season and the swamp from "Horseheads" to "Watkins" was all but impenetrable. Giant hemlocks cast a night-time gloom over all. They must have seen some bears in what is now the Holding Point. On their maps this general area is designated as "Beir Swamp." The artillery followed the east hills.

Here is a quote from Lieut. Col. Hubley’s diary:

After leaving the site of our present Horseheads, he says; "…we entered an extensive hemlock swamp, not less than six miles through; the path through almost impassible, owing to the number of defiles, long ranges of mountains, ravine after ravine, interspersed with thick underwood, &c. The infantry, with the greatest difficulty, got through about half past nine o’clock, P.M. The remainder of the army, with the pack horses, cattle, &c., were chiefly the whole night employed in getting through."

Of the following day he writes:

"The dismal situation of our pack horses and cattle, of which several were killed by falling into ditches, and several otherwise disabled in getting through this horrid swamp last evening, prevented our march this morning."

On the return trip, Lieut. Beatty wrote in his diary for Sept. 18:

"This morning had to kill a great number of our Horses which was not able to carry packs nor even be drove on with the army…A Number of our Pack horses which was not able to go any further we Shot on the road today." This was near Canandaigua.

Again on the day following he notes: "…very much trouble with pack horses had to kill a number on the road."

Major John Burrowes wrote of the trip from "Horseheads" to Catharine’s town (now Montour Falls): "…a march…thro roads that can’t be described. Eight miles of the way was a most horrid swamp. The last four miles had to ford one creek seventeen times, mud holes were excessively bad—Our pack horses tired out, sticking fast in the Swamps, the packs in the mud." He also says, "We never had so bad a days march since we set off, but what will not men go through who are determined to be free."

It was on the return march that "our" horses were killed. It was Sept. 24, 1779 when Horseheads was "born." The army had got back through "the most horrid swamp" and were on the level and fairly open pine plain that led to Fort Reed (Elmira) where their supplies were stored.

They stopped to rust. Many of "our" horses were so exhausted they simply laid down and died. Forage was scarce and poor and there were many horses unfit for further service. These had their throats cut—to conserve precious ammunition. They were killed on the bank of Newtown Creek a few hundred feet south of the Breese marker.

One of the soldiers wrote that the army had lost over one hundred horses in the valley between Catharine’s Town and Ford Reed. No one knows exactly how many horses were destroyed here. Some authorities say 40 or more.

Anyway there were enough so their bleached skulls became the most noticeable objects on the landscape. Ever afterward the Indians called this "the Valley of the Horses’ Heads." They arranged the heads along the trail in the Hanover Square area. Tradition says the pioneer children used to step from one horse’s head to another. The white settlers adapted the Indian name to suit their needs—and called the little hamlet in the wilderness, Horseheads.

When Sullivan’s army reached Fort Reed there was a grand celebration at which thirteen toasts were drunk. One of them should be of particular interest to us:

"May the enemies of America be metamorphosed into pack horses and sent on a western expedition against the Indians."

What better tribute could they pay Our Horseheads Horses?


John and Hannah (Gildersleeve) Brees(e) and eight children left their Somerset Co., N.J. home in the spring of 1787. After a long, weary journey they settled on a spot about one and one-half miles below Newtown (Elmira). They stayed here for about two years, during which time a daughter, Sarah, was born to them.

Sarah Breese (b. Feb.18, 1789; d. May 14, 1881) is believed to have been the first white child born in this county. She married John Jackson whose first wife was Elizabeth Gildersleeve, sister of Mrs. Hannah Breese. Sarah was the mother of Lyman F. Jackson, a prominent citizen of our village, who died Feb. 14, 1914.

John Jackson (Sarah’s husband) was also an early settler. He came from Brooklyn to Elmira in 1798. He was sheriff of old Tioga County when Chemung County was formed in 1836. He built the first two boats that were launched on the Chemung Canal, the "General Sullivan" and the "Lady Sullivan."

In the spring of 1789 John and Hannah Breese and their nine children arrived in the "Valley of the "Horses’ Heads." John (Called Revolutionary John) built his log cabin on the spot where he had camped with the Sullivan Expedition ten years before. A pink granite marker on the east side of South Main St. indicates the location.

There were three Breese brothers in the Sullivan Campaign: John, Henry and Samuel. John became our first permanent settler; Henry returned some time later. He is buried in the old Breese Cemetery at Barbour’s Corners some two miles north-east of Horseheads. Samuel settled near Forty-Fort, Pa.

John, the youngest child of John and Hannah, was born in the original log cabin, April 29, 1791. This was probably the first birth in Horseheads. John Jr. married Miss Mary Ann Truesdale (b. Aug.12, 1797 in Orange Co., N.Y.; d. Mar.3, 1874 at Horseheads). They had eleven children John Jr., and his Mary Ann celebrated their golden wedding at Horseheads on Jan. 14, 1867. John Jr., bought John Sayre’s portion of the l’Hommedieu tract and built his home on what was afterward known as the John Breese Road, now East Franklin St.


The following is part of the account of the fire as given in the Elmira Gazette of Aug. 14, 1862:--

"Terrible Conflagration At Horseheads—The Entire Business Portion Of The Village Destroyed—Immense Destruction Of Property—Loss Probably One Hundred Thousand Dollars:

"Last night, our sister village of Horseheads was visited by one of the most terrible conflagrations we have ever been called upon to record. The entire business portion of the village is one vast mass of ruins, and the loss of property is consequently immense. The devouring element, in unabated fury, swept over the heart and treasure of the village, swallowing up hotels, halls, blocks, stores, shops, residences, &c. &c. and leaving in their stead one universal waste of black desolation. – There is but one store remaining in the village—Whittaker & McDonald’s.

"The fire broke out about one o’clock, either in Raymond’s Stables, corner of Church and Franklin Streets, or in one of the barns adjoining, belonging to Colwell’s Hotel. Horseheads being without a fire engine, all attempts by hands to stop the fire here proved unavailing. The flames consequently soon communicated to neighboring buildings, spreading down Franklin Street, east side, destroying the building owned by Comfort Bennett, Esq., and occupied by S. Randall as a shoe store. The loss to Mr. Bennett will probably reach $1000, on which there is no insurance, as we could learn—Randall’s loss on stock will be about $400.

"Raymond, the owner of the line of stages between this village (Elmira) and Horseheads, lost his house, together with barns and stage horses,--valued at about $13,500. From Randall’s the fire followed the east side of the street down, consuming all the buildings, on which were situated the following: "S.H. Maxwell, store buildings, loss $1200, insured for $800. Two stores, owned by Wm. Reynolds, of Elmira, estimated to have been worth $1500. One of these was occupied by Wm. T. Carpenter, as a grocery, loss $1000, insured from four to five hundred. The other was occupied by J.S. Humphrey. The Post Office was located in this store, the effects of which, books, papers, letters, &c, were partially saved.

"The total loss will probably exceed $100,000, on which there is scarcely $15,000 insurance. It is a terrible blow to the village and vicinity."


The construction of the canal from Seneca Lake to the Chemung River at Elmira, with a feeder at Horseheads, was the most important epoch in the history of the village. The undertaking was commenced in 1830, and completed in 1833, at a cost of $344,000. Its length was twenty-three miles, and the navigable feeder from the summit-level at Horseheads to the village of Corning sixteen miles, where is a capacious basin formed in the Chemung River. The canal and feeder are together thirty-nine miles in length, had fifty-three locks, overcame an ascent and descent of five hundred and sixteen feet, had eight waste-weirs, twenty-four road bridges, three towing-path bridges, eleven farm bridges and three aqueducts. The first two boats launched on the canal were the "General Sullivan" and "Lady Sullivan," built by John Jackson of Horseheads. The office for collection of tolls was located at Horseheads. The first collector was Thomas Maxwell; the last John Butcher. The office was discontinued in 1876.


From the Sunday Telegram, May 17, 1925

With her spirit as birthesome as it was 48 years ago when, a sun-bonnet covering her head, she walked along the tow-path of the old Chemung Canal, Mrs. Phoebe Austin, 62, sat in the sunshine of her home at 523 West Franklin Street, Horseheads, Wednesday and told the Telegram man of olden days.

Mrs. Austin’s father, John Stirling of Montour Falls and Horseheads, was one of the best known of the boatmen who piloted their craft along the mud banks of the old canal and then linked Elmira and Watkins. In fact, he and Samuel McManus were the boatmen of the two last boats to make a trip on the canal, now filled in and but a landmark. Both Mr. Stirling and Mr. McManus have since died.

Mrs. Austin was but a girl of 14 when she drove, sometimes horses, sometimes mules, along the bank supplying the motive power for the boat on which her father worked.

"No, of course I wasn’t paid for it," says Mrs. Austin. "Young people were not paid for working for their parents in those days as they often are now."

Mrs. Austin, then Miss Phoebe Stirling, also aided her father on the Corning "feeder," the branch of the canal that ran between Corning and Horseheads. Cargoes, chiefly of lumber, would be brought down from Corning, and then "topped out" at Horseheads and the cargo taken down the main canal.

The girl driver often went barefoot along the tow path during the warmer weather. The Telegram reporter gazed from the hill on which Mrs. Austin’s home stands, and imagined the picture of the 14-year-old girl, barefoot, and with a broad-brimmed sunbonnet on her head, guiding her team along the old canal tow-path, with her father calling, now and then, to her from the boat.

The distance they made in a day was perhaps 10 or 12 miles, or for instance, from Horseheads to Pine Valley, and then on the following day, on to Watkins. Mrs. Austin was born at Pine Valley and still owns a home there.

Her father, John Stirling, died but two years ago, at the age of 84. The old boatman possessed a wealth of information and reminiscences concerning the old canal, more of course than his daughter, who married three years after her canal days’ experience, at the age of 17. The plying of boats along the canal soon after ceased, with the advent of the railroads.


Way back in the early 1800’s the first school was built in the Town of Horseheads on the property where Wigsten Farms on S. Main St. is today. The single story, one room structure was made of rough logs. About 1815, a two-story frame community building was built where Teal Park is located today. For some 34 years, this combination school house and church was the center of learning for students in the village.

About 1880, a four-room building was erected nearby. For about three generations, this schoolhouse was used. About 1888, agitation for a new building to cost not more than $23,000 was begun. It was located on Sayre St. and Gr. Central Ave., and completed in 1892, a handsome brick building of twelve rooms. However, in less than 12 years, this was also overcrowded and an addition costing $18,000 was put on the west side. In 1906, Horseheads was able to offer a full high school curriculum. About 500 students were taught by 17 instructors.

Again in 1923, more room was needed. Another addition to the old building was considered unsound, so land was purchased on the west side of Center St., and a new $220,000 building approved.

The story of the Horseheads public school system reflects the phenomenal growth of the Horseheads area.


The Platt House was the most famous of all Horseheads hotels. The building arose from the ashes of the old Colwell Hotel, Robert Colwell re-built it. The place passed through a succession of landlords. Colwell, Bennett & Burch, Burch, and Trembly, to name the best known.

In 1880, Rufus Platt bought the Trembly House, thereafter known as the Platt House. Mr. Platt died soon after; leaving his son, Jerome, to take over the proprietorship. It stood on the spot where the Marine Midland bank now stands, except that the front of the hotel was parallel with Main St. It too, was the scene of many gala events, none more memorable than the ball of 1904 when the whole town turned out to celebrate the installation of its water system and electric power. The Platt House was torn down in 1927. For many years the village elections were held in this hotel.


Eugene Zimmerman was born in Basle, Switzerland May 25, 1862. His parents were Joseph and Amelie (Klotz) Zimmerman. They had three children, Eugene being the middle one: his brother, Adolph, being two years older and his sister, Amelie, two years younger than Eugene. His mother died shortly after little Amelie was born.

For the next five years Eugene resided with an aunt and uncle at Thann, Alsace; and attended a French school there.

At age seven, his aunt shipped him to American, in care of a friend, where he joined his father and brother who had previously come to this country. They embarked from Havre as steerage passengers on the "Paraguary" which took twenty-one days to reach New York.

Eugene spent a few months with relatives in New York’s East Side before joining his father in Patterson, N.J. His father, a baker by trade, found bed and board for his young son at the bakeshop where he was employed.

Here Eugene attended the old Van Houten Street School; gradually forgot his French speech and acquired the language of his newly adopted country.

The boy worked hard for fifty cents a week at delivery jobs, etc. He also assisted with night work in the bakery where he made marvelous designs in frosting or models in dough. Also, he had access to a supply of house paints with which he made signs for his employer.

When about twelve years of age he wearied of the bakery and sought employment, as a chore boy, with a farmer named Bill Marshall. He worked for three meals a day and a place to sleep—but no mention was made of money. A shirt and overalls constituted his entire wardrobe and shoes were almost an unknown quantity.

Winter days were spent at public school. During these long dull years he was often given to silent prayers in the seclusion of his lonely attic bed chamber.

On Thursdays and Fridays he helped peddle fish for Marshall’s brother who was part owner of a fish market.


His next venture was as chore boy for a wine and beer merchant who also owned considerable farm land. When farm work was slack he was obliged to help in the wine establishment. Often he toiled until midnight, then drove home with Mr. Spangenmacher and returned again at 6:00 a.m. Eugene was fourteen years old by this time.

He slept in the barn with the farmhand and horses in summer, and on a cornhusk mattress in winter. Food was cold and lacking in quality, but at milking time he was sometimes given warm milk by the old farm hand.

Fire destroyed the wine establishment. In course of time the damage was repaired and Eugene set to work lettering his employer’s name and business on the new windows. A passing sign painter, Wm. F. Brassington, questioned the youthful artist and offered him an apprenticeship. This offer was eagerly accepted and Eugene launched into a connection destined to last for three years.

In 1878, when Eugene was sixteen years old, Brassington journeyed to the Fair Grounds at Elmira, N.Y.; found the locality to his liking and decided to move to that city.

During his apprenticeship Eugene hardly knew the feel of a dollar. By the end of the first year in Elmira, the shop at the corner of East Water and Railroad Avenue even bore an aspect of prosperity. The boy gradually received recognition as one of the city’s most up-and-coming sign artists.

In those days he frequently saw Mark Twain on the streets of Elmira. His bushy hair was still dark with a sprinkling of gray. Another celebrity he knew, in the late seventies, was David B. Hill for whom he painted a sign, "D.B. Hill Law Office," little dreaming he was working for a future Governor, senator and President aspirant.

After Eugene reached his eighteenth birthday he was recognized as a full-fledged sign painter and was offered nine dollars a week to head the pictorial staff of a rival concern, The Empire Sign Co., J.T. Pope, Prop., located in the village of Horseheads. He could now reside at the Platt House. The whole world seemed changed.


Horseheads was the most important village in Chemung County and in its earlier history vied with what is now the City of Elmira as the location of the county seat. Until the introduction of the primary system in politics, the Village was the meeting place for the political conventions of all the Parties. The old and historic Pritchard Hall was the meeting place and in this hall gathered men who later became eminent in state and national affairs. Among these men may be mentioned the late David P. Hill, born 1844, who became governor of the state, United States Senator and an aspirant to the presidency of the United States. Hon. John P. Stanchfield, a powerful political leader who was a candidate for governor and whose name was mentioned prominently in connection with the presidency. Mr. Stanchfield was numbered among the most prominent lawyers in the City of New York.


Horseheads played a role in the Civil War and sent a company of men to the aid of President Lincoln under the command of Calvin S. DeWitt of Elmira. DeWitt enlisted the aid of many Horseheads residents and soon were ready for battle in 1861.

It was on June 8 of that year that the men mustered and were designated as Company I, 38th Regiment, New York Volunteers, Col. J.W. Hobard Ward.

The outfit left the state June 19, 1861, and served at Washington, D.C. It participated in the following battles:

Fairfax Court House, Va.---July 17, 1861

Bull Run, Va.---July 21, 1861

Near Munson’s Hill, Va.---August 18 1862

Siege of Yorktown, Va---April 5 to May 4, 1862

Williamsburg, Va.---May 5, 1862

Fair Oaks, Va.---May 31, to June 1, 1862

Seven Day’s Battle, Va.---June 25 to July 2, 1862

Jourdan’s Ford---June 29, 1862

Glendale---June 30, 1862

Malvern Hill---July 1, 1862

Gen. Pope’s Campaign, Va.---August 26 to September 2, 1862

Centreville---August 28, 1862

Groveton---August 29, 1862

Bull Run---August 30, 1862

Chantilly---September 1, 1862

Fredericksburgh, Va.---December 11-15, 1862

Chancellorsville, Va.---May 1-3, 1863

During its service the 38th Regiment lost by death:

Killed in action – 57 enlisted men; 3 officers.

Died of wounds received in action – 15 enlisted men.

Disease and other causes – 43 enlisted men; 3 officers.

Total – 115 enlisted men; 6 officers.

Two officers and four enlisted men died while held prisoner.

Horseheads, for many years under the old militia system of the state, was the place where "general trainings" were held in the meadow on the farm of Col. Henry C. Hoffman.

A writer, recalling one of the old "general trainings" of 1839, says, "Across Newtown Creek from where I stand, on lands owned by Col. H.C. Hoffman, was the spot where from all sections of Chemung County assembled annually the rifle companies and militia to drill according to Scott’s Manual."

"At that time several Revolutionary soldiers were living in the county and quite a large number of soldiers of the War of 1812, who generally were present and inspired a martial spirit in the breast of the riflemen, militia and officers."


Horseheads has been quite a manufacturing centre for many years. In its earliest days distilleries, mills, and tanneries existed, and later establishments of greater importance have been put in operation, notably the

Horseheads Foundry, which was established in 1819 by C.A. Granger. It stood on Franklin Street until destroyed by fire in January 1870. They manufacture mill-irons and machinery, building-fronts, fences, agricultural implements, employ ten hands, and do general job work.

The Horseheads Brick-Yard is among the most extensive establishments for the manufacture of bricks in the state. It was originally started by a man named Albright, on a small scale, about 1840. In 1855, William Westlake operated it to the extend, perhaps of 1,200,000 per annum. In 1858, Benjamin Westlake, the present proprietor, purchased the yard and surrounding land, and since then has added improved machinery and increased the business to 6,500,000, with a capacity for at least 10,000,000 per annum. There are six tempering-pits and six moulding machines, run by a steam-engine of fifty horsepower, and giving employment to sixteen men and ten teams. Mr. Westlake has recently added improved facilities for cleaning the clay, which will add greatly even to the present excellent quality of brick made by him, and will place his productions among the best for hardness and durability.

The Horseheads Tannery occupies the site of the one built by Solomon More, in 1808. The present tannery was erected by A.C. McCumber, the present proprietor, in 1863. The number of hides tanned per annum is 7000; average number of hands employed, ten.

Horseheads Celery and Produce Co., W.H. Smith, Proprietor, old Woolen Mill building. A business that has thrived with unusual success in this village is that of the above, which was established here in 1887 by the present proprietor. The business of the house is the supplying, by special order to a select line of patrons, celery and other choice produce, a large part of which is grown for the company by the surrounding farmers. The premises occupied are the old woolen mill, the entire three floors of which are utilized in the handling and storing of the goods, which require expert treatment and the best of care to preserve freshness. Mr. Smith employs a number of people and ships to all parts of the country, from Maine to Florida, enjoying every known facility for prompt service.


According to Roger W. Babson, Business and Financial expert, newspapers, whether large dailies or small weeklies give their readers the greatest value of any article or service offered to customers. "Furthermore," he reports, "it would be a pretty poor community that did not have a paper. Next to the Churches, a newspaper is a town’s most valuable asset."

Horseheads has been fortunate in having one or more newspapers during the past 100 or so years.

According to Towner’s History of Chemung County, on April 5, 1885 the Horseheads Philosopher owned by Mr. Taber was consolidated with the Gazette in 1857.

In 1872, the Bulletin was published in Horseheads. The Horseheads Journal, with William and Henry Giles, was first published in 1858. About one year later, it dissolved and lay dormant until May 15, 1866 and continued for 3 years by Mr. Hinton. It was then sold to Thomas Jefferson on September 15, 1869. It leaned toward the Republicans then. In 1877 it moved to Elmira and became the Chemung County Greenbacker in 1878. In 1880, it moved back to Horseheads and the name was changed to Chemung Valley Reporter.

In 1879, the Midday Sun was published in Horseheads.

In 1873, Purdy of the Weekly Free Press of Horseheads consolidated with an Elmira paper. In 1856, the Horseheads Philosopher became part of the Elmira Gazette.


1779 – August 29, Battle of Newtown, Sullivan-Clinton expedition against Indians and Tories.

1779 – Horses were killed because of their poor condition.

1780 – Nathan Teall, a Revolutionary War soldier settled on land on South Main St.

1789 – By now, several families had settled in this wilderness site, including Mr. and Mrs. John Breese who brought Sarah Breese who was born Feb. 18, 1789.

1793 – Susanna Conkling was first child born in Horseheads, March 3.

1793 – Ameilia Parkhurst taught school in a log house, the former dwelling of John Breese. Other early teachers were Israel Catlin and Seneca Roland who taught in a log house near the residence of James Sayre

1805 – Nathan Teall built sawmill near old Conkling mill.

1807 – Nathan Teall deeded 144 acres of center of village to James Sayre with stipulation that 1 part be reserved for a public burying ground, and one part reserved for the "use of inhabitants thereof." (Teal Park)

1808 – First log tannery owned by Solomon Moore (near Mosher Block).

1809 – Colonel Briton Paine kept tavern on Newtown Creek.

1825 – Mr. And Mrs. Abel Shute opened a grocery store.

1828 – Abel Shute opened hotel.

1829 – Seneca and Susquehanna Lock Navigating Co. assigned to build canal-$300,000 appropriated.

1832 – New York and Erie Railway charted.

1833 – Canal opened.

1834 – First Methodist Church

1836 – First county poorhouse was old log house.

1836 – Chemung County organized March 29 with population of 7,463.

1837 – Horseheads incorporated as Fairport –area of 237 acres.

1840 – John Relyea and Cyrus Barlow constructed school building at cost of $2,200.

1840 – First Baptist Church founded.

1841 – First shade trees set out by Cyrus Barlow.

1858 – Horseheads Journal founded.

1862 – Horseheads business section destroyed by fire.

1862 – Joseph Rodburn, Supt., built frame County Home building.

1866 – St. Mathew’s Episcopal Church.

1871 – Elmira & Horseheads Railway Co. – single horse to pull car.

1873 – First concrete walks.

1873 – Fire engine and apparatus purchased at $6,000.

1875 – Purchased fire bell.

1877 – Horseheads Journal moved to Elmira, became Chemung Greenbacker.

1877 – First phone in Chemung County demonstrated in J. Langdon’s office.

1878 – Chemung Canal abandoned.

1879 – Paper moved back to Horseheads, renamed Chemung Valley Reporter.

1879 – Great Centennial Celebration of Battle of Newtown.

Bradford County PA
Chemung County NY
Tioga County PA

Published On Tri-Counties Site On 22 MAY  2006
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