NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: A 19th century 'Ride to Niagara'

While researching last month’s Transit Line article, a map was found that I had not seem before. It is in the collection of the New York Public Library but is in the public domain. The map shows the western part of New York state south of Lake Ontario and is titled “Western New York in 1809.” It appeared in the publication A Ride to Niagara, by Thomas Cooper, in 1810. The 50-page booklet details a journey the author made from Williamsport, Pa., to Niagara Falls and back from May 6 to May 29, 1809. Cooper's introduction is inset here.

Cooper was a Philadelphia physician who had been born in England in 1759. He was 50 years old when he embarked on his second journey to the Genesee Country (the first was in 1796). For 25 years after this trip, Cooper worked as a professor at three colleges, first in Pennsylvania, and later in South Carolina, where he died in 1840.

For this expedition, Cooper traveled more than 500 miles (round trip) on horseback, following the same route and staying at the many of same taverns as the stagecoaches that regularly ran between Philadelphia and Niagara Falls. Most stops were between 8 and 20 miles apart. Cooper averaged about 30 miles a day and took 10 days to reach Niagara Falls.

In New York state, the route took Cooper through Newtown (now Elmira), Bath, Penn Yan, Geneva, Canandaigua, Hartford (now Avon), LeRoy, Batavia, Clarence and Buffalo. His descriptions of the accommodations generally deteriorated the further west he went: “good,” “tolerable,” “middling,” “a poor place,” “could be cleaner," “bad enough.” He thought the taverns on the British (Canadian) side of the falls were better than those he had visited on his journey to get there.

When Cooper arrived in Buffalo he had intended to take the river road on the American side up to Niagara Falls but was advised that it was impassable so he took the ferry across to the British side despite heavy ice on the river. He first stopped at Chippeway and arrived at Niagara Falls on Monday, May 15th. His journal recounts his visit but not in the rapturous tones usually exclaimed by those seeing the falls for the first time.

“I felt content that I had taken the journey. It was worth the trouble … After having sufficiently contemplated the scene before me, I was satisfied that I could well dispense with my intended tour of the American side …”

After spending only two days visiting Niagara Falls, Queenstown and Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Cooper crossed over to the American side to begin his journey back to Williamsport. He took the ferry to Lewistown, “a shabby American settlement” (my apologies to anyone from Lewiston), where he stayed at “Hopkins’s,” six miles east of the village on the Ridge Road (in 1809, Silas Hopkins lived on the north side of the Ridge between present-day Ransomville and Town Line Roads). Cooper also mentioned encountering some Tuscaroras on his way to Hopkins’s, “I met several of them shooting in the woods.”

Although he does not specifically name the route he took back, it is presumed Cooper followed the Lewiston Trail (Stone Road to Cold Spring to Chestnut Ridge Road and on to Batavia) as he wrote of riding through the “Tonnewanta” Seneca Indian Reserve on his way to Batavia. From here he retraced his steps as far as Hartford where he left his horse to recover while he journeyed up the Genesee River (on another horse) to explore the various falls and mouth of the river.

Cooper's return trip replicated the original route but he sometimes stayed in different establishments if he heard they might be better. He expounded on his visit to see Jemima Wilkinson (the Public Universal Friend) near Penn Yann and seemed more impressed with her than he was with Niagara Falls. He finally returned to Williamsport in the midst of a violent thunderstorm on May 29th and eventually went back to his medical practice in Philadelphia.

NEXT WEEK: Some interesting observations from Cooper’s 1809 map.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara. 

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