Not long ago, a man called looking for information on his family who had lived in Niagara County in the early to mid-19th century. He remembered some of his ancestors talking about a long north-south road that ran from outside Buffalo all the way to Lockport but he could not recall the name of the road. When told it was Transit Road, he then remembered but asked how the road got its name. It’s a question that has come up over the years, along with other inquiries concerning the very early history of the surveying and mapping of this area.
The negotiations and acquisition of the 3.3 million-acre tract known as the “Holland Purchase” is long and complicated; and, suffice to say, most if not all of the transactions, particularly those involving the Seneca Indians, were not legal or ethical. But once the purchase was made, and all Indian claims to the land were “extinguished,” a survey was commenced to define boundaries and establish townships.
The northeast boundary of the purchase was located in what is now the Town of Carlton in Orleans County, a few miles east of Oak Orchard Creek. The southeast boundary was in what is now the Town of Bolivar in Allegany County. Two south-to-north lines, known as the “meridian transit lines,” were surveyed from the Pennsylvania state line to Lake Ontario, a distance of approximately 95 miles.
They were called “transit” lines because the instrument used to establish a straight line north was called a transit. In his book, The Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase in Western New York, Orsamus Turner described the transit, used by Holland Land Company surveyor Joseph Ellicott, as working “by means of its telescopic tube and accurate manner of reversing, by it, a straight line can be correctly, and, comparatively speaking, expeditiously run … But such an instrument … is illy calculated to run a line through woods and underbrush … Therefore it became necessary to cut a vista through the woods on the highlands and on level ground, sufficiently wide to admit a clear and uninterrupted view.”
The east transit line was the first to be cleared. For this task, which started in the spring of 1798, Ellicott hired a crew of surveyors, axemen and chainmen to create a path three to four rods wide (50 to 66 feet wide) through dense forest and unlevel ground. By late November, they had covered 82 miles with 13 miles left to go. In the spring of 1799, the east transit line was completed and the west transit line was begun. All surveys were completed by 1800 and the first land sales took place in 1801.
Why the need for two transit lines? Although today the Holland Purchase is spoken of as being one large tract, it was really a series of smaller tracts acquired at different times, from different entities. The east Transit Meridian Line was the “Eastern Boundary of the Holland Company’s Purchase.” The west Transit Meridian Line, which later became Transit Road, “extended due North to Lake Ontario from the South West Corner of a Tract of Land granted to the Holland Company by Robert Morris, Esq. Intended to contain One Million of Acres.” The west Transit Line started in what is now Allegany State Park, south of Salamanca, and extended north in a straight line to Lake Ontario just east of Olcott Beach. A marker now commemorates the northern terminus.
Although the west transit line started at the New York-Pennsylvania border, Transit Road never extended that far south. The longest unbroken stretch of Transit Road starts at Jewett-Holmwood Road in Orchard Park and extends 30 miles north to Outwater Park in Lockport. For the next 13 miles, from Lockport to the lake, it disappears at the Niagara Escarpment and resumes for a short distance between Mill Street and Old Niagara Road. It then disappears again for several miles before starting once more at McKee Road in Newfane and continues on to East Lake Road in Burt.
For the 52 miles south of Jewett-Holmwood Road, the west transit line is almost non-existent today except for a few short stretches of road in some small communities in the Southern Tier. A straight road following the transit line in that part of the state would have been nearly impossible considering the terrain in the area south of Orchard Park.
NEXT WEEK: How ranges, townships and counties were formed out of the Holland Purchase.
Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.