A folder on my desk is labeled “Ideas for Future Articles.” Often while doing research on one thing, you find something else that catches your eye and copy it or make a note of it for future reference. Other staff members, volunteers and readers of Niagara Discoveries also make suggestions for articles. So for those times when a topic is not already planned, the folder is consulted. Going through the folder this week, three separate items were found, all relating to people with the last name “Steele.” Could these people all be related somehow?
The first of the Steele-related items is an article written in 1991 about a house that once stood on the corner of North Transit and Niagara streets in Lockport (now the parking lot for Taylor & Reynolds Funeral Home). The house was built in 1896 by William Wallace Steele and later owned by Dr. Frank Crosby. It was a large, Queen Anne-style home, originally painted green (and later changed to yellow), with a three-story tower and a wide veranda. Unfortunately the house, which had been turned into apartments at a later date, caught fire in 1991 and was later demolished.
The second item in the folder was a tribute to John W. Steele that appeared in the 1882-83 Lockport City Directory. He had died shortly before its publication.
The last Steele item was a photo of a house sent by a man from California who was trying to learn more about it and the man who built it, his great-grandfather, whose name was also William Steele. He had an incorrect street name, but it is the brick house at the corner of West Avenue and Prospect Street.
So what were the connections between these three Steele men?
It was easily ascertained that John W. Steele and William Wallace Steele were actually father and son.
John Wesley Steele was born in Royalton in 1821, moved to Lockport as a teenager and married Sophronia Houstatter in about 1844. Steele was a real “jack-of-all-trades.” He clerked in a grocery store, supervised a “construction gang” west of Lockport during the first enlargement of the Erie Canal, briefly ran a stage coach line between Lockport and Tonawanda, oversaw the completion of a plank road between Lockport and Wrights Corners, went into the livery business, again worked on the canal enlargement and then began buying up real estate in the area.
By the 1860s, Steele entered the business he became best known for: the production of various forms of liquor. He started with the manufacture of bitters, an alcohol-based concoction that included herbal and other botanical ingredients. These tonics were often sold as patent medicine and had a widespread audience. After working for another company, Steele struck out on his own in 1864, creating a recipe which he branded “Niagara Star Bitters.” He later went into partnership with B. H. Fletcher and R. B Hoag, distilling and selling different types of whiskey, as well as the Niagara Star Bitters, and built a malt house on Grand Street.
Steele became very wealthy and built a brick commercial building on Main Street near Locust Street known as the “Central Block.” He also had interests in two local coal and lumber companies. His home was at the corner of Lock and Grand streets. By the later 1870s he was having health problems and died in 1882 at the age of 61.
William Wallace Steele, John’s son, was born in Lockport in 1849. He attended Rochester Business College and began working in his father’s businesses as a young man. After his father’s death, William took over John’s partnership in Steele, Torrance & Co. in which R. B. Hoag was a silent partner. When Hoag went bankrupt he brought the company down with him. William was wealthy enough to withstand this setback and started a new liquor business with his wife, Lydia L. Steele.
William moved into his new house at on the northwest corner of North Transit and Niagara streets in 1896 with his wife and three children and died only 10 years later at 57 years old. His wife continued to occupy the house until 1910 when it was purchased by Dr. Frank Crosby. Next week Niagara Discoveries will focus on his life.
The house on West Avenue, at the corner of Prospect Street, was built by another William Steele. A brief genealogy accompanied the photo of the house but none of the names matched any of those in the other Steele family tree.
William A. Steele was born in Queensbury, N.Y., in 1810 and came to Lockport as a young man. He married Sarah Allen in 1834. By 1850 he owned the property at that corner, although it was a frame house at that time. The brick house was built between 1860 and 1865. According to census records and city directories, Steele had a grocery business at 63 Main St. until he retired in about 1881. He passed away in 1898 and Sarah died in 1900. The house was inherited by William’s unmarried daughter, Sarah, who sold it in 1908.
Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.