No matter how long a life lasts, the residue left behind is often fleeting, and within a generation or so, most of us are largely forgotten. But it’s also true that every life has a story, and many of them are worth retelling. I often glean such subject matter from obituaries, or from gravestones as I walk through cemeteries. A tiny snippet of information stirs the need to dig for more, perhaps revealing unusual or remarkable achievements and contributions.
A recent example involves Benjamin Wood Haynes, a native of Westford, Vermont, who lived and worked in northern New York in the latter half of the 1800s. Intriguing to me was a reference to him as a “builder,” and so the digging began, yielding some impressive nuggets.
Haynes was educated in his hometown school, where he was said to have been active in sports. Described as an expert swimmer, he once rescued two friends from drowning. In his late teens, Benjamin’s proficiency in construction and architecture led him to employment in that field. At the tender age of 19, he worked on building the state reform school at Westboro, Massachusetts—but not as a general laborer. Despite his youth, Haynes served as “a master mechanic in charge of men on important positions of work” during construction of the facility.
Several professionals on the Westboro project specialized in the construction of schools and churches. It is not known to what extent they may have influenced Haynes, but he was later regarded as a regional leader in that field. He built many private homes, which positively affected many lives, but as the superintendent in charge of building many schools and churches, his work had an impact on thousands. He also built or remodeled several well-known hotels.
Benjamin had toiled for years on both sides of Lake Champlain, but it was in 1868 where he really began to make his mark in the North Country. In August 1867, a terrible fire devastated downtown Plattsburgh. The majority of several blocks from Court and Brinkerhoff Streets down to Margaret and Bridge Streets were lost. About 60 businesses and 20 residential buildings were destroyed or damaged.
Among the many talented professionals called upon to assist with the massive rebuilding effort was Haynes. Using blue limestone as the key component, he oversaw the reconstruction of the Presbyterian Church, where the great fire had begun. On the main downtown venue, Margaret Street, he designed the fronts of two Vilas properties—the Vilas National Bank, and a dry-goods store next door. He also worked on the Witherill Hotel, which became Plattsburgh’s most famous hotel for a century.
Early in 1869, Haynes moved to Colchester, Vermont, where he operated a store. Two years later, he began building the Baptist church in Alburgh, Vermont, completing the project in 1873. He also worked on remodeling the Baptist church in Morrisonville, a few miles west of Plattsburgh on the New York side of Lake Champlain.
In 1874, after living in Woods Mills in Clinton County, the Haynes family made their permanent home at the corner of Oak and Cornelia Streets in Plattsburgh.
His next two major jobs came in 1875: installing the Mansard roof on Plattsburgh High School, and rebuilding and updating the Presbyterian Church in Chazy, several miles north of Plattsburgh.
In June of the following year, Chazy church members expressed their appreciation during a dedication ceremony: “The architectural beauties of this new church edifice elicited the admiration of all present, and was the theme of general conversation, for which all honor should be given to the faithful builder, Mr. B. W. Haynes of Plattsburgh.”
Next he built a model pharmacy, the Northern Drug Store, for Rasseles Jackson of Chateaugay in Franklin County. It is part of what is known today as the Jackson Block, standing at the southeast of the village’s main, four-corner intersection.
Months later, he was engaged to develop an architectural plan for a community school. That project came to fruition in late 1879 with the opening of the Chateaugay Academy and Union Free School.
Haynes continued building private residences, but media attention focused on his public projects, like the major rebuilding of Chateaugay Lake’s Tupper House, which was then renamed Ralph’s, now remembered as one of the most prominent hotels in the history of the northeastern Adirondacks. Among the famous visitors there was New York Governor Grover Cleveland, just a few months before he won the presidency for the first time.
In late 1881, Haynes began work on clearing the “Averill Lot” at the southeast corner of Oak and Court Streets in Plattsburgh, where he would construct the city’s new Baptist Church.
In mid-1882, he began work on an addition to the well-known Clinton House in Rouses Point. That same year, on the shore of the Saranac River in Plattsburgh, he worked on construction of a massive building that would house the Williams Manufacturing Company operations. In rivalry with Singer, Williams produced three models of sewing machines at the factory, including the famous Helpmate.
In 1883, Benjamin’s pace of work accelerated. Building projects included two large residences in the city of Plattsburgh; rebuilding of the Chasm House at Chateaugay to three stories, doubling its former capacity; and an addition to the Presbyterian Church, also in Chateaugay.
In 1884, he worked on three Plattsburgh homes, including a remodeling of the historic Dr. Benjamin Mooers house on Margaret Street (where today’s Surrogate Building stands).
Haynes was also involved in community activities throughout his life, particularly in connection with his church. He taught school in Chazy, and was widely known as Deacon Haynes for the position he held in Plattsburgh’s Baptist church beginning in 1878. He was very involved in the establishment of a Sunday school and served each year as an instructor.
In 1886, Beekmantown Presbyterians solicited a Plattsburgh architect, seeking plans for a new church to replace a longstanding structure that had recently burned. Benjamin Haynes was called upon to bring those plans to life within four months. The cornerstone was laid on August 5, and work progressed in the usual speedy manner under Haynes’ guidance.
On October 8, while men were at work on ceiling installation, the staging suddenly collapsed beneath them. Standing below was Deacon Haynes, who was struck by debris and knocked unconscious. A medical examination found no fractures, and it was expected he would soon return to work.
But the severity of Benjamin’s injuries was soon realized, and it wasn’t until 25 days later that he was able to get up and walk on his own.
Six months after the accident, Haynes returned to Plattsburgh after visits with his brothers in Cadyville and Saranac (Dr. Samuel Haynes), and his son Charles (also a doctor), who lived in Redford. The care of family seemed to invigorate him, and it was announced in the newspaper that he “will no doubt be able to resume his work as an architect and builder at once.”
But it wasn’t to be. After a valiant effort, Haynes realized he was far from healed. Heeding the advice of his physician brother, Benjamin quit working and moved back to Saranac, where he received daily medical care.
Six weeks later, on June 22, at the age of 58, Haynes succumbed to his injuries. Survivors included Caroline, his wife of 34 years, plus two sons, two daughters, two sisters, and four brothers. He was buried in Plattsburgh’s Riverside Cemetery.
His legacy, much of it carved from stone, has had above-average lasting power. For more than a century after his passing, Haynes’ work on so many homes, hotels, schools, and churches has brought great pleasure to thousands.
Photos: First Presbyterian Church, Plattsburgh (WikiCommons, mwanner); Reformatory, Westboro, Massachusetts; Williams Manufacturing Company, Plattsburgh