Friday, January 21, 2011

Elkanah Watson:
Canal Promoter, County Fairs Founder, Bolton Landowner

According to the late Gardner Finley, a historian of Bolton Landing, one of the earliest landowners in town was Elkanah Watson. Watson, Finley wrote in a pamphlet commemorating the 175th anniversary of Bolton’s founding, purchased a portion of the property owned by his friend and business partner Jeremiah Van Rensselaer in 1800. He built a sawmill on Huddle Brook (which, well into the 19th century, was known as Watson’s Mill Brook) and, in fact, owned much of the land around Huddle Bay.

If Mr. Finley’s account of the early landowners is accurate, and I have no reason to doubt it, Bolton has a link with one of the most interesting men ever to have settled in the North Country.Watson was born in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1758. During the War of Independence, he was sent abroad as an agent of his employer, Providence merchant John Brown. Congress instructed him to deliver messages to its envoy in Paris, Benjamin Franklin, and he became a lifelong friend of both Franklin and John Adams. Watson remained in Europe until 1784. While in London, he attended sessions of Parliament, hoping to hear George III acknowledge the independence of the United States of America, an event which occurred on December 6, 1782. Watson had commissioned John Singleton Copley to paint his portrait, which is reproduced here, instructing the artist to include a ship bound for America, flying the new American flag. Copley agreed, but refused to add the flag until the official proclamation was read from the throne. Following the King’s announcement, Watson rushed off to Copley’s studio. According to Watson, the artist then painted “the first American flag to fly in England.”

When Watson returned to this country, he moved to Albany, where he became convinced that the development of the state required a system of canals and turnpikes. Among those who were persuaded of the merits of the proposal was General Philip Schuyler, then a member of the State Senate, who sponsored legislation chartering companies to build canals from the Hudson River to Lake Champlain and from the Hudson to Lake Ontario. Later in life Watson took credit for initiating the idea for the Erie Canal.

A few years before his death in 1842, Watson conceived of and promoted a plan to link Lake Champlain and Lake Ontario by railroad, a project which ultimately proved unfeasible.

But the achievement in which Watson took the greatest pride was the invention of organized agricultural fairs, the forerunner of today’s county and state fairs. The idea came to him in 1807, after he displayed two merino sheep on the village green in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. “I reasoned thus,” he wrote, “if two animals are capable of exciting so much attention, what would be the effect of a display on a larger scale of different animals.”

Watson established the Berkshire Agricultural Society to sponsor his fair, and the first, which was held in 1811, was, he said, “as splendid, novel and imposing as anything of the kind ever exhibited in America. In this procession were 69 oxen, connected by chains, drawing a plough held by the oldest man in the country – a band of music – a platform, upon wheels, bearing a broadcloth loom and a spinning jenny … the pens were occupied by some excellent animals.”

Watson’s idea was soon adopted by virtually every agricultural community in the country. Something of the importance of the fairs to 19th century America is suggested by the following speech which Abraham Lincoln delivered in 1859: “Agricultural fairs are becoming an institution of the country. They bring us together, and thereby make us better acquainted and better friends than we otherwise would be. But the chief use of agricultural fairs is to aid in improving the great calling of agriculture…to make mutual exchange of discovery, information and knowledge… and, by exciting emulation for premiums, to stimulate that discovery and invention into extraordinary activity.”

When he returned to New York State, Watson started fairs in Clinton and Essex counties. John Brown, the abolitionist, exhibited his livestock at the latter, and both are still held annually every August.

Although pre-eminently a man of practical genius, Watson was not insensible to nature, as he reveals in this passage from his diary in which he records his impressions of a visit to Lake George in 1801: “Upon debouching from the forest, this lovely lake with its innumerable islands suddenly burst upon our view, revealed in all its exceedingly romantic beauty. The lake, enveloped on both shores by a mountain, which, on the east side, ascends into bold and lofty eminences, reposed in a long, deep gorge, its placid and unruffled waters studded with isles, whose rocky and rugged margin shelved down to the water’s edge. This lake is celebrated for the depth of purity of its water, and for the quantity and excellence of its fish. The scenery of Lake George is surpassingly grand, picturesque and beautiful. I am assured that the Lake of Geneva, so vaunted by European tourists, bears no comparison to Horicon, either in its quiet loveliness or imposing magnificence.

Elkanah Watson is buried in Port Kent, the town on Lake Champlain that he established in 1825.

Elkanah Watson’s memoir, “Men and Times of the Revolution,” edited by his son Winslow Watson and published in 1856, was re-printed by Crown Point Press in 1968.

Illustration: “Portrait of Elkanah Watson” by John Singleton Copely, courtesy of the Art Museum, Princeton University.

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Anthony F. Hall

Anthony F. Hall is the editor and publisher of the Lake George Mirror.

Anthony grew up in Warrensburg and after an education that included studying with beat poet Gregory Corso on an island in the Aegean, crewing a schooner in Hawaii, traveling through Greece and Turkey studying Byzantine art and archeology, and a stint at Lehman Brothers, he returned to the Adirondacks and took a job with legendary state senator Ron Stafford.

In 1998, Anthony and his wife Lisa acquired the Lake George Mirror, once part of a chain of weekly newspapers owned by his father Rob Hall.

Established in the 1880s, the Mirror is America’s oldest resort newspaper.

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