Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Charlie Herr: The Founding Of The Town of Webb

1895 County MapOn a recent election day, I was reminded of the Supreme Court’s historic decision that determined the 2000 Presidential election and of the importance of every vote cast.  I learned of another close election while researching the building of the Sucker Brook Bay Road (now Uncas Road).  I also discovered why the building of the segment from Eagle Bay to Old Forge took five years while Sucker Brook Bay Road was completed within two.

Examining this delay revealed that a court ultimately approved the handling of highway contracts.  I also learned that a judge determined who would be the first supervisor for the new Town of Webb and that the decision was based on improperly completed ballots.

An 1898 obituary for Joseph Harvey called him “the father and founder of the new township of Webb.”  Harvey had been supervisor of the town of Watson in the 1870s and 1880s and was a school commissioner of Lewis County for two terms.  In April 1888, he managed the Forge House, located on lands now the village of Old Forge and which had just been purchased by  Dr. Alexander Crosby and fellow Watson native Samuel Garmon.  Harvey, married to Garmon’s sister, would be proprietor of the Forge House until 1891, when he evidently contracted an undisclosed disease resulting in his death seven years later.

Returning to politics, Harvey was elected supervisor of the town of Wilmurt in February 1894 and served two years.  While in that position, he persuaded the Herkimer County Board of Supervisors to carve a new township out of his town, based on the Fulton Chain’s increase in population and the region’s thriving lumber industry after the opening of Dr. Webb’s railroad in 1892.  In December 1894, the Herkimer County supervisors approved a division.  Before it could take place, Harvey would need signatures from 12 freeholders at each of the two new towns and manage other town-building activities.  Preliminary boundary lines were established.  Over the next year, the town of Wilmurt would attempt to build a highway to connect with the Sucker Brook Bay Highway being constructed from Raquette Lake to Eagle Bay.

Old Forge-1901The History of Hamilton County describes an October 20, 1894 meeting of the town road commissioners for Wilmurt, Long Lake and Morehouse where an agreement was reached for a highway from Sucker Brook Bay to Eagle Bay to a point south of Clearwater Station, connecting with Dr. Webb’s railroad.  In the midst of creating a new town, Harvey prepared to build a highway through it.

However, Fulton Chain hotel owners and businessmen including Victor Adams, Dr. Crosby and Mr. Garmon vigorously opposed the road.  This latter group was about to form the Old Forge Company to sell Forge Tract land, build the Fulton Chain Railroad to the Forge House and establish the Crosby Transportation Company to ride customers to Fourth Lake and back.  They claimed “public sentiment would be violated”.  The opposition took the town of Wilmurt to court.

The judge hearing the case appointed a commission made up of C. D. Thomas, James Moon and Dr. H. J. Cristman to confirm the necessity of building the segment from Old Forge over the north side of the Fulton Chain to Eagle Bay.  While the commission was meeting at the Bald Mountain House in August 1895, newspapers remarked how, if the road were built, New York morning papers could reach Raquette Lake on the same day printed.  But C. D. Adams, the attorney for the deCamp estate, claimed in September that building this road at county expense would only make it cheaper for railroad men to install a line on its route.  When the commission recommended in October 1895 that the road be built and started awarding damages for land taken from Crosby, Garmon and the estate of Mrs. deCamp, the opposition appealed to New York’s Supreme Court.

On December 6, newspapers announced the defeat of the Wilmurt highway commissioners: they were not properly appointed and had no authority, the road could not be built across state lands and the road was not necessary.  Spending $30,000 could not be justified to “accommodate 13 people and 3 horses during a period of 12 weeks during the year”, holding it to be a “reckless expenditure of public money”.  The road agreed to a year earlier could not be built.

Meanwhile, tempers flared in September 1895 at the Herkimer County Republicans’ convention held in Herkimer.  The “Little Falls” and “Herkimer” factions debated the seating of Wilmurt’s delegates.  Delegates were elected under questionable circumstances (assertions of opened ballots, voting by nonresidents, double voting and the disappearance of the poll list) and then a new caucus occurring in a nearby hotel room wanted different delegates.  More votes were cast than the voter population in Wilmurt.  After a motion by Titus Sheards that no delegates from Wilmurt be seated, the convention agreed that the election results be accepted.  Warner Miller, Herkimer Republican party boss, chaired the convention.  This would be a foreshadowing of future electoral problems.

On January 25, 1896, a special session of the Herkimer County Board of Supervisors quickly agreed to divide the town of Wilmurt, but took several hours to agree to the proposed boundary line, the south branch of the Moose River near Little Moose Lake.  The southern portion of the town would retain its name; the northern portion was named Webb, after Dr. William Seward Webb.  The Board of Supervisors appointed inspectors of election for the coming inaugural town meeting for Webb.

With the division of Wilmurt, the two political factions (“Little Falls” and “Herkimer”), though agreeing that the Republicans would still be in the majority, could not predict whose candidates would be elected.  The recent caucus fight was recalled.  All would have to wait until February 11 and the results of the Town of Webb’s first town meeting.  They also didn’t consider John J. Wakely’s ambitions.

In 1894, Cornelius Mack owned Mack’s Hotel which was adjacent to Fulton Chain Station.  In 1895, Mack sold his business to John J. Wakely who renamed it Wakely Hotel (This building would be bought in 1904 by the Tennis Brothers who moved it across the tracks in 1905.  Today it is Van Auken’s Inn.).  Before the February 11, 1896 election, a caucus of Republicans was scheduled to be held at Wakely Hotel; Wakely wanted to be nominated for Road Commissioner.  Wakely then learned that Warner Miller had already selected candidates in another caucus held a few days earlier at the Palmer House in Herkimer that pegged Riley Parsons for Supervisor, D. P. Sperry for Road Commissioner and selected other candidates.  These “Miller Republicans” were mostly residents of Old Forge.

When Wakely learned this, he toured the area lumber camps and when his Republican caucus was held, his majority was present and he was selected for Road Commissioner and Alexander McIntyre of McKeever for Supervisor.  McIntyre was involved in the lumber manufacturing business.  The “Palmer House Republicans” in Old Forge then joined the Democrats in a “union caucus” and nominated the popular Joseph Harvey for Supervisor.

On a very special day in the Town of Webb’s history, February 11, 1896, 154 votes were cast with McIntyre receiving 77 and Harvey 75.  Two ballots had been thrown out as invalid: one had “Joseph Harvey” written in the “write-in” column and another had “Joseph Harvey” written in the Republican column under McIntyre’s name.  The inspectors examined these, were convinced of the voters’ intent and awarded them to Harvey, resulting in a tie.  These inspectors then appointed Harvey as the victor.  The losing Republican Party took the results and the question of the inspectors’ authority to court.

Before Judge W. E. Scripture one month later, arguments were made by the McIntyre interests that inspectors should disqualify the rejected ballots, count McIntyre the winner and that these officials had no authority to declare a winner.  The inspectors’ lawyers argued that the inspectors were appointed by the Board of Supervisors for the purpose of conducting this first election and consequently held the powers of justice of the peace.  Judge Scripture ordered both sides to return at the next session with the contested ballots and any other questionable ballots, not to exceed five from either side.

On March 21, 1896, Judge Scripture held a special session to review 10 contested ballots brought to him by the appointed messenger, Dwight B. Sperry.  In addition to the two ballots mentioned above, the Republicans contested three others.  The Democrats provided five contested ballots of their own.  Almost six years earlier, the state had enacted three acts designed to reform corrupt election practices: a ballot reform law, a corrupt practices act and a general registration bill.  Judge Scripture’s decision would not only decide the Webb election, but would also be the first case held to define a defective ballot under the new 1890 election laws.

The contested ballots included Democratic candidates written on the Republican lines, circles instead of check marks, cross outs and corrections, voter marks not in the appropriate locations, and ballots with selections for both candidates for Justice of the Peace.  During this review, I learned that George Goodsell was on Harvey’s ticket for Road Commissioner.   On April 6, 1896, newspapers announced that Judge Scripture instructed the assigned Board of Elections to reconvene and recount the ballots without the two originally contested ballots.  This decision resulted in Alexander McIntyre being declared the Town of Webb’s first elected Town Supervisor and John J. Wakely its first Road Commissioner.

The Old Forge Eagle Bay highway project was renewed.  By December 1896, the Forge Company was selling village lots on newly named streets, its Fulton Chain Railroad to the Forge Dock had just inaugurated service and its Crosby Transportation Company was controlling steamer traffic on the Fulton Chain.  They no longer opposed the highway.

During the month of December 1896, the highway was surveyed.  John J. Wakely and the Town Board filed a joint resolution to the Herkimer Board of Supervisors for authority to raise funds for the highway’s construction.  In addition to the petition for funding authority, a bill already prepared was introduced for bond authority and to borrow on the town’s credit.  This bill had been written by Wakely’s lawyer and its wording was opposed because it gave Wakely unlimited power in disposition of the funds.  After this bill was rejected by the Board’s judiciary committee, the committee redrafted the bill which was then approved by Wakely and the Town Board.  The bill that passed the Board of Supervisors required no bonds to be sold until sufficient public notice was given about the contracts and not until contracts were bid and awarded to the lowest bidder.

Shortly after Christmas 1896, B. C. Fryer of Munnsville was working with D. B. Sperry in “warming dynamite for blasting” tree stumps on the path for the highway being debated that month in Herkimer’s board rooms.  After informing Fryer that enough sticks were thawed, Sperry was walking away when an explosion occurred, blasting Fryer into bodily fragments.  Widower Fryer had just celebrated his birthday on Christmas Day with his three children who had already lost their mother two years earlier.

Wakely received seven bids which he opened on April 24, 1897 in the presence of some of the Town of Webb’s board members.  James Moon of Cold Brook was the lowest bidder.  Wakely did not award the bid and reconvened the Town Board on May 1.  At that meeting, Wakely informed the Board that he had rejected all of the bids.  It was alleged that two of the losing bids (Gilmore and Noble) were people employed by Wakely.  On May 21, Wakely informed the Board that he had awarded the easterly end of the highway to Gilmore and Morrell (another higher bidder).  McIntyre and the Board refused to accept that result because Gilmore was not a citizen (Wakely then scratched his name wherever it appeared on the contract).  The Board also would not approve piecemeal contracts for the road.

At a subsequent Board meeting on May 29, McIntyre, Town Justice William Sperry and James Higbee unanimously affirmed they would approve no contracts unless to the lowest responsible bidder.  Then at a subsequent meeting on June 4, Sperry and Higbee rescinded their vote.  Sperry and Higbee were relatives of another higher bidder, Dwight B. Sperry (of Sperry & Moynehan).  After this change of vote, Wakely produced two executed contracts: one with Sperry & Moynehan for the westerly half of the highway at a cost per mile higher than originally bid and the other with Brown & Morrell.  These contracts were approved with McIntyre again voting no.

Although the highway construction was begun under both contracts, Brown & Morrell stopped work in June.  This happened because Supervisor Alexander McIntyre refused to sell the bonds authorized for the highway and also refused to release any funds for work performed under the two contracts.  John Wakely took McIntyre to court to issue a writ of mandamus compelling him to release the funds.

McIntyre was represented by Charles Snyder of Herkimer.  Snyder was the lawyer for Dr. Webb and John Dix opposing the deCamp family lawsuits raised to protect their lands and later defended the Raquette Lake Railroad’s building opposed by the Forge Company.  Wakely was represented by C. D. Adams who was frequently Snyder’s opposing lawyer in these higher profile cases involving millionaires.

1897 P418 Map Old Forge village forge house 026In June 1897, the two lawyers sparred in court.  Snyder attacked Wakely for rejecting bids without reason and for letting them for a high figure.  Snyder also said he had an affidavit that claimed a contractor would divide proceeds with Wakely if his contract was awarded.  Adams returned by asserting that the question was whether Webb would be run by local officials or the “Herkimer gang”.  Adams also asserted that case law supported the road commissioner’s authority and that the Herkimer County Board of Supervisors could not specify additional conditions.  Judge McLennan, who heard the case, would not approve Wakely’s request for release of funds, but he was concerned about the accusation of fraud and Wakely’s relation with the piecemeal contractors.  On that issue, he did assign a referee to determine if Wakely’s rejecting, then awarding bids, constituted fraud.  Wakely was given 10 days to provide supporting documentation for his actions to the appointed referee, John Brandegree.

Instead, Wakely passed on that option and Adams appealed to the appellate division.  In January 1898, the Court of Appeals sustained McIntyre’s actions.  The court rejected the notion from C. D. Adams that state law does not give a Board of Supervisors explicit power to insert conditions for a road commissioner’s awarding of contracts.  The court ruled that, in the absence of express powers, a Board of Supervisors could require conditions that were in the best interests of its taxpayers and those imposed in December 1896 were proper and “judicious”.  But another fact of political life would cause further delay in the building of the road.

The terms of both McIntyre and Wakely expired with the new election in February.  Dennis Moynehan defeated William S. deCamp for Webb supervisor and Firman Ouderkirk became road commissioner.  Boundary disputes between Herkimer and Hamilton County also caused a delay.  In June 1898, the contract for the highway was awarded to John Nelson and Gorham Harter of Herkimer.  The road was completed in June 1899.  It was during 1899 that Collis Huntington’s Raquette Lake Railroad would be built using part of the right of way of this highway and the Sucker Brook Bay Road.

After he was defeated by the courts in 1896, Joseph Harvey devoted his time to the formation of school districts in the Town of Webb, working to establish schools at Old Forge, Fulton Chain, McKeever, Big Moose and Beaver River.  His 1898 obituary referred to him as the “father of education in the new Adirondacks.”  With the predominance of Herkimer candidates in key Town positions, the Village of Old Forge was incorporated in 1903.

Maps:  Above, an excerpt from an 1895 Herkimer County map; middle, an excerpt from the 1895 Old Forge Quadrangle (US Geological Survey); and below, the 1897 Koetteritz Old Forge Village Map (Town of Webb Historical Association).


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Since the early 1980s when Charles Herr purchased a camp in Inlet he has been interested in the history of the Fulton Chain region of the Adirondacks. He has been contributing history articles about the times and people of the Fulton Chain, covering transportation, steamboats, hotels and most importantly, the people to the Weekly Adirondack of Old Forge since November 2006. His ambition is to uncover local and regional Fulton Chain history about people and events prior to 1930 and little covered in the histories of the region. He is the president of the Inlet Historical Society and presents summer programs on Inlet history at the Town Hall in Arrowhead Park in Inlet, NY. His book, The Fulton Chain-Early Settlement, Roads, Steamboats, Railroads and Hotels, was published in May 2017. More information is available at www.facebook.com/herrstory . During 2023, Herr was appointed Inlet Town Historian.

One Response

  1. william Doolittle says:

    This story is wonderful. Full of interesting detail.
    Bill Doolittle

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