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Early days of Cortland recalled in 1895

Updated: Feb 2, 2021

When searching for an obituary and search results fail to produce the results I'm looking for, I usually resort to browsing through newspapers the "old-fashioned" way - page by page.

Manually searching for newspapers seems tedious, but it's not so bad when I think back twenty short years ago, when the only way to find old copies of newspapers was to take a special trip to the local library in whatever town the news may have been printed. Flipping through newspaper stacks or loading reel after reel of microfilm into the machine, scrolling and zooming with various knobs, and paying up to 25-cents a page to have copies of clippings printed. This would take hours and I always wished I had more time.

How fortunate are we today, that we can sit in the comfort of our own homes, browsing thousands of newspapers online as often as we like? Many are available free of charge. (Click here for places to find some!) The best part is that many online newspapers are searchable, another major convenience and time-saver, but the search functions don't always find what I'm looking for and while browsing pages one by one, I get sidetracked and off on detours - like this one!

While browsing through an 1895 edition of the Cortland Standard, I stumbled upon a lengthy article about Cortland's 100th anniversary. Several of my ancestors were early settlers of Cortland County and because this article is so old and sheds light on life in Cortland's early days, I felt it was worthy of being brought to the surface again. Read the article below!

[Cortland Standard, February 22, 1895, p. 13]



Founding-Growth-Social Life-The Old Eagle-Interesting Incidents of Early Cortland.

Cortland has just passed its one hundredth birthday. It was in 1794 that the pioneers Jonathan Hubbard and Col. Moses Hopkins climbed a tall tree on Court House hill and first looked out upon these regions. Noticing the number of valleys, seven in all, which centered about the hill or within a few miles of it, they predicted the site of future Cortland, of which they became the first settlers. The town was a part of Homer, but the village took its name from the county and the county from Gen. Peter Van Courtlandt, who had large land interests in the central part of the state. Of the primeval forest covering the land a few traces may still be seen on the farm of Mr. W. Randall and on distant hills. But long ago disappeared the bears, wolves, and deer which inhabited them.

Early Cortland was an Arcadia, so one of our honored citizens says whose memory goes back to those days of beginnings when its best riches were brotherly sympathy and social unity. Certain it is that this village was fortunate in its founders. They were men of mark in their day and their influence is still felt in all that appertains to our present material, intellectual and moral development.

In 1813 Cortland became the seat of the county court much to the chagrin of its rival sisters, Homer and Port Watson. Scarcely a brick remains to show the site of the first courthouse and jail on Court House hill. Once a day the four-horse mail coach from Syracuse announced its arrival by tooting its horn through the length of Main-st.,—the Main-st which the present day has almost shorn of its fine old homes and New England characteristics—for Cortland started as a New England village.

On June 30, 1815, the Portland Republican, the first paper issued in Cortland, appeared. Its early numbers chronicled Napoleon's escape from Elba, the battle of Waterloo, and preparations for building the Erie canal. During the thirties, a daily paper found its way to Cortland, the Albany Evening Journal, with Hamilton White as its sole subscriber. He became the oracle of political news with a rapt audience always about him at mail time. What would that worthy generation have thought could they have foreseen the advent of a paper edited wholly by women, before their century closed.

Port Watson was a settlement by itself, indulging in the vain anticipation of becoming the site of a populous village. It was the head of navigation on the Tioughnioga river. In the times of freshets arks of forty tons' burden, loaded with gypsum, salt, oats, potatoes and pork were floated down the river to Chesapeake bay where the cargo was sold and the rafts split up for lumber. Crowds of spectators were accustomed to assemble on the banks of the Tioughnioga just above the bridge at Port Watson-st. to witness the start of a fleet of arks and boats. The arks were dexterously steered by paddles front and back, and no small skill was needed to pilot them over the sluiceways, required by law to be built in every dam, for their passage.

One of our older citizens tells the story of a Fourth of July celebration of ye olden times. Gen. Roswell Randall, proprietor of the Eagle store and Eagle tavern of former fame, also owned a fine specimen of the bird itself. It was kept in a cage upon Gen. Randall's lawn which once graced the corner now occupied by the Standard building. On one Fourth of July Gen. Randall donated the eagle to the cause of liberty and a grand celebration. A silver ferrule was made, engraved with the date and the name of the owner and was fastened upon the ankle of the bird. With appropriate ceremony the eagle was set free. Circling high up above the heads of the watching crowds, it turned toward the northwest and was soon lost to sight. A number of years had elapsed when an Indian, hunting in the forests of northern Wisconsin, shot and killed an eagle which seemed strangely undisturbed by the near approach of man. Finding the ferrule on the leg, the Indian traveled many miles to a white settlement where the inscription was deciphered and the ferrule eventually sent to Gen. Randall.

Few people now remember a unique feature of the Presbyterian church of Cortland as it was first built. At the rear of the church was a big box pew, occupying the space of four common pews. It was furnished with a seat on three sides, a table in the center and a rocking chair and footstove as added luxuries. The pew was the property of Gen. Roswell Randall who certainly must have been a conspicuous personage as he appeared at church arrayed in his fresh ruffled shirt and carrying his goldheaded cane.

With the advent of electric cars, come recollections of the opening of the first railroad through Cortland. On the 18th of October, 1854, the first train, consisting of twenty-seven cars, made a triumphal journey from Binghamton to Syracuse. A free ride was given to the immense crowd aboard. On the foremost flat car, as the train drew up to the Cortland station, stood the Hon. Henry Stephens, president of the road and a marked figure of old Cortland. The town was given up to a grand ovation. From every church, bells were rung, cannons were fired and bonfires and illuminations signalized the event. To Cortland fell the honor of dining the great body of excursionists. Tables were spread in and about the station ladened with the bounty which the entire town had turned out to provide, and be it said to the credit of Cortland women that in less than fifteen minutes after the arrival of the train, not a morsel of food remained to attest to the excellent quality of the cooking.

With the presence of the many busy factories, with the introduction of electric cars, electric lights, waterworks, sewers and the thousand and one factors which go to make up the busy city of to-day, the youth of the rising generation can hardly imagine the Cortland of the early years of the century. There are many incidents that could be related that would throw a flood of light upon those good old days of our grandfathers, but time and space forbid. A few facts have been gathered from early records and from conversations with some of the older citizens whose memory goes far back and who have known of young Cortland from their fathers, and these facts are here presented.

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