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Union Springs Village

Union Springs Village Hall is located at 26 Chapel Street, Union Springs, NY 13160; phone: 315-889-7341.

Beginnings [1]

The Village of Union Springs is a small, charming community in central Cayuga County located on the east shore of Cayuga Lake, approximately 10 miles south west of the City of Auburn. Its name is derived from the many springs found within the Village boundaries. Early during the nineteenth century, two springs were dammed to form the north and south ponds, providing locations for the community's earliest industries. In addition to the industrial base, the community was a center for farm and lake trade. The Village is historically important as an example of a small town on the periphery of the Erie Canal trade. Its growth and change in the nineteenth century parallel exactly the fortunes of the canal system in upstate New York.

The area of Union Springs was first passed through by Jesuit priests and, in 1770, by the Clinton-Sullivan expedition. Ten years later, the first white settlement and the beginnings of industrialization occurred. Edward Richardson dammed the north spring to form a pond and began a grist mill in 1789. However, he lacked a clear land title and was compelled to leave. It was not until 1800 that the first permanent settlement was established and, in that year, the community's first post office opened. The abundance of local resources, a favorable position on Cayuga Lake and the presence of springs gave impetus to the area's settlement. The extensive minerals, gypsum, and limestone found in Union Springs played an important role in the industrial development of the town. Gypsum along the lake shore to the north first developed a commercial importance during the War of 1812 when Nova Scotia plaster was excluded from this country. The production of the Springport quarries was between twenty and forty thousand tons per year. Limestone quarries were developed north, south and east of the Village. It is said that the south quarry stone was used in the paving of Wall Street in New York City. The development of the canal system in central New York insured the growth of Union Springs.

Trade on Cayuga Lake had started even before the canal network was constructed. Union Springs was a center for the processing of local raw materials. Production of wheat flour, tanned hides, lumber, limestone and gypsum plaster began in the period 1800-1820. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, and the Cayuga and Seneca Lakes Canal in 1828, created a vastly enlarged market for these local products. From 1830 to 1870, when canal trade was the greatest, Union Springs grew in size. The Village was incorporated in 1848. Union Springs was ideally suited for small scale manufacturing and trade. Springs fed the mill ponds year round, and the construction of wharves and short feeder canals to the mills made barge transport simpler. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, these ponds were lined with a series of grist mills, a bending works, saw mills, woolen mills, warehouses and wharves. Goods, such as flour, were shipped in oak casks made of local lumber. These casks returned with oil for the local trade. Prior to 1872, all transportation had been by water, coach or horseback. Ferry boats, yachts, sailboats and charter boats busily plied Cayuga Lake's waters stopping at the many industries along the lake shore, delivering people to various destinations.

Another historical factor important to the development of Union Springs was the presence of a large number of New England Quakers. The Quakers, organized in 1803-1804, built a meeting house in 1816 and created a cemetery, predating most other religious bodies in their establishment. The Thomas, Howland, Chase, Winegar and Yawger families were all Quakers and important early settlers of the area. The presence of so many members of this denomination was not accidental as the Quakers consciously grouped themselves together and were responsible for most of the early growth of Union Springs. These Quaker families, and others, quickly made fortunes once the canal system was opened. Their houses, which remain today, testify to the wealth of the community. The Howland, Chase and Yawger families for example, were merchants or industrialists whose houses perpetuate their memories.

The early period of Union Springs's growth lasted until about 1880 when the population reached a high of 2,200. Commercial business and industries, including boot and shoe manufacturers, harness and carriage makers, furniture makers, undertakers, barbers, bakeries, jewelry stores, coal and lumber yards, and a nursery thrived. Many doctors and lawyers had established practices. Many of these enterprises were operated by descendents of early settlers, as well as newer settlers. The presence of sulphur springs resulted in Union Springs' reputation as a health resort. Numerous churches, civic and social organizations were also very active. The Quaker's Friends Academy, later known as the Oakwood Seminary, also provided secondary level of education for both young men and women from 1858 to 1920. In 1872, the advent of the Cayuga Lake Railroad, a branch of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, facilitated travel along the eastern lake shore, reducing both shipping and travel by water leading to a decrease in lake and canal trade. From the 1880 high point into the twentieth century, the Village started to change. Maps of 1875 and 1904 confirm that few buildings were built during that interval. A significant amount of economic activity in the community began to transition from agriculture and industry to one of tourism, which continues to provide a vibrant economic base today.

Train travel eventually underwent a change too as it felt the impact of the automobile with passenger service ending in 1948 and freight service in 1971. Today, it is not uncommon to find residents of Union Springs regularly commuting to jobs in Auburn, Syracuse and Ithaca. As of 2000, the population stood at 1,074. Businesses today provide convenience services and goods to both local residents and the tourists attracted to the beauty and varied resources of Cayuga Lake and the Finger Lakes region.

While many of the charming Victorian and Greek Revival homes and structures remain, one shines in significance as a landmark of Union Springs. The stone mill, built on the north pond in 1836 at a cost of $40,000 by George Howland is important in that it is the only surviving example of one of many mills which dotted the Cayuga Lake coastline. The mill is of locally quarried limestone, with four runs of stone. A canal leading to the lake enabled Howland to quickly ship his products with a minimum of expense. The mill has been home to several industries over the years. General Products, Gulf and Western, Wickes Manufacturing, TRW and LPW are just some of the companies to have run operations in this location with employees numbering upwards of 700 at one time. Today, while much of this historically important mill is unused, it still stands as one of the two most recognized and photographed sites in Union Springs.

Frontenac Island, the second landmark, contains less than an acre of land and is one of only two islands of the Finger Lakes. Its history is as a burial ground to the Algonquians, a great tribe which flourished in New York thousands of years ago. No fewer than 300 interments have been discovered on the island. Frontenac Island was deeded to the trustees of Union Springs in March, 1858 by the State of New York, to be kept exclusively as a park and pleasure ground.

  1. Village of Union Springs Board of Trustees and Planning Board, Village of Union Springs Comprehensive Plan, 2007, www.unionspringsny.com, accessed October, 2015.
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