Mount Morris Village
Mount Morris Village Hall is located at 117 Main Street, Mount Morris NY 14510; phone: 585-658-4160. The village was incorporated in 1832.
Mount Morris is situated on the high banks of the Genesee River at the point where the river leaves the narrow, steep shale gorge and flows through the flat Genesee Valley. To the east, between Canaseraga Creek and the high tableland on which the village is situated, is a broad alluvial plain two miles wide of very fertile land. From the plain the ground rises abruptly to the first terrace and from here stretches toward the river to the west. The development of the area that came to be known as Mount Morris paralleled settlement patterns of other population centers within western New York following the Revolutionary War. When the Revolutionary War ended in 1783 it was clear that the Iroquois lands in western New York were to be divided because the Seneca Nation had aligned themselves with the losing side in the conflict. Both New York and Massachusetts claimed these lands. Under the terms of the Treaty of Hartford in 1786, Massachusetts had the right to purchase approximately six million acres from the Seneca Indians while recognizing the political sovereignty of New York over the same land. In 1788 Massachusetts sold all of its land on either side of the Genesee River to a group of investors represented by Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham.
The Senecas relinquished title to 2.5 million acres of land east of the Genesee River and approximately 200,000 acres west of the river at the Treaty of Buffalo Creek in July 1788. This allowed Phelps and Gorham to begin selling the land. In spite of their best efforts in land sales Phelps and Gorham could not meet the conditions of their charter from Massachusetts and had to return the land west of the river back to Massachusetts in 1790. This left Phelps and Gorham with approximately 2.5 million acres from the Pre-emption Line to the Genesee River Valley.
The financial situation for Phelps and Gorham continued to go poorly and in 1791 they were forced to sell all but two townships of their remaining land to Robert Morris of Philadelphia, signer of the Declaration of Independence, financier of the Revolution, and would-be land speculator. The town and village of Mount Morris are named in his honor. In 1792 Morris likewise sold most of his land east of the Genesee River to Sir William Pulteney and his London-based associates.
Morris retained a strip of land along the Genesee River for himself which later became known as the Mount Morris tract. The tract was four miles square, and contained 10,240 acres. The current village of Mount Morris is situated nearly in the geographical center of the tract. The tract had been settled earlier by Ebenezer Allan, who persuaded the Senecas to give him the land in trust for his daughter by an Indian wife. Allan moved to the Genesee Valley about 1780-82 where he first resided in the home of Mary Jemison on the Gardeau flats. In 1785 he moved to the site of the present village of Mount Morris which became known as Allan's Hill. Robert Morris bought the land from Allan in 1793 in exchange for goods.
Morris, considered the richest man in America in 1793, died in 1806 in a debtors prison in Philadelphia. The Bank of North America held the title to the Mount Morris tract as collateral for loans made to Morris. After Morris's death the Bank had the land surveyed by Stephen Rogers. In 1807, the bank sold the tract, excepting the Squawkie Hill Indian reservation, to John R. Murray and Harriet Murray, William Ogden and Susan Ogden, and John Trumbull of New York City, and James Wadsworth, Sr. and Naomi Wadsworth, of Geneseo, New York.
Mount Morris was slow to develop as a settlement primarily due to the lack of direct waterpower and the presence of the Genesee fever or ague. Many of the early settlers were drawn here, however, by the rich alluvial soil. By 1813 Mt. Morris had four frame and 22 log houses. Small stores, artisans' shops, and grist and lumber mills were established in the early 1800s as Mt. Morris developed into a self-supporting community. Early industries included wool carding, a grist mill, a distillery which used the wheat grown on the flats, and the making of cloth from hemp also grown on the flats. The early settlers of Mt. Morris were primarily from eastern New York and New England. While the Town of Mount Morris was established in 1818, the village was not incorporated until 1835.
The period of 1830 to 1840 was one of steady settlement for the village. According to the 1835 Census the village had two grist mills, six sawmills, three fulling mills, three carding machines, one distillery, three asheries, and two tanneries. At the time the village also contained three churches, three taverns, nine dry goods stores, three groceries, one shoe factory, a bakery, an iron foundry, one hemp factory, a tin factory, two saddlers, three tailors, two drug stores, and one printing office.
One of the first permanent settlers of Mt. Morris was William A. Mills who, in 1794 at the age of seventeen, decided to remain in the Genesee Valley after his family had returned to Connecticut following the death of his father. He befriended the nearby Seneca Indians and built a log cabin at Allan's Hill. In 1838, at age sixty, he built an impressive Greek Revival brick house at 14 Main Street, known today as Mills Mansion (National Register of Historic Places listed 12/19/78).
Mills was dedicated to the development of this region both commercially and politically. He is credited with being the founder of Mount Morris. As a prosperous grain farmer, he created a trade for the growing community. By the end of his life in 1844 he had become a large landholder, owning approximately 1,800 acres of land, much of it used for agriculture. He helped establish Livingston County in 1821 and the Town of Mount Morris in 1818, serving as justice of the peace and town supervisor for 20 years. With the outbreak of the War of 1812, Mills organized the first state militia for Livingston County. He rose to the rank of Major General in the New York State Militia. Mills helped petition the Legislature to authorize the construction of a dam across the Genesee River in 1833. In 1827 he was one of the chief supporters for the construction of a race from the Genesee River to the northeast part of the village, a distance of one mile. This race provided the water power necessary for the development of local industry. Mills was also influential in lobbying for the construction of the Genesee Valley Canal.
Other prominent early citizens of Mt. Morris include John Rogers Murray and his wife Anna Vernon Olyphant who, in 1839, built a house atop what is known today as Murray Hill. Murray's parents were among the original group of eight persons who purchased the Mount Morris tract from the Bank of North America.
John Rogers Murray was influential in the early industrial history of Mount Morris, establishing a glass works, a saw and planing mill, and a paper mill in the 1840s. The Murrays contributed to many civic improvements and charitable causes, including the construction of the Gothic Revival style St. John's Episcopal Church, built in 1856, at 23 State Street (National Register listed 7/19/91). They are buried at a contributing grave site located east of the church. The graves are marked by a large granite stone surrounded by cast iron posts and a chain.
Prior to the completion of the Genesee Valley Canal between Rochester and Mount Morris in 1840, water travel in Livingston County was limited to seasons of high water on the Genesee River. The distance was 65 miles by river from Geneseo, the county seat, to Rochester. Small, manually powered cargo boats were used to carry goods and agricultural products to Rochester when the water level was sufficiently deep. Passenger and freight steamboats were also used for a short time on the river. The first steamboat on this waterway made a trip on July 28, 1824. The unpredictable water level made this a short-lived enterprise.
The first bridge to span the Genesee River and connect Mount Morris with the Town of Leicester to the north was built about 1830. This covered, wooden bridge remained in use until 1897, when it was replaced by a 325-foot long, steel-frame bridge. The replacement bridge was, for many years, the longest single-span bridge in the United States. This bridge was replaced by a new steel bridge in 1958.
The Canal Era
Of great importance to the development of Mount Morris and the region was the Genesee Valley Canal, which provided an efficient means of transporting agricultural products and other goods to outside markets, including connection to the Erie Canal at Rochester. This canal system gave the farmers of the Genesee Valley access to expanded markets thus resulting in the transition from subsistence to commercial farming. General Mills and other local residents petitioned for the Genesee Valley Canal beginning in 1823, and a route was surveyed in 1826. Excavation for the canal did not take place until 1836. The stretch from Rochester to Mount Morris was completed by 1840. The canal extended to Olean, its terminus, by 1857, making the canal a total distance of 107 miles.
Thanks to the canal, the village became a busy milling and commercial center for the surrounding rural town. The population grew from 1,851 in 1860 to 2,060 by 1873. When the canal was being built, many Irish came to work on its construction and remained in Mount Morris. While the canal was a great boon to the region's economic development, its operation proved too costly to maintain. The canal's operating and maintenance costs were about three times as great as its revenue from tolls, thus forcing it to close in 1878.
Portions of the canal bed are still visible in the eastern side of the village, as is the towpath of the canal which later became a track bed for the railroad. Genesee Street was originally known as Canal Street due to the route it followed parallel to the Genesee Valley Canal.
The Railroad Era
Improvements in transportation continued in the mid-nineteenth century with the coming of the railroads. The railroads provided a means of transporting both passengers and freight quickly and inexpensively over great distances. Mount Morris began to thrive on the rapid growth of an agricultural economy, the availability of natural resources, and the expanding railroad network which facilitated trade. The railroads encouraged the development of industry by establishing year round access to raw materials and by providing a reliable network for the distribution of manufactured goods. Railroad transportation was not only an important factor in the commercial and industrial development of Mt. Morris, but it also brought tourists here to visit the beautiful gorge of the Genesee River, south of the village.
When the Genesee Valley Canal ceased operations in 1878 many of the communities along its route, including Mount Morris, petitioned the State to allow a railroad to be constructed along the abandoned canal route. In 1881 the State sold the abandoned canal to the Genesee Valley Railroad Company. By 1882, Rochester and Olean were linked via this railroad. Much of this line followed the canal towpath. This line became part of the Western New York and Pennsylvania Railroad.
The Erie Railroad came to the Genesee Valley about 1865 with a branch line between Rochester and Mt. Morris. The Erie and Genesee Valley Railroad, later known as the Dansville and Mt. Morris Railroad, or D. & M., was a 16-mile line built in 1870 between Dansville and Mount Morris. This line served passengers and freight coming from the Erie Railroad in Mt. Morris, and traveled to Groveland Station where it met the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad (D.L. & W.), enroute back to Dansville. The D.L. & W. Railroad established service to Mt. Morris in 1882. The D.L. & W. depot, built in 1890, still stands on the east side of the village on Lackawanna Avenue.
Agriculture and Industry
The village of Mount Morris prospered during the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century due to the combination of fertile growing soil, available waterpower (mill race), and improved transportation routes (first the canal, followed by the railroads). Farming was the primary business in the area. Wheat was the principal cash crop throughout Livingston County and the entire Genesee Valley until the 1850s. The year 1855 marked the end of the great wheat producing era for Mt. Morris and the area due to destruction by the weevil. By the mid-nineteenth century farmers began growing more corn and oats. The Genesee Flats of Mt. Morris became known for its large production of broom corn in the late 1850s. By the 1870s Mount Morris had ten broom factories.
Many of the industries that sprang up in Mt. Morris were associated with agriculture, including the production of brooms, flour milling, and late the canning industry.
By 1894, the principle industries and businesses in Mount Morris included the following: The Allan Lumber Company (established in 1863), The Genesee Valley Manufacturing Company (manufacturers of farm equipment, established in 1880), Winters and Prophet Canning Works (established in 1878), The Royal Salt Company (daily output of 660 barrels of salt a day in 1894, established in 1884), Enterprise Flouring Mills, Equity Flouring Mills (rebuilt in 1893), Exchange Flouring Mills, Empire Machine Works (spoke machines), Mt. Morris Illuminating Company, F.C. Simerson's Broom Factory, and James Kellogg's Broom Factory.
About the turn of the century, a wave of immigration brought many Italian families to Mount Morris. They were attracted by the job opportunities provided by the canning industry, salt mines, and the railroads.
The bricks used to build Mount Morris' buildings were made in various brickyards in the vicinity, an early one being located on Chapel Street at the corner of Sand Hill Road, just below the cemetery. A later brickyard was located on the mill race, west of the former D.L. and W.R.R.
† Nancy L. Todd, New York State Division for Historic Preservation, Historic and Architectural Resources of the Village of Mount Morris, nomination document, 1995, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.