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Watkins Glen Village

Watkins Glen Village Hall is located at 303 North Franklin Street, Watkins Glen, NY 14891; phone: 607-535-2736.

The village was incorporated with the name "Jefferson," in 1842, renamed Watkins. The name was changed to Watkins Glen in 1926.

Beginnings [1]

The village of Watkins was named after its founder, Dr. Samuel Watkins, a native of England; and was included in the Watkins and Flint purchase. This tract of 350,000 acres was obtained from the State in 1794, by John W. Watkins and Royal R. Flint, representing a syndicate of prominent men, and covered a large tract of country around the head of Seneca Lake.

Dr. Watkins succeeded to the title of his elder brother's estate at his death, and became the owner of 25,000 acres of land. He came to this locality to reside in the year 1828, where he found only a small hamlet, of between two and three hundred inhabitants. The first settlement having been made in 1788, nine years after the Sullivan expedition, he named it Salubria, a most appropriate name in view of the climatic conditions. He built the Jefferson House, Glen National Bank building, together with several residences; mapped and laid out the village, presented it with a public park, and had it incorporated April 11, 1842, under the name of Jefferson.

He married Miss Cynthia A. Cass, an intelligent and well-educated lady of this village, and died in 1851, aged 80 years, leaving to his widow under his will nearly all of his estate. She subsequently married the late Judge George G. Freer, who came to Jefferson from Ithaca in 1851, and at her death made him her principal legatee. Through his influence the name of the village was changed, in 1852, from Jefferson to Watkins, as a fitting tribute to the memory of its founder. He did much for the progress and prosperity of the village, obtaining a new charter in 1861, organized the first bank, and was the leading spirit in establishing the county seat permanently at Watkins in 1868; also, mainly instrumental in the erection of the main building now occupied by the "Glen Springs, " and, in connection with the Hon. John Magee, presented Glenwood Cemetery (over 22 acres) to the village; he also donated the site for the school house, together with the land whereon the Schuyler County buildings are located. He died in 1878, aged 69 years, having ever been a munificent friend and patron of his adopted home.

Within the limits of Dr. Watkins' domain, he reposed for many years, in silence and solitude, at the now-famous Watkins Glen. The stream that formed it was originally rated as a mill site, and from the number located thereon, in early times, was known for many years as Mill Creek, but with the passing of the industries connected therewith, and its opening as a summer resort, the name it now bears ("Glen Creek") was bestowed upon it.

The location of the village is partly on a rocky hill sparsely covered with soil, and a flat, composed of sand and gravel, that has been washed down from the surrounding hills, filling up the deep gorge, a mile wide and three miles long, that was once the continuance of Seneca Lake, and in the center of which a depth of 1,200 feet has failed to find the rock. The stream issuing from the rocky portals of the Glen has had its share in bringing down the material that has filled up this immense cavity, and geologists have estimated that more than 30,000 years have been required in its formation. Through many years the deposits in the valley caused the stream to shift from time to time, north, south or east, wherever the land was lowest, and when Dr. Watkins erected saw and flouring mills within the rocky walls of the amphitheater, he opened for it a new channel half a mile long, due east from the mouth of the gorge, for the more direct flow of its waters. This is its present course, but even now, with the limited amount of silt brought down in times of freshets, dredging has to be resorted to every few years to keep it within bounds.

There is no doubt but that in ancient times it must have had a large population of aborigines, as many relics, exhumed in making excavations for cellars, sewers, etc., go to prove; but nothing in the form of a name seems to have survived.

Montour Falls, three miles south, is the site of "Catherinestown," the only Indian village mentioned in the annals of Sullivan's expedition as being at the head of the Lake, which they passed on the highlands east of the valley. Catherine Montour was Queen of the Senecas, whose power was destroyed by this expedition.

In 1863, the idea of unsealing this mysterious "book of nature," and opening its successive pages to the eyes of the "outer world," was conceived by M. Ells, a resident of Watkins, who deserves great credit for the measures he took to carry out his plan — by the construction of staircases, pathways, railings, bridges, and a miniature chalet, called the "Evergreen," perched on a shelf of rock near the north end of the present suspension bridge (which connects the banks of the gorge at the site of the old Glen Mountain House), and by announcing, through the press of the surrounding country, that on and after the 4th of July, 1863, Watkins Glen would be open as a summer resort for visitors, and a claimant for a share of the favors annually bestowed upon Niagara Falls, Saratoga Springs, White Mountains, Thousand Islands, Mammoth Cave, etc.

The popular response far exceeded the most sanguine expectations. From 8,000 to 10,000 visited the Glen during the balance of the season, and their number has continued to increase annually.

From the time of its opening until acquired by the State of New York many years of successful management, by different proprietors, gave it a world-wide reputation, and the dream of the Pioneer, who sleeps in beautiful Glenwood cemetery, came true at last. The names of John Lytle, Amos Michiner, and Capt. James Hope will ever be associated with the successful management and scenic beauties of Watkins Glen; the two former as proprietors and managers, who built the noted "Glen Mountain House." The latter, a celebrated New York artist, whose reputation as a painter of glen scenery and war pictures had become world-wide, was attracted by glowing newspaper articles and came to the glen in 1872, where he erected a small cottage and art gallery, which was conducted in unison with the glen management, and during the remaining twenty years of his life transferred to canvas many scenes of this beautiful place, the most widely known being his celebrated "Rainbow Falls," 6x8 feet in size, which has been exhibited in different parts of the country, and with eighty others from his gallery was shown in the New York State building during the "Pan-American Exposition" at Buffalo in 1901.

In 1906, "The Watkins Glen Reservation," containing about 105 acres, was acquired from the Andrew H. Green estate of New York City for the sum of $46,512.50, and forever reserved as a State Park for the purpose of preserving it in its natural condition; to be kept open and free of access to all mankind, without fee, charge, or expense to any person, for entering upon or passing to or from any part thereof.

It was placed under the jurisdiction of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, and its management was placed in the hands of a commission, several of whom were local residents. Most of the permanent work as it now appears was completed during the four or five years it remained under this society.

  1. Hope, J.D., Descriptive and Illustrated Guide Book of the Famous Watkins Glen, for Hope Souvenir Shop, Watkins Glen, 1916.
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