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Saturday, April 23, 2016

One of the names most often heard, in Lockport history, is that of Washington Hunt.  His name seems to pop up when just about anything happened in Lockport, NY, during the late 1800’s, and his contributions to our area need to be recognized.

He was born in Windham, Greene County in 1811, and at the age of 7, his family moved to Hunts Hollow, in Allegany County, where other family members had already established themselves. At the age of 17, Washington Hunt set out on his own, and traveled to where all traffic seemed to be headed: Lockport. Here, he began his career as a clerk in the store of Tucker and Bissell on Lower Main Street.

In 1831, at the age of 20, he began to study law in the office of Lot Clark, a small frame house on Market Street, which subsequently burned down in 1835, and was replaced with the brick building that we all know of today. That building became Hunt’s Law office and was moved from 363 Market Street to its present location on Niagara Street, in 1955.

He became the first director of the first bank in Niagara County, the “Lockport Bank” on the corner of Market and Chapel Streets, which opened in 1829. Just 10 years later, he was president of the Lockport Bank and Trust Co., being the successor of the first bank, and located at the same address.

In 1833 he married Mary Walbridge and together with his father in law, Henry Walbridge, he bought about 32,000 acres of land from the Albany Land Company, who in 1827-1828 had bought all of the Holland Land Company acreage in Niagara, Erie, Genesee and Orleans Counties. These 32,000 acres eventually made Hunt and Walbridge very rich men.

Soon after his marriage, he had acquired the fine cut stone house erected by Joel McCollum on the corner of Market and North Adam Streets.

In 1834, Washington Hunt was admitted to the bar, and just two years later, he was appointed “First Judge” of Niagara County.  He was then still only 24 years of age, and then served as Judge for the next five years.

The elders of Lockport did not always respect Hunt’s youth, and the local papers often ridiculed him. For example, in the Niagara Courier in 1836, the following statement was made:
Washington Hunt! Is to be appointed First Judge – Who will pretend hereafter that a whistle cannot be made from a pig’s tail?”
Freedom of the Press was carried to the ultimate extreme in those days, and the need for being politically correct was unheard of.  The irony of all of that is that Hunt’s political career was just about to take off.  In 1839, his political aspirations were well known, and he entertained President Van Buren at his house on North Adam. Hunt was presumably alongside President Van Buren when he traveled to Niagara Falls aboard the “Strap Railroad,” and was also likely part of the crew that was unfortunately derailed in a previous Historically Relevant column.

In 1842, he was elected to Congress where he served three terms becoming the leader of the NY Congressmen.  His speeches and public papers won him respect across the nation.  He retired from Congress, in 1849, and was then elected Comptroller of NY State.  In 1850 he was elected Governor of NY State, but defeated when he ran for a second term.  Hunt then returned to his Lockport Farm on North Adam.

Soon after, he bought the stone house that was erected on the Old Niagara Road by Edward Hardy, in 1842.  He upgraded the property and renamed the estate, Wyndham Lawn, after the place in Greene County where he was born (the spelling being changed slightly).

He kept himself busy by remaining connected with the Merchant’s Gargling Oil Company that had acquired international fame, and in 1858, along with the Honorable T.T. Flagler, coaxed the brilliant Birdsill Holly to take charge of their machine works in Lockport.  Holly would go on to become one of the most prolific inventors of all time, second only to Thomas Edison.

In 1860, Hunt declined the Democratic nomination for US Vice President, which many believe was due to his unpopular views about Slavery.  He would not have served well alongside a president that had proclaimed his desires to emancipate Slavery, and that elected President, in 1860, was Abraham Lincoln.

Washington Hunt remained a loyal Lockportian until he died on February 2, 1867, and was buried at the Glenwood Cemetery in Lockport.

Two years earlier, in September, of 1865, the Lockport Ladies’ Relief Society was organized, and they proceeded to establish a Home for the Friendless, and during the next six years, the Lockport Ladies dispensed relief in food and household goods to needy families.

By 1871, a permanent location for friendless and destitute children was desperately needed, and on February 8, 1871, a charter was granted for this new home, which would be overseen by nine trustees.  The trustees then appointed twenty four ladies as board members, with the following making up their officers: President, Mrs. J.T. Bellah; Secretary, Mrs. Calvin Haines; Treasurer, Mrs. A. J. Mansfield; and Recording Secretary, Anna S. Gardner.  The Ladies group raised $3000 by subscription and yearly membership dues, and with the support of the trustees, the purchase price for the residence of F. N. Nelson, on High Street, at a cost of $5000, was secured.

This house on High Street served its purpose until August of 1892, when Wyndham Lawn, the former home of Governor Hunt, was purchased for $30,000.  The Home for the Friendless was invaluable to the needy of our area, and at their 25th Anniversary, on February 11, 1896, the organization had sheltered nearly 1000 children.  Today, Wyndham Lawn Home for Children continues to improve the lives of young adults through guidance and support.

When in Congress, Washington Hunt was always aware of the needs of others, whether they were in Lockport, or half way across the world.  In  1846, he introduced a bill to appropriate half a million dollars, for the needy and starving people of Ireland, during one of histories most notable crop failures, the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1849. Washington Hunt never had any children of his own, but through his generosity in life, and his legacy in death, the necessities of the needy continue to be provided.

An imposing monument of bronze and marble, 22 feet high, still stands in Glenwood Cemetery as a testament to the friends Washington Hunt made, through both care and generosity, all over the World.

Until next time,

+Dr. Scott Geise, a local businessman, has an active interest in Erie Canal and Niagara County history. His column, "Historically Relevant," appears on the first and third Saturday of each month. Please feel free to share any historically relevant stories that you may have hidden away somewhere.

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