A Piece of 1811

The Fenton History Center recently acquired a small, unpretentious oak drop leaf table that had remained in the family of the original owner since the 1930’s. The remarkable thing about the table is that it was constructed from long submerged logs thought to have been part of the first and original dam James Prendergast had made across the Chadakoin in 1811.

The Prendergasts were markedly different from any of the other early settlers of Chautauqua County. Many fortunes were made from lumber in early county history but the Prendergasts brought their fortune with them. Dr. Thomas Kennedy built lumber camps and exploited local timber resources, but he never lived here as the Prendergasts did. The Prendergasts were Episcopalians, had been Tories in the Revolution and preferred a paternalistic and rent based land ownership system, not your typical Chautauqua County settlers.

The story of how James broke off from the rest of the family living in the Mayville area and established Jamestown as a lumber camp and incipient village is well known because it is told by all the early historians, but best and in most detail by Judge Elial T. Foote in articles he published in mid19th century local newspapers. One version was reprinted in full in 1932 in an atypical local history book with the peculiar title: Conquest of Chautauqua, Volume 1, compiled by an eccentric local historian, Arthur Wellington Anderson.

Prendergast, appreciating the Chadakoin both as the only available local outlet for industrial quantities of sawed lumber and as an effectively limitless source of power for sawmills and mills of any kind. He assembled materials and men in 1811 for a no nonsense rapid start on his enterprise. He bought land and selected the optimum location for his dam near the Sprague Street crossing, and had it built with picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, and oxen. The pond rose a few feet then to everyone’s dismay, virtually stopped rising while the entire lake began to slowly rise. Canoes and keelboats could not navigate the lower river and the mill at Falconer did not have enough water to run. The costly and laboriously built structure had to be torn out and rebuilt near the present Warner Dam location. A 1907 survey map in the Fenton collection shows exactly the location of remnant piles from the original dam.

Prendergast not only had to rebuild his sawmill and dam along with a canal and lift lock for boat traffic around the dam, he had to buy the adjacent downstream land to relocate his enterprise. At the same time he had to cope with a disastrous fire that consumed his house and most of his personal property. Plus he had to compensate every lake shore property owner for damages and appear in court when law suits were filed over some of the damages. In the summer of 1812 when all the rebuilding was going on, war broke out with Great Britain and many of the available men were marched off to the Niagara Frontier and no new settlers wanted to move in.

The first dam and sawmill were largely completed in September, 1811. The first sawing was done in February, 1812.  The entire process of removal and rebuilding was completed to the satisfaction of the lake dwellers by November.

This was not your typical pioneer lean-to sawmill. It involved two then-conventional “mulley” up and down saws plus a high output gang saw. These were housed in two separate buildings. The lock at the original location had failed so a new canal was dug then a third canal was necessary at the new location.

The iron machinery and shafting was brought at enormous cost and effort from Albany. Much equipment was made from wood on site. This would have included water wheels, probably wide, low, undershot splash or flutter wheels. Meanwhile the Prendergasts had to cope with the fire loss of their means of day to day living and the temporary housing provisions for some of the hired hands, the young single men who then constituted most of Jamestown’s population. A start on a gristmill was also made in the same year.

A label affixed inside the top drawer of the table relates how the logs survived and were finally retrieved and made into a table. Next week I will tell about that and tell what little I can of the strange and sad story of the man who made it happen. That was city and county historian, Arthur Wellington Anderson. I invite anyone who has information about Anderson to contact me at the Fenton History Center.

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