Intro to 19th & 20th Century Utica
Utica and the surrounding communities of southeastern Oneida County were the first major settlements on the frontier after the American Revolution. The British had banned settlement to the west of what is now the Utica-Rome metropolitan area, and after their departure in 1783, the area became a magnet for settlers from New England in the first great post-Revolutionary land rush.
Oneida County became the second most populous county in New York, the most populous state—the “Empire State”—in the opening decades of the nineteenth century, and Utica, the county’s largest municipality, became one of the most prosperous and best-known communities in the country.
Oneida County was for decades the leading producer in New York State of a wide array of industrial and agricultural products, and Utica, the nearby city of Rome, and their environs comprised the industrial core of the county. For decades, Utica was justifiably considered a progressive little city characterized by industrial and cultural vitality, and it bred a class of national-caliber business and political leaders.
Robber Barons and Philanthropists
“THE PUBLIC BE DAMNED!” Those four words, uttered by railroad tycoon William Vanderbilt in 1882, said much about Gilded Age America—a time when fortunes unprecedented in American history were made, and the imbalance of wealth led to an imbalance of power that alarmed many Americans.
However, in the Gilded Age, and in the Progressive Era that followed it, other people of wealth and position sought to use their wealth to benefit society, as well as themselves. Such people built enduring institutions like libraries, museums, parks, schools, churches, and other amenities. Their objective was to enhance the quality of life and civic pride among average people. Many of these wealthy philanthropists were motivated by a belief that urban societies needed to be places of refuge and enlightenment as much as they were places where wealth was made and enjoyed.
Two such figures were Thomas R. Proctor (1844-1920) and his wife, Maria Watson Williams (1853-1935). Their name, Proctor, is found all over Utica, and they did much to create what we call the Olmsted Trail. In short, the local public in Utica was blessed—not damned—by some of its wealthiest citizens and local businesses in the city.
Utica played an important role in the formative years of American industrialization, notably in the fields of transportation and communications. Utica’s stagecoach operators made their mark nationally, established Utica as a stopping point for westward coach traffic, and played a key role in the creation of the American Express Company [LINK to “Communications” section]. In addition, the first stretch of the Erie Canal, which ushered in the next great transportation revolution and catalyzed America’s astonishing growth in the nineteenth century, was opened between Utica and nearby Rome in 1819.
As transportation technology changed, Utica kept up with the times. The Utica and Schenectady Railroad was one of the longest in the country when it opened in 1836, and for many years it was the longest in the state. In the 1860s, the Utica and Schenectady was absorbed by the New York Central Railroad, which later built Utica’s palatial railroad station [LINK]. When the railroads sped more and more people past Utica, depriving the city of its previous role as a rest stop, the city found new purpose in textile manufacturing.
Utica also had important early connections to the transportation technology that would dominate much of the twentieth century and beyond: the automobile. It was the home of a number of early automobile manufacturers in those days before Detroit became the undisputed center of the industry. The most successful was the Willoughby Company (1899-1939). At its height in the mid-1920s, Willoughby built approximately 500 custom bodies annually for a number of manufacturers, including Lincoln, Cadillac, Rolls Royce, and Duesenberg; the company also manufactured auto bodies for the Rockefellers, Al Capone, boxer Joe Lewis, and Presidents Coolidge and Hoover.
Charles Stewart Mott (1875-1973) was a wheel and axel manufacturer in Utica who moved to Detroit and became one of the two principal founders of General Motors in 1908; Mott was for many years GM’s president and its single-largest stockholder. He also represented the Utica Automobile Club (founded in 1901) at a meeting in Chicago in 1902 with three other such organizations that created the American Automobile Association (AAA). In addition, the famous 1908 New York to Paris automobile race, the first of its kind, passed through Utica.
To accommodate the growing use of the automobile, and to bring more people into Utica’s new park system, Thomas R. Proctor, local officials, and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., developed a plan in 1910 to extend Utica’s scenic Parkway eastward from Elm Street, eventually expanding it nearly seven-fold. In so doing, they carefully picked a route along Roscoe Conkling Park that ensured the best views of Utica and the Mohawk Valley. Later local accommodations to the automobile were far less successful. However, Utica’s beautiful Parkway escaped the fate of Buffalo’s Humboldt Parkway, which was destroyed in the post-World War II rush to create cross-town expressways supposedly to make cities more functional and livable.
Samuel F.B. Morse, the father of modern telegraphy (the first precursor to internet communications), married a woman from Utica, often visited the city, and partnered with a group of Uticans in an early effort to launch a commercial enterprise based on his technical achievements. Indeed, James Reid, the early historian of the telegraph, wrote that the new technology “found no friends in Manhattan” and that it was left “to the inland cities of Rochester and Utica to…rear it to national greatness.”
Utica stagecoach operators Theodore Faxton and John Butterfield and other investors founded what became known as the New York, Albany, and Buffalo Telegraph Company, one of the world’s first telecommunications companies, in Utica in July 1845. Faxton served as president of the company and Samuel F. B. Morse served on its board of directors, as did Butterfield; one of the largest telegraph companies in the US, it was absorbed by the Western Union Company (the Google of its day) in 1864. Butterfield also ran a stagecoach line that was responsible for carrying the US Mail and passengers west of St. Louis before the building of the transcontinental railroad, and in 1850 he created the American Express Company in collaboration with two men named Henry Wells and William Fargo.
Several local newspapers achieved national stature in Utica’s Olmsted Era. Most notable was the weekly Saturday Globe (1885-1924), the first newspaper in the United States to use halftone photographic reproduction. With 300,000 subscribers coast-to-coast (which it built through pioneering use of regional editions) and abroad, it counted even Queen Victoria among its subscribers. The Utica Morning Herald (1857-1900), another newspaper of national stature, was edited by Ellis Roberts, who later served as Assistant Treasurer of the United States (1889-93) and Treasurer of the United States (1897-1905).
In 1845 the citizens of Utica commissioned one of the first industrial studies carried out by an American community, and it inspired local investment in steam-powered cotton and woolen goods manufacturing. Utica consequently became one of the country’s leading centers of textile and garment manufacturing, mostly cotton sheets and woolen underwear. Some 25,000 people were employed in the industry locally at the height of the Olmsted period, when Utica’s population was 90,000.
The mills at first employed German and Irish immigrants, as well as migrants from the rural areas around Utica. By the early twentieth century, the mills were increasingly dominated by southern Italian and Polish immigrants. Italians also constituted the backbone of the local garment industry.
The local textile-based economy hit its peak between 1890 and 1920—precisely when Olmsted was most active in Utica—at which point manufacturers slowly started moving operations to the American South. The impact of this trend was not fully recognized until after World War II, when the biggest textile mills departed. Although some Uticans had questioned the area’s heavy dependence on a single industry as early as the late nineteenth century, most were content to rely on it for local prosperity. Valuable time was therefore lost in the decades leading up to 1945 that might have been used to position the city for a different economic future.
With a prosperous local economy in the nineteenth century and the prominence that came from being an early center of western population growth, Utica became a breeding ground for political leadership.
Horatio Seymour (1810-1886), was mayor of Utica and Governor of New York (1853-54, 1863-64). The Democratic Party tried to recruit him to be their presidential nominee several times over the course of his life, but 1868 was the only time he conceded. He refused to be renominated as governor in 1876 and 1879, and when he was called upon to serve in the US Senate in 1876, he suggested another Utica Democrat, former congressman Francis Kernan (1816-92), who was subsequently elected.
In 1875-81, Kernan and his fellow Utican, Roscoe Conkling (1829-88), simultaneously occupied both of New York’s seats in the United States Senate. Conkling served as Oneida County district attorney and mayor of Utica before turning 30, followed by nearly a decade in the US House of Representatives. He then served in the US Senate for 14 years and was the first person from New York to be appointed to a third term as a US Senator. As senator, he became the boss of the powerful New York State Republican machine. The Republican Conkling and the Democrat Horatio Seymour were brothers-in-law—and there was no love lost between them, and Conkling campaigned vigorously against Seymour’s presidential bid in 1868. Conkling was as much worshiped by his supporters as he was despised by his opponents; he destroyed his political career by resigning from the Senate in 1881 amidst a dispute with President Garfield over patronage.
James Schoolcraft Sherman (1855-1912), a one-time mayor of Utica and prominent member of Congress, served as the Vice President of the United States in the administration of William Howard Taft (1908-12). Known popularly as “Sunny Jim,” Sherman was a well-liked, jovial man who nevertheless clashed bitterly and unsuccessfully with Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 over political reform. Sherman died in office, in 1912, but not before he became the first Republican to be re-nominated to the vice presidency. President Taft and members of the Supreme Court and Congress attended his funeral in Utica in October 1912.