Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

April 5, 2014

Back in the day, Niagara was a U.S. president's go-to place

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — During the last several decades the Niagara Region has fallen off the radar for most presidential visits and presidential campaigns. The area no longer rates, as it once did, as one of the most populated or prosperous parts of the nation. Throughout the 19th, and into the first half of the 20th century, a visit to Western New York was considered a must for many prominent people. 

Two attractions brought visitors here: Niagara Falls, a natural wonder, and the “Flight of Five,” a man-made wonder. The close proximity to Buffalo, once one of the largest cities in the United States, also added to the region’s fame as a destination for the political and famous.

The first future president to visit the area was General William Henry Harrison. The hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe, during the War of 1812, came to Niagara County in 1815 to inspect the ruins of Fort Niagara after the British had repatriated the fort back to the United States following the Treaty of Ghent. He also made a pilgrimage to visit the “old stone chimney” in Niagara Falls. Unfortunately, Harrison later had the distinction of becoming the first president to die in office, only a month after taking the oath.

The first sitting president to travel to the Niagara Frontier was James Monroe in 1817. He too came to inspect Fort Niagara, then in the process of being rebuilt, and also to see Niagara Falls and the chimney. Lockport did not exist at the time of these two visits.

Twenty-two years passed before another presidential visit to the area. By that time, Lockport was a bustling village on the Erie Canal with its famous “Flight of Five” locks.

In 1839, President Martin Van Buren made a campaign stop in Niagara Falls and also went to pay homage to the old stone chimney. He and his party then took the new Niagara Falls and Lockport Strap Railroad to Lockport. En route, the railway coach that was carrying the Van Buren party derailed. No one was hurt and the men, including Van Buren, simply picked up the coach and put it back on the track.

When he arrived in Lockport, Van Buren was honored at a reception at the American Hotel (now the site of the F & M Building).

Four years later, former President John Quincy Adams was a guest of future president Millard Fillmore at a reception also held at the American Hotel. Adams was on a lecture tour of the northeastern United States. Fillmore, a resident of Buffalo, was a frequent visitor to Lockport and Niagara County before and after his presidency.

Abraham Lincoln’s visits to Niagara Falls were more for pleasure than business. Twice, he and his family spent vacations at the Falls, in 1848 and again in 1857. They stayed at the renowned Cataract House.

In September 1861, Mary Todd Lincoln returned to the area for a shopping spree. She spent time in Niagara Falls and Lockport. A few weeks later a mysterious package with an odd odor, addressed to Mrs. Lincoln, arrived at the White House. 

The President, fearing that perhaps a mouse had gotten into the package and died, decided to open it himself to spare his wife the displeasure of its contents. It turned out to be patterns from a Lockport dress shop, without any dead mice inside.


Continue reading about presidential visits to Lockport in Spotlight on The Penney Gallery, in the Monday edition of the Union-Sun & Journal.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.