Everyone has to start somewhere. The very successful businessman Henry Wells started as a freight agent on the Erie Canal and operated speech schools as one of his first undertakings. Later as a prosperous entrepreneur, he founded American Express, Wells Fargo and Wells College for Women in Aurora, N.Y., a small town in the Finger Lakes region.
Henry Wells, who had speech problems, developed an educational program for people who stuttered and presented it in Lockport, Rochester, Buffalo, Utica and New York City. He traveled back and forth on the Erie Canal, teaching his corrective methods in rented hotel rooms.
In Lockport, this very early speech school was housed in Room 46 of Eagle House Hotel, also known as the Eagle Tavern, at West Main and Canal streets in Lockport. Upon request, ladies were taught in a separate class.
An advertisement in the Niagara Democrat, dated Jan. 31, 1837, announced the Lockport school thus:
"A card — Mr. Editor: I wish through the medium of your columns, to give notice to persons afflicted with stammering or stuttering, that an opportunity is now offered them of being cured, with little trouble and comparatively trifling expense. Having received an invitation from several persons in this village, I have taken rooms and opened a school at the Eagle Tavern. Henry Wells."
Unfortunately Wells' speech therapy, which helped many, did not help Wells himself, as he had difficulty speaking for most of his life. This did not affect his ability to become an accomplished businessman, however.
The building where Wells' speech school was operated in Lockport went through many name changes, burned and was remodeled several times over the course of 100-plus years. The last hotel at that location, aside the Big Bridge, was the Lox Plaza. The building was demolished in 1971. The Lockport Municipal Building is now on the site.
For more information about Eagle House and the many hotels at that location, check the Union-Sun & Journal's online archive, at www.lockportjournal.com; local historian Ann Marie Linnabery published an excellent article on July 14, 2014, detailing the many hotels and their history dating back to 1832.
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The book "When There Were Poor Houses" captures the abandoned history of human services in Niagara County, 1808 to 1950. The book is available for purchase through People Inc.'s Buffalo-based Museum of disABILITY History, www.museumofdisability.org. For more information about the museum and programs, call 629-3626.
Lockport native Jim Boles is a senior researcher with the Museum of disABILITY History, focused on early care and healing in Niagara County. His US&J column “Abandoned History” is published every other week.