NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: John H. Darrison, 19th century adventurer and businessman

A depiction of Buffalo Street, Lockport-based Darrison's flour and feed store in the late 19th century.

When doing historical research, you often find connections between people that you did not know before. It sometimes seems that everyone in Lockport in the 19th and early 20th centuries was related to each other by either blood or marriage. Although this was especially true among the wealthier and more prominent families who lived on Locust, Willow, High, Genesee and a few other streets, it was the case among the merchant and working class families as well. An example of this connectedness is John H. Darrison, founder of a “flour and feed store” on Buffalo Street that was in business in Lockport almost 90 years.

John Hitchins Darrison was born July 24, 1828 in Santiago, Cuba. His parents, John Darrison and Mary Ann Hitchins, had left for Cuba shortly after their marriage in Cornwall, England. Although no source could be found, the Darrisons may have been Quaker missionaries, as Mary Ann Hitchins came from a Quaker family. Two more sons, Francis and James, were born in Cuba before John Darrison, Sr. died there in 1832. His widow married John Uren that same year and the family continued to live in Cuba. Five years later, in 1837, 9-year-old John found himself an orphan when his mother, stepfather and both brothers died of yellow fever. Stephen Hitchins, young John’s uncle, brought him from Cuba to Lockport to live with another uncle, Francis Hitchins, a well-known figure in Lockport history who was an Erie Canal contractor, farmer and glass factory owner. In 1842, Hitchins moved into the stone house on Summit Street originally built by Joseph Pound in 1833.

John H. Darrison attended the Lockport schools and was then sent to another uncle, John Hitchins, in Troy to learn the saddlery trade. While visiting yet another uncle, James Hitchins, in Philadelphia, John Darrison decided he would rather be a sailor than a saddler. He signed on to a whaling ship and spent four years sailing around the world. When he returned to Lockport in 1854, he courted Mary Gibson, a young lady of the village, and they were married on Christmas Day that year in the home of Francis Hitchins. The couple had five children: four sons and a daughter.

Newspaper accounts from when the flour and feed store closed in 1947 state that Darrison “organized” it in 1855, but the Lockport directories show that George Douglas had the business until 1860. John H. Darrison first appears as the owner in 1861. At that time the family lived at 98 Saxton Street, not far from the store.

For many years, Darrison’s business did well. Locals, “canawlers” and travelers patronized his store located close to the Flight of Five Locks on the Erie Canal. He also served for several years as the 4th Ward Alderman. But the wanderlust of the sailor had never left him and he would sometimes leave Lockport for days or weeks at a time. Darrison had a cottage at Olcott where he would build and sail small boats during the summer months. In 1876, the year of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Darrison built an 18-foot boat (bearing his name), rigged for sailing and rowing, and embarked on an extended journey to visit the Expo.

There are conflicting reports in the newspapers as to where he left from (Lockport or Olcott), when he left (July 18th or August 10th) and what route he took. The Erie Canal would have been the most direct route but it was reported that Darrison took a very circuitous route via Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, the Chambly Canal, Lake Champlain, the Champlain Canal, down the Hudson River and on to Philadelphia.

In May 1881, Darrison had a 59-foot yacht built at Carrier’s boatyard in Lockport and had it christened “Merchant’s Gargling Oil.” Shortly afterward, he started on a cruise around the world with just two crewmen.

Needless to say, his absences and expenses took a toll on his family and business. His eldest son, John T. Darrison, took over the flour and feed store in 1882.

By the 1890s, Darrison was spending more time alone at his cottage in Olcott, including during the winter months. On March 23, 1897, the cottage burned to the ground with Darrison in it. The cause was not determined but it was speculated to be the use of kerosene in a stove or a smoking a pipe in bed. There was no insurance on the cottage and all of his personal belongings were destroyed. He was buried in Glenwood Cemetery.

A few years later, Darrison's widow, Mary, received an inheritance from the estate of John Hitchins, Darrison’s uncle. She was able to continue to live in her home on Saxton Street until her death in 1905. She was buried next to her husband in Glenwood Cemetery.

NEXT WEEK: John T. Darrison.

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

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