Driving on Military Road, which straddles the town of Niagara and the city of Niagara Falls, it is hard to imagine that it was once an eight-foot wide trail with barely enough room for a wagon pulled by two oxen to pass. But what we in the 21st century can’t begin to fathom was actually very common in this area almost 220 years ago.
In the very earliest years of the 19th century, roads were virtually non-existent in what is today Niagara County. Footpaths used for centuries by Native Americans were the only means of traveling through the dense forest and only when the ground was dry. One of these routes was the Lewiston Trail that led from Geneseo to Fort Niagara and went through what are today the towns of Royalton, Lockport, Cambria and Porter. The Ridge Trail ran along what is now Ridge Road (Route 104). These paths were later improved to allow for wagon travel.
Other roads were newly built for specific purposes, as was the case with the Military Road.
In 1801, after the Holland Land Company surveys were completed and the sale of the 3.3 million acres was about to start, it was determined by the federal government that a fort should be built at Black Rock and it was “commissioned to open a communication [road] by land between lake Erie and Ontario.”
General James Wilkinson, who was to negotiate the building of the road, consulted with Joseph Ellicott, local agent for the Holland Land Company, as to the best possible route. At this time, New York State owned a mile-wide strip of the land (the Mile-Strip), along the Niagara River from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario and a road already existed within this boundary between Fort Niagara and Lewiston Landing, so it would make sense that a road could be extended to Black Rock. Ellicott however, suggested a different route that would cut through land owned by the Dutch company, making it easier to sell lots along an established road.
The route that Wilkinson and Ellicott laid out would start at the “brow of the mountain” at Lewiston, travel in a southeast direction to what is now LaSalle, and would then run south, parallel to the Niagara River, to Tonawanda Creek. From there it would proceed inland away from the river until it reached Black Rock. The length of the road would be just under 20 miles.
The work commenced in the summer of 1801 under the supervision of Major Moses Porter, commander at Fort Niagara, using soldiers to clear the route of trees. By 1802, the road was cut from Lewiston to a few miles beyond Tonawanda Creek and bridges were built over that and Cayuga Creek. Then the work stopped.
The U.S. government had applied to the New York State legislature to build the fort at Black Rock within the Mile-Strip boundary but the legislature denied the request “unless the general government would pay for the land.” The federal government refused to pay, so plans for the fort, and the road leading to it, were abandoned. This dispute would result in dire consequences for Buffalo and Black Rock a decade later during the War of 1812.
What became known as “the Military Road,” remained unfinished and unimproved for seven more years. Despite the poor condition of the road, people purchased land along its route, built cabins and cleared acres for farming. One of the first to settle on the Military Road was Isaac Swain, who came in 1805 and settled near where Gill Creek crosses the road. By 1810, he had “partially cleared thirty or forty acres, and erected a good-sized and substantial log house.” He sold this property to the Witmer brothers that year and moved to Youngstown.
Another family that settled there in the early 19th century were the Youngs, who bought property at what is now called the “Five Corners,” where Military, Packard and Porter roads meet. Other early arrivals on that road were the Stevens, Hewitts, and Colts.
In 1809, New York State appropriated $1,500 to finish the road to Black Rock but this was so woefully inadequate that the road remained almost impassable in some areas for another 10 years. Some residents did maintain the road adjacent to their properties until the county took it over in 1820.
The first frame schoolhouse was built in 1827 on the west side of the road between Lockport and Packard roads and was replaced by a stone school in 1840. In 1867, a brick schoolhouse was built directly across the road. It is still standing at 3001 Military Road and is now Steve’s Heating and Cooling. A second schoolhouse was built further south, at the junction of Military Road and Cayuga Creek, in 1844. The construction of this school is detailed in “The Diary of Thomas Leonard,” published by the History Center in 2009.
Military Road between Lewiston and LaSalle retained its rural and residential setting well into the 20th century. The start of World War II caused major changes and altered the route and character of this thoroughfare. Housing developments (to accommodate the workforce at Bell Aircraft), stores, plazas, restaurants, a drive-in, and other suburban amenities were constructed on former farmland. Tree-shaded tourist camps were supplanted with new motels. The Military Road School and LaSalle High School were built to educate the growing school-age population.
In the early 1960s, the construction of the I-190 and the reservoir for the Robert Moses Power Plant caused the reconfiguring of Military Road from Upper Mountain to Saunders Settlement, the first change in its route in Niagara County since it was laid out in 1801. Military Road continues to evolve with the times as post-World War II structures are torn down and new ones are put up in their place.
Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.