NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: Tracing the history of Twelve-Mile Creek

The two branches of Twelve-Mile Creek in the 1960s.

Back in May, this column had a series of articles devoted to the history of several of the creeks in Niagara County. Twelve-Mile Creek is of particular interest to some of our readers who lived near its banks. Twelve-Mile Creek has two branches, the east and the west.

The east branch has its source below the Niagara Escarpment in the vicinity of Pekin. The west branch also starts near the escarpment but in the area around Dickersonville Road in the town of Lewiston. This branch has many more tributaries flowing into it, particularly in the eastern part of the town of Porter. The two branches meander through the towns of Lewiston, Porter and Cambria until both enter the town of Wilson and get closer in proximity as they near Wilson village.

Today, the two branches each have their own outlet to Lake Ontario, but until the early 20th century, the two branches met near what is now Wilson-Tuscarora State Park to form one channel. This combined creek then ran parallel to Lake Ontario, creating a “harbor of refuge” as it flowed into the lake at the eastern outlet. The elevated stretch of land separating the creek from the lake became known as “Sunset Beach” and is now “Sunset Island,” although it is connected to the State Park by a narrow strip of land.

Just as with all the creeks in Niagara County that empty into Lake Ontario, there was evidence of human activity on both branches of Twelve Mile Creek prior to settlement by people of European descent. Reports of arrowheads, bone fish hooks and other artifacts verify that Native Americans used this creek for hunting and fishing camps. Unfortunately these sites were destroyed for farming, mills and other development. Luckily, some of the relics have been preserved at the Wilson Historical Society.

The French and English, in small boats from Fort Niagara, may have ventured into the creek and discovered a “harbor of refuge.” In 1809, Stephen Sheldon became the first person to settle on the creek when he built a crude log cabin on the west bank of the east branch, about a half mile from the mouth. By 1811, he had built a better cabin closer to the mouth of the creek but died the following year, leaving a wife and several children. The cabin was burned by the British during the War of 1812. The Sheldons returned after the war and rebuilt at the original site including the first sawmill erected on the creek. A year later, Reuben Wilson purchased the saw mill and in 1818 built a log house on the east side of the creek which is still standing today (albeit now covered with siding). Wilson also acquired an ashery and a small store that Benjamin Douglas had built on the creek the year before. By the 1820s, there was a cluster of mills and related businesses on the east branch at the foot of what is now Young Street.

During the latter part of the 19th century, other activities took place along the banks of the east branch of Twelve-Mile Creek. Former Wilson Historian Don Croop, in his “Wilson Sketchbook,” recounted some of the stories associated with the creek. Two hills near the creek served as “Battery Hill,” where the local militia installed three pound cannons, and “Cannon Ball Hill,” where the targets were located. Other places along the creek were “Three Oaks Hill,” “Prospect Hill” (where “gold” was found which turned out to be pyrite) and a spot where War of 1812 soldiers supposedly buried a chest of money. Also at one time, there was a brickyard and something akin to a “fish farm” where lake sturgeons were kept, cleaned and smoked for sale in Lockport. Greenwood Cemetery was established on the bank above the creek in 1851 by Luther Wilson (Reuben’s son).

Although the creek and the island barrier created a “harbor of refuge,” in 1846 Luther Wilson asked the U.S. government for permission to build two 200 foot piers extending out into the lake at the mouth of Twelve-Mile Creek to further protect the harbor from the effects of the lake. The piers were wood cribbing filled with stone. Those piers lasted over 100 years until they were replaced with steel and concrete ones. By this time, erosion had taken its tolls on the land that had separated the creek from the lake. Beginning in the early 20th century, the lake waters ate away at the narrower strip of land at the western end of Sunset Beach until there was no longer a barrier between the creek and the lake. The western branch of Twelve-Mile Creek now freely flows into Lake Ontario rather than turning sharply east and joining the eastern branch to form one creek. In 1965, the land that sat between the two creeks, became Wilson-Tuscarora State Park.

Much is written about the east branch of Twelve-Mile Creek but the west branch, which at one time rivaled the east branch in size and flow, but does not get as much attention. Roosevelt Beach is on the western side of the west branch and there are stories to be told about this community. If you, or your family, lived on or near either branch of the creek, let us know some of the unwritten history of this waterway.

The author would like to thank Francis Gallagher, Wilson Town Historian, for his assistance with information for this article.

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

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