NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: Visiting an early Exchange Coffee House

Contributed photoThe Lockport Exchange Coffee House was built in 1821 by Gideon Hershey. It stood on the northwest corner of Park and Hawley streets in Lockport.

Long before Tim Hortons, Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks, Lockport and many other cities had what was called an Exchange Coffee House.

The first coffee house was opened in Constantinople in 1475. The drink was served hot, black and very strong. In 1529 when the first coffee house opened in Vienna, patrons were adding the now familiar cream and sugar to their drink. Over the next hundred plus years, coffee houses spread across Europe. The coffee craze reached London in 1652, when two Turkish men opened the “Turk’s Head.” Sixteen years later, in 1668, Edward Lloyd opened a coffee house which attracted men engaged in the shipping and insurance trades. It eventually became Lloyd’s of London. Jonathan’s Coffee House was the birthplace of the London Stock Exchange.

Each coffee house catered to a specific professional clientele that gathered to exchange information and, of course, gossip. Even the clergy frequented their own coffee houses. Not everyone approved of these establishments. Women believed they made men “as unfruitful as the deserts” and in 1674 King Charles II issued an edict in which all coffee houses would be closed. “Whereas it is most apparent that the multitude of coffee houses ... have produced very evil and dangerous effects … his Majesty has thought it fit and necessary that the said coffee houses be for the future put down and suppressed.”

You can well imagine the public outcry over this (just think if our government tried to shut down Tim Hortons). This edict was soon repealed and by 1700 it was estimated that London alone had between 300 and 1,000 coffee houses. It wasn’t long before coffee houses were springing up in the colonies as well. After the “Boston Tea Party” drinking coffee, rather than tea, was considered a patriotic duty. Our Founding Fathers met in coffee houses in Boston, New York and Philadelphia to plan for the new government. The Tontine Coffee House (1792) was the original home of the New York Stock Exchange. When a new Exchange Coffee House was constructed in Boston in 1809 it was the largest, tallest and most ornate building in the city. It was also built entirely on speculation and when the builder could no longer pay the bills, he fled to Alabama. Less than ten years after it was built, it burned to the ground in a spectacular fire. Most coffee houses do not have such dramatic histories but some do have at least an interesting story to tell.

The Lockport Exchange Coffee House was built in 1821 by Gideon Hershey. It stood on the northwest corner of Park (then new Main Street) and Hawley streets. It was a two-story frame structure that served as a stage coach stop and hotel on the Rochester to Niagara Falls route. Since it was close to the site of the future courthouse, but far enough away from the blasting of rock and dirt for the construction of the Locks and Deep Cut, it also became very popular with early businessmen of the area.

For almost 30 years it continued as a coffee house/tavern/hotel. However, as businesses began moving further east on Main St., new establishments attracted more people. By 1851 it had become home to the “Classic School” operated by Professor James B. Chase. The Thaddeus Wicker family purchased the property in the 1860s and it remained in the family for nearly 50 years. In 1910, the county wanted to acquire the land for expansion of the courthouse grounds. The Wickers sold the property to the county and demolition was scheduled. At the last minute the house was purchased by Louis Fanck who had it dismantled, moved to Bright St. and reassembled as an apartment house. As a result, one of Lockport’s oldest structures is still standing today.


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

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