NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: Washington Hunt's influence in Lockport

COURTESY NIAGARA HISTORY CENTERLawyer and land company operator Washington Hunt of Lockport (1811-1867) served brief stints in a variety of high public offices during his lifetime. He was the first Niagara County judge, a member of Congress, the New York State Comptroller and a one-term New York Governor.

 

Although the name Washington Hunt is well-known in the Lockport area, many people are still not familiar with who he was or what he did. Niagara Discoveries highlighted his life a few years ago but it’s sometimes beneficial to review his life and accomplishments.

Washington Hunt was born in Windham, Greene County, New York, on Aug. 5, 1811. As a boy his family moved to Hunt’s Hollow in Livingston County where he attended school and later worked as a clerk in a store. When the owners, Tucker & Bissell, moved to Lockport in 1828, Hunt went with them. Three years later he began to study law under Lot Clark in a small building on Market Street.

Hunt married Mary Walbridge in 1834 and went into partnership with her father to open a local office of the Albany Land Company. The couple lived in a brick house on Market Street near the land/law office. That home is still standing and is now a law firm. The Albany Land Company had bought up unsold land in northwestern New York from the Holland Land Company. With the opening of the Erie Canal, the sale of land was booming in this area, making Hunt and his father-in-law very wealthy.

Hunt was admitted to the bar the same year he was married, but in 1835 the law/land office burned to the ground. A new brick structure was built on Market Street where St. Joseph’s Church is today (it was later moved to the Niagara County Historical Society grounds in 1955). In 1836, Hunt was appointed by New York Governor William Macy as the first judge in Niagara County and the youngest in the state.

Politically, Hunt started out as a Van Buren Democrat but was elected to Congress in 1842 as a Harrison-Tyler Whig. While in Congress he served as chairman of the Commerce Committee and opposed the annexation of Texas as a slave state. He also persuaded Congress to send assistance to the people of Ireland during the time of the “Great Famine” there. Hunt served three terms (six years) in Congress and in 1849 he was appointed by Governor Hamilton Fish to be Comptroller of New York State.

In 1850, Hunt won the New York State governorship as a Whig by the slim margin of 262 votes. His chief accomplishment as governor was the passage of a bill to enlarge the Erie Canal, a measure that would greatly benefit Niagara County. He ran again as a Whig in 1852 but was defeated by Democrat Horatio Seymour. He then joined Millard Fillmore in the American or “Know Nothing” Party. This party opposed immigration, particularly from Europe’s predominately Catholic countries.

In 1856 Hunt again ran for Congress, this time as an independent with no party affiliation. He was defeated. On the issue of slavery, he supported compromise rather that confrontation. He opposed the Civil War and returned to the Democratic Party after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. The Democrats nominated him to run for Congress in 1862 but once again he was defeated. Although Hunt continued to take an active interest in politics, he never ran for office again.

Hunt returned to Lockport in 1853, after leaving the governor's office, and purchased a country home at Old Niagara and Lake roads on the northern outskirts of the village. He named it Wyndham Lawn after the place he was born.

Hunt continued to be active in the community, serving as a president of the Lockport Bank and later the Lockport Bank and Trust Company. He was also connected with Merchant’s Gargling Oil and the Holly Manufacturing Co. and had interests in railroads and western lands. He was a local philanthropist who would often pay bills for those who were going through a difficult time.

Hunt also maintained a residence in New York City during the 1860s and that is where he died of cancer on Feb. 2, 1867. He was brought back to Lockport for burial in Glenwood Cemetery.

Just as in his politics, it appears that Washington Hunt’s death also resulted in a controversy. In Glenwood Cemetery there are two monuments dedicated to Washington Hunt, one stating he was an Episcopalian, the other that he was a Catholic. All evidence suggests he belonged to the Episcopal Church but why the Catholic memorial?

Hunt’s home, Wyndham Lawn, is now a facility for children with special needs. The Lockport elementary school named for him closed in June 2013.

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

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