Main Street Guided History Walk

By Preston E. Pierce, EdD
Ontario County Historian
Start on the front steps of the Ontario County Historical Society museum. The Historical Society was founded in 1902. It held its meetings and housed its collections in several small buildings before the construction of the present museum. One of them was a former law office located about where the present YMCA connects with the old Post Office across the street. That old building was moved and finally demolished in 1911.


The law office that served as the first Historical Society museum in Canandaigua is shown on the right in this vintage postcard.

Although all but one are now demolished, there were more than two dozen small law offices along Main Street in the early 1800's. The office where Stephan A. Douglas studied law [see postcard above] has been preserved behind the Granger Homestead on North Main Street since 1961. Douglas, who lived in Phelps, attended Canandaigua Academy, and then studied law here before moving to Illinois about 1835.

Rochester architect Claude Bragdon who designed many local landmarks built the current museum building on the site of the old Daniels homestead in 1914. For 59 years the Wood Library shared the building. Now up the street at the corner of Wilcox Lane and Main Street, it is named for philanthropist, William Wood, who gave money for many causes including public libraries and planting trees along Main Street. He lived just across the street, on Greig Terrace, for many years and was known as “Uncle Billy.”

Walk down the street heading south (left from the museum, toward the business district). You will pass two houses now used as law offices and a funeral home.

The Johnson Funeral Home sits on the site of Myron Holley’s home. He was a controversial figure who was a newspaper publisher for a while, then spent many years as a state commissioner for the Erie Canal. Holley was also a staunch abolitionist and is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery in Rochester. The Johnson Funeral Home was built about 1850 and was the home of Albert M. Murray, an 1861 West Point graduate who died in enemy hands outside Atlanta in 1864. Twice brevetted for gallant service, Albert Murray was buried in West Avenue Cemetery in 1866. The GAR post in Canandaigua was named for Murray.

Theodore Crosby home and former bank. Original YMCA building 1905-1959.

Next to the Johnson Funeral Home is a parking lot. The original Canandaigua YMCA building stood there. The modern “Y” complex was begun in 1959. The original building was the Theodore Crosby home and the Utica Branch Bank chartered in 1815. It was converted to a YMCA with gymnasium, game and meeting rooms, and a bowling alley in 1905. The YMCA movement came to Canandaigua in the 1890s as an outgrowth of Samuel Cole Fairley’s Sunday School class at the Congregational Church.

The white brick house next door is often referred to as the Paul house and was built in 1808. It was the first brick house in Canandaigua and was also a store for a while. Later prominent lawyer, Mark Sibley, owned it. Before 1819 the local Masonic lodge met here. Until the Civil War, the land from here north was farmland with a few large homes. The houses you see on North Main Street were built after 1870 for the most part. Many of the side streets did not exist before the Civil War.

At the corner of Gorham Street is a large brick building. Built in 1812, this Federal style building was the home and office of Nathaniel Gorham II, son of Nathaniel Gorham. The elder man was a partner with Oliver Phelps in purchasing all of Western New York from Seneca Lake to the Genesee River. The older Gorham was also a signer of the US Constitution from Massachusetts. After two generations of use as a store, warehouse, and residence this house became the home of the Red Jacket Club late in the 19th Century. An exclusive social club for men, its members were the elite of the area. From 1926-1947 American Legion Post #256 was located here and its name can still be seen carved above the Gorham Street door.

Cross Gorham Street and continue walking south, past the Court House.

The building you see here was enlarged to its present size in 1908. When it was built in 1857-58 it was only half as big. As you look at the front of the building you can see a “bay,” as architects call it, on each end. Those were added in 1908-09. At that time the inside was completely remodeled with new courtrooms. The brick on the front was taken from the sides and back and applied to the new sections to give it an even color in 1909.


This postcard image of the Court House was made about 1910.
There have been many dramatic trials in this building. The most famous was the trial of Susan B. Anthony for voting in 1873. Her trial was held in the old north courtroom, which no longer exists. It was on the second floor about where the window closest to the pillar is located.

Anthony was tried here because the federal district attorney could not get an impartial jury selected in Rochester. Justice Ward Hunt directed the jury to find Anthony guilty after she admitted to voting, and in consideration of several recent Supreme Court precedents. It was a very unpopular decision in this region even then.

Hunt was a newly appointed Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court. When the court was not meeting in Washington, its Justices rode circuit presiding over other federal courts. Anthony refused to pay the fine Justice Hunt levied, but he refused to put her in jail as she wanted. Had he done so, she could have asked for a writ of habeas corpus which would have allowed her to come back into court. Hunt wanted to prevent that and all the political turmoil it would have caused.

Anthony was actually tried under a federal statute known as the “Ku Klux Klan Law” enacted after the Civil War. That law made it a federal crime for anyone to vote if they knew that they were not entitled to vote. It was aimed at suppressing the Klan in the Reconstruction South. In New York there was no statute that said that women could not vote, but “everyone knew it” under common law. Anthony claimed that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution gave her the right to vote. The Supreme Court disagreed with that point of view several times in the 19th Century. Women finally got the right to vote in New York in 1917. For many years, the 14th Amendment was not applied to the states.


Court House as it looked at the time of the Susan B. Anthony trial in 1873.

Look at the large boulder on the lawn. That was placed there in 1902 by Dr. Dwight R. Burrell, a well-known local physician. Burrell loved large rocks. He had four two-ton boulders brought to Canandaigua by rail. One is here and commemorates the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua also called the “Pickering Treaty.” Still honored by both the Iroquois Indians and the US government, it is celebrated here each year on November 11, the anniversary of its signing. An original copy of the treaty is at the museum. Robert Griffing has produced a detailed and accurate painting of the treaty made available to the public by Wegmans.

One of Dr. Burrell’s other rocks is out on Squaw Island and tells why the island became a special state reservation. Another rock is in Woodlawn Cemetery and serves as Dr. Burrell’s tombstone. The fourth rock was placed in the middle of a highway intersection on the west side of town. It served as a historical marker for the Sullivan Expedition of the American Revolution. When the road was widened in 1968, that rock was broken up and buried.


Dr. Burrell’s “tombstone” in Woodlawn Cemetery.

Up Ontario Street, just over the crest of the hill, is the site of the first three county jails. There, Ontario County carried out its only two hangings. The last one, in 1889, was so gruesome it was used as an argument for the introduction of the electric chair.


Ontario County Jail built in 1815 and used until 1894. Both public hangings were carried out in the yard to the left of the building. Here William Morgan was kidnapped in 1826.

Cross over Ontario Street.

The park land in front of the police station is part of the Public Square. Canandaigua was laid out by two men from New England who wanted the town to have a large public square. Early county fairs were held here and militia units and public celebrations were organized here. The square actually includes this part, the land around the courthouse, the park across the street with the bandstand, and the land around City Hall.


The fountain you see is the second one on the site. It was the gift of Frank B. Merrill,
president of the first water works company in town, a private franchise, in 1888. It was
rebuilt by landscape architect, John Handrahan in 1909.

Over the years since 1815, several hotels have been built on what is now the site of the police station. The last one burned in 1971. Canandaigua had several hotels in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. It was a hub of stagecoach travel when routes 5 & 20 were a private turnpike, and most other roads were muddy and rutted. In some areas around Canandaigua there were plank roads. One of those started in “Pumpkin Hook,” ran into Victor, over the hill to Bloomfield, then down the Bristol Valley. They were very popular in the 1830’s and 1840’s.

The Canandaigua Hotel as it looked in the early 1900s.

In 1840 the Auburn and Rochester Rail Road entered Canandaigua from Victor. It continued on to Shortsville, Clifton Springs, Phelps, Geneva, Waterloo, Seneca Falls, and Auburn. Later extended to Syracuse, it became part of the New York Central system. In 1853 another line started here and ran to John Roebling’s new suspension bridge at Niagara Falls. Taken over by the New York Central Railroad, it was called the “Peanut Line” because, as one Central director said, it was too expensive for “such a peanut of a line.”

At one time trains came and went every few minutes here. After 1850, a line from the Pennsylvania coalfields connected Canandaigua with Baltimore and brought fresh seafood to Flannagan’s Oyster House downtown. As late as 1950, it was still possible to get an overnight sleeper from Canandaigua, through Watkins Glenn, Elmira, and Harrisburg, to Baltimore and Washington.

Look over the door of the building at 31 South Main Street. There you will see a bronze plaque [below] indicating that the Phelps & Gorham land office was located on this site. There many of the first land sales on this part of the Phelps & Gorham Purchase were made in the 1790s. The business blocks between the railroad tracks and Niagara Street were all built a century later.
Village Square Building.jpg

Walk down one block into the business district and cross Niagara Street.

Look at the second building. A three-story yellow brick building, this was the location of a barbershop kept by Henry W. Johnson, the first African-American lawyer in Western New York. A self-made man, he read law, like Lincoln did, in the office of Henry Chesebro downtown. Admitted to the bar in 1864, he was a noted speaker who often appeared with Frederick Douglass. In 1865 Johnson emigrated to Liberia where he became the Attorney General for a short time.


The building that housed Henry Johnson’s barber shop as it looked about 1860. The Baptist church next door [below] was built in 1835 and replaced by a more modern brick building in 1907. That building was destroyed by fire in 1942.


Next door to the Johnson barber shop [where the Country Ewe store is now located] was the Baptist Church. After the second church on that site burned in December, 1942, the congregation decided to unite with the Presbyterians up the street. In 1950 they formed the Federated Church, now called the United Church.


The next building (#83) was the office of the Ontario County Times from 1895-1945. The Elizabethan façade was designed by architect, Claude Bragdon and installed by well-known regional builder, Rhoda Hogan in 1909. Father and son, Nathan and Charles Milliken, published the paper from 1852 to 1929. [Charles died in 1933.] They were always very interested in local history. Charles Milliken was the first president of the Ontario County Historical Society in 1902 and wrote the two-volume History of Ontario County in 1911. Their paper survived as the Ontario County Times-Journal until 1977. It was always well-known for publishing local history articles.


Charles Milliken’s observation that well-known local businessman, Frederick W. Kinde, had brought the first automobile to Canan?daigua. Ontario County Times. May 2, 1900. Such comments are important local history sources today.
Look across Main Street at the Bemis Block on the west side. The name is spelled out on the face of the brick.


The Bemis Block [center left] as it looked about 1860

Built by the family of pioneer printer, James D. Bemis, there is a large ballroom on the upper floor of the Bemis Block. There Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Parker Pillsbury, and Wendell Phillips often spoke at public meetings concerned with woman suffrage and the abolition of slavery. That upper floor hosted many kinds of events from Chautauquas to circuses and book talks. Early on, many of the public programs of the Wood Library were presented in the Bemis Block. Dances and balls were also a feature of that upper floor.


This typical notice appeared in the Ontario County Republican Times, Jul. 10, 1856.
Many former slaves and other free African-Americans lived in Canandaigua before the Civil War. The Underground Railroad was active in the region. New York abolished slavery in 1827. Before that, there were a few slaves living in Ontario County. However, not everyone agreed with that radical position and there was a segregated “colored school” in town during the 1850’s. The building still stands at the corner of Park Street and Fort Hill Avenue.

Walk down the street to the parking lot with the local history kiosk. There you can find additional information about this part of downtown. The site of the parking lot was the location of John Flannigan’s regionally famous oyster house for more than 40 years after 1867. He brought fresh seafood up from Chesapeake Bay on the Northern Central (Pennsylvania) Railroad. Flannigan was a Democrat and a political leader known state-wide. He was instrumental in securing the legislation that secured a city charter for Canandaigua in 1913. The Oyster House was sold to John Murphy in 1910. Long since converted to other uses, it burned in 1963.
John Flannigan’s Oyster House was a popular restaurant with a regional reputation.

Cross Main Street at the crosswalk. Stop in front of the main office of Canandaigua National Bank.

This bank received its charter in 1887 when the charter of the First National Bank of Canandaigua (1864-1887) expired. The National Bank Act, passed during the Civil War, created this new kind of bank, supervised by the federal government, as a means of bolstering the economy. “CNB,” as the current bank styles itself, has conducted its business in several places on Main Street over the years. It moved here in 1914.

A Civil War era check from the First National Bank.

On the corner of Chapin and South Main Streets (#56) is a store called Renaissance, the Goodie II Shoppe. A delightful gift shop now, it occupies a building built in 1871. Here the original Goodie Shoppe was run by the Mirras family and others from 1907-1978. The name was first used in 1924. Many local people, still young at heart, remember dropping in to “the Greek’s,” (as it was universally known among teenagers) for ice cream, sodas, and sandwiches. Canandaigua’s main motion picture theatre was just around the corner (1922-1952), and another smaller theatre was just up the street.
This postcard image was published in the 1930s.

Walk north across the railroad tracks and stand in front of City Hall.

Postmarked 1921, this old postcard shows City Hall with the water fountain out front. Dr. Charles Booth, a civic-minded dentist who loved children, gave the fountain to the community in 1896. He also promoted the development of Kershaw Park and the ‘School House” beach on the West Lake Rd. It has been moved to make room for the automobile. The first car appeared in Canandaigua in 1900.

City Hall was built in 1821-22 as the second County Court House. In 1827 this building was the scene of several sensational trials with national repercussions. Several men, including Nicholas Chesebro (father of attorney Henry Chesebro with whom Henry Johnson later studied) were convicted of kidnapping a man named William Morgan from the county jail. With help from men from Farmington and Victor, Morgan was taken by stagecoach to Rochester, out Ridge Road to Fort Niagara, and imprisoned in the dungeon of the fort. He was never seen alive again.


Well-known regional artist, Lydia Atwater painted Main St. as it looked about the time of the
trials of the Morgan kidnappers.

The men who kidnapped Morgan were all members of local Masonic lodges. Morgan had threatened to expose “secrets” of the Masons, a rather phony claim. However, he was obnoxious, and his kidnappers were angry with him on several accounts. Many of the people who participated in the kidnapping, or the later cover-up attempts, were public officials and politicians. Heated debate and arguments followed. In the end there were indictments, trials, and prison terms for some participants. Those who kidnapped Morgan all got two years or less in county jail. No murder was ever proven since there was no body and no witnesses. The longest any of them ever served was a few months.

The incident sparked the formation of the Anti-Masonic Party, however, which was opposed to Andrew Jackson. Many of its members became Whigs in the 1840’s, and Republicans in the 1850’s. Judge Throop, who presided at the trial, lived in Auburn. The political career of William Seward (Lincoln’s Secretary of State who purchased Alaska) was given a boost by the Morgan affair. William Morgan’s young “widow” eventually moved to Nauvoo, Illinois and married the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Cross West Avenue and stand in front of the park.

Down the hill, under the railroad bridge, are two cemeteries. One is called Pioneer Cemetery and contains the graves of many veterans of the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War.
Across the street is West Avenue Cemetery with more veterans of those, and later conflicts. Commodore Salisbury, one of the first American naval governors of Guam is buried there. So, too, is Austin Steward, a former slave who took his freedom, grocer and abolitionist that wrote a book about his own life that is still in print. He lived in Rochester, and then moved here. In 1841, when the cemetery was created, the village passed an ordinance prohibiting the burial of “colored” people there. The village board changed the rule in 1856.


The bandstand in the park is the second to be located there. John Philip Sousa’s band once played here while they were on a tour. Theodore Roosevelt spoke near here during a presidential campaign. This bandstand was given to the village as a memorial to Alexander Grieve, a local businessman, in 1912.

The water fountain at the corner once stood in front of City Hall. When the street was widened it had to move. The pump by City Hall, and the stone fountain in front of the police station, reminds us of the importance of water. Both stone structures were built by landscape architect, John Handrahan, who designed much of Sonnenberg Gardens. Landscape architecture was a new idea at the turn of the Twentieth Century and Handrahan copied much of the style of the better known Frederick Law Olmstead. Gone now are the “wells” in the center of the street where rainwater collected for the use of firemen. Smaller towns began to change the way they used their spaces much as cities did in the late 19th Century.

The Atwater family came from Connecticut in pioneer times and established homes and offices here and in Geneva. They owned much of the land around the north end of Canandaigua Lake for years. A descendent, Lydia Atwater, painted pictures of Canandaigua which give us our only good image of the town before photography was invented. At the museum they can show you a print of an Atwater painting, now a primary source in addition to a work of art.


Atwater Hall as it looked shortly before it was demolished.

Atwater Hall was torn down in 1910 to make way for the new Post Office.

The old Post Office was one of several gifts given to Canandaigua by Mrs. Mary Clarke Thompson. She donated the land and the services of an architect so that Congress would authorize the Post Office to move out of the Court House. Here the federal court met for many years. Here also draft boards sent county men off to fight in World Wars I and II, as well as the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. The Postal Service left this location in 1991 and the building is now part of the YMCA complex.


This postcard image of the 1911 Post Office was produced from architectural drawings before the building was completed.

The Canandaigua YMCA started as the “Fairley Class,” an outgrowth of a local Sunday School. Determined to build healthy bodies to house healthy minds, the YMCA provided a place to take “physical culture” as they called it in 1907 when this "Y" was chartered. The scouting movement was closely associated with the YMCA when it first came to America in 1910. The first Boy Scout troop in Canandaigua was really a club in this "Y" in 1911.

James Naismith, inventor of basketball, created the sport specifically for use in the YMCA. In larger cities there was often a YWCA for young women. The Canandaigua YMCA allowed women to participate in most of its activities from the start.

The “Y” building sits on the site of the old Union School, the first public high school in Canandaigua. Opened in 1876, it provided the first few years of high school at a time when no one was required to attend school after 8th Grade. Until 1899, most boys wanting to complete high school attended Canandaigua Academy, then a private college prep school. There were many small private schools in town in the Nineteenth Century. Most served just one sex. In 1899 the old Academy closed. In 1907 as a new public four-year high school, open to boys and girls, was opened on the site of the old Academy just up the street several blocks.


Postcard image of the Union School produced in the early 1900s.

A little ways up the street, across Grieg Terrace, is the First Congregational Church. Built in 1812 the church was founded in 1799 by Rev. Zadock Hunn. Hunn was hired by the land developers, Phelps and Gorham, to organize churches so that the proper atmosphere could be created for a “God-fearing” prosperous community. He was responsible for the creation of many churches, Congregational and Presbyterian. Boston architect, Francis Allen, who also built Sonnenberg mansion, designed the stone chapel, built in 1872. One of the distinguished early pastors of this church was Timothy Field. A noted Yale alumnus, he was the brother of Cyrus Field who laid the Atlantic Cable in 1869.
CongregationalChurch.jpg Cross Main Street at the corner of Main and Gibson Streets. Where the grassy mall is now located, trolley tracks ran until 1930.


West Gibson Street was laid out using a lane established behind the Thomas Morris House [above], later called the Taylor House. This house was demolished in 1900 to make way for a street connection to Main Street. The two wings were moved down West Gibson to a small side street called Willis Place, where one of them still stands.

Across Gibson Street is the old home of General John A. Granger [see image below], a local militia leader and gentleman farmer. For many years the house was an orphanage and the convent for St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Today it is owned by the church, but serves as a community center. The school behind the church was built in 1880 by a new order of Nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph, who came to Canandaigua in 1854. Their headquarters is now at Nazareth College. The parish opened its first school in 1849. The school was enlarged in 1910, and again in 1958.

The General Granger home as it looked prior to 1907 when St. Mary’s new church was completed. The Granger home was the convent for the Sisters of St. Joseph who founded St. Mary’s School in 1854. The new school [left] was built in 1880.

Bishop McQuaid (1848) founded St. Mary's parish, like many Catholic parishes in this area, in response to the great waves of Irish immigrants who came here in the 1840’s. Driven out by English land laws and famine, the Irish were attracted to New York by canal construction jobs and other opportunities. In the 1890’s great waves of Italian immigrants came to the area. Like other “new immigrants,” they were predominately Catholic and often encountered discrimination at first. The church was first located at the corner of Saltonstall Street and South Main Street. In 1903-04 the present church was built [see image below].



The first St. Mary’s Church at the corner of Saltonstall and Main St.
The site is now a parking lot next to the Villager Restaurant.
As he escaped, John Surratt, one of the Lincoln assassination plotters, followed the Northern Central Railroad to Elmira and Canandaigua. He stayed over night here at the Webster House hotel [now the site of Commons Park at the corner of Coach and Main Streets], and even attended mass at the old St. Mary's Church, nearly across the street. After his capture in Egypt, evidence of his stay here was introduced in his 1867 trial in Maryland. The jury could not come in with any verdict and Surratt was released.
JohnSurrat_thumb.jpg John Surratt as he looked about the time of the Lincoln assassination.


The old Webster House hotel was later called the Pickering Hotel. It burned in 1967. Today it is the site of Commons park downtown.

Gibson Street was opened through farmland in 1825. It is named for local banker, Henry B. Gibson, who helped finance the Auburn and Rochester Rail Road. He lived across the street, south of the Congregational Church, in a home long ago demolished. When the Erie Canal was built, Gibson developed an entire village, Port Gibson north of Manchester, to give Canandaigua a canal port.

Facing St. Mary’s across Gibson Street is the United Church (Presbyterian, American Baptist). Founded in 1871 by members of the Congregational Church, which was overflowing, this church united with a local Baptist congregation that lost its church to a fire in 1943. Distinguished former members of this church include John N. Willys whose automobile company (Willys Overland) invented the Jeep, and gave Walter Chrysler a job after he was fired by General Motors. This was also the home church of Dr. John M. Clarke, a pioneer paleontologist, and founder of what is now the New York State Museum in Albany.

This modern postcard image, taken by Charles Cooksey, shows the United Church as it looked in the 1950s and ‘60s. The chapel building, built in 1875, was still in use then.

The United Church sits on the site of the Abner Barlow farm house. Built in 1792, the house was moved across the street, and still stands down the little side street called Daily Avenue. It may be the oldest house in Canandaigua.


The old Barlow House as it appears today on Daily Ave.

In pioneer days it was not uncommon to move whole buildings. The first court house was sawed in half and rolled down Main Street on log rollers so that it could be used as a barn behind an old hotel in 1860. Barlow Brook still runs under the United Church and often defies human efforts to control it. Every spring area buildings suffer the effects of the attempted rerouting of Barlow Brook.

As you return to the Historical Society museum, take some time to reflect on the lives of those who promoted changes in society, business, and politics. The accomplishments of local people have made Ontario County proud. However, similar stories can be found in every community. Cherish your history every day!


For more information about the business district, in particular, enjoy the Wood Library Historic Business District Audio Tour.
You can find information about that tour and how to access it on the Internet at:

[The information in this tour comes, in part, from the “Walking Tour of Historic North Main Street,” and the “Historic Public Square” pamphlets developed by the Ontario County Historical Society. It also incorporates information from Dr. John H. Jewett’s 1906 “History of Main Street.”]


Main Street about 1890


When a circus came to town it often unloaded from railroad cars and paraded down Main St.

The Rochester & Eastern Rapid Railway operated on Main St. from 1903-1930. Local horse
cars and trolleys began operating here starting in 1886.

Postcard photo by Canandaigua photographer, Margery Elling circa 1955. Canandaigua’s
new “Million Dollar Main St.” was completed and dedicated in 1950. Dutch Elm disease
had not yet claimed many trees.
Click here for a print version
Click here for a dynamic map of the walking tour