Moneybags Created James Street
Sunday, March 25, 1962
by Richard G. Case
"Let us have wine and women,
mirth and laughter,
Sermons and soda-water
the day after." – Byron
The pocket history of James street begins in a brawl.
The canal roughs are on a toot. They yowl and splash in the mud and
paddle each other with box slats. The language is ear-wilting.
The boys pummel along Robbers' Row toward the spot where the Indian
trail slips into the woods and vanishes. Some flop down under the cedar
trees and fall asleep. Others wander off into the darkness. A few
tumble into the canal.
A monument to the past --
the massive gates to the L.C. Smith mansion on James
In the early 1820's Syracuse's avenue of the swell-elegant is a
smelly mire beginning nowhere and running into nothing.
The Erie Canal is a parallel neighbor. Rabble roasts on the rafters.
Wolves, bears, wildcats, mud turtles and rattlesnakes make the landscape
an instant zoo.
Syracuse isn't even Syracuse. The canal, DeWitt Clinton's big ditch,
has just come through in 1820 and the crossroads is only a few years
removed from a swamp. The Onondagas are still peering through the bushes
at the palefaces in funny clothes and the settlement which has been
variously called Webster's Landing, Cossit's Corners, Milan and Corinth.
The village is bustling and abuilding. The canal lowered a boom. In
1825, when the village of Syracuse was created, the corporation
amounted to little more than a tight little island in what later became
Shops Set Up
Gradually, settlers were making their ways through the cedar swamps
and forests to have a look-see at the young sprout. Merchants were
setting up shops. By 1830, the place looked less like a mud hole; there
were petite white homes with attached flower beds, just south of the
James street was born in Robbers' Row (now the 100 block)
– a back
alley off the waterway with a few stores and a bad reputation. In the
next block was Tom Spencer's dry dock where boats were repaired. Beyond
that, polite villagers thought they were in the sticks – there wasn't
even a place in that direction to build a road to.
In this stubby first block, just off the village green, Stephen
Cadwell and Paschal Thurber ran groceries. Robert Brockway had a butcher
shop. Hugh Hancock hung out an early shoe store shingle and there was a
blacksmith's shop. Widow Cushing hawked milk she pumped daily from one
The locale had the look of a 24-hour hang over. Col. W. L. Stone, an
early tourist, recalled the period this way:
"I lodged for the night at a miserable tavern, thronged by a company
of salt boilers from Salina forming a gang of about as rough-looking
specimens of humanity as I have ever seen. Their wild visages, beards
thick and long and matted hair, even now rise up in dark, distant and
picturesque effect before me."
Stone thought the village "would make an owl weep to fly over it."
Whist, Ale and Song
"The Old Greyhound Hotel" was the contemporary watering spot
(northwest corner of James and Warren). Charlie Harrison, the lusty
keep, kept Robbers' Row whistles wet from 1830 until the 1870's with
dark ale served in the English style and whist games and old country
A character of the day was Jim Sackett, an eccentric bachelor
moneybags. He may have been the original of a gallery of James street
odd-balls. Old Jim wore a huge frock coat which dragged in the mud a
wide-brimmed hat with a veil and swung a large black umbrella patched in
white. His shaky sulky was also patched with technicolor cloth.
The real estate of Robbers' Row, which backed up to the canal, was
swept by fire in March, 1834.
As the village stretched, so did the Indian trail. Settlers began to
think there might be something up that woody hill to the east after all.
They struggled out but in 1827 Moses Burnet, a land agent, was
complaining the only way he could get to a cottage he'd built on a
far-out knoll (the Century Club) was to take the tow path east and cut
About this time the bog got its first name – Foot street
it pushed east to the Asa Foot settlement, a sulphur spa near the
present Thompson road.
It remained a wheel spinning mess for some time. In the late 1820s
the street was passable just to a point near Lodi, and then only by
team. There was a yawning gulf across the thoroughfare at Highland.
As late as 1895 we find the note "early fall rains as usual put James
street beyond the hill into an a most impassable condition."
The street owes its second and present name to an absentee landlord
– William James, author Henry's speculating grandfather.
James appears in town in 1824 as one of the money-holders of the
Syracuse Co. which bought a huge tract of land for about $30,000. One of
the agents was Burnet. Others with a familiar ring were McBride,
Townsend and Hawley. When time came to layout "and name streets in the
plot they were hardly modest.
Foot became James in 1842.
The street had an identity but lacked a population. There weren't
enough people east of Moses Burnet's digs to start a minor melee in the
184os when city fathers got heads for planning and decided to give their
gawky adolescent a sense of order. Opening of side streets was all it
took to get the village bluenoses to move into the country.
The first development was around the four corners of what later would
be James and McBride streets and
Elias W. Leavenworth, a smart lawyer
from Connecticut, is recorded as an ice breaker.
He started his four-pillared mansion in 1839 on
the northeast corner and was finished in 1842. For years afterward
the general's home (he was in the state militia) was regarded as
"the finest mansion west of Albany." It was Leavenworth's penchant
for landscaped trees – he loved them – that would give the street
its later shady charm.
Philo Mickles, an inventor and furnace man; threw up a pretty
imposing place on another corner about the same time, as did John
Wilkinson, the lawyer who gave Syracuse its name and was its first
In the same period Moses Burnet decided to try to best Leavenworth's
layout. He tore down the cottage and built a $20,000 wonder-mansion with
a fine view of the canal. It turned out to be even more amazing because
it's standing today.
Wilkinson's property ran right through to Hawley avenue. Springs on
the land, which had been the village's first water supply were pressed
into service to feed the postmaster's frog ponds.
It took the State Fair of 1849 to put greased lightning under James
The site was a 21-acre plot on the top of James hill. Thing was to
get rid of that big ravine and make the street accessible. It was
proposed a plank road company take over the job.
This irked the folks living along lower James who pictured the event
of plank as a super-highway. There was a row. Mayor Alfred Hovey had to
crack a water pitcher over the head of a plank opponent one day in his
office and the plan finally was carried out.
The fair went off without a stutter. The only incident, involved
Henry Clay who visited the grounds and was scratched by a lady fan who
tried to climb into his carriage and kiss him.
After 1849, houses, prices and noses went up.
James street, a muddy-faced infant, grew up with a silver spoon
clenched in its teeth. In its salad years there was no locale in the
city or county that could match its society or its politics. The men
and women who spun the city's gaudy wheel of fortune lived on James
The Idle Rich
There was wealth and there was idle wealth and you could find a
character behind almost every Turkish tapestry.
Take Charles Allen Perkins – the "Prince." The slim, natty Auburnian
was a refugee from
marriage to a Portuguese princess and the model of local dandies for
years. You'd see him prancing down James decked out in a great cape
lined in violet silk, a Spanish hat and carrying a gold-headed ebony
Or Orlonzo Chester Yates Jr. Lonny was the city's playboy of the
ritzy 90s and he liked to tool up and down the street in a lemon-yellow
buggy. He was Syracuse's most talked-about tosspot until he died in
France at the age of 27.
Another sight was D. Edgar Crouse who was built along the lines of a
pregnant hippopotamus. It. was said his pearl buttons alone were the
size of large saucers.
William A. Sweet, a James streeter who ran a steel plant, had a
passion for diamonds. Bill had sparklers everywhere, including a D. L.
&W headlight-sized stone he is supposed to have worn on his shirtfront.
According to legend, he also had diamonds set in his teeth.
Bill Cogswell, a Solvay Process man, liked diamonds, too. He carried
a, handful loose in his
George Frazer had James street and the rest of the town bug-eyed in
the late 1880's. The
well-heeled inventor and sport proved himself an avante garde Rube
Goldberg, when he turned out a 5;000 gold and silver-plated bobsled
dubbed "The Frazer. "
George's invention was a real shocker to a James street which
had seen a good many nutty things. The sled was 38 feet long, weighed
three tons, carried 28 people on plush seats, was pulled by a four-horse
team and sported nickel rails, a locomotive bell and a bugler who tooted
his brains out as the thing zipped into downtown. George drove the sled
from a high perch seat and had a man riding underneath who dropped down
and dragged his feet to stop the monster.
Later Frazer supposedly smashed his creation to bits rather
than sell it for debts.
In his quiet way, Lyman Corneilus Smith was king of James street's
years of extra elegance. The Connecticut-born gunsmith made a fortune in
breech-loading rifles and typewriters and set himself up in a mansion to
end all mansions atop James hill.
L. C. bought the 19-room place from Howard White and named it
"Uarda," Italian for "beautiful as a rose." The title was spelled out in
flowers across the front yard. Inside, a staff of 22 scurried behind
stained glass windows; under ceilings splashed with Italian art and
fixtures of silver. Mornings, when the family breakfasted, they got
their mail in the beaks of silver birds.
The old boy wasn't considered much of a mixer but when he did swing
open the huge iron gates of "Uarda" it was a real blow-out. One of the
street's most famous parties was held at the Smith place in March,
1902, when Vajiravuda, crown prince of Siam, visited the city.
The diminutive king's son rattled around in L. C.'s mansion (trimmed
with roses and mums for the luncheon) listened to an orchestra and sat
down to a $50-a-plate feed provided by the host. The 30-plate meal ended
with red, white and blue ice cream boxes topped with white elephants.
Andy White, the founder of Cornell, had a place down the street where
he entertained the world's literati including Charles Dickens, James
Russell Lowe, Julia Ward Howe and Henry Longfellow.
Another neighbor who did a little writing, himself, was Edward Noyes
"Ned" Westcott, the bank clerk who created "David Harum." The last big
push of authoring was done in Westcott's pint-sized mansion near Oak
street while he was in bed dying of consumption. A manservant stood by
lighting his cigarettes and pouring shots of brandy as Ned wrote. He
died without knowing he had created a classic.
Some memorable James street sights: sleigh riding on winter
afternoons and C. Herbert. Halcomb, the Englishman who married a local
girl, in his rig with two coachmen; Chief Justice Charles Andrews,
red-cheeked and white-whiskered, riding up the street on his big
chestnut gelding; young belles and boys heading for a Cobleigh dance at
the Empire House; Judge Frank H. Hiscock's bombproof vault for the
household silver in the stately house now owned by the Corinthian Club;
the over-sized bathtub for William Howard Taft, the judge's old crony
who often stopped by; old combatants, Teddy Roosevelt and Chancellor
James Roscoe Day, dining side-by-side at Horace Wilkinson's table.
Just before he died I talked with Marshall Durston about James
street. His memory reached back into the legends.
Then he was living in the Skyline Apartments. The blockish brick and
glass super-dwelling was as much a symbol of the new James street as
Durston was of the old.
I thought it was interesting that his window view faced northwest,
away from the bulldozing which is pulling down all the monuments to the
years of wine and women, mirth and laughter.
Durston told me the cost of living, death and taxes drove the city's
elegant off James street and now members of the old families are quite
literally all over town.
Then he started remembering the old again and his eyes watered up.
"It was a sight for the gods," he said.