Moneybags Created James Street

Syracuse Herald-American

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 Street.

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 Clinton Square.

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 canal.

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 cow.

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 songs.

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 cross-lots.

About this time the bog got its first name Foot street because 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.

Though Going

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.

First Postmaster

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 postmaster.

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 street progress.

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 street.

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 stick.

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
trousers.

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. "

Real Shocker

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.

Leading, Lights

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.