Montour Falls is located in Northern Appalachia–part of a region within the State of New York not far from the Pennsylvania border, also known as the Southern Tier. The U.S. Census of 1890 reports the population of the Village of Montour Falls to be 1,751, 120 years later, becoming 1,711 in 2010. A common backyard sight during warm summer months, the clothesline, suggests the steady slope of this trend. If a constant population is an indicator, Montour Falls may not be in the path of progress.
Since 1895 the village has been known by its present moniker: Montour Falls. Other names applied before this time. We will visit this earlier history in future posts.
The year 1895 begins by re-introducing the world to Devil’s Island. On January 5th Captain Alfred Dreyfus is convicted of treason against his beloved France and is consigned to Devil’s Island until his pardon in 1899.
The architecture present on Devil’s Island, if you are familiar with Montour Falls, is not dissimilar. It is interesting to observe how our aesthetic for designing 19th century buildings with a public purpose draws upon a sensibility without regard to use–as bank, library or prison. It is our imagination and capacity for empathy that imbues the inhabitants of these structures with indifference, love or pain–wherever they may be located.
By year’s end 1895, another Alfred, Alfred Nobel would establish his famous, and ongoing, Nobel Prize. Nobel is famously associated with dynamite–a substance he innovated to stabilize nitroglycerine. How might this engineering feat connect to life in rural nineteenth century New York, let alone Montour Falls? Consider this history: Italian born Ascanio Sobrero is the chemist who isolated nitroglycerine which Nobel developed as dynamite. Sobrero first studied a substance called “guncotton”, a highly flammable substance derived from nitrated cellulose. Enter, American inventor John Wesley Hyatt, from Starkey, New York, working with nitrated cellulose he develops the first industrial plastic we know as celluloid. And who made celluloid famous? Kodak!
Starkey, New York is a Seneca Lake community, as is Montour Falls. Seneca Lake runs 38 miles north to south. Starkey is only 14.5 miles from Montour Falls.
General Motors, to complete this associative cycle of Southern Tier history, would some day, albeit, indirectly, acknowledge Lake Seneca for yet another contribution: In the same year Montour Falls was named, 1895, John Wesley Hyatt hired another “Alfred”–this one, Alfred P. Sloan. Sloan would become president of Hyatt’s company in 1905 and Hyatt’s company, in 1916, would be sold to General Motors. In 1923 Alfred P. Sloan becomes president, and ultimately, the long term Chairman of General Motors.
In 1895 the electromagnetic ionizing properties of the X-ray would be confirmed. Also in 1895, patents are issued for a gas-driven automobile, a film camera and projector. While these innovations are not directly connected to Northern Appalachia per se, they enter the world stage at the same time as Montour Falls.
Today, it may be hard to believe China ever surrendered Taiwan to Japan–but so it did–and in 1895. From the vantage point of 2016, it is easy to think about Montour Falls, with the world to consider, as a remote place and 1895 a simpler time. Few of us recall even hearing about the Great Panic of 1893–or another New Yorker, Grover Cleveland, who was then President of the United States. If we try, we could probably connect President Cleveland to Montour Falls. Guess what? When Grover Cleveland was elected Governor of New York, in 1882, his Lieutenant Governor was none other than David B. Hill–native son of Montour Falls! The house where David B. Hill was born, and still standing, is located close to Shequaga falls from which Montour Falls derives its name.
The next occasion you have to see a re-run of the movie, “Devil’s Island” featuring Boris Karloff–you can think of the christening of Montour Falls! And volleyball–lest we forget–this great game, too, was invented in 1895!
May our destinies, as individuals and community, as place and story, carry the sunlight of our curiosity and imagination.
We bid you peace,
The Office of the Historian
Village of Montour Falls, New York
*Clothesline image found at: http://jonpeters.com/how-to-make-build-a-clothesline/#lightbox/0/