The Last Grand Curtain Call

Helen Modjeska

Helen Modjeska

In the fall of 1927 an old theater curtain…a ‘drop’ as they were called, was found in a remote niche on the upper level of the old Burtis Grand Theater on North Street. It was made of canvas…yellowed and crumbling. As fragile as parchment with the hand painted images vague and muted. When examined, dozens of autographs were discovered. Applied with crayon and make-up paint, the signatures revealed were of old performers with names like John Drew, James Hackett, Nat Goodwin, Charles O’Neill, Otis Skinner, DeWolf Hopper, Lincoln Carter and the great “Modjeska”. Polish-born actress Helen Modjeska was an amazing stage presence…sometimes vamp…sometimes the spirit of a rascally boy…or the epitome of royalty.

At the time of the discovery the theater had already been unused for a short period of time. It was at one time a combination theater and skating rink and built in place of the Academy of Music. After major construction, it was opened on November 13, 1889 as the Burtis Opera House. There were indoor circuses.  Touring stock companies performed.  Surrounded by the soaring architecture, politicians and civic leaders delivered elaborate speeches. Vaudeville first came to Auburn to appear within those walls. Wrestling matches and boxing bouts were held at the Burtis as well. The theater was described as a “‘second story’ house…its stage and auditorium being above the first floor with stores beneath”.

During the administration of Mayor Thomas Mott Osborne, the city became concerned about fire and forced the owners to install fire escapes and to remodel the front of the building.  One of the favorite dining places was the Osborne Hotel and  the patrons of the theater could be found enjoying small performances held at the hotel as another venue for Auburnians to enjoy entertainment and club gatherings. The Jefferson, erected by Mayor Osborne, also figured into the entertainment of Auburnians with an active billing roster. A new name to me was Motion World. Just as the Burtis and the Jefferson began to show the occasional moving picture, Motion World also hosted live entertainment. Dog acts seemed to be a particular favorite for Auburnians.

Genoia NY Tribune 1919-1922 Burtis Grand Display AdBy 1913, The Burtis Opera House underwent another name change. It became the Burtis Grand. To illustrate the lively nature of entertainment available in 1912 and 1913, newspapers around the area published the bookings commenting “Three shows at the Jefferson, three shows a day at each the Burtis Auditorium and the Burtis Grand and the usual entertainments should furnish plenty of amusement for Auburnians next week.” At the Burtis Auditorium…’eighteen new reels of pictures and eight acts of vaudeville a week’. The Burtis Grand not to be left behind promised ‘popular priced vaudeville’ with excellent several bills. “All of the smaller houses will offer the usual big entertainments for a little money next week and doubtless draw their usual big patronage.” More sites…the smaller houses start becoming familiar…Turn Hall with a boxing exhibition following by a dance party. The Cornell…The Genesee and The Universal where motion pictures were featured with starts as late as 10:45 PM.

Who says Auburn rolled up the sidewalks and everyone went to bed at sunset??!! If you had a nickel, you had somewhere to go.

039-NYC-1918-09-18-NY Clipper Burtis at Auctionp30Amid the grease paint and roar of the crowd environment came civic events and the occasion of the preacher with a theatrical style who was not intimidated by the spirit of the painted vamps and rascals. In 1918 while the United States was at war and the epidemic of Spanish Influenza was killing millions…including Auburnians, the theaters still flourished. Touring troupes from New York City clamored to be booked in Auburn’s theaters. And the audiences came and filled the seats. Laughing, crying, applauding, they chased away the harsh times that existed outside of the majestically adorned halls. It was also in 1918 that the Burtis Grand went up for auction to settle the estate of Edwin C. Burtis, the son of Cary S. Burtis who originally built the Burtis Opera House.

In 1920 it was a great occasion for the Burtis Grand, now billed as “Auburn’s Foremost Photoplay House”, as it featured Lionel Barrymore’s silent motion picture, “The Copperhead”.  As advertised, the audience came from near and far to sit in the great darkness and weep and cheer as the Civil War drama unfolded on the silver screen.

New seats and decorations had replaced the old fixtures by 1927, but the general grand architecture still existed at the Burtis Grand as it had when

crinoline and bustle adorned the stage and heroes in knee pants and silk stockings strutted their hour upon the stage.

Films continued to flicker inside the building which came to be referred to as the ‘old’ Burtis Grand as its grandeur faded and Auburn’s audiences sought a newer vogue. In 1928 and 1929 local groups such as the Odd Fellows could be found gathering at the Burtis Grand.  Meetings, speeches and exhibitions were still filling the auditorium. The great open interior still provided accommodation for large gatherings and though its beauty was of yesteryear, it was still…grand and appreciated. On Halloween night in 1928 the Republicans held a rally featuring Assistant Secretary of War F. Trubee Davison with music by the Salem Town Commandery Band.

As one old theater buff reported

The shell of a once proud palace of amusement today lies idle, facing the prosaic possibility of someday being converted into an office building. But the glory of its past remains as a shadowy heritage of a bygone day, recalled for its brief moment by the hidden musty scroll of names of stars now gone.
Few living remember the heyday of the theater’s prestige, few remain who played upon its boards in the golden days of the trouper. The glamor has gone from a temple of make-believe whose old-time stars themselves have answered the last curtain call.

Newspaper Auburn NY Citizen 1926 Boxing at the Capitol formerly Burtis grandEventually the Burtis Grand became The Capitol Theater. By the mid 1950’s there was no sign of the old double mansarded building and the ghosts of Modjeska, Eddie Foy, the Burtis Orchestra and the thousands upon thousands of central New Yorkers who strolled what could easily be called Auburn’s theater district were left to drift the much emptier streets in search of one more encore.

Suffice it to say, Auburn’s downtown (I still call it that) was a vibrant center of activity and theater played a significant role in its culture and economy. Mayor Thomas Mott Osborne was known to complain that there weren’t enough restaurants to accommodate conventions and theater go-ers and that would be the downfall of the theater and convention business. I have read a great deal these past few days about the scores of years that marked that period of its history and I have barely scratched the surface. There are a number of people who have made this part of Auburn’s past their grand passion for decades and I envy their amazing deep knowledge. I think I would love to do a walking tour with these wonderful historians and drift among the ghosts of Auburn’s theatrical heyday.

Author’s Note: I have theater in my blood so to speak. My great grandfather, George Downing Curtis and his cousin, E. O. Rogers were born in the little Village of Cayuga and became ‘theatrical’ men. George owned one of the first motion picture houses in Ithaca and Rochester, New York and booked vaudeville acts all over New York State and the Midwest. Edgar O. Rogers was larger than life and took his Uncle Tom’s Cabin Touring Group to perform far and wide.  Ned Wayburn…my 3rd cousin 2x removed produced and choreographed with the famous Ziegfeld Follies. I followed another actor…Nat Blossom…who ran off with one of my great grandmother’s family members.  I myself flirted with the limelight a bit in my youth.

And I love old architecture. It speaks to me and when it disappeared before I could experience it,  I cannot help but feel that empty space.

Deborah Martin-Plugh
Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher
© Copyright 2015. All Rights Reserved.


A Note to My Readers:   Family lore often assists in uncovering mysteries.  Breaking brick walls.  On the other hand, it can also be the cause of those brick walls as well.  Or the very least throw a cloud over the real lives of the people you are researching and removing an important aspect of the times in which they live.   For years I was under the impression that one family’s deafness was due to so many first cousins marrying.  It was perpetuated by other Tyler researchers like the proverbial ‘whisper down the lane’.  The more it was repeated, the more it became fact.  That is, until I began to find out more about my second cousins, the Doty Family of Cayuga County, New York.  I looked for the ‘signs’.

Researching my maternal 4th great grandfather, William Tyler (1773 – 1860) and his wife, Abelina Bartlett (1772 – 1855) also involved the extended family – the Dotys. My second cousins.  William and his wife, Abelina Bartlett Tyler, were feeble in their final years. William suffered from senility and so the pair were separated by 1850. Abilena spent her remaining days with her two daughters, Marietta Roberts and Almyra Swain in Aurelius. William went to live with his daughter, Anna Tyler Doty in Sennett. Anna married her first cousin Jason Martin Doty.  Jason’s mother, Deborah, was William Tyler’s sister and she was married to Timothy Doty.

New York Institute for Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb

New York Institute for Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb

It wasn’t uncommon in the Tyler line for first cousins to marry. Kin was a big deal…family wealth was kept close and family loyalty was paramount. It wreaked havoc on the gene pool back then among many families that practiced the tradition.  At first I thought that was borne out by the number of individuals that are recorded as ‘deaf and dumb’ in the family of William B. Doty…John Mason Doty’s brother. Will and his wife, Lucretia Pierce, had eleven children. Three of them were deaf and dumb and were sent off to New York City to the New York Institution for the Deaf and Dumb to learn to read and write, but more importantly to learn to sign to stay connected to the greater world. After their education, the children returned and married fellow students of the institution.

Several poignant records came to my attention regarding the Dotys. The first was the 1850 Federal Census that shows sisters Phebe Doty Cuddeback (1833-1930) and Rebecca Doty Gilbert Cross (1829-1915) living at the NYC school as students and enumerated as ‘inmates’ and ‘deaf and dumb’.  Inmate is a term frequently used for students and patients in institutions when enumerating in the censuses.

I also came across Phebe’s marriage announcement in a local newspaper – the Auburn, NY Weekly Journal from November of 1852.

“At Weedsport on Tuesday, November 9th, by the Rev. S. R. Brown, Mr. CORNELIUS CUDDEBACK, of Phelps, Ontario County, to Miss PHEBE DOTY, of Weedsport. Both were graduates of the New York Institution for the Deaf and Dumb. The ceremony was performed in the language of signs.”

U.S. Special Census on Deaf Family Marriages

U.S. Special Census on Deaf Family Marriages, Rebecca Doty weds George M. Cross

For Rebecca Doty, I found her first husband, Gustavus O. Gilbert and his sister, Lucy, each listed as an ‘inmate’ at the New York Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in the 1850 census. Rebecca and Gustavus were students there at the same time. When Gustavus died in 1865, Rebecca married George M. Cross, another young man who was profoundly deaf. Their marriage record in the U.S. Census on Deaf Family Marriages tells the real story about why the three Doty siblings were afflicted. The cause was attributed to WHOOPING COUGH. The Dotys were not ill at the same time as their ages ran a span of decades.  Rebecca and Phebe most likely were ill at the same time as they were just four years apart, but the youngest, who was also deaf, was not born until 1846.   All lost their hearing at a young age which in turn affected their speech.

As I read through Auburn area newspapers from the 1840’s and 1850’s, it became apparent that whooping cough was a widespread problem during that time.  Along with whooping cough, scarletina, diphtheria and consumption (phthsis),  the area residents had suffered for several decades prior to the 40’s and 50’s as well.  It was a constant threat and institutions had been established to manage the long-term effects.  The New York Institute for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb was established in 1817.  The U.S. Census on Deaf Family Marriages (1888-1895) read more like a medical report defining the cause of the deafness and details on the parents and other siblings.  This was a society looking desperately to manage infectious diseases that clearly impacted large segments of the population and remained unchecked.

Adelmor Doty Monument.  Throopsville Cemetery

Adelmor Doty Monument. Throopsville Cemetery

I mentioned three siblings…the last was Adelmor Doty (1846-1864) who died at the New York Institution for the Deaf and Dumb of typhoid when he was just 18 years old. Adelmor is buried among his Doty family members in Throop’s Community Cemetery. His monument is particularly touching. It features three signs that spell out G. O. D. and the inscription:

“The ears of the deaf shall be unstopped”. Isaiah 35 Chap 5 Vse. Selected by his teacher.”  ADELMORE. SON OF WM. & L. DOTY.  DIED AT WASHINGTON HEIGHTS, N.Y. CITY

In my initial research of this Doty family, I found Adelmor’s monument first as I did Tyler work in the old Throopsville Cemetery.  Walking cemeteries in the process of documenting my family’s old pioneer burials, I happen upon monuments that capture my attention.  They have a character that tells you that there is a bigger story to tell.  The unusual engraving and the inscription on the stele of Adelmor Doty was the beginning of that deeper research.



Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian, Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2015.  All Rights Reserved.

Standing Room Only at the Burtis Opera House

A Note to My Readers:  In the process of researching individuals who provided the nexus of my immediate ancestors in Auburn, New York, I spent some time reading the daily newspapers of their time to get a sense of the events of the day during 1895. It’s always interesting to read about the politics of the day or the great events and very tempting to plug them into that larger perspective. But I decided to slow it down and hang out there…check out the weather, go to a strawberry festival, shop in the old stores that lined Genesee Street and maybe duck into the old Burtis Opera House confident that an unaccompanied female historian would be safe.

Julius_Cahn_s_Official_Theatrical_Guide p 581

Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide, Volume 14, p 581. 1909

Opened in 1889, the Burtis Opera House was built by Leon H. Lempert & Sons of Rochester, New York and was located at 16 -22 North Street.  The Burtis Opera House was rebuilt from the Corning Hall also known as the Academy of Music. The auditorium was described as a

‘magnificent theater one hundred feet wide, with depth from footlights forty-two feet containing twelve dressing rooms lighted by electricity and all modern and up-to-date facilities”.

Its twin mansard roofs dominated the skyline on North Street.

Robert Bruce Mantell, actor.

Robert Bruce Mantell, actor.

The Burtis became a grand addition to Auburn’s architecture and culture under the management of Auburnian E. S. Newton. The historical society reported the “completion of the Burtis Opera House affords an elegant resort for public entertainments, which ‘fill a long felt want’.” It was dedicated on the 18th of November with the appropriate devotions and addresses by Mayor Wheeler and Congressman Payne. Its first performance was the play of “Montars’ with Robert B. Mantell as its premier performer. It was not his first performance in Auburn and securing him for the opening performer was considered by the trade as they say now…a real ‘get’. A short biography of Mantell describes the Burtis Opera House as “one of the finest and coziest little playhouses in a city of its size in the country”.  Mantell went on to star in silent films and had a long and successful career.

The drama was not confined to the stage.

In 1895 one of Auburn’s finest had just been assigned to the Burtis due to complaints about ne’er-do-wells and updated electric lighting was being installed to further brighten the interior.  An Auburn newspaper had publicly chastised the Burtis’ manager, Mr. E. S. Newman, holding him responsible for the dereliction of the police in not “suppressing the hoodlums who hang around the entrance to the Opera house and calling for police to be regularly assigned to the Burtis”. In December two young thieves Eddie Kaul and Burt McLaughlin, ages six and ten, had stolen personal belongings from the young students attending Mrs. Luce’s dancing academy on Genesee Street. Among the victims was Margaret Downer, the little daughter of William S. Downer, a teller at the Auburn Savings Bank. Mr. Downer was having none of it and put in a complaint at police headquarters. Police were immediately on the trail of the boys who had been observed loitering about the academy and, once identified, the pilferers were traced to the Burtis. The pair were found happily ensconced in the audience and thoroughly enjoying the show having paid for their tickets with the change found in little Margaret’s purse.

Burtis Opera House 1906

Burtis Opera House Auburn Old Souvenir Book (1906)

National trade publications proved the popularity of the opera house among entertainers with the listings and details of their constant bookings.  The New York Dramatic Mirror reported Thomas E. Shea’s Company finished a week’s engagement with seven performances with SRO (Standing Room Only) at nearly every performance. The paid admissions accounted for 7, 684 attendees which broke the record of the house. On the flip side, the New York Philharmonic Club had a single performance.  There with just fourteen souls to exclaim it as an “excellent entertainment”. Auburn had its local talent bookings as well. The above-mentioned Mrs. Luce held her Dance Academy recitals at the Burtis.  In November, the Ladies’ Aid society of the First Universalist Church held four performances of “Ben-Hur” done in pantomime. Interspersed between the vignettes were

drills, marches and quaint Oriental and recherché dances, and the continuous orchestra music, varying with the theme and always subdued, lends an unconscious rhythm to the steps and gestures of the actors. All this, embellished with nearly $20, 000 worth of superb special scenery and rich and striking costumes, and illuminated with magnificent calcium and electrical effects, combines to make it one of the most gorgeous and attractive productions every presented on the American stage.

The Auburn Dramatic Club presented “The Woven Web’ late that fall as a benefit for the ushers of the opera house. On Thanksgiving night, the Burtis was packed and the SRO sign was hung outside its entrance when national sensation Minerva Dorr performed in the comic opera “Niobe”. Ms. Dorr’s reviews called her “charming”, with an “admirable singing ability” and “kept the audience in a continual state of uproar.” A Christmas Day musical event featured the Cornell Musical Club accompanied by several social events…receptions, luncheons…during the day and after the performance a dance was held in honor of the collegians and Cornell graduates from the area and all of Auburn was abuzz with the social festivities.  The auditorium was filled to capacity.

As I read through the schedule of that year…save for two weeks in April when the Burtis ‘went dark’ due to some minor renovation…it was never without a performance…large or small. All of that coupled with political gatherings and the occasional ball and gala with attendees from near and far. Beyond the artistic performances and political rallies and fraternal organization events and conventions, there were illustrated lectures. Another group found the Burtis a successful venue. Peddlers came from near and far selling all manner of merchandise and on occasion – ‘remedies’ – advertising their availability in the local papers. Palmer Cox BrownielandOne particular article in the spring of 1895 about an incoming troupe sparked an image of just what the hurly burly of the train station in Auburn must have been. I realized that Auburn in 1895 was not a sleepy little city, but rather a vibrant, excited and excitable community.

The most remarkable spectacular production yet presented on any stage is Palmer Cox’s Brownies. It is of such a costly and elaborate nature that it can be only shown in the largest theatres throughout the country. It will be seen in all its vast metropolitan entirety at the Burtis Opera house Monday evening, April 22nd. The huge spectacle will be brought to Auburn by special train in fact from its great run of 150 nights at the Fourteenth Street theatre, in New York, where the newspapers and magazines devoted whole pages to the description of its scenes of dazzling splendor. Such grand effects as a thrilling shipwreck, a terribly realistic earthquake and volcano, and the instant destruction of a magnificent palaces are presented in a way that has been hitherto unattempted. The very height of the stage art has been reached in these grand climaxes. The final transformation, “A Night in Brownieland”, showing in marvelous hues the unfolding into glorious life of the moonflower and night-blooming cereus is of such magnificence that worlds fail to describe it. It is well worth coming miles to see. Over 100 of the highest salaried artists are necessary for the gorgeous production. The world famous Brownies are surround by beautiful women. There are large ballets, choruses and wonderful acrobats engage abroad. Among the features are the aerial ballet, danced in mid-air to the most superb calcium effects, and the Oriental ballet, both of which have created furors.

Sounds a bit like Cirque du Soleil and Vegas, doesn’t it?

The glorious Burtis Opera House was demolished in August 1939.

Deborah Martin – Plugh Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

© Copyright 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Sally Chauncey Smith’s Granddaughter Goes to Harvard

A Note to My Readers:  Sometimes the research becomes like what my mother called ‘a rat’s nest’. Unattractive, no? Most definitely a challenge requiring me to up my game. Diving into deeper resources and the requirement of constantly honing and improving my research skills. Oh, and note-taking. Lots and Lots of note-taking.

Hamilton J. Smith monument in Old South Cemetery, Montague, Massachusetts

Hamilton J. Smith monument in Old South Cemetery, Montague, Massachusetts

Several generations back, I run into my Smith line on my father’s side. (I have one on my mother’s line as well, but with much clearer and more available documentation.) Specifically I am working on the lineage of my paternal 3rd great grandmother, Dorothy “Dolly” Smith Martin. Roswell Smith of Montague, Massachusetts is Dolly’s only brother and his son, Hamilton J. Smith was the ‘go-to” guy for the Smith – Martin genealogy when William Richard Cutter compiled his book “Genealogical and Family History of Western New York: A Record of The Achievements of Her People in the Making of A Commonwealth and the Building of A Nation. Volume I”.

Nicely done, as much of Mr. Cutter’s works are, I used the Smith and Martin contributions by Hamilton J. Smith to do my own source work and much to my gratification, everything snicked nicely into place. Still, there was  the reference to Dolly’s mother – ‘Sally (?)”. Oh, yeah. One of those. A question mark. So Hamilton didn’t know his paternal grandmother’s maiden name. Swell. We genealogists are a greedy bunch. I was handed both the Martins and the Smiths parsed back several generations by Hamilton. Thank you, sir.  Now it is up to me to find out about my 4th great grandmother. Sally (?).

Samuel Smith, Achsah Smith Newton and Stephen Newton monuments.  Evergreen Cemetery, Cazenovia, New York

Samuel Smith, Achsah Smith Newton and Stephen Newton monuments. Evergreen Cemetery, Cazenovia, New York

Checking back to other related family lines and old archives, I worked on finding Massachusetts civil records of Samuel Smith, Dolly’s father and Sally “question mark’s” husband. Back to Montague and Hadley…following the migration. Back and back. Finally I changed my strategy. I went forward and once again into related genealogy publications.  How about Dolly’s other siblings, Almena Smith Thrasher or Achsah Smith Newton. Genealogy was a big deal in that generation…good old pioneer stock family pride. And published genealogies.

I hit pay dirt with Achsah. Her husband’s family…the Newtons…had published a well cited genealogy book in 1915. Included in the Newton family information was Achsah and her husband, Stephen and their children. And a footnote on one Sally CHAUNCEY, wife of Samuel Smith…Achsah, Almena, Dolly and Roswell’s parents.

314                                                 NEWTON GENEALOGY
2304. STEPHEN NEWTON(6) (Paul(5), Nathan(4), Jonathan(3), Moses(2), Richard (1)), son of Paul and Martha (Newton) Newton of Southborough and Leverett, mass., was born at Southborough, June 13, 1782, and died at Cazenovia, New York, July 17, 1864, aged 82.
He married, January 14, 1807, Achsah Smith, daughter of Samuel and Sally (Chauncey) Smith* of Hadley, Mass. She was born at Montague, Mass., July 23, 1786, and died at Cazenovia, N. Y., February 20 1862, aged 76.
*SAMUEL SMITH (——–) of Hadley m. SALLY CHAUNCEY. (The Chaunceys of Hadley are descended from Rev. Israel Chauncey, graduate of Harvard College 1693, ordained over Hadley Church 1696, and Re. Charles Chauncey, President of Harvard College.) They had Achsah, 1786, m. Stephen Newton; Roswell, 1788; m. Esther Rice, who were parents of Hamilton J. Smith.

Source: NEWTON GENEALOGY. Genealogical, Biographical, Historical Being A Record of the Descendants of RICHARD NEWTON of Sudbury and Marlborough, Massachusetts, 1638, with Genealogies of Families Descended from the Immigrants. Compiled By Ermina Newton Leonard. Published by Bernard Ammidown Leonard. De Pere, Wisconsin. 1915

My grandmother Dolly Smith Martin also named her first son Chauncey.  Two good clues and a good place to start. And on to the next challenge.

The Chaunceys of Hadley are documented in their achievements in regards to Harvard and the Hadley Church and there are some Hadley civic records to parse.  There are also a number of history books that provide information on Hadley history and with plenty of Chauncey family mention.   That said, unlike the Smiths and the Martins, it doesn’t appear these prominent people had anyone interested in publishing a Chauncey genealogy to assist in the process of compilation.  Rather there are a larger number of genealogy books with a generation or two of Chaunceys included.   They were a prolific and accomplished family and one that a descendant would love to celebrate with a dedicated genealogy publication.  Hard to believe there isn’t one…somewhere.  The good thing is that Harvard has a plethora of Chauncey material that promises to help me bridge the gap between Sally (?) Chauncey and her ancestral grandfathers Israel and Charles.

So folks…several generations later…a Chauncey is going to Harvard. Well, to research anyway.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian, Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2015.  All Rights Reserved.

The Politics of Clean Water

A Note to My Readers:  After some research on epidemiology with an eye on Auburn, New York at the turn of the last century, I decided to zero in on typhoid, cholera, consumption, Spanish Flu and infantile paralysis…with a side bar on malaria and diphtheria. During that period, a number of my family members were afflicted with at least one or more of these scourges and there were fatalities as well. Story after story unfolded in my research and it was unsettling to say the least that any one of these diseases could visit any household…any community and all folks could do was react and pray their efforts would spare their loved ones. Today we take for granted modern healthcare and public sanitation standards and the resulting protection due to prophylactic measures…vaccinations…water filtration, waste and trash disposal systems. We know it works, because it has for over a century. Today there are still those that deny scientific proof even in the face of solid evidence and history.

Last week I had worked on a blog post about civil engineering and Auburn’s history of street numbering, building its various infrastructures for water and sewer and electric. In trade journals spanning from 1909 and 1910, among the dry engineering specs, bids and contracts, I ran into a more prosy and intriguing reference to several plans and discussions about building a water filtration plant for Owasco Lake…Auburn’s main water supply at the time. And the typhoid debate.

It sparked a curiosity as over the Christmas holidays I had read a book entitled “The Epidemic” by award-winning journalist David DeKok which recounted the terrible typhoid epidemic in Ithaca, New York that devastated Ithaca in 1903. Typhoid infected hundreds and killed at least 82 people, including 29 Cornell University students. Almost 1 in 10 residents became ill. DeKok gives a chilling account of corporate greed and political disconnect that was the nexus of the catastrophe. DeKok’s detailed account illustrates clearly that the entire typhoid tragedy could have been avoided had a proper water filtration plant that should have been built.  In fact the dam that was built without the accompanying filtration plant was the root cause due to the human excrement build up at the labor site by infected immigrant workers.  Matters were further complicated with the failure of authorities to report the deplorable and dangerous conditions that they had found.

That was 1903. It was national news and certainly could not have escaped the attention of Auburn, New York. Typhoid regularly appeared, not just along the communities of Cayuga Lake, but Owasco Lake as well.

In 1909 and 1910 New York State led the nation in typhoid deaths. The United States was declared as having the most typhoid deaths of any civilized nation with 1300 deaths reported in the year of 1909. Newspapers were awash with reports of outbreaks and local health authorities testing waters and even milk. Municipalities across the country were building filtration plants to decontaminate the water and protect their populations. Still some communities resisted despite the evidence that others were now relieved of typhoid outbreaks by filtering the water and implementing other sanitation methods. There was no doubt that exposure to human excrement was the issue. Health officials had standardized instructions for individuals and hospitals managing an outbreak and it was up to the private citizen and the local doctors at hand to prevent it or enforce it.  It was up to local governments to decide what was best for their community when it came to infrastructure investment.  Like a water filtration plant.

Governor Hughes was urged by the State Department of Health to enact legislation to relieve “the water supplies of the State from pollution”.

“Many of our streams,” says the report, “have reached the amount of pollution they will care for. That such a condition of affairs exists is a public disgrace. But little relief in the conditions can be obtained under the existing laws.”

Summer resorts were especially unhealthful due to methods of sewage disposal as the report advised. Added to that problem was the fact that summer people from other communities brought typhoid with them. “The conditions of a number of places have been found to be dangerous to the persons visiting them.”

Another factor came into play as well. Just as it happened in Ithaca, newly arrived European immigrant laborers, brought typhoid with them. As New York State’s cities were expanding, large contractors – many of them New York City firms- bid on the municipal projects in great competition and brought in cheap labor to win bids by keeping costs down. Newly arrived immigrants fit the bill. The laborers had been exposed for years and had immunity and so they were carriers. As the children’s book says…”Everybody Poops”. And this was still the era of outhouses and wells. Public and private. Especially along the lakes. Auburn may have installed sewers and there was indoor plumbing, but there were still private and public wells and private…um…privies.

Newspaper Auburn NY Citizen 9 May 1908 Boil the WAter

In 1910 though the evidence and statistics gathered by respected experts of the day overwhelmingly pointed to the conclusion that a water filtration plant was the answer to Auburn’s typhoid outbreaks, some of the officials and elite citizens of Auburn had a curious resistance and furious public debate had begun. I say curious because despite the fact that “BOIL THE WATER” was the order of the day and the naysayers themselves enthusiastically complied, a water filtration system seemed to be an absurd idea to them.

Moravia and Union Springs were particularly hard hit in October of 1910. Whole families were devastated. The Gillespie family of Basin Street in Union Springs lost their fifth member in three weeks with the death of 25 year old Joseph. His mother and three brothers had perished during the late days of September. Brothers Bernard and Thomas died within minutes of one another. Father James lie on his death bed. Mother Bridget Gillespie contracted typhoid while caring for her ill sons and lived only a short time. Only three Gillespie daughters were spared. Frightened by the swiftness of the family’s demise, a petition to the State Board of Health was circulated by Reverend W. H. Casey pleading for assistance for a remedy.

Their neighbors…the Tierneys – Hattie and her brother – also lay critically ill with the fever.

In Moravia townspeople were instructed to boil their water and five springs southeast of the village were found to be the suspected sources. Specific instruction given by Moravia’s Board of Health ranged from the proper supervision of the milk supply to the isolation of patients and disinfection methods. Sears and Ingalls Springs were immediately protected against contamination. The spring near Skinner Mill road was ordered to be abandoned.

Moravia’s citizens had just suffered a series of typhoid outbreaks of note in the previous years. The very same health officials had answered that call for help, including Dr. M. P. Conway, Head of the Water Board. In that year the measures seemed to revolve around containment of the ill and dying and debating about the source.

Got Milk? Got Typhoid?

It was noteworthy that in 1908 the Water Board headed by President M. P. Conway took public issue with the theory of Health Officer Dr. A. H. Brown and which had been endorsed by Dr. Thomas Darlington, Health Commissioner of Greater New York, to the effect that “the typhoid germs came down 14 miles from Moravia to the mains of the this city (Auburn)”. Dr. Conway pronounced the opinion as “rot”. Politics played itself out as Conway and Brown’s divergent and heated opinions found themselves in public discourse at city meetings and in newspaper articles. The Health Department and Dr. Conway had had run- ins before. When Auburn was hit in March of 1907, it was said that source of the contagion was “still shrouded in mystery. The Health department insists that it is the water supply that is at fault and the Water department insinuates that it is the milk supply.” Cayuga County Dairy Company’s milk was tested and though a small trace was found, it was declared ‘good milk’, but that the pasteurizing was not quite adequate. So they tested the water. It was contaminated, but not with sufficiently high enough levels to convince everyone that the lake was the likely source.  As I discovered in further reading, if the samples are not taken at the correct site of contamination, a low count will be the result.  Further field samples taken in a variety of locations did reveal higher counts.

Newspaper Auburn NY Citizen 9 May 1908 Water Board TalksDrs. Brown and Darlington spoke at the First Presbyterian Church in May of 1908 ‘to speak of local conditions and work of sanitation in Auburn.” The main topic presented was “The White Plague”. Consumption. Tuberculosis. Lectures were delivered by physicians and exhibits educated Auburnians on this ever present and real threat. But the doctors weren’t done with the subject of Typhoid. Not when year after year, outbreaks were sickening and killing so many. In an impressive presentation supported by research and facts on the outbreaks, Dr. Brown made it undeniably clear that the contamination was in the water and due to insufficient sanitation. He cited Ithaca’s unfortunate history and declared that

Auburn’s typhoid outbreak was caused by the epidemic in Moravia. During the spring thaw, the ice that was melting and came down the inlet from Moravia was tested and it had the highest bacterial count they had ever witnessed.

The fact that in 1916 a water filtration plant was planned and in 1918 contracted to build for Owasco Lake leads me to believe that the good doctor’s conclusions were most definitely not “rot”. Eventually, the pressing proof had the Water Board allied with Dr. Brown in the ongoing drive to establish a new water filtration plant.

Experts continued to push municipalities at the national, state and local levels to purify municipal water sources. A movement was underway, filtration plants bloomed everywhere and soon the levels of disease fell dramatically. Still Auburn didn’t quite buy in. The new debates revolved not around the source of the disease, but rather what water plant would work best and who was in control of the water plant. A good number of the cities that had built new plants were located on rivers and it was thought that lake water and river water had differing issues.

The Chickens Have Come Home to Roost

More debate over the next few years continued, but as knowledge improved and more filtration systems were installed, the idea of a water plant was becoming acceptable.  The debate topics changed.  It was no longer ‘should we build’.  Instead the issue went to the manner of raising money and just how to convince citizens to approve the water treatment plant. Politics had muddied the waters so to speak.  Questions whirled about the community.  What were the available designs that would work best and what were the cost comparisons for building one? What kind of life would it have and what would the ongoing maintenance needs be? How would rates be controlled?  Everyone had an opinion and everyone had a stake in it. Politicians and respected leaders worried about who had authority over the fundraising. It was thought that the Water Board did not have the legal authority to implement the fundraising and in fact, the Water Board was labeled as reckless. It was recommended that the citizens should vote on whether or not to build the plant.

“The Water Board’s financial chickens are soon coming home to roost,” declared Democratic candidate for Member of Assembly, Thomas M. Osborne.

In his 1910 campaign speech at a large political meeting held at the Court house, Mr. Osborne spoke on many subjects to the crowd which filled the rooms from wall to wall and overflowed into the hallways. When he arrived fresh from a speech at Owasco, the crowd hooped and applauded. Quieting the crowd, he narrated the history of the Water Board, pointing out its financial weaknesses and failures.  He went on to state that its refusal to be a coordinated member of city government left in doubt its ability to manage the bonds and the water rates to any satisfaction.  Osborn called out the President of the Water Board, M. P. Conway.

“Calling attention to the fact that the President of the Water Board had pronounced as “rot” the theory several years ago that typhoid germs could be carried from…  carelessly supervised by the Water department of Moravia, Cascade and other places…”

Osborne went on to allege that the President of the Water Board’s fixation on milk being the source of the typhoid epidemic was because Osborne was interested in the Cayuga County Dairy Company. Wrapping up that portion of his speech, he stated that he was not opposed to the water filtration plant and declared that the plant proposed by the Water Board was not sufficient for the city of Auburn.

Pending the necessary reorganization of the Water Board and its being brought into proper relation to other city departments he urged the defeat of the filtration plant scheme.

After several years of debate and active campaigning, on November 7, 1916, the citizens of Auburn voted in favor of the new water filtration plant.

At the heart of the contention was money and control. Should the monies involve raising taxes? Assessing property owners? The history of the Water Board and its handling of bonds made people nervous. Women property owners were furious because they did not yet have the vote at that time and they wanted a say. Suffragettes were out in force. But something had to be done and when the politics settled down, the public good was the bottom line and a financing strategy was determined.  It was time.

In 1917 as requested by the Water Board, Auburn’s City Alderman passed a resolution for Issuance of $200,000 in bonds which was formally titled the “Water Filtration Bond”. This time, however, the city had a watch dog and the Water Board was required to report its finances on a scheduled basis. By January of 1918, they had nearly $196, 000 in cash in the coffers.

According to Applied Science and Technology Index, Volume 7, published in 1919, under J. Walter Ackerman, Municipal engineer, Auburn had a new, slow sand water filtration plant underway by 1918. The plant was built and on the corner of Swift Street and Pulsifer Drive and was a two-story field house type of structure.Newspaper Auburn NY Citizen 5 Sep 1918 Rotarians have dinner at the WP tanks

Auburn became enamored with its soon-to-be completed plant in  September of 1920.  Auburn’s Rotary Club arranged for a V.I.P dinner to be held at the plant with the dining tables set up in the newly poured concrete tanks with assurance that “Medicos” were going along in case there was a need for First Aid.

A Brief History

The short history of the water plant tells that in 1894 the City of Auburn bought a plant from a private company for $425,000. At the time of purchase the plant included two pumping stations, one at the lake and one at upper dam containing a 6 million gallon capacity Holly pump which was in rough shape, having been frozen and cracked during the winters and one quadruplex pump, old style and one new Gaskell steam and water wheel driven pump. Over ten years new mains were installed replacing old cement pipes. Eventually pumping capacity was increased at the lower station and the old quadruplex was removed and a new R. D. Wood pump was installed. The new pump was driven by two water wheels on one side and a 650 horsepower McIntosh & Seymour steam engine and three 150 horsepower boilers.

As mechanics improved and demand increased, more improvements were made over the years. A 12 million gallon Snow steam pump and two boilers were installed at the lake which gave the old Holley pump more reserve. Next a new screen well was built at the lake with a 36 inch intake pipe which was 1,875 feet long with a concrete screen on the end in water 45 deep (normal lake level).

Between 1917 and 1920 the new sand filtration plant was built adding new gears and repairing the water wheels. Finally the old Holley pump at the lake was removed and three new electric pumps replaced it. The Snow pump was kept, but in reserve and an additional build to house the electric driven pumps and a McIntosh & Seymour diesel engine. The last old water wheel which had been used to drive the Gaskell pump was removed and a modern water wheel generator was installed to furnish current for the upper house and two of the lower house pumps.

Local unemployment was a problem and the new plant construction and refittings provided jobs for two years. A new reservoir was built out Franklin Street Road with a 30 inch pipe leading to the center of the city. As with any construction, plans had to be changed. Timber rotting and falling into the wheel pit, wrecked the water wheel generator. So they drained the water and the old bridge and raceway was inspected. Since they had the water lowered, it was decided to replace the old bridge with a cement bridge and install new Herring cone gears on the R. D. Wood pump, repairing the drive shaft and installing two new boilers and pipings. Two new clutches on the shaft were installed to enable engineers to cut off the steam engine and use water entirely several months in the year or in case any trouble with the water wheels cut them out and they could run with the steam engine only.

The plant once valued in 1894 at $425,000 was worth $2,000,000,000 by 1935. At that time it was reported that rates were among the lowest in the country.

And, of course, Auburn had clean water and plumbing businesses were flourishing.

Researching the epidemics reminded me that these diseases were feared and rightly so. Yet despite the real fear, the politics and power plays, the water filtration plant played a significant role in advancing the public welfare. The speeches and debates were impressive to read and the passion for the subject fairly leaps off the page. Eventually the debates had to end and the people understood that they had to end the battle of wills and fight the true enemy. Typhoid.

Author’s Note:
Generations later, we turn on our taps, fill a glass with water and drink it without a thought. As an historian, I don’t take anything for granted. I spend so many hours examining the past and learning to appreciate modern living standards. And I am old enough to remember polio and measles. My brother had a mild case of it in the 1940’s, as did my father’s sister in 1925. Consumption was like wildfire in more than one family group in my ancestry. Cholera killed a number of infants of family members that lived along Cayuga Lake in the late 1800’s. Spanish flu killed two of my grandmother’s siblings in Auburn in 1918 within 24 hours of one another.

It was this span of time that I visited the past few days to understand how as a community, my ancestors and their neighbors coped and then sought…together…to find a solution to a healthier life. At first I wallowed with the scientists and physicians and learned the talk about E.coli counts and contamination and studied the statistics and conclusions. Then came the politicians and the businessmen who fought for control of local utilities. Private power companies made fortunes during that time and water treatment was becoming the next boom industry. They both had more than the initial profit gains. They had long term cash flow. No Pollyanna stories here. No famous heroes. Just the people. The people who voted for their own well-being. That said, the people still argue over rates and service to this day. Everywhere.

At least typhoid isn’t in the equation.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

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