History From America's Most Famous Valleys
Frontiersmen of New York
by Jeptha R. Simms
Albany, NY 1883
Volume I, Page 386
The Fort Plain Bridges.--The third bridge (There were others down river) over the Mohawk was erected at the lower end of an island in the river, and was situated nearly a mile above the present Fort Plain bridge. It fact this structure consisted of two bridges with several rods of road between them, the shorter one on the southern shore, the main channel of the river being on the north side of the island, terminating southerly near the store of James Oothout, an early tradesman. Dea. James Pollock now resides near this southern bridge termination. It was named the "Montgomery Bridge," but came to be called in its neighborhood, "Oothout's Bridge." The commissioners for its erection were John Beardsley, Esq., of East creek, Col. Charles Newkirk, and Col. Peter Wagner, of Palatine Church, for the north side, and Oothout, Gansevoort, Dygert, Arndt and Keller for the south shore. Beardsley, himself a millwright, was the contractor for its erection, and Philip Washburn, who had worked with Burr, was his Boss carpenter. McCabe assured the writer that he too, worked upon this bridge, especially upon the southern part. These, like many early bridges, were constructed of wood, were not covered, and rested mainly upon wooden piers or supports. The toll house was upon the Fort Plain bank of the river. The timber for the north bridge came mostly from the Wagner farm, while that of the south bridge came from Snellsbush. Its completion was celebrated with no little pomp on the 4th of July, 1806, and took place on the north bank of the river, not far from the bridge. The facts attending this celebration were obtained mainly from the late George Wagner, a boy at that period. Gen. Peter C. Fox, in full uniform and mounted upon a splendid grey horse, was Grand Marshal on the occasion; and had at his command a company of artillery, with a cannon, and Capt. Peter Young's well mounted cavalry.
The latter company is said to have trotted across the bridge to test its strength, and a severe one that would naturally be; besides, several yoke of oxen were driven over it to obtain a farther proof of its completeness, while a cannon blazed away at one end of it. Some one delivered an oration on this occasion. A dinner was served at the public house of the elder George Wagner to the multitude, who looked upon the completion of this enterprise as a marked event, and, indeed, such it was, for the services of ferrymen who had pulled at the rope for years a little below, were now at an end, and the delay and danger of crossing by ferriage was obviated.
Methinks I can see the table on which this dinner was served, groaning under its burden of good eatables; its head adorned with a good sized pig roasted whole, a sight yet common fifty years ago, but now seldom seen at the festive board. This Wagner homestead is the present residence of the old innkeeper's grandson, Chauncey Wagner. This remarkable bridge celebration was kept up three successive days, the parties dancing each night at the Wagner tavern, where Washburn and his hands boarded. From the following incident, we must suppose the erection of this bridge began in the autumn of 1805. Spiles were driven for the abutments, and this was being down, with a crowd of witnesses looking on, when a wag placed a large pumpkin upon the top of a spile, and the falling weight sent pumpkin enough for a small pie into everybody's face.
When this bridge was erected, nearly all there was of Fort Plain as a settlement, which took its name from the military post near by, was in the vicinity of this bridge. True, Isaac Paris had a few years before been trading at the now Bleeker residence in the present village, and Casper Lipe had another store for a time near the creek bridge; but besides the Oothout store, Conrad Gansevoort had one half a mile below, at Abeel's; while on the hill near the meeting house, Robert McFarlan was then trading, besides, there were several mechanics within the same distance, all of whom are said to have done a prosperous business. Al toll gatherer, for some years at the new bridge, was Peter Pifer, a somewhat eccentric German, who resided in the toll house; and was succeeded as believed, by the widow of Andrew Oothout. Pifer and his wife were an old couple without children, who always kept themselves tidy. They had several white woolly dogs, a marked feature in their domestic economy. Said the late Cornelius Mabee, when the bridge became dilapidated, was condemned and toll was no longer collected, Domine Wack, who usually crossed it on horseback, was asked as he was about to go upon it, if he was not afraid to ride over it? "No," he replied, my faith is so strong that I fear no evil." As chance would have it, when the bridge finally fell, the domine had passed over it on horseback just before, so that his faith out lasted the bridge. The ice took off the northern or principal structure of this Island Bridge, says Abram Sparks, an eye witness of the event, in April 1825, and after it had served the public for nearly 19 years. The bridge between the island and the southern shore was allowed to stand several years later, until it rotted down. When the island bridge on the main channel went off, a ferry was established opposite the growing village, near the present bridge, which served the public for years.
In 1828, the second bridge was erected at Fort Plain to take the place of the Island Bridge. It was completed and its gate opened for carriages on the first of January, 1829. It was a substantial covered bridge, resting on three piers, and was erected by Matthias Langdon as Boss carpenter, with a good corps of assistants; and remembered among them were John Clum, Capt. George Dunckel, Wm. Wagner and Baltus Dillenbeck. As the bridge stock at the island had not been a very profitable investment, few were desirous to invest in this much needed enterprise. Its stockholders were Henry and Robert Crouse, brothers; Lawrence and Nicholas Gros, brothers; Dr. Joshua Webster; Charles and Joseph Wagner, brothers; and Peter J., son of the latter; Peter P. Wagner, son of Col. Peter Wagner, John Brookman, Chauncey Houpt, and his daughter, Mrs. Doctor Jefferson.
This bridge stood until the spring freshet of 1842, when about eight o'clock one morning two thirds of it, the two north bents, went off almost bodily with the ice. One bent lodged on Ver Planck's island, and the other on the flats of Nicholas Gros about a mile below the village, from whence the timber was recovered. David Heath, of Port Leyden, N. Y., assured the writer May 23, 1865, that he resided at Fort Plain when this disaster happened. Strange as it may seem, when this bridge was erected its tollhouse was located on the south end toward the flats, so that if anything happened to the bridge, the family living in the dwelling would be isolated and its retreat to terra firma cut off. At the time of this disaster Ebenezer Holmes, and old gentleman, was the gatekeeper, and Heath (who said his own wife was a niece of Theodore Buss, the bridge builder), took Holmes and his family from the tollhouse, which fortunately did not go off, although the abutment under it was very much shattered, and conveyed them to the dwelling of Warren Holmes, in the village. Before this disaster befel the bridge, the south stretch of it had settled, and Elisha Wilcox, who moved buildings, had raised it with screws; and Capt. George Dunckel was about to repair it. Possibly this raising of the bent saved this portion of the bridge, and with it the tollhouse. The bridge was reconstructed in the summer of 1842, and Capt. George Dunckel was Boss carpenter of the job.
A Bullet Hole in a Broad-axe.--While the bridge was being replaced, William Wagner, a carpenter at work upon it, received a new broad-axe just made at Little Falls. Capt. Dunckel told him he had seen such an axe through which a rifle ball had been fired. Wagner was incredulous; would not believe such a thing feasible, and offered to bet a dollar it could not be done. The bet was taken, and Capt. Horace Thayer, living in the place, and known to have a good rifle, was called upon to decide the bet. Joseph Sparks stuck the axe into a piece of timber on the bank of the river, and with chalk drew a circle in its center. Thayer, three or four rods off, taking a rest for sure aim, sent a bullet entirely through the axe, making a smooth round hole at the entrance, but leaving it in a rough and disfigured condition. Dunkel told Wagner he would not have taken the money had not the latter doubted his work. "Well," said Wagner, "I'll give you two dollars to put the hole shut again." This novel event afforded much jesting at the time; and if any of the workmen desired to tease Wagner afterwards, they had only to put the disfigured axe in a conspicuous place.
The bridge in question is the bridge of today. A project for a free bridge was started in the winter of 1857, when its friends succeeded in getting the Legislature to repeal an important part of the charter for the old bridge. Without stopping to discuss the propriety of granting especial privileges today, and legislating them away tomorrow, because ti can be done, I may observe that a door for litigation was not only opened, but the way to a free bridge rendered feasible; and its projectors, in the spring of 1857, at once set about building an iron bridge directly above the other. The mason work had not been completed when the labor was estopped by an injunction, which delayed its completion until the summer of 1858, when it was brought into use and the old bridge ceased taking toll. At the end of a term of litigation, the free bridge projectors became possessed of the old bridge, resulting in a serious loss to its latest stockholders. The iron bridge was finally disposed of to raise and put in good condition the old wooden structure, and now it looks as though that might well serve the public for several decades to come.
The Fort Plain free bridge movement, had a direct tendency to make nearly all the other bridges on the river free bridges; the time having arrived when the enterprise of the country demanded the measure. In 1859 an act was passed to erect a free bridge at Canajoharie, or compel the sale of the old one, to be made free, which result followed. Indeed, such should have been the law for the fort Plain bridge, compelling all parties interested to submit to a just appraisal.
A Singing Match.-- A man named Crandall, one of the workmen upon the Island Bridge, remained in the neighborhood and taught a singing school, at which time one Smith had a similar school at Palatine Bridge. On some occasion--perhaps a year or more after the bridge celebration--a challenge was given by one of these singing masters and accepted by the other, to test their singing merits by pitting, at a public rehearsal, school against school. Crandall had about a dozen well-trained scholars, and Smith nearly forty, when they came together in the ball-room of the George Wagner tavern. Doctor Webster, Jonathan Stickney, and a third person not remembered, were the umpires chosen to hear the parties sing, and decide between them. The room was packed, the singing was good, and seemed about equally meritorious; but it became apparent to the umpires that a bitter rivalry exited between the contestants, which might end in a quarrel if not in blows, if they made a decision the; hence the committee very discreetly adjourned the meeting, taking time to consider the matter, which, at the end of 75 years, has not expired--George Wagner.
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