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Our History

Watertown, NY (pop. 26,705) is a small city in Northern New York State. Located approximately 70 miles north of Syracuse and 30 miles south of Canada, it is the county seat and largest population center of Jefferson County (pop.111, 738).

The settling of Watertown in 1800 began a 200-year legacy that continues today. The New England pioneers who chose our area did so based on foresight of creating an industrial center, which would draw its power from the mighty Black River. These men have been described as men of strong feeling, vivid imagination and dauntless courage. They, along with their families, faced many obstacles when they arrived. The terrain was rough and uncleared. The western end of the present Public Square was twelve or fifteen feet higher than the eastern end while the center was a depression that has been described as being large enough for a comfortable skating rink. There was a stream of water having its source south of Clinton Street and running across Stone Street in front of the Arcade, crossing the western end of the Square on its way to the river. Yet, out of this unsightly spot within a few years evolved one of the most beautiful public squares to be found in any city of its time.


Important Watertown Events Tell The Story Of National Progress

(from 1939 Watertown Old Home Week - Souvenir Program
courtesy of the City Historian)

1800 First Settlers Arrived
1801 First Church Erected
1802 First School Created
1802 Water power first used
1804 Watertown made a postal station
1805 Public Square, the present day business section is laid out
1806 Local Medicinal Assoc organized
1808 First paper mill started
1809 First Newspaper begun
1816 First Bank opened. This bank is still doing business
1816 Fire Department organized
1818 Agriculture Fair held and has been held annually to date
1847 First portable steam engine to be made in the United States was made in Watertown NY
1851 First Railroad entered the city
1853 Public water system and illuminating gas works installed
1869 YMCA created
1875 Manufacturer's Assoc forerunner of present Chamber of Commerce organized
1878 FW Woolworth conceived the 5 & 10 store idea in Watertown
1879 Telephone system installed
1881 City Hospital established
1884 Electric lighting system established
1894 Public Square paved. Nearly every street is now paved
1904 Flower Memorial Library built and given to the city
1905 City Park of 200 acres developed
1920 City Manager form of government adopted
1921 Community Chest plan of financing charities adopted
1925 Municipal golf course laid out
1926 Colonial interurban bus lines covering 800 miles established
1927 Municipal hydro-electric power plant opened (7500 hp)
1927 Airplane taxi service established

public square views

The naming of Watertown as the county seat, in 1805, led to much progress in the hamlet. Lawyers such as Benjamin Skinner, Egbert TenEyck, Amos Benedict and Samuel Whittlesey set up practice here. Six hotels were constructed. The Failing Hotel, first known as the Traveler’s House, was built in 1808 at the corner of Main and LeRay Streets. During the War of 1812, the soldiers used it as a barracks. Court Street became both a residential and business street. Small mills and factories sprang up and businesses extended along Factory Street. John Safford, Tuttle & Sill and Otis & Duane launched new stores. Other well-known names such as Norris, Woodruff, Hungerford, Paddock and Fairbanks also engaged in businesses.

Woodruff Hotel

The development of waterpower was the force that started the wheels of progress for the community. Watertown became one of the nations’ principal paper manufacturing communities and can still boast that it has the oldest continuously running paper mill in the nation – Knowlton’s Specialty Papers. Factory Village, which later became Factory Square, had its real beginning when the Black River Cotton and Woolen Manufacturing Company was built in 1813. The mills and businesses depended on the might Black River for its power.

black river harnesses a lot of power

Watertown became an incorporated village in 1816 and continued to prosper. Businesses, industries and population doubled by 1824. Growth continued with the decade between 1850 and 1860 seeing the largest amount of building construction. This was due in part to rebuilding after a devastating fire but also due to new building expansion.

fire department

The Davis Sewing Machine Co. employed about 200 people. The Watertown Steam Engine Co. had assets estimated at $1,000,000. The paper making industry was flourishing. H.H. Babcock’s carriage factory and Watertown Spring Wagon Co. were two of the many businesses that were helping Watertown to thrive. The railroad was of tremendous importance to the economy. People marveled at the telephone, the electric light and even “street name plates” that the City installed.

railway station in JB Wise lot

The next 100 years of history includes the story of our veterans who went to wars and the citizens who helped with the war effort from home. Watertownians took pride in their community and at one time, Watertown was named “The Ideal American City”. Over the years, the economic climate has affected business and industry. However, some of today’s businesses have their roots in our early history. Even though the city is much different from the hamlet of 1800, we can take pride in the rich heritage that was left for us and for future generations.