What comes to mind when you think of a ghost town? For me, it’s the image of old, wooden buildings falling apart, creaky doors coming off hinges and flapping in the wind or tumbleweeds blowing across a dirt road, like a scene from an old TV Western.
There are probably dozens of lost towns across the Finger Lakes, places that time forgot, that commerce and people left behind, for one reason or another. Perhaps the most notable is the lost town of Williamsburgh (some historical references leave off the letter “h”), located just a few miles west of Conesus Lake. In 1792 it was the first settlement in what was then the wilderness of Upstate New York.
All traces of Williamsburgh have since vanished – with one exception – a quiet, old burial ground surrounded by a wrought iron fence that shows the ravages of time. But it isn’t just any old cemetery. In fact, two of Rochester’s founders rest there, along with several generations of their descendants. While Colonel Nathaniel Rochester resides in Mt. Hope Cemetery in the city that bears his name, his partners, Major Charles Carroll and Colonel William Fitzhugh, were laid to rest in Williamsburgh Cemetery – near the estates they built on the land they called home.
Williamsburgh began before these three men left Maryland around the year 1800 to carve out a new life on the frontier. This first settlement among the Senecas was founded by Captain Charles Williamson, a native of Scotland and a land agent for a wealthy Englishman named Sir William Pulteney. Williamson was hired to oversee the development of 1 million acres of virgin land. He chose to locate his new settlement near the confluence of Canaseraga Creek and the Genesee River, overlooking a fertile green valley that offered the promise of prosperity to anyone who could work the land – which he would call Williamsburgh.
America’s First Planned Community
Amazingly, Williamson cut a 150-mile road through the wilderness, from what is now Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He brought surveyors and builders with him. They laid out a town square and 100 building lots including a store, a blacksmith shop, a tavern and a distillery. He attracted 70 German families to settle in the new town, which would become one of the first planned communities in America. A promoter as well as a land agent, in 1793 Williamson organized the first agricultural fair in the wilderness. People of wealth and stature traveled there from afar to enjoy horse races and experience the lush Genesee Valley.
When I visited the town of Williamsburgh on a recent fall day, the only sound I heard was the steady thump of golf ball-sized walnuts dropping from a scraggly black walnut tree that shaded gravestones. In the distance, I saw the massive American Rock Salt mine towers off Route 390, and heard cars speed by on Route 63 – their drivers likely oblivious to the history here, except perhaps for a glance toward the well-worn, historic sign announcing Williamsburgh Cemetery just down Abele Road.
Legacy of a Lost Town
Many of the stone and marble grave markers in Williamsburgh Cemetery are worn from time and the elements, and the last burial was around 1915. But the town’s decline came long before that. The mystery of what happened to Williamsburgh has been partly solved by historians. It’s been determined that the original German immigrants were ill-suited to frontier life and abandoned the land for Canada in 1794. By 1803, Williamsburgh was already on its way to becoming a ghost town. By the 1860s, only the blacksmith shop remained, and the lone building was eventually relocated. Farmers cleared the land for agricultural purposes and other settlers may have taken foundation stones for their own use.
By this time, the Carrolls and Fitzhughs had built grand estates just outside the town, named Hermitage and Hampton respectively. Colonel Nathanial Rochester settled on the land the men had developed 20 miles north, by the high falls in what would become Rochesterville. Life carried on in places like Geneseo, which had won the county seat title over Williamsburgh, largely through the efforts of the Wadsworth brothers, who were Geneseo’s first early settlers and landowners. Much of this land remains the property of Wadsworth descendants today, and Austin Wadsworth was instrumental in establishing the National Warplane Museum in Geneseo.
Although Colonel Williamson died in 1807, reportedly of “Genesee Fever,” he also had a hand in establishing the towns of Bath and Caledonia. In addition, the rich equestrian history of Livingston County can be traced back to Captain Williamson’s first agricultural fair and horse races in 1793. The tradition continued with the Fitzhugh descendents, founders in 1876 of the foxhunts that live on in the local Genesee Valley Hunt (GVH) Cup Races, and now benefit the Golisano Children’s Hospital.
“Williamsburgh could have kept going. But the village itself just didn’t prosper,” said Amie Alden, Livingston County historian. In fact, Major Carroll didn’t even see fit to bring his own family to New York from Maryland until 1815.
“This was the ultimate frontier, and in that time period many Senecas were still here,” said Alden. Interesting to note, a University of Buffalo archaeological dig in the 1970s located the foundation walls of some of Williamsburgh’s buildings, and found artifacts like pieces of china, knives, buttons, glass bottle stoppers, shoe buckles and animal bones – but no Indian arrowheads.
In 1996, around 45 descendants of the German families that originally abandoned the town of Williamsburgh made a pilgrimage from Canada to visit the place where their ancestors navigated life in a new land.
Although the town of Williamsburgh is now lost in the pages of history, much of the surrounding land has seen growth and prosperity. A visit to the Williamsburgh Cemetery is a reminder of the vision and bravery of the area’s earliest settlers, and the love they had for this local land.
by Ray Levato
Ray is a retired news reporter/anchor at WHEC-TV Ch. 10 in Rochester.