News Staff Writer
KEESEVILLE — One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, Keeseville was a bustling commercial and industrial center. The town has seen horse nails factories, grist mills, furniture plants and a textile factory come and go from its river banks.
Today, most of the action has left the sleepy little town, with many vacant apartments and storefronts advertising their desire for renters. But three bridges spanning the Ausable River and impressive stone architecture remain as a testament to the town’s glory days.
As part of the 2009 Lake Champlain Quadricentennial celebration, Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH) is offering historical tours of many of the towns in the Champlain Valley. The May 9 tour of Keeseville was the second in a series that includes Westport, Essex, Wadhams, Elizabethtown, Port Henry, Ticonderoga and Ironville. Although just a few miles from Lake Champlain, the real defining characteristic of Keeseville is another body of water: the Ausable River.
“So much of the essence of Keeseville is the river,” said AARCH’s Executive Director Steven Engelhart.
But it’s not just the river that attracted settlers to its banks. It’s the steep drop in the river and fast moving currents that caused Keeseville’s downtown and industrial areas to spring up where they did.
“It is the opportunity to use the river for power that is common to communities all along the Ausable,” Engelhart said.
Keeseville’s best-known 19th-century industry was horse nails. The river powered machinery that made nails to fasten horseshoes to a horse’s hoof from the 1840s until about 1900. From the tour meeting spot in a park near the river, many of the town’s prominent landmarks could be seen. Settled in 1808, Keeseville has 125 structures on the National Historic Register.
Since Keeseville straddles the Ausable, Engelhart observed, all the various layers of the community can be seen at once. From our low vantage point the industrial buildings were right in front of us on the water’s edge, the homes of the wealthy business owners were just up the hill and at the top of our sight line was the imposing stone structure of the Congregational Church.
Saturday’s rain did not dampen the spirits of the roughly 15 people, many of them with personal ties to the town, who showed up to take the tour. The spot we were standing on, Engelhard told us, was once the site of R. Prescott & Sons. The company manufactured wood furniture, windows and doors and at one time employed more than 100 people. It closed in 1965 and the building later burned. This was the last large local industry to leave Keeseville. One tour member remembered how in the winters of her childhood, the frozen Ausable would contain beautiful, colorful swirls of snow and ice, byproducts from R. Prescott & Sons that today would be recognized as chemical pollution.
Our group crossed the river via a pedestrian suspension bridge, built in 1888, and dubbed the “Swing Bridge” by locals. After just a few steps onto the green metal structure the bridge demonstrates how it got that moniker. To the south is the Upper Bridge, a metal truss bridge, currently closed to traffic, and to the north is perhaps the most famous of Keeseville’s landmarks — the Stone Arch Bridge, built in 1842. All three are designated as National Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks.
Across the Swing Bridge, up an iron staircase, at the top of Liberty Street is an ostentatious monument to the Catholic faith. St. John’s Church, a huge green anorthrocite and limestone structure, stands atop the village. The church, finished in 1901, is still called the “French” church today.
“This was making a statement,” Engelhart said. “It certainly outshone the Irish Catholic Church.”
Most of the workers in Keeseville’s industries were French-speaking Canadians, Engelhart explained. A carving of classic Canadian symbols — maple leaves and a beaver — brand the outside of the structure. By the turn of the century, train travel and canals made it easier to move building materials like the stone used in the construction of St. John’s. The church is unlike the buildings closer to the river, which are made mostly of easy-to-find, local Potsdam sandstone. The church resembles those seen in Quebec or France.
“There was a little showing off here,” Engelhart said.
Continuing down Main Street, (Keeseville’s commercial center is actually called Front Street) we passed the old Keeseville High School. Replaced by Ausable Valley Central School in the 1970s, the building is now home to the village offices and AARCH, among other things. One block later we entered the town’s real historic district. Buildings here have a Greek Revival design made of brick and the area is known as the “Kingsland Block,” after two of the town’s most successful brothers. Across the street, the home of Richard Keese, after whom the town takes its name, still looks like it did 1823. The stone building is arguably the most beautiful home in the village.
A stone building across the street that once was the administration office for the Keeseville National Bank, as well as part of the horse nail factory, will soon be the new site of AARCH’s office. The black lettering of “Horse Nails” is still faintly visible under a coat of white paint. Engelhart and a two-man construction crew are busy restoring the inside of the building to its original appearance.
“We start by peeling everything away to see what we have left,” Engelhart said. “The lead paint presented a preservation challenge.”
AARCH recently bought the stone building as well as the horse nail factory complex below it. Last fall, a group of inmates from Moriah Shock Correctional Facility in Mineville helped to clean it out. The long building with wooden floors was once used as a factory to sew uniforms, we were told by one woman who worked there 35 years ago. The building seems to hang precipitously on the edge of the river and it vibrates with the rushing water directly below. Vacant now for 25 years, Engelhart said he isn’t sure about the future of the building. Small, high windows with little natural light and the constant roar of the water seem to rule out residential possibilities.
“What eventually happens here, we’ll see,” he said. “We like to work on old buildings.”
Originally the shipping office for the nail factory, the Ausable Valley Grange is one of only a few in the Adirondacks that are still functioning.
Photos/Heather Sackett/Lake Placid News
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