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History of Seneca Falls

The Birthplace of Women’s Rights, the Town Seneca Falls, comprises 25.3 square miles and is nestled in the Finger Lakes region located at the northern tip of Cayuga Lake to its east, Seneca Lake to its west, and is home to approximately 8,650 residents. It is one of ten townships in Seneca County and its largest community.

The first settlers along the Seneca River arrived in the area in the late 18th century among General John Sullivan’s March with orders from General George Washington to remove the Cayuga Indians from the Finger Lakes region. Job Smith was the first early settler who later moved on to Waterloo and further west. Soon following Smith was the arrival of Lawrence Van Cleef who had seen the potential of the area and the rapids during Sullivan’s March. He became the first European settler in 1789 in the area of The Flats.

In 1796, Col. Wilhelmus Mynderse penned in his journal that he “left Albany Monday 9th and settled at Seneca Falls May 16th, 1796” in the area of Mynderse Mills, then named for him. Wilhelmus is recognized for his numerous contributions to industry and community during his life here including donating land and monies for the first Mynderse Academy school in Academy Square Park. A historic marker at Cayuga Street in the park attributes Wilhelmus as the founder of Seneca Falls.

Then on March 24, 1804, Seneca County, New York was erected and divided into six towns: Junius, Fayette, Romulus, Ovid, Hector and Ulysses. The Town of Seneca Falls was then organized on March 26, 1829, when the existing town of Junius was divided into four towns.

In 1818, the canal locks were built along the Seneca River which allowed boating around the rapids. By 1828, the Cayuga-Seneca Canal had been connected to the Erie Canal allowing for ease of transport and expanding local manufacturing. The rapids along the Seneca River commanded the attention of business and industry to Mynderse Mills forging a name for the area and the men of enterprise who founded numerous companies along the waterfront.

Gary V. Sackett, in 1829, was elected the first Town Supervisor and his home still stands today at 115 West Bayard Street. On April 22, 1831, the area known as Mynderse Mills was incorporated and formally became known as the Village of Seneca Falls. The first President elect was resident Ansel Bascom whose former residence also remains at 4 East Bayard Street. Both Sackett and Bascom are buried at Restvale Cemetery in Seneca Falls.

As the new village grew its industry, it was becoming a hot bed for social and religious reform on matters such as abolition of slavery, temperance and women’s rights among local residents and supporters from afar. Further, Seneca Falls was a safeway for Freedom Seekers on the Underground Railroad whereby many found refuge and even settled into residence and work. In July 1848, Jane Hunt, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Ann McClintock, Lucretia Coffin Mott and her sister Martha Coffin Wright had tea to discuss these issues, and they resolved that on July 19 and 20, to hold the first Women’s Rights Convention at the Wesleyan Chapel on Fall Street. This event was the birth of the Women’s Rights Movement. An annual celebration of Convention Days persists to present day.

As the Village’s water power grew, so did the need to expand the Canal. In 1915, New York State began the expansion to include the connecting of the Seneca River with the Canal, making for a wider and deeper passageway. In doing so, the neighborhood known as ‘The Flats’ was demolished with some residences relocated to other parts of the village. The resulting infill of the canal formed the most photographed Van Cleef Lake near New York State Canal Locks 2 & 3.

In the century to follow, Seneca Falls has become the home of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and is where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer were just two who came to call Seneca Falls home. The Town has also heralded the call of Hollywood producing the stars for the Hollywood Walk of Fame at one time and its believed inspiration for Frank Capra’s 1946 film “It’s A Wonderful Life.” In recent years, the annual IAWL festival celebrates the Town as it becomes the fictional “Bedford Falls”, playing host to cast members of the film and drawing crowds to partake in this winter tradition.

In 2011, the village at 180 years old was dissolved and embraced by the Town of Seneca Falls with prospects for future growth, expansion and economic opportunities. In the former village area, you will find two historic districts, 10 properties and districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it is one of twenty designated New York State Heritage Areas throughout the State and is within the Erie Canalway Heritage Corridor.

Visitors are encouraged to begin their visit at the Seneca Falls Heritage & Tourism Center in downtown Seneca Falls, which also houses the Seneca Museum of Waterways & Industry and is the home of the Heritage Area Commission.

We welcome you to visit us and experience all that Seneca Falls has to offer throughout the year- we’ve been waiting for you!