St. Helena was another ghost town along the Genesee River that saw its heyday in the 19th century. Located in the Town of Castile, St. Helena was part of Mary Jemison’s (White Woman of the Genesee) land that was given to her by the Seneca Nation in 1797 after she refused the opportunity to go back to white society. Given almost 18,000 acres that stretched out alongside the Genesee, she called it the Gardeau Reservation. Sections were sold off in 1823 after complex arrangements were made through the Senecas and the U.S. government to allow Mary to complete the sale to Jellis Clute, Micah Brooks, and Henry Gibson.
The community of St. Helena was settled in 1826 as the forests were cleared, and the river was used to transport goods northward. Named after the island of Napoleon’s exile, the settlement was designed by an English engineer, who created three zones—residential, commercial, and industrial, a rather modern layout for the time. It was comprised of three streets: Main, Water, and Maiden Lane. In 1828, the New York State Legislature granted Rosel Curtis, John LeFoy, and Joshua Smith the right to build a dam on the river to power their mills. The men also had to construct a lock to allow river traffic to pass through. The town had mostly Baptists and Methodists at the time, who met on alternate Sundays at the schoolhouse until the Baptists built the Oak Hill Baptist Church in 1828. In 1835, a latticework bridge was constructed across the river, which afforded residents from Livingston and Wyoming counties easier access to both sides of the Genesee. Increased traffic through the village meant increased commerce, which was welcomed.
By the 1850s when the Genesee Valley Canal was in business, there were now several saw mills and a grist mill. It also boasted two general stores, a hotel, a blacksmith shop, woodworking shop, a cider mill, and schoolhouse. There were approximately 25 residences at that time. New York State dredged the river from St. Helena to York Landing to facilitate St. Helena and Gibsonville in using the canal to ship their goods of wheat, flour, logs, staves, tan bark, and whisky. The future looked bright for the river towns, but it quickly evaporated when the Civil War began. The first post office was established in 1854 and closed in June 1867. It briefly reopened in February 1897, but was shutdown on June 2, 1897. From then on the mail was delivered by the post office in Castile.
In 1865, the dam was flooded out and never replaced. Business dwindled over those years. Residents moved away and neglected homes rotted into the ground. The area was subject to great flooding in the springtime—the Genesee raging and sweeping away the bridge time after time. The last bridge, which was of iron was torn down in 1950. In the 1920s, Rochester Gas & Electric bought the village site and rented land out to the remaining family, the Streeters. Finally, they threw in the towel and left the lonely spot. In 1952, in anticipation of RG&E’s plans for a power dam, the cemetery residents were removed and reinterred at Grace Cemetery in Castile. Ninety-two bodies were moved, many of them children. Measles and whooping cough were dreaded childhood diseases, which quickly took the lives of many young children in the 1800s and early 1900s.
Here’s one of the colorful stories about life by the river, which made the Buffalo papers.
Considerable excitement arose in St. Helena over Alva Clark shooting his wife on October 11, 1894. Apparently, the couple’s son had just returned from hunting, and asked his father to put away the shotgun, while he got a pail of water for his mother, who was doing laundry. As the dutiful son pumped the water outside, he heard a gunshot and ran back to the house. He found his mother with her shoulder blown away, her jugular vein and lung exposed with blood everywhere. The doctor and constable were immediately sent for from Castile. Dr. Harding, who attended the poor woman, stated the injury was fatal as he picked 17 pieces of bone from the gaping wound. Alva told authorities he was kidding around and said “what if I shot you?” to his spouse right before the blast. He hadn’t meant to really shoot her.
Despite the horrible injury, Mrs. Clark made a remarkable recovery and she exonerated her husband, stating it was truly an accident. We’ll never know for sure what Alva Clark’s intentions were that day, but no doubt there was talk about the incident for years afterward. As an interesting footnote, Alva died in April, 1896–no cause of death given, and Belle Clark remarried a Piper from St. Helena in 1899. Her youngest son, Otto Clark owned the two photos of the school, which are in the slideshow below.
Today, there’s nothing left of St. Helena, but the area is accessible in Letchworth State Park on Trail 13. This is only a snapshot of St. Helena’s short, but storied history. If you’d like to dig further, I recommend Mrs. Anderson’s books below, along with Arch Merrill’s book.
The White Woman and Her Valley by Arch Merrill
Genesee Echoes by Mildred Lee Hills Anderson
St. Helena, Ghost Town of the Genesee 1797-1954 by Mildred Lee Hills Anderson
Buffalo Courier, October 12, 1894, October 27, 1894