In 1765, William Gilliland, an Irish soldier turned successful colonial merchant, moved his family
up the Hudson river from New York city to the wilds of northern New York, where he had purchased large tracts of land on the west shore of Lake Champlain between Split Rock and the Boquet River. Within a decade his farming communities, which included present-day Essex, were well established.
In 1777 the revolution reached Essex. The young settlement lay directly in the path of Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne’s march from Canada to Saratoga. Gilliland, who sympathized with the American cause, also became involved in the bickering between Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, thus earning Arnold’s lifelong enmity.
By 1778 the settlements were in ashes. In the period of displacement following the war, Gilliland returned, now joined by a growing stream of young settlers and entrepreneurs eager to carve out new lives and fortunes on the northern frontier. Soon forest products, iron, leather and textile manufacturing, stone quarrying, ship building and lake commerce made the little harbor town of Essex prosperous – a principal port on Lake Champlain. By the early 1800’s two shipyards were flourishing near the South Bay. If the Revolution had nearly finished off Gilliland’s settlement, the War of 1812 contributed largely to its growth. At least 250 bateaux and two sloops – the Growler and the Eagle – were produced in Essex yards and used in Commodore MacDonough’s American fleet.
Before 1790 a ferry service had been established between Essex and Vermont. First driven by sail, the boats later were powered by horses on a treadmill, still later by steam. The commercial center of Essex was a natural stopping place for travelers; the first tavern was built in 1786 and was quickly followed by at least a half dozen other inns and taverns, two of which still stand on Essex’s Main Street.
The opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823, connecting the northern producers to the urban markets of the south, tremendously stimulated economic growth in Essex. Shipyards hummed with activity; dozens of Essex -built canal boats joined the sloops which whitened the lake with their sails. Shipbuilding, lumbering, the mining and processing of iron, lake commerce and agriculture provided prosperity for the population of 2,351 counted in the 1850 census.
Essex’s maritime-dependent economy collapsed with the coming of the first railroads to the Champlain Valley in 1849. By 1860 the population had fallen to 1,633. It never regained its; previous level; the 1980 census showed only 880 people in the town.
With the declining population there was little demand for new housing. With the cessation of economic growth no new buildings were needed or could be afforded. For the most part what was standing in 1860 had to make do; it was used and preserved. As a result Essex today retains one of the most remarkably intact ensembles of pre-Civil War architecture in New York State.
The early nineteenth century middle class merchants, shipwrights, hotel keepers and lawyers, shoemakers and tailors of Essex were conservative, canny and fiercely individual. They tended to be conventional in their tastes, while at the same time knowledgeable and particular in the quality of their workmanship. The town they built and the structures they left behind are tangible evidence of their concern for both their private and public lives.