Photographs below of the canal and cemeteries by Darlene Duprey
Waterloo, New York, is a quiet village in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. Unless you are a history buff or a local, it is unlikely you would know of its existence, much less the incredible role it played in the history of the United States. I know about Waterloo because I spent four years in Seneca Falls, just five miles down Highway 5 and 20, and grew to love this region, steeped in such history, yet modest in its claims to fame. It is also the birthplace of Memorial Day.
Waterloo is the county seat of Seneca County. It saw its heyday when the Erie Canal was the main thoroughfare for materials and goods, but was always home to Cayuga Tribal members who fished on the Seneca River. White folks found their way to this part of the country as trades people in the 1500s and then as invaders in the 1700s, and eventually as settlers and construction engineers.
Commerce and Expansion
The Seneca River provided food and commerce for centuries to the native peoples. The power of the river was harnessed by Samuel Beard, the first white settler, when he built his grist mill, and Waterloo became a gathering place for trade and milling. By the early 1800s, people were moving to the area, and a village was being born.
Geography plays a big role in the evolution of this area. Three sets of rapids stood between Lake Cayuga and Seneca Lake with a drop of over 40 feet between them. This was a barrier to trade, and in 1813, this gap in altitude was tamed with the completion of a canal and locks between Waterloo and Seneca Falls. This proved such a success, that another was begun that would connect the Cayuga-Seneca Canal to the Erie Canal, thereby opening a path from Albany to Buffalo.
Fertile Ground for Change
With all this trade going on, it could be expected that more than just goods were coming into the area. Waterloo and Seneca Falls were fertile ground for new ideas and movements, both political and social. Civil Rights activists, Quakers, and Republicans gathered to discuss the inequities of the time, including women’s rights and rights of colored peoples. In 1848, the first Women’s Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls.
Almost 13 years later, on April 12, 1861, a different kind of protest occurred in South Carolina, plunging the United States into a Civil War that would cross five Aprils, ending with the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. During these intervening Civil War years, this sleepy area in Western New York would become a stop on the Underground Railway, a key spot for transporting goods from the industrial North to Union soldiers fighting in the South, and a gathering place for some of the brightest political minds in the country.
Calling All Able-bodied Men
Like many small communities, there was a fierce patriotic response to calls for defense of the Union. Initial recruitment of soldiers was robust, with local companies formed and young men eagerly enlisting to demonstrate their patriotism and belief in duty honor, and country. Waterloo sent its share of soldiers.
It is easy for me to imagine what it was like back in 1861. I can see myself, hugging a brother or father or cousin or uncle, having packed a special token in their backpack to remind them of home, and watching as they marched in formation down Fayette Street for the three-day trek to Gettysburg.
A Lack of Information
But as the war dragged on, the reality of it all sunk in. Folks at home continued to thrive in spite of so many of its sons fighting in other parts of the country. Those who remained behind in Waterloo found ways to keep the mill going, the crops planted and harvested, and the goods moving up and down the canal. They waited for word from their loved ones. Mail took weeks.
Information was passed along the canal, but it was, likely as not, just to be rumor. There was no official notification of battle dead and wounded. Instead, people relied on printed lists in the newspaper.
Lives were forever changed because a loved one did not come home. Family and friends in Waterloo surely experienced days and nights of grief, possibly anger, and moments of longing for life to return to normal.
Honoring the Fallen
The Civil War tested the nation as nothing had, at least up until January 6, 2021. Battles were bloody, and identification of the dead, much less proper burial, was not guaranteed. In the years after the Civil War, communities found many ways to honor the living and the dead.
It is estimated that 620,000 men died in the Civil War. 39,000 of these were from New York State. 58 came from Waterloo. The fact that 58 bodies made it back to Waterloo for burial is, in and of itself, a rather remarkable testament to how their sacrifice was valued.
A Ritual of Remembrance
Out of all of this came recognition that some official national observation was necessary to acknowledge the sacrifice and help communities heal. While laying of wreaths and dedication of monuments occurred all across the country, it wasn’t until 1868 that an official day of remembrance was created.
On May 5, 1866, the Village was decorated with flags at half mast, draped with evergreens and mourning black. Veterans, civic societies and residents, led by General Murray, marched to the strains of martial music to the three village cemeteries. There impressive ceremonies were held and soldiers’ graves decorated. One year later, on May 5, 1867, the ceremonies were repeated. In 1868, Waterloo joined with other communities in holding their observance on May 30th, in accordance with General Logan’s orders. It has been held annually ever since. (https://waterloony.com/memorial-day/history/)
How Things Have Changed
Although it is now called Memorial Day and not Decoration Day, we still are asked to remember the sacrifice of those who “gave their lives that that Nation might live”. This now extends to all who served in the many wars and conflicts we have engaged in since the Civil War.
While Veteran’s groups still gather and put flags on graves, sadly, (at least in my mind), Memorial Day has taken on much more of a commercial meaning, signaling the start of summer travel, three-day vacations, and endless car, mattress, and RV sales. Honoring the sacrifice of those who died in service, now seems secondary.
Waterloo, NY is no longer the vital community it once was. Today, it is a drive-through town visited when you are getting off the New York State Thruway on your way to do some wine tasting in the Finger Lakes, heading to Watkins Glen for a race, or visiting some of the state parks in the area.
But should you want to, I encourage you to spend some time in this village. Drop in at the Waterloo Memorial Day Museum and then drive down the road and visit the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Take a boat ride on the canal. Feel, touch, and soak up the history.
I take special pride in having visited the grave sites of those 58 Waterloo men who answered the call of their Nation and sacrificed their lives in service of an ideal. If you are ever in the area, I encourage you to do the same.
3 responses to “Memorial Day, 2023”
No mention of the scythe tree? IKE graduate 1973, 45 years teaching American History.Loading…
How lovely to revisit Waterloo and Seneca Falls and read again about the rich history of the area. Those towns will always hold a special place in my heart!Loading…