Niagara County

1897 Biography - James H. DeGraff

De Graff, James H., was born in the town of De Witt, Onondaga county, N. Y., June 21, 1834, and attended school in the Kinne district in Orville, same county. He came to Buffalo in 1851, where he was employed by Ball & Barton, contractors, then engaged in building the government breakwater and dredging the Erie basin, till the spring of 1852, when he entered the employ of Barton & Richardson, who had contracted to build several miles of the roadbed of the Great Western Railroad in Canada across an extensive marsh between Chatham and Windsor; this engagement continued until the completion of the road, when he returned to Buffalo to the old firm in 1853. In the fall of 1854 he again engaged with Barton & Richardson, who had the contract to enlarge the Erie Canal through Tonawanda. This engagement continued to the fall of 1857, when he went to Virginia in the employ of Barton, Cartwright & Co. in the construction of the Chesapeake and Albemarle Canal between Carrituck Sound and the Elizabeth River near Norfolk, Va. In the spring of 1859 he returned to Tonawanda and was married to Miss Mary Simson, daughter of the late John Simson, who came to Erie county in 1811 and died at his old home in 1893. In 1860 Mr. De Graff was engaged by a part of his old employers and had charge in the development and deepening of the Kanawha River for steamboat navigation above and below Charleston, W, Va. He relates many narrow escapes they had in getting a part of their dredges, dump boats and steamers past the Confederate forts at Charleston and Red House Shoals during the Rebellion, and escaping to the Ohio River in June, 1861, when General McClellan was expected up the river to capture Charleston. In 1863 he formed a partnership with his father-in-law, John Simson, and engaged in lumbering in Northern Michigan, and in the purchase of pine lauds and getting out long timber which was made up into large rafts and towed by powerful tugs to either Port Huron, Detroit, Toledo, Buffalo or Tonawanda. In 1876 he became a member of the banking firm of Evans, Schwinger & Co., with a capital of $25,000, which was merged into the State Bank in 1883, with a capital stock of $100,000, which still exists, and of which Mr. De Graff has been president since its organization.' He is also president of the Tonawanda Gas Light Company, was a charter member of the Buffalo Loan and Deposit Company and has been its vice-president since it was organized. He was elected supervisor of the town of Tonawanda in 1876, 1878 and 1879. In 1884 he built his home on the corner of Gaundry street and Payne's avenue, North Tonawanda, removing from Tonawanda, Erie county, to the north side-Niagara county-where he now resides. Mr. De Graff has three living children: Louis A., who is married and lives at Albion; Lydia M., who married Charles Weston and lives on the opposite corner from her father; and Legrand S., who lives at home, acting as manager for A. Weston & Son, wholesale lumber dealers in town. Mr. De Graff's forefathers-both paternal and maternal-came from Amsterdam, Holland, with the first colony that settled at Schenectady about the middle of the sixteenth century. His mother, Evan Van Eps, was born in Schenectady, N. Y., June 7, 1802, and married in 1823. In the summer of 1825 they came by boat on the Erie Canal, as it was then just finished for traffic, and settled at Orville, in the town of De Witt, Onondaga county, and in which town his mother still lives with her daughter on Manlius street, East Syracuse, in her ninety-sixth year; she retains her mental faculties remarkably well for her advanced age. On June 7, last, at the celebration of the ninety-fifth anniversary of her birth, five generations were represented. She read a passage of Scripture from the old Bible, without glasses, and was handed a copy of the Buffalo Express in which she read a portion of an article, saying that the print was rather fine, and asked for her " specs," as she called her spectacles. On that occasion she related many scenes of the ups and downs of her past life and her school-girl days, and afterward sang in a low tone several verses of hymns she had learned when as a girl she sang in the choir of the old Dutch Reformed church, of which she was a member in her maiden days.

Contributed 2017 by Lisa Slaski from Landmarks of Niagara County, New York, by William Pool, D. Mason & Co., Syracuse, NY, 1897

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