Niagara County


First Sheriff Kept Busy with Frequent Rioting


The list of Sheriffs of Niagara County beginning in 1821 is a long one. Inasmuch as the sheriff is the senior law enforcement officer in the county, it might be of interest to look back over the past 153 years and see who filled that important office. Some of the incumbents had rather exciting and in one case fatal occupancy of the office. The first officers of Niagara County as now constituted were named in the Legislative Act of April 2, 1821 when the Old Niagara County was divided into two counties, Niagara, north of the Tonawanda Creek, and Erie south of that creek.

The first sheriff was Lothrop Cooke of Lewiston. Although he served in that capacity only until the November election he was appointed deputy sheriff by his elected successor Almon H. Millard and he continued to perform most of the active duties of the office for Sheriff Millard. The activities of the sheriff in that period from 1821 to 1825 when this section of the canal was under construction were particularly arduous and in many cases extremely hazardous. With 1,200 Irish workers on this section of the canal and with whiskey so cheap it was passed around to the canal workers every two hours during the 12-hour work day, and readily obtainable when they were off the job, there were many calls for Sheriff Millard.


Invariable he sent Deputy Cooke to quell the quarrels which frequently developed into riots so serious that women and children were locked in their log cabins. With the exception of once when a company of Militia from Batavia was sent for, Deputy Sheriff Cooke, a one-legged giant of marvelous strength and nerve, together with great tact, succeeded single-handed in restoring order. Many and varied are the spectacular exploits of this man. Some years ago I devoted one whole article to his law enforcement activities. Sheriff Almon H. Millard came to this area in 1820 and purchased 700 acres of land lying west of the present Prospect St. Shortly after he built the first frame house in the village a little west of what is now the southwest corner of Prospect St., and West Ave. In 1880 this house called "Millard's White House" was moved south to 26 Bacon St., and there it stands today, somewhat changed but substantially as Sheriff Millard built it in late 1820 or 1821.

In the fall of 1824 Eli Bruce was elected sheriff to succeed A. H. Millard. He had arrived in Niagara County by Ridge Road Stage Coach in 1816. He stopped over for some weeks at Ezra Warren's Tavern at Warren's Corners. Having spent all his money in traveling from his home in Massachusetts, he worked some two months for Ezra Warren to recuperate his funds and then took the stage to Lewiston. Surprisingly enough, he was a college graduate and soon had a job as school teacher in Lewiston. In 1823 he became much interested in a recently discovered Indian ossuary and a nearby village site on Eliakim Hammond's farm. This was on the escarpment above the Lower Mountain Rd. and the Blackman Rd. It was the largest ossuary ever discovered in Niagara County.


Mr. Bruce had a short but spectacular career as sheriff. He was the first Sheriff to occupy the newly completed combined jail, courthouse and sheriff's quarters in 1825. In Sept. 1826 the celebrated Morgan Affair took place and Bruce, a member of Lockport Lodge 73, F&AM, with the purest motives, became implicated to such an extent that Gov. DeWitt Clinton, himself the leading Mason in the state, removed Bruce from office. He stated at the time that it was the most regrettable act he had ever been compelled to perform.

The governor appointed John Phillips of Youngstown to fill out the unexpired term of Bruce. Sheriff Phillips served from 1827 to 1830 without any spectacular events so far as we have learned.

In 1830 Hiram McNeil assumed the office of sheriff. He came to Cambria about 1815 when the county was largely a wilderness. He became very popular and in 1836 was appointed county judge. From 1838 to 1840 he served as supervisor from Cambria. His term as sheriff began during the peak of Anti-Masonic excitement when in Niagara County as elsewhere in Western New York the Anti-Masonic Political party controlled nearly every public office. We have no record of any exciting events connected with his term as sheriff. He died in May, 1861, at the age of 66 and is buried in Molyneaux Cemetery.

The next sheriff was George Reynale, 1833-36, after whom Reynale's Basin was named. He had settled there as soon as the canal was completed. He erected a frame structure on the north bank of the canal and opened a grocery store. He soon bought staves and other products and shipped them to eastern markets via the canal. Later he broadened his activities to include a steam saw mill on the canal in East Lockport. The chief product of this s saw mill was planks for steamships. By 1847 the mill was equipped with facilities for sawing "the Lockport marble or variegated limestone."

Mr. Reynale was prominent in Whig politics and served as postmaster of the first Post Office in Royalton located at Reynale's Basin. About 1861 he was appointed Postmaster of Lockport having taken up his residence in this place about 1853. The Lockport Daily Courier of June 16, 1853 describes a boat built by H. F. Cady of Market St. for Reynales and Mead to be used for shipping lumber to or from Great Lake ports. In 1854 the same paper states that a raft load of valuable lumber belonging to this firm while being towed across the upper Niagara broke loose and drifted over the falls.


During George Reynale's Incumbency the court rooms, jail and sheriff's residence were still in the one building erected in 1825. There were only four cells in this jail and one of them being the dungeon it left only three for ordinary criminals. Often these three cells were so overtaxed there could be no privacy and men of prominence who unfortunately had been arrested for debts were incarcerated with drunks, thieves and other criminals.

On July 27, 1836 three prisoners escaped. A reward of $125 was offered by Sheriff Reynale for their capture. The Niagara Democrat on July 29 states that - "The condition of the jail is so bad that no exertions of those having it in charge can guard against the escape of prisoners."

Inasmuch as the recently abandoned jail is being razed and considerable erroneous information has been published, I should like to state that this brick jail was not completed until 1892 and is in no way "historic." It is our third jail and stands almost exactly where the 1825 structure described above, was built. The old stone walls still seen west and north of the Sheriff's late residence are the remains of the second jail completed in 1842. This jail and the 1825 jail were the scenes of several historic events.

Contributor: Unknown.
Source: Lockport N.Y., Union-Sun & Journal, Friday, August 4, 1961

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This page was last updated 08/12/2022