by Rich Remling, former board member, CNYGS
If you are doing any urban research in the 19th century and early 20th century you’ll want to lay your hands on these books. They are a goldmine of information about city residents and the neighborhoods in which they lived. In my city, Syracuse, you can find them in a number of areas. Besides city hall they are in the Onondaga County Public Library downtown, the law library on the fifth floor of the County Court House and the Syracuse University College of Law Library. There are even a few online at familysearch. To give an idea of the information these books contain I looked through the 1888 volume, Proceedings Of The Common Council And Reports of the City Officers Of The City Of Syracuse, N.Y., For The Fiscal Year 1888. The references below come from this book.
You will find information about lawsuits that were filed against the city. At the Common Council meeting of Jul 2, 1888 the following communication was entered into the Council minutes. “From Mrs. Sarah O. Wright presenting claim for damages in the sum of $1000 for injuries alleged to have been caused by a defective sidewalk near the corner of Montgomery and Taylor streets.” This was forwarded on to the City Attorney for review. Some cases are dismissed, others are settled and some go to trial. Judgments can then be appealed. Cases like Mrs. Wright’s were not uncommon in the 19th century. There were many streets that had wooden plank sidewalks and over time would wear out.
Other claims against the city were found. Take for instance a claim from Richard Reynolds “for damages for alleged injuries sus¬tained by him, by reason of the hook and ladder truck running into his carriage upon the 9th day of June, 1888.” This was also referred to the City Attorney.
There is a ton of information about public works projects. The late 19th century was a time of extraordinary growth as surrounding areas were annexed into the city. Surveys and maps were completed that opened new streets and extended existing ones. The streets eventually were graded, and sewers put in. The sewers were made of cement, brick or tile, and the larger trunk sewers were 60 inches or more in diameter. The roads were either paved with sandstone or cobblestone or were macadamized using small stones that were bound together by a stone dust and water mixture. Contractors were hired to do street sprinkling starting in the spring and ending on October 31st to help keep down the dust. Sidewalk grades were established and plank sidewalks were installed. In order to request a plank sidewalk a certain number of property owners had to sign a petition that was then presented to the Common Council. The city even furnished and attached house numbers on the residences. Numbered houses started appearing in the Syracuse city directories in the 1880s.
Sometimes city residents had to make a request to the city to get a permit to erect something. For instance, Nelson E. Case requested through his alderman permission to “erect and maintain a watering trough in front of his premises No. 231 South Salina street.” This was subsequently referred to the Highway Committee and was favorably passed at the Common Council meeting on Sept 24, 1888.
You can also learn a lot about the city from reading these books. For instance, I knew that cities employed weighers of hay, but I had never heard of vinegar inspectors! Apparently cities paid people to inspect the quality of vinegar. Monthly reports were duly submitted to the Common Council. A big money maker for the city was the issuance of licenses. A total of $36,444.15 was generated from licenses issued to 33 hotels, 46 druggists, 100 storekeepers and 568 ale and beer establishments. Also voter registration and polling occurred in places that might seem foreign to us today. In 1888 depending on what ward and section you resided in, you might have voted in someone’s barn, store, barber shop, office, house or even at the sexton’s office of the Rose Hill Cemetery!
The annual report by the Board of Police Commissioners for 1888 summarized the activities of the police force. A total of 4407 arrests were made; 865 prisoners were taken to the penitentiary; 70 prisoners were arrested on telegrams from other cities; 570 lodgers received shelter; 316 business places were found open during the night time and protection given until the owners could be notified; 374 electric lights were reported as not burning; 129 houses were watched while their owners were enjoying their summer vacations; 94 children were picked up in the streets and brought to their homes; and 42 stray horses were taken to the barn for their protection and care.
The minutes also contained invites accorded to the Mayor and the Common Council to various events. At the Dec 3, 1888 meeting, the Root Relief Corps proffered an invitation to attend their bivouac at the Armory. At the Feb 4, 1889 meeting, the Mayor and Common Council were invited by the School Board to attend graduation exercises at the Wieting Opera House for the first school class of 1889.
You will also find street name changes in these minutes. At the December 17, 1888 meeting, a motion was adopted “That the name of Chestnut Street be and the same is hereby changed to that of Crouse Avenue.” Other name changes over the years were Grape Street to Townsend Street, Foot Street to James Street, Orange Street to McBride Street and Mulberry Street to State Street. Streets were also renumbered as additional side streets were added to the map. Houses were relocated as well. This was especially common in the 1860s and 1870s in Syracuse.
From this cursory look we can see that Common Council proceedings are a must resource for genealogists and house historians!
©2016 Richard Remling