The stranger walked into the Ashtabula shop of Willard, Wells & Co. and asked to see George Willard, one of the partners.
“What is the price for your home?” the well-dressed man asked Willard.
“It’s not for sale,” Willard replied, anxious to return to his work.
“Name your price,” the stranger countered, with the confidence of a man with the money to match his inquiry.
Willard analyzed the situation and the fine clothing of the nervous, 40-some male before him, paused, processed the situation and tossed out a figure that was completely ludicrous.
“$10,000,” Willard said, certain that no sober or sane man would agree to drop that kind of money on his abode, even though it was the best in the village.
The stranger reached into his vest pocket, pulled out his billbook and started dropping the $1,000 bills onto the counter.
“There, $10,000,” Willard said, placing the last bill on the stack. “Now, when may I and my wife move in?”
Planning a battle
The stranger was Peter H. Watson, assistant secretary of war under Edwin Stanton and a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. Watson’s Ashtabula legend, however, would suggest that Watson was no stranger to Ashtabula and George Willard when the real estate transaction was completed on Oct. 4, 1864. Indeed, if you believe many of the fantastic stories written over the years, Peter H. Watson practically ran the War Department from Ashtabula and convened a gathering of Union generals here to plan the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3 1863.
One might even locate a souvenir Ashtabula sesquicentennial (1803-1853) plate at a garage sale or flea market that claims as much.
“Never heard of (the Ashtabula claim),” says John Heiser, a historian with the Gettysburg National Military Park. He said it is a safe bet that Watson, who was indeed one of the two assistant secretaries of war at the time, would have been at Stanton’s side in Washington, D.C., during the Battle of Gettysburg. Further, as most eighth-grade history students will tell you, the Battle of Gettysburg was not planned.
“Nobody plans a battle,” Heiser says. “It just happens by chance ... in the case of Gettysburg, it was a battle by chance.”
Nor would generals leave their armies in the field and take off to some far-flung location to conference with an assistant secretary of war.
“I don’t think it would be (the assistant secretary’s) job to do any planning at all, except to take notes,” Heiser said.
It was common, however, for government workers to escape the oppressive summer heat of Washington for a few weeks. But the concept of Peter Watson holding session with military leaders in Ashtabula, far from the theater of war, is absurd.
Or is it?
According to the guest register of the Fisk House, one of Ashtabula’s popular hotels, P.H. Watson was a guest there in August 1861. He returned in June 1862 and was a guest on numerous dates in July, August and September of 1863. But these visits appear to be in conjunction with railroad, oil company and war materiel business, not planning battles with generals who came to the city incognito, as some have suggested.
On Oct. 4, 1864, he and his wife Roselle were guests at Fisk House, which aligns with historical fact.
Legend persists, however, that Watson was a resident of the city during the Gettysburg battle and even had a special telegraph line strung to his home so he could stay in contact with Stanton and the generals. This legend is perpetuated in newspaper columns and history books, including the otherwise reliable Moina W. Large’s “History of Ashtabula County, Ohio,” published in 1924.
Problem is, the real estate records don’t line up with the story. The sale of George Willard’s palatial home on Park Avenue came 15 months after the Battle of Gettysburg and at a time Watson was said to be suffering from a “softening of the brain” as a result of the grueling schedule he kept as assistant secretary.
It is historical fact that Watson was a resident of Ashtabula, as evidenced by the warranty deed that transferred lots 118 and 119 in Fisk’s Plat and lots 113 and 114 of the Village Plat (the lots were back to back) to Peter H. Watson on Oct. 4, 1864.
According to an 1874 map of the city, Watson also owned 74 acres along the area that is today Collins Boulevard. This holding stretched to the Ashtabula River and made possible the refined living that George Willard and his family enjoyed until Watson purchased the home. It is said that the Willard house had running water that originated on the river-front land where Spring Street entered the community. Further, the Willard home was equipped with a sewer line that emptied in the Ashtabula River. In the years following 1864, there were numerous divisions of this river-front property, and whenever those parcels were sold, easements were retained by Watson and heirs for the spring and other amenities, adding further credence to these stories.
The confounding question, however, is why Peter H. Watson ever came to live in Ashtabula.
Watson was born in Whitby Yorkshire, England, May 24, 1819. His future wife, Roselle R. Pike, was born May 7, 1821, in Broome, N.Y. There appears to be no familial reason to have located here.
The Watson family relocated to Toronto, Ontario, circa 1830, but when Father Watson joined the Rebellions of 1837, he got into trouble with the Crown and was banished from England and all her colonies. The family ended up in Rochester, N.Y., and it would appear that from that point forward, young Peter Watson was on his own.
He and his brother William possessed significant mechanical abilities and in 1843 they opened a foundry and machine shop in Rockford, Ill. Four years later, Peter and Roselle were married in Broomslee, Colesville County, N.Y.
A self-made man, Watson studied law and became a patent attorney in Washington, D.C. In the 1840s, Watson worked with Samuel Morse to protect his telegraph invention and was retained by Goodyear as a patent attorney. Watson’s success, and family, grew during the 1850s. The couple had four sons and a daughter during that decade.
In the fall of 1854, a new grain reaper company, Manny & Co., was formed by partners Ralph Emerson Jr. and Jesse Blinn, and soon thereafter was sued for patent infringement by Cyrus H. McCormick. The litigation that followed was protracted and thorough, and the case ended up before the Supreme Court. Watson was in charge of the case for Manny, and the future secretary of war was associate counsel. And when the case went before the court at Cincinnati, a lawyer by the name of Abraham Lincoln assisted Watson and Stanton.
Thus well connected to the leadership in Washington, Watson was known as one who could sniff out fraud and hold the offender’s feet to the fire. When Stanton was recruited for secretary of war, he made it a condition of his service that Watson join him as assistant secretary.
An article about Watson’s decision to take the job listed his residence as 404 F St., NW, Washington, not Ashtabula. Watson was appointed Jan. 24, 1862, just nine days after Stanton’s appointment.
Watson soon brought to light fraud by a forage supplier who sold to the Army a mix of Indian corn and oats as animal feed. Watson discovered that the supplier was shifting the grains ratio to favor the less expensive component and was thereby cheating the government out of tens of thousands of dollars. One account of the incident states that the supplier quickly admitted guilt and made restitution to keep the matter quiet — there were a number of high-profile persons involved in the company. While Stanton was content with that arrangement, Watson unsuccessfully pushed for criminal prosecution.
His areas of jurisdiction were quartermasters and ordnance branches. He also appears to have been military superintendent of the nation’s telegraph system. Both the telegraph and railroad companies were placed under federal control during the war.
Watson was a dedicated government worker who kept two staffs of clerks, one that worked a day shift and a second that worked at night. Watson worked both shifts.
Stanton was a ruthless taskmaster and reportedly said “the only two assistants he ever had whom he could not kill with overwork were Thomas A. Scott and Charles A. Dana.” Nevertheless, after completing his first one-year term, Watson was still alive and signed on for another 17 months.
The stress of long hours and war eventually destroyed Watson’s health. He resigned July 31, 1864.
Under his doctor’s advice to depart Washington and find an outdoor occupation, Watson turned his interests to coal mining, railroads and oil. He changed his residency to Ashtabula.
His found work supervising the opening of the first coal mine of the Mercer Iron and Coal Co., in Springboro, Mercer County, Pa. The company was incorporated in Aug. 1863 and headed by Amasa Stone, whose impact on Ashtabula would be as designer of the railroad bridge that collapsed Dec. 29, 1876, begetting the Ashtabula Train Disaster.
A history of Stoneboro states that Watson lived in that nascent community for about a year during the time the mine geared up for full production. Once the mine was up and running, Stone had other assignments for Watson.
In 1872 Watson became president of the Erie Railway, a job he held until 1874. During this time, he also assisted with the formation of the South Improvement Company, which was quietly formed to give John D. Rockefeller an edge over his competitors by receiving rebates for shipping and drawbacks on oil shipped by his competitors. South Improvement’s deal came to light and its charter was revoked before it engaged in business, however. Watson held 100 shares in the company, and his address was given as Ashtabula.
Watson’s interest in science and invention dominated the latter years of his life. In 1878 he secured patent 114,629, for a “car wheel fitted with elastic panels under tension, constructed, arranged and operating substantially as described.” Again, Watson’s address was given as Ashtabula.
Watson’s health continued to falter, and he was afflicted by the consequences of his illnesses, as well as a “brain disorder,” which eventually claimed his life July 22, 1885, the same day General Ulysses S. Grant died.
Watson died in “his apartment in the Albert on Eleventh Street, University Place, New York,” with his son Edward in attendance. Obituaries gave no explanation for his residency in New York; perhaps it was because he went there to be cared for by Edward.
His body was returned to Ashtabula for burial in Chestnut Grove Cemetery. Watson was laid to rest next to his son, Charles, who had died at the age of 25 in 1876.
His obituary was published in the New York Times as well as Scientific American, which praised Watson as an “unheralded” contributor to the success of the Union, as well as and scientific and kindred pursuits.
The house that Watson owned in Ashtabula was sold to James Lewis Smith, Ashtabula real estate magnate, for $12,500 in 1888. It is said that Smith discovered in the attic of the home numerous letters signed by Abraham Lincoln, as well as 1854 correspondence from Cyrus McCormick to Watson regarding patent information.
Smith converted the house into a first-rate hotel by adding a wing to the south end. The Hotel James, as it was reborn, opened in June 1889.
Smith’s will stipulated that the house be converted into a home for aged women and become a monument to his mother, Mary Ann Gilmore Smith. A portion of his estate provided for the founding of the home, whose mission was to offer a loving atmosphere for ladies 65 and older. It opened September 1922.
Today, the Smith Home is known as Park Haven. The front of the building is the original house that Peter Watson purchased for $10,000 in October 1864.
The legend persists that Watson and Union generals planned the Battle of Gettysburg in the back room of this house, which was probably still under construction in June 1863.
Nevertheless, a June 22, 1953, newspaper article that appears to blend and bend the facts claimed that the building in which those meetings were held was a “two-story wooden ... once attached to the Smith Home and ... called the Hotel James. About 30 years ago it was removed to its last site in the rear of the Merchants’ parking lot.” The story states that the building was torn down in 1952, adding to the confusion.
There is one part of that story that is irrefutable: “An air of mystery will probably always envelop the memory of Peter H. Watson ...”
Was the Battle of Gettysburg planned in Ashtabula, or is it a case of embellishing facts?
The stranger walked into the Ashtabula shop of Willard, Wells & Co. and asked to see George Willard, one of the partners.
Nativity exhibit to open in Kirtland
Volunteers are still busy putting up more than 600 Nativity scenes for the nationally acclaimed exhibit at Historic Kirtland in preparation for the formal opening on Friday. A lighting celebration and musical program will begin 6 p.m. Friday. Nativity sets representing countries and cultures from around the world will fill the Visitors Center and the one-room schoolhouse located next to the center. The theme of the 11th annual exhibit is “Unto Us A Son Is Given.” Admission is free and open to the public. Historic Kirtland is located at 7800 Kirtland-Chardon Road, just off Route 306 south of I-90.
Odd Tales of Ashtabula County
Twins were pretty rare in Williamsfield Township, so when Correne Cutlip delivered twin girls on April 22, 1939, her husband, Bob, started calling neighbors and relatives with the good news and a plea for help: they would need twice as much of everything.
Guilty of treason!
She was a lonely child, precocious, some said; others said she was simply aloof. Two things for certain, she was beautiful — neighbors often remarked on her black curls — and odd, especially by the standards that existed in Conneaut in 1916.
Those 10 Calaway girls
In an era when many couples are happy to dote on just one offspring and most U.S. McMansions have at least 2.5 bathrooms, the story of the Calaway sisters is amazing.
The music got him 'All stirred up inside
Floyd Hewitt loved to listen to the radio, especially that cool jazzy music that got him “all stirred up inside.”
The romantic bachelor
The brass plate is partially obscured by the July grass that grows about the stone substrate.
Second of a two-part series on the Big Blow of November 1913
Launching an industry
Shortly after midnight on Sept. 26, 1941, German U- boat No. 203 fired four torpedoes into convoy HG-73 north of the Azores.
Ransom for an attorney’s little boy
Tony Muscarelli, 13, and Willie Madden, 12, were walking down Depot Street, Ashtabula, on the evening of March 20, 1909, when a 30-year-old man accosted them from across the street.
Kelsey’s Run rambles through the flatlands of Conneaut Township Park, carving graceful curves in the grassy area just north of Lake Road and slipping quietly under the two stone bridges in its final stretch toward Lake Erie.
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- Nativity exhibit to open in Kirtland