Monday, November 9, 2020

The Bachelor Governor

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Back in the day when our building housed the Chemung Canal Bank, there were apartments for rent on the top floor. A quick look around reveals about 5 rooms and a common bathroom. These rooms haven’t been rented for years, they now store documents, publications and educational items for the Historical Society. If the walls could talk they would surely share some great stories. One I tried to track down is the story of one of the building’s more famous renters. The story of two-time elected New York governor David Bennett Hill.

David Bennett Hill 1843 - 1910

David B. Hill was born in the village of Havana in Schuyler County in 1843. The settlement was known as Catherine’s Landing until the mid-19th century, when the name changed to Havana. It changed names a third time at the end of the century to what we now know as Montour Falls. David was the youngest of five children born to Caleb and Eunice Hill. His father had been captain on a canal boat and now ran a carpentry and joinery business. His mother managed the family household. David showed an early intellect and attended nearby Havana Academy. At seventeen he left to take a clerking job with a law office in the village. His employer was so impressed that he was encouraged to pursue law as a career. At twenty, Hill moved to Elmira to work for lawyer Erastus P. Hart and to pursue his legal studies. He passed the law exams in 1864 and was admitted to the bar, opening a law office in downtown Elmira. Later that year, Hill was appointed Elmira’s city attorney and became known as a successful and charismatic lawyer.

David Hill never married, but his life was full. Besides his law work, he was an active member of the Democratic Party. In 1871 and 1872 he was elected to the New York Assembly to represent Chemung County.  In the mid-1870s, to further his political agenda, Hill along with other associates purchased the Elmira Gazette newspaper. Begun in 1828, the paper was first published weekly before becoming an everyday paper. While John Arnot Sr., one of his associates, sold off his interests before 1880, it wasn't until 1906 that Hill finally sold the newspaper to Frank E. Gannett.

In 1877 and 1881 Hill was appointed president of the Democratic state conventions. In 1882 Hill was elected mayor of Elmira by a wide majority of voters. At just thirty-nine years old, 1882 also brought another opportunity his way. Hill was nominated as running mate to Buffalo’s mayor Grover Cleveland in his bid for governor. The 1882 election saw an unprecedented number of votes cast and the ticket of Cleveland and Hill won by plurality. Hill left Elmira and moved to Albany to be lieutenant-governor. Our collection contains a printed speech Hill gave which includes a copy of a note Cleveland wrote congratulating Hill:

After two years, Grover Cleveland ran for higher office and was elected 22nd president of the United States of America. Seeing his chance, Hill then ran for state office and won. He was elected the 29th Governor of New York and served from 1892 to 1897.

In New York the Democratic party of the 19th century was heavily controlled by Tammany Hall, a political pressure group out of New York City. This group had a big influence on politics in the city and the state, and while it advocated for social reform, it also became known for rampant greed and corruption. 

As governor, Hill was known for his interest in labor issues and working conditions. He introduced legislation to deal with child labor age limitations and working hour reforms for women and those under 18.

He also signed a bill in 1885 that established 715,000 acres of wild Forest Preserve which later became known as New York’s Adirondack Park.

New York's Adirondack Parks

Looking to run for higher office, Hill sought the 1892 democratic presidential nomination. His platform supported bimetallism, a monetary standard looking at two metals, typically gold and silver, instead of the singular gold standard which was eventually adopted. However, Cleveland soundly defeated Hall on the first convention ballot. The two were now polarizing figures in the party, each with their own set of loyal followers. Hill's group went by the name The David B. Hill club. Denied the nomination, Hill ran for the US Senate. He was elected and held this office from 1892 to 1897. Not content, he ran again for NY governor and this time was not successful. This political cartoon plays up the unlikely possibility of any partnership of Grover and Hill.

"The Funniest Thing Out - Dave and Grover on the same platform."

Though Hill never ran for public office again he was considered for the 1900 Democratic ticket's Vice Presidential position. In the end, the party nominated Adlai Stevenson.

Hill never returned to live in Elmira. In 1910, he died of a kidney condition at his country home Wolfert's Roost outside of Albany. He was buried in Montour Cemetery nearby family members.

Governor Hill's Wolfert's Roost

Checking City Directories for the years Hill lived in Elmira I found no evidence that he lived on the third floor at 415 East Water Street. He did rent a room at 93 Lake Street around the corner. 

We are still looking for who might have rented rooms in the building.

1 comment:

  1. Grover had distant cousins in the Southern Tier. Fanny Cleveland Wallis was my great great Grandmother. Her father was John Platt Cleveland.