Growing up in Athens I recall several names associated with the town which I had no clue about, such as D.R. Evarts as in the D.R. Evarts Library, W.C. Brady as in W.C. Brady Hook and Ladder, and William H. Morton as in another fire company, the W.H. Morton Engine Co. Yesterday I came across a 1945 article from the “Athens Herald” newspaper written by Sam Van Aken. It provided a biographical sketch of William H. Morton.
The article was short on references, but much of the information can be easily verified. According to the author, William H. Morton was born in Hudson in 1805. In 1848 he bought a shipyard in Athens along with partners C. Hatton and Emery Edwards. Later Hatton and Edwards sold their shares to Enos Edmonds, forming the partnership of Morton & Edmonds.
Using records of the United States steamboat inspectors housed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the author turned up the history of a number of boats build by Morton & Edmonds. For instance, he mentions the ferry boat “John T. Waterman.” The Waterman, built in 1858, provided service between Athens and Hudson for 11 years before being converted to a hay barge.
The Waterman was replaced by the “George M. Power,” also built by Morton & Edmonds. That vessel provided service on the same route for 51 years. After her work was done on the Athens-Hudson route, she served for five years on Lake Champlain under the name of Charlotte-Essex. Finally, she worked for two more years on the St. Lawrence River before being declared unfit for further service by the Canadian government.
According to the author, Morton & Edwards built at least one steamboat that was pressed into service during the American Civil War. The sidewheel steamboat John L. Lockwood was built in 1854 and for a time saw service on the Hudson River as a passenger and freight carrier. In 1862 she was pressed into service by the United States government and saw service on the Potomac and James Rivers, among other places. After the war under the name “Victor” she last worked as a passenger carrier between Albany and Troy until 1915, when she was taken to Staten Island for dismantling.
So why was William H. Morton revered to the point that the citizens of Athens decided to name a fire company after him? According to Van Aken: “Mr. Morton was also a most zealous worker for the betterment of the Athens fire department. He never sought high places among the firefighters, but devoted his time and means to make the firefighting equipment more efficient. Through his efforts, Athens received its first fire engine. His work was rewarded. The steamer company was named in his honor.”
In a history of Athens Fire Companies by Athens Village Historian Betty Jean Poole she says the following: “It is stated in the Village minutes … ‘As an acknowledgment eminently due to a fellow citizen for his energy, taste and efficiency, through a series of years in promoting the success of the fire department of said village, the new steam engine lately purchased by the village shall bear the name W. H. Morton Steam Engine Company No. 1.’”
A history of the Greene County Volunteer Firemen’s Association also contains the following about the acquisition of the first steam engine in Athens: “It was decided that the village would buy a new steam engine and this engine was purchased from the firm of Clapp and Jones, Hudson, NY. The engine was brought from Hudson over the frozen river in March of 1870. Though the condition of the river’s ice was deteriorating, the men in charge of delivering the engine laid planks down on the ice, and through the painstaking task of constantly shifting the planks the new steam engine was brought safely across the river.”
Isn’t it amazing to consider the determination and ingenuity of our forbearers?
In addition to the W.H. Morton Engine Co, up until the 21st century Athens had two other fire companies: W.C. Brady Hook and Ladder Co. and Makawomuc Engine Co. They were ultimately combined into one as the Athens Volunteer Fire Department.
Reach columnist David Dorpfeld at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit him on Facebook at “Greene County Historian.