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Watertown

Downtown History

The settling of Watertown in 1800 began a legacy that continues today. The New England pioneers who chose our area did so based on foresight of creating an industrial center, which would draw its power from the mighty Black River. These men have been described as men of strong feeling, vivid imagination, and dauntless courage. They, along with their families, faced many obstacles when they arrived. The terrain was rough and uncleared. The western end of the present Public Square was 12 or 15 feet higher than the eastern end, while the center was a depression that has been described as being large enough for a comfortable skating rink.

There was a stream of water having its source south of Clinton Street and running across Stone Street in front of the Arcade, crossing the western end of the square on its way to the river. Yet within a few years, out of this unsightly spot evolved one of the most beautiful public squares to be found in any city of its time.

Public Square, then known as the Mall, came into existence in 1805 when Hart and Isaiah Massey, Henry Coffeen, Zachariah Butterfield, Jonathan Cowan, Jesse Doolittle, Aaron Keyes, and Medad Canfield, with surprising foresight, deeded the land for public use. These men, mostly of New England origin, thought of the Mall as a common such as those that graced many New England villages. This helped to enhance the development of a business center by creating an area around which businesses could locate.

Following the 1849 fire, most of Public Square was replaced with heavy masonry construction. The parks at the center of the square were laid out in 1853 with a fountain at the center and an oval at each end.

When Watertown became an incorporated city in 1869, one of the celebration events was the erecting of the fountain, which has the Greek goddess of hospitality on the top, welcoming people to the city. Its cost was under $700. While the fountain, is not here with us today, it will soon be restored to its proper place as part of the Public Square Streetscape Project and will again welcome people to our city.

The first flagpole was placed on Public Square at the beginning of the Civil War and stood 122 feet tall. It was made using a single tree from a local forest. Public Square was first paved in 1894.

The naming of Watertown as the county seat in 1805 led to much progress in the hamlet, but the development of waterpower was the force that moved the wheels of progress for the community. For years the Black River provided the power for the industrial base of the city. Today that industrial base is much smaller, but the importance of the Black River is not. The river continues to provide power for the community, in the form of hydroelectric power. In addition, the river is the force behind the recent growth in recreational use of the river that will guide the growth of the community for years to come.

Watertownians have always taken pride in their community, and Watertown was named “The Ideal American City” in 1939, with the following statement: “This characteristic of the ideal city was handed down from its first settlers who in 1805 deeded the land now occupied by Public Square for public purposes. Parks, libraries, monuments, hospitals, and community welfare institutions have been contributed by successive generations. Watertown stands out as a standard for others to emulate.” Let’s make our forefathers, and ourselves proud, by continuing this fine tradition today.