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By Bob Kostoff

Thomas V. Welch was a consummate politician in Niagara Falls during the latter part of the 19th century and left his mark in many areas of government, business and even religion.

Welch, born in Onondaga County on Oct. 1, 1850, was a prime mover in saving the beauty of the falls from industrial pollution and commercialism. He served as the first Superintendent of the Niagara Reservation, which was the first state park in the nation.

Welch came to Niagara Falls with his parents in 1856 and was a product of the Niagara Falls school system. After schooling, he got a job as freight agent for the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Company.

William Pool, journalist and historian of that period, said Welch entered the mercantile business in 1893. In the meantime, he entered the political world along with his business interests.

At one time, when Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan visited Niagara County, Welch was County Democratic Chairman and made all the arrangements for the trip. A gala banquet was held at the Cataract House for the silver-tongued orator who advocated a silver standard rather than gold for U.S. currency.

Welch was Village Clerk in Niagara Falls in 1873 and 1874, then was elected as Village Trustee in 1875 and 1876. Moving on to county politics, Welch was elected to the County Board of Supervisors for the Town of Niagara from 1876 through 1878 and was chairman of the board in his final year.

Welch was a prominent member of St. Mary of the Cataract Church. He served as secretary of the church committee that raised funds for purchase of the church bell. Funds were raised by selling $10 shares. Pool wrote, "The cost of the bell was $1,400, but by reduction for cash, $1,200." The bell was consecrated at a ceremony in July of 1876.

Welch was also among a number of parishioners who traveled to Batavia for the funeral of the popular pastor Father John Moynihan, a native of Batavia who died while on a trip to the Vatican in 1878. The Welch name can still be seen on a stained glass window in the church.

After his stint in county government, Welch decided to move on to the state level. He was elected to the state Assembly and served from 1882 to 1884. At that time, there was a movement to save the falls from industrial corruption and to preserve it for future generations.

Judge Augustus Porter owned Goat Island at that time and turned it into a commercial venture, charging tourists to cross the bridge to the island. The waterpower from the rapids turned Bath Island into a conglomerate of dirty mills. Such mills also lined the top of the gorge below the falls.

Many prominent people of that era, not all of them from Niagara Falls, joined the fight to preserve the falls and its environs. Among that group was landscape architect Frederic Law Olmstead, who eventually designed the park around the falls.

Welch joined in that battle wholeheartedly and, as a member of Assembly, was instrumental in getting the law passed establishing the Niagara Reservation. And, while at this worthwhile task, he scored a few points himself and wangled appointment as the first superintendent of the park.

He was appointed to that position on July 16, 1885. It remains a gubernatorial appointment and is generally considered one of the sweeter of the political plums.

Welch did look out for tourists. As superintendent, he had a flyer printed up and distributed to tourists to warn them against becoming crime victims. The flyer said, "Caution to visitors. Beware of confidence men and pickpockets. Do not be enticed anywhere by strangers who may be sharpers. Please report any attempt to swindle you at once to the reservation officers."

He was also somewhat of a poet, or at least a lyricist. Another cause celebre he embraced was the effort to save the Old Chimney, which once graced Fort Schlosser and the home of John Stedman. Welch wrote the lyrics to a song entitled "The Old Stone Chimney" designed to gain public support for the chimney.

The effort was successful and the chimney still stands today, in a somewhat forlorn area of Porter Park up against the rise of the Robert Moses Parkway.

Welch was one of the incorporators and a director of the Niagara Falls Power Company, was president of the Niagara County Savings Bank, a trustee of the Niagara Falls Public Library and a trustee of Niagara University.

Bob Kostoff has been reporting on the Niagara Frontier for four decades and is the author of three books. E-mail him at RKost1@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com November 19 2002