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By Bob Kostoff

North Tonawanda, known for lumber production and ship building in earlier times, had a somewhat lesser renown in contributing to various war efforts.

One of the heroes of the Civil War was North Tonawanda's Col. Lewis S. Payne. He also made a mark as a Niagara County politician.

North Tonawanda utilized its ship-building ability to aid the nation during World War II. Bison Boat Co., located on Tonawanda Island, built landing barges for the Navy during the war. Naval landing barges played a critical part in the war effort by placing fighting men on the shores of many a Pacific island.

Landing barges also played a prominent role in the war in Europe, most notably during the Longest Day, the invasion of Nazi-occupied France across the English Channel.

There were undoubtedly many North Tonawanda youths who performed heroically in the various wars over the years. But one of the best known was Col. Payne, for whom Payne Avenue is named.

He settled in North Tonawanda in 1841 and built the first steam-operated sawmill to speed the cutting and trimming of logs into lumber. He started a large wheat-growing farm in 1847 at the corner of Wheatfield Street and Payne Avenue. Aside from his farming and business interests, he dabbled in politics and served as a supervisor, collector of canal tolls and as county clerk.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, President Lincoln immediately put out a call for 75,000 volunteers. Payne answered the patriotic call and, at his own expense, raised an infantry company of volunteers from around the county. He became captain of the company, which became part of the 100th Regiment of Infantry. The company participated in many of the famous battles of the Civil War. Payne distinguished himself for his bravery and knowledge of military combat tactics.

One commando excursion led by Capt. Payne occurred on a dark night at Charleston Harbor. The company was given the task of rowing boats into the harbor under cover of darkness and destroying a Confederate steamer. The flames attracted the attention of Rebel artillerymen on shore, and the battery opened fire on Payne's company. The men were rowing desperately back to the Union shore when a typical military snafu occurred.

Payne's soldiers felt some relief when they finally rowed out of range of the enemy cannon. Unfortunately, Union guards had not been informed of the Union night raid into the harbor and began to fire from their positions in the woods on Payne and his men landing on shore. Payne quickly pulled out his handkerchief and began waving it frantically. The guards were fearful of a Confederate trick, but held their fire and approached cautiously. Luckily, there were no causalities.

Payne was soon promoted to colonel. In 1862, he was wounded in a skirmish and captured by the Rebels. He recovered from his wounds, but spent three years in a Rebel prison camp.

Because each side in the Civil War had trouble attracting volunteers as the war dragged on and because they were running out of space and supplies to hold and care for prisoners, periodic exchanges of prisoners were agreed upon. Payne was returned during such a prisoner exchange in 1865.

Payne was prominently mentioned in a popular national publication of 1867, "Harper's Magazine," in an article entitled, "Heroic Deeds of Heroic Men."

Upon his return to North Tonawanda in 1865, he became county clerk again. In 1869, he was elected to the New York State Assembly, then elected state senator in 1877.

During the Civil War, there was fear that England would join the south, and there was the distinct threat that English and Canadian forces would invade Niagara County across the border. President Lincoln favored deepening the Erie Canal so that the larger gunboats could be sent throughout the Great Lakes, but neither Congress nor New York state would fund the project.

However, even after the Civil War, there were lingering fears of the unprotected border with Canada. The U.S. Navy Department in August of 1865 decided to build a gunboat at North Tonawanda. The Lockport Journal of Aug. 28, 1865, carried an article saying, "It is not known to our readers generally that Uncle Sam is building a first class gunboat near the junction of the Tonawanda Creek and the Niagara River."

The article said the boat was nearly ready for a trial run. The boat was 175 feet long and 57 feet wide, with a beam of 11 feet. Cost of boat construction was set at $175,000. The crew included 40 men and nine officers, and there were six guns broadside. The article added, "The boat will be a valuable accession to the means of defense on the lakes in the event, which we trust is far distant, of a war with Great Britain."

Bob Kostoff has been reporting on the Niagara Frontier for four decades. He is a recognized authority on local history and is the author of several books. E-mail him at RKost1@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com June 27 2006