Any cursory glance through leaflets of Niagara history is bound to turn up the ubiquitous name of Thomas V. Welch.
That is because Welch was an ambitious over-achiever who had his fingers in most organizations and projects concerning the development and advancement of Niagara. He was not a native of Niagara Falls, but came here as a young child with his parents.
E.T. Williams, city historian for 25 years, said Welch was one of the first persons Williams met when he came to Niagara Falls to practice his profession of journalism. Williams said of Welch, "For nearly all of the half century of his life, he had as intimate a part in every place of the community's activities as any person of his time."
Welch had no college degree, but was described as a self-educated individual. A gifted speaker with an engaging personality, he drifted into politics at an early age.
Welch, a Democrat, started by becoming village officer, then was elected supervisor of the Town of Niagara, from 1876 to 1878. He also served as chairman of the Niagara County Board of Supervisors.
Welch was Niagara County Democratic chairman, then decided to run for state assembly and served three terms in Albany. As assemblyman, he early got on the bandwagon to have the state acquire the land around the falls and make the tourist attraction free to all.
Up to this time, the Porter family, who charged fees to get to the falls and to cross their bridges to Goat Island, owned the land.
Welch gave "classic" speeches in the Assembly in support of the Free Niagara movement and later wrote a classic treatise, "How Niagara Was Made Free." He was the natural selection for appointment as superintendent of the Niagara Reservation, the nation's first state park. He served from July 15, 1885, until his death 18 years later on Oct. 20, 1903.
Those honoring Welch at his funeral included presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Grover Cleveland and former New York governor and U.S. senator David B. Hill, a testimony to his prominence and national influence in political circles.
And while Welch was for preserving the beauty of the falls in a sort of natural state according to Frederick Law Olmsted, he was not averse to making money. He thought the beauty of the falls could go hand in hand with its awesome power.
In the effort to turn Niagara's water power into electrical power, Welch gathered the nucleus of a power group. Williams wrote, "It was in the office of Superintendent Welch on the Niagara Reservation that the historic meeting of five men was held that resulted in the organization of the Niagara River Tunnel, Sewer and Water Supply Company that later became the Niagara Falls Power Company."
At that meeting were Welch, Col. Charles B. Gaskill, Myron H. Kingsley, W. Caryl Ely and Henry S. Ware.
Among other endeavors, Welch was a veritable pillar of St. Mary of the Cataract Church and many other organizations. With William B. Rankine, another power official, Welch helped secure the $50,000 Carnegie grant used to build the library on Main Street. That historic building is still in use as headquarters for the Community Development Department.
Besides serving on the library board, Welch was president of the Emergency Hospital Association for three years before Memorial Hospital was built. And when Peter A. Porter founded the Niagara Frontier Historical Society in 1898, Welch lent a hand and served on its board. He did two terms as president of the Niagara County Pioneers Association.
His interest in history (and literature) led him to write lyrics to a song extolling the virtues of saving the Old Stone Chimney, a remnant from Old Fort Schlosser. The song, appropriately called "The Old Stone Chimney," listed A.F. Andrews as author of the melody and L.R. Dressler as the arranger, along with Welch as the lyricist. The song was copyrighted by Welch in 1891. Welch did a stint as president of the Niagara Falls Civic Club, served on the Board of Education, and worked closely with the Niagara Falls Shakespeare Club, the Niagara Frontier Land Marks Association and Niagara University.
As Williams noted, "It would be difficult to name any worthwhile activity to which he did not contribute."
He added that Welch "was the most sought for and popular public speaker of his time. His wit, his poetic nature, his high ideals, his broad knowledge and magnetic personality made his fame secure."
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||July 8 2008|