Local News

April 4, 2010

Take a walk through Willsboro

As the weather turns warmer and frozen mountain trails begin their transition to mud, we find it a good time to wander some of the small communities in the region.

Every one offers some architecture to savor. With a bit of effort, one can usually find some interesting history. Consider the exercise a pleasant bonus.


When William Gilliland began his development of North Country lands in 1765, he gave his own name to Willsboro. That first settlement marked the farthest point of navigability from Lake Champlain on the Bouquet River. Although Gilliland had 20 buildings in his village within only a few years, none survived the American Revolution.

The "second settlement" of Willsboro dates to 1784. By 1800, the infant village had a recognizable downtown. Further building along today's Main Street during the 1830s and 1840s cemented the nucleus of the town.

Iron forges, then gristmills and pulp mills, denoted the beginning of industrial activity. Agricultural pursuits also flourished. The opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823, then the arrival of the railroad during the 1870s, further facilitated economic growth.

Now Willsboro is a quiet, scenic hamlet within the town of the same name along Route 22 in Essex County. During a walk sponsored by Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), bolstered by the encyclopedic knowledge of local historian Ron Bruno, I learned much more about this historic locale.

For your own early spring wanderings, begin at the new brick Visitor Center on Route 22. It's a replica of the schoolhouse that sat on the site as early as 1852. A historic marker commemorates Gilliland's founding of Willsboro in 1765.

We continued south to the Greek Revival parsonage built for the adjacent Methodist church in the 1830s. Susan Arena, the heritage organization's representative on our walk, pointed out the gable front and fluted entry columns, common features in local construction at the time.

The Gothic Revival-style church next door replaced the original 1840 structure in 1891. Pointed arch windows are a notable feature.

Next we passed the Grange Hall, built in 1911.

Granges were once a staple of rural agricultural communities. This one is composed of cast concrete block, a popular building material of the early 1900s designed to simulate cut stone. Nearby St. Philip's Catholic Church features the same construction. Look behind both buildings toward the river — once a large tannery stood near the water's edge.

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