February 12, 2014

Genealogy research can turn into surprising local history facts

By SUSAN TOBIAS, Pinch of Time

---- — With cold and snowy winter days, I seem to put in a lot of research time on my computer, mostly for genealogy.

There can be surprising little nuggets of local history uncovered, however, while searching for those elusive ancestors.

On, Larry Gooley of Bloated Toe Enterprises shared some truly amazing facts about a man named Eliakim Briggs, who lived in Fort Covington at one time.

Eliakim was born in 1795 and moved to northern New York from Washington County about 1820.

Briggs married Russina Allen of Chateaugay, a descendent of Vermont’s Ethan Allen, and by 1827 they were living in Fort Covington. The couple had five children, but only one survived, a daughter, Janette.

With a background in foundry work, Eliakim built a “traveling threshing machine,” which he successfully patented in 1834. This invention placed a horse on a treadmill, most likely providing the first “horse power” to be used on a farm, followed by a “mowing, threshing and cleaning grain” machine he patented in 1836.

Railroad cars used to be drawn along by horses in the early 1800s. In 1835, the Saratoga and Schenectady train cars were outfitted with one of Eliakim’s similar inventions. The curious sight must have had people gawking, because the train moved along at 15 miles per hour, seemingly all by itself, thanks to a horse walking on a treadmill inside the train car. This invention was built and sold in Ogdensburg.

Eliakim moved his business and family west to Dayton, Ohio, partnered with Thomas Clegg, of the Washington Cotton Factory, and both men gained greatly in finances. He eventually moved to Indiana, settling in South Bend in 1841.

His threshing machine was now powered by windmills, was very popular and employed many of the town’s citizens. Russina and Eli were blessed with eight more children by 1844, including three sons, John, George and Charles. Gooley reports that John caught gold fever and traveled to California in 1849, being joined by his brothers when they were older. A tribute to their success is located 20 miles north of Denver, Colo., the Briggs Mine, still producing gold today.

An anti-slavery supporter, he didn’t live to see the Civil War. Eliakim died in 1861 at the age of 66, with patents pending on his new inventions. His wife died in 1862, and Janette was put in charge of the family fortune. Like her father, she became well-known for philanthropic efforts in South Bend, Ind. When she died in 1916, she left $15,000 to an orphanage and $12,000 to the YWCA, a total that would be about $500,000 in today’s world.

Thank you, Eliakim Briggs, for touching our world from a little border town in northern New York, and thank you to people like Larry Gooley for sharing their research. It sure made my day.

One last thought, as always, please be kind to each other. The world needs more kindness.

Susan Tobias lives in Plattsburgh with her husband, Toby. She has been a Press-Republican newsroom employee since 1977. The Tobiases have six children, 18 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. They enjoy traveling to Maine and Colorado, and in her spare time, Susan loves to research local history and genealogy. Reach her by email at