Life of Captain David Crawford

By Mary McTamaney. In October 1825, big crowds gathered along Newburgh’s shore to witness something that would change our community forever. A flotilla of sailing boats and steamboats paraded past our shores toward New York City’s harbor, after having started out in Buffalo along the new Erie Canal.

The Erie Canal was an engineering marvel carved through the southern tier of New York State that connected the world port of New York City to the nation’s western frontiers beyond the Great Lakes. Goods could be exchanged along this waterway on barges that floated everything from farm produce to mineral resources down to hungry markets.

The Village of Newburgh as it looked around 1830 with a harbor full of ships.

Here, in the middle of that new water highway was Newburgh just waking up from its sleepy little status as a regional market town after the Revolutionary War. In the fall of 1824, our community’s memories of the Revolution were refreshed by the visit of the Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington’s trusted advisor and friend. Lafayette returned here to the place where he witnessed the great revolution come to an end and where a lasting peace was declared by Washington from the lawn of the Hasbrouck farm. Lafayette was curious as to how the young republic had fared. The 10,000 visitors who descended on little Newburgh (a village of fewer than 6,000 in 1824) for Lafayette’s reception caused its civic leaders to see the crucial historical, political and geographical connection this village had to American history and to begin to capitalize on it. Thus when the cannon volleys rang out over the Hudson in October 1825 to signal the new connections the Erie Canal made possible, a few creative Newburghers were planning amid their rejoicing for a greater downtown Newburgh.

David Crawford in uniform returning from the War of 1812.

One of these planners and entrepreneurs was David Crawford, a veteran of the War of 1812 and the owner of a dock, warehouse and freight business on Newburgh’s shore at the foot of Third Street almost where UNICO Park is today. David Crawford exemplifies the spirit of entrepreneurship that has given Newburgh its vitality through the centuries. He was a farm boy, raised in Little Britain where his grandfather had migrated from Ireland. David’s father, Francis, saw a regional market for the many agricultural products of Orange County and moved to Newburgh in 1806 to become a merchant. He and his wife Eunice Watkins had four sons and only David survived the tuberculosis so prevalent in their time. Eunice and the other sons, Thomas, Samuel and James all died of TB. David Crawford attributed his choice to spend a year riding all of Orange County on horseback as an undersheriff as the reason he gained health and vigor and overcame the consumption that afflicted his family.

When America and Britain went back to war in 1812, young Crawford answered congress’ call to raise volunteer companies to join the fight. Stationed with an artillery battery defending the Port of New York, Crawford attained the rank of Captain. This experience gave him the connections to and understanding of New York City markets that made him a leader in the Hudson River freighting business. He owned sailing sloops, then one of the first steam-powered freighters and finally a fleet of barges that carried all kinds of commodities up and down the river using that new Erie Canal.

The dolphin newel post in the Crawford House made by a master ships’ carver. Photo courtesy of Jillian Elder.

When the canal was challenged by the new railroads, Crawford, who had been an investor in the early plank roads or turnpikes, gathered some Newburgh colleagues to invest money and lobbying efforts to bring the new Erie Railroad to Newburgh. When a recession hit New York, he again gathered friends around his table on Montgomery Street and laid out the plans for the Newburgh Steam Mills, a giant industrial enterprise to turn our fortunes around, which it did.

If you have never ventured past the big carved doors of David Crawford’s family home at 189 Montgomery Street, you should do so (actually you have to come in the back door first). But do come, and experience the atmosphere of our old village when just 6,000 of us built a new Newburgh in the 1830’s around the innovations of the era and the endless possibilities of the Hudson River.

The above article by Mary McTamaney, City of Newburgh Historian and Society board member, has been adapted from column originally printed in the October 17, 2007 issue of the Mid-Hudson Times. Posted here with permission.