T. V. Welch
When making a list of the men and women who shaped Niagara County, prominent on the list should be the name of Honorable Thomas Vincent Welch, the “Father of Free Niagara.” Perhaps no other name better represents the success of the movement in the late 19th century to acquire the collection of carnival-like private lands that adjoined Niagara Falls and turn them into the first and greatest state park, making them free for all mankind to view forever.
Thomas Welch was a self-made man from humble origins. Born in 1850 in Onondaga County near Syracuse, his limited public education prepared him for his early role as farmer and time keeper for the New York Central Railroad. But it was his perseverance and initiative that elevated him to a position of prominence, first in village politics as clerk, trustee and later Supervisor and chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors. From there Welch progressed to Member of the New York Assembly where he became a friend of Theodore Roosevelt who also served with Welch in that body. He campaigned extensively for Grover Cleveland for President who came to office in 1885 at the peak of the Free Niagara Movement who with the help of Frederick Law Olmstead sought to return Niagara Falls to its natural pristine condition. Grover Cleveland nominated Welch as the first Superintendent of the Niagara Reservation Commission, a position he held until his death in 1903.
Welch was a driving force behind, and wrote, the first charter for the City of Niagara Falls that formally combined the Villages of Niagara Falls and Suspension Bridge. To honor Welch’s Irish heritage, the official incorporation was delayed one day so the event could take place on St. Patrick’s Day, 1892. In addition to this civic work, Welch was one of the original “movers and shakers” who spurred the creation of the Niagara Power Company to begin to utilize the mechanical energy of the Niagara River to generate electricity.
Thomas Welch was the first president of the Niagara County Savings Bank, trustee of the Niagara Falls Library and Niagara University, was a member of the Niagara Frontier Historical Society and president of the Memorial Hospital Association, trustee for the Board of Education and president of the Pioneer Association. Welch worked with many community groups, including the Soldiers’ Monument Society who labored for four years to successfully erect a monument to the veterans of the Civil War, originally located at Falls Street and Riverway (now located in the State Park near Old Falls Street.)
The last chapter of Welch’s amazing life was written in October 1903 when he passed away. His desk at the Niagara Reservation Park was draped in black and the newspaper remarked, “All of Niagara Falls will follow the remains to the grave.” Even the schools in the Falls were closed so the teachers and students could pay their respect to the “Father of Free Niagara.”
Douglas Farley, Director
Ann Marie Linnabery
Erie Canal Discover Center
24 Church St.
Lockport NY 14094