By Ed Zwirn
River Reporter Aug. 26-Sept 1, 2004
By ED ZWIRN
MONTICELLO, NY — The county seat of Sullivan County is set to kick off the 200th anniversary of its founding this weekend.
The four-day event starts Thursday with a jazz concert and barbeque in the Town of Thompson Park at 4:30 p.m. The evening will continue with a performance by The Jazz Knights, a United States Military Band, and fireworks provided by the Monticello Raceway.
Saturday will include a firemen’s parade down Broadway 1:00 p.m.
But the festivities may obscure some of the events of “karmic” significance connected with Monticello’s rise to prominence 200 years ago.
It was the turn of the 19th century and a newly independent United States was deeply divided along partisan lines. The year of 1801 saw the country’s landmark transfer of power between Federalist John Adams and Democrat Thomas Jefferson, who held office through 1809.
In the enthusiasm of the moment, Jeffersonians, in control of what was soon to become Sullivan County, went around naming settlements such as Jeffersonville and Liberty in honor of their hero and his ideals. Monticello was named after his home.
It was in 1803 that two of these partisans, brothers John Patterson Jones and Samuel Frisbee Jones, came from Connecticut with the vision of establishing a settlement along the eventual route of the Newburgh-Cochecton Turnpike, an ambitious undertaking providing the first commercial link between the Hudson and Delaware rivers.
“The Jones brothers came to Monticello specifically to found a new community,” said Sullivan County Historian John Conway.
The karmic aspect of the story, kicked up when Samuel, the eldest and “most impetuous” of the two Jones brothers, was leading a delegation up to Albany. In 1809, the supervisors of newly formed Sullivan County, hopelessly deadlocked between rivals Liberty and Monticello, who had ditched their party unity in the fight over which settlement would form the county seat, had deferred the choice to the governor.
As the tale goes, Samuel Jones and his delegation were returning from the state capital after having made their pitch, when they met their Liberty compatriots heading north for the same purpose. “‘You don’t need to go, the governor already decided in favor of Monticello,’” Jones lied, according to Conway. “Monticello won by default.”
The supervisors were so angry at the subterfuge that they refused for years to allocate funds for their new seat.
A few years later, Samuel Frisbee Jones died a penniless alcoholic.
And while the Jones brothers were correct about the route of the pike—a remnant of which still exists in the form of Route 17B—and got their way over the county seat, the Village of Monticello, which had grown from a couple of hundred residents at the time the county was carved out of Ulster to about 1,000 by 1870, was later bypassed by the canals and railroads that fueled much of the commerce and settlement of the 1800s.
The two principal rail lines of the era, the New York & Erie and the New York & Oswego, both bypassed Monticello. The Port Jervis and Monticello line, founded in 1871 by local investors, was never really profitable, according to Conway, and went bankrupt by the early 1900s. After being purchased by the New York & Oswego, the line teetered for the rest of its existence, with passenger service ending in the 1940s and freight trains ceasing operation in the early 1950s.
Rather than being the capital of commerce envisioned by the Joneses, the village, through its incarnations, has mainly been a place to come and conduct government business. It was also, for several decades in the 20th century, a tourist destination.
Tourism really started to pick up after the railroads came and started issuing enticing brochures to stimulate passenger traffic.
A fire in 1909 that wiped out half of the village, causing $1 million worth of damage (in 1909 dollars), including the elegant Palatine and Rockwell hotels on Broadway, also did a number on tourism in Monticello. This was revived decades later by Louios DeHoyos, a flamboyant mayor who did much in the 1940s to give the village “international renown as a garden spot,” Conway said.
Today, the village encompasses about twice the land area it had at its founding and about 6,000 residents. And the site of the Broadway home of John Patterson Jones, Samuel Frisbee’s younger brother and Monticello’s first mayor, is now occupied by a branch of The Bank of New York, a Federalist institution founded by Alexander Hamilton, one of Jefferson’s fiercest rivals.