History of Warren County, Chapter 24



Utilizing the Rooms of Private Dwellings for Public Purposes - The First Jail - The Village School-House Used as a Court-Room - Reminiscences Concerning Jail Breakers - The First Court-House - The Second Jail - Stone Office Building - Destruction of Same by Fire - Another Erected of Brick - The Third or Present Jail - The New Court-House - County Farm.


AS related in a previous chapter, the county commissioners held their first meeting on the 16th day of October, 1819, at the house of Ebenezer Jackson, which stood upon the corner now occupied by the Carver House. James Benson and Asa Winter were present. They appointed John Andrews clerk pro tempore, and also contracted with Ebenezer Jackson for a room to be used as an office by the county commissioners, at a rental of two dollars per month. At a subsequent meeting, held on the 10th day of November of the same year, the commissioners hired another room from Jackson as a place for holding the first or November term of court, agreeing to pay for the same the sum of $15 for the term.

On the 1st of December, 1819, Sheriff Bowman, of Venango county, then officiating for both Venango and Warren counties, made a demand upon the commissioners for "a jail or place for the safe keeping of prisoners." Thereupon, on the 3d day of that month, a contract was made with Zachariah Eddy for a room in the lower part of his house to be used as a jail, at a rental of "three dollars for the month." Proposals for building a jail were invited April 22, 1820, and on the 24th of May following a contract was closed with Stephen Littlefield for the erection of "a building for jail and public offices on the public grounds." This building was completed within a few months from the time of its commencement. It stood on the public grounds east of Market street, and was built in block-house style, of square oak timber one foot in diameter, 20 by 36 feet, one story in height, and contained two rooms, having plank floor and ceilings. Behind was a yard inclosed by a stockade twenty feet high, which was several times scaled by unwilling boarders.

On the 19th of September, 1820, the county commissioners concluded an agreement with the school committee of the town of Warren, to finish building the school-house, and to hold courts in the same for four years, "from the 1st of September past." This school-house, an unpretentious little structure, stood, according to the recollections of Abner Hazeltine, esq., Warren’s first resident attorney, on or very near the site of the present court-house. Meanwhile, until the school-house was rendered fit for occupancy, other early terms of court were held in the carpenter shop of Daniel Houghwout, on Water street, and in the wagon-shop of one Van Buskirk, on Liberty street, nearly opposite the present German Evangelical Church.

Until the jail, or "public building," as it was termed, was completed, Zachariah Eddy continued to furnish a room for the detention of prisoners, and also served as jailor. Of those consigned to his care and keeping, Hon. S.P. Johnson quaintly remarks: "Some of his boarders staid, some didn’t as suited their purpose." When the jail was completed, however, the commissioners appear to have been rather proud of the work of their creation - the sole public building in the county, for on the 4th day of March, 1822, they issued an order through their clerk, John Andrews,* notifying "all persons having Sheads, Hog pens, Hen houses, or any other Hutts, at, or near, or adjoining to the public building in the town of Warren," to remove the same at once.

In his address, delivered at the dedication of the present court-house, Judge Johnson said: "The first occupant of the jail was an Irishman, sentenced to its lonesome walls and fourteen cents** per day fare for six months, for stealing a watch. He stayed about a month and took French leave. The next was a man named Chandler, who was put in for debt. He, too, soon tired of its gloom and short rations, and finding the door unlocked one day, cleared out, leaving John Andrews, the jailor, and Sheriff Dalrymple to pay his debt.

"In 1822 Stephen Littlefield was elected sheriff and took charge of the jail. During his term a young man by the name of Hodges (not Walter W.) was committed for stealing money on a raft. As Mrs. Littlefield passed one evening he called to her for water. When she entered on her mission of mercy, he ungallantly rushed past her and escaped, taking with him the chain and fetters with which he had been shackled. Being pursued he waded or swam the Conewango Creek and effectually concealed himself in the woods."

"One day the commissioners visited the jail to look after its safety and found a young man named Tanner (not Archibald) confined for debt. James Benson, then a commissioner, said to him: ‘Why don’t you break out?’ The fellow replied: ‘I could get out in five minutes if I wanted to.’ Benson, incredulous, said: ‘If you will do so in five minutes I will pay your debt.’ The man jumped on his bunk, shoved a plank overhead aside, sprang up through the opening, kicked some weather-boarding off the gable, jumped down, and bid them good-bye in just three minutes by the watch. At the next term of court Robert Voluntine, being foreman of the grand jury, deemed it his duty to have Benson indicted for hiring a man to break jail. This, and the prisoner’s debt, made the joke a very expensive one for Benson, and demonstrated the necessity of having a jail*** that would hold a prisoner over three minutes."

During the celebrated and exciting trial of Jacob Hook for murder, in May and June, 1824, court was held in the then unfinished house of Johnson Wilson, corner of Market and Fifth streets. School was then in daily session, doubtless, since the term of years for which it had been engaged as a place for holding courts had not yet expired.

On the 16th day of November, 1825, the commissioners concluded an agreement with William Hodges to build a court-house. One of their number, however, Robert Falconer, dissented, for reasons stated in his own handwriting on a page of the commissioners’ journal, and refused to sign the contract. Hodges began the work of construction at once, and completed the structure in 1827. According to the contract, he was to be paid $7,000. Of this the sum of $2,000 was paid by State appropriation and the balance in wild land and county orders, then at a discount for cash of about twenty per cent. Finally lawsuits arose before these claims were fully adjusted, the last of which was tried nearly ten years after the completion of the court-house. This building was built, it has been stated, of the first brick manufactured in Warren county.

About the years 1830-31(4*) the old stone jail and the one-story structure known as the "county offices," also of stone, were built under the personal supervision of the commissioners. Andrews was still their clerk. He seems, however, from a scrutiny of the scraggy journal kept by him, to have been more intent upon calculating how much the county was indebted to him from day to day, than interested in the erection of county buildings; consequently the only reference found in his minutes, of the building of either of the above-mentioned structures, is under date of October 13, 1831, as follows: "R. Russell to four days extra attending to the building of the Jail by order of the Board when the Board was not in session."

It is unknown where the prothonotary and treasurer kept their offices before the completion of the old stone building, other than the statement of the first prothonotary, Lansing Wetmore, who says that during his term the old block-house built by the Holland Land Company was utilized as the prothonotary’s office.

On the 24th day of June, 1848, a contract was concluded, with William Bell and David Grindley, to build an office for the prothonotary and to repair the jail. The same parties entered into another contract May 2, 1849, to enlarge the court-house.

On the 20th of December, 1854, the stone building occupied by the various county officials was destroyed by fire, mysterious in its origin. In the commissioners’ office everything was lost except the books and papers in the vault, and those came near being burned. The old "Lumberman’s Bank" safe which stood in the commissioners’ office was destroyed with most of its contents. The contents of the other offices were all saved. It was then stated that the same building was partially destroyed by fire in 1832.

At a meeting of the commissioners, held March 8, 1855, a contract was made with David Grindley for the erection of a new building for the use of county officers. This was completed in December of the same year. It was of brick, two stories in height, and contained four rooms (two on each floor), each twenty-three by seventeen feet in dimensions.

On the 4th day of December, 1873, the grand jury condemned all the county buildings - the court-house, the jail, and the brick building erected in 1855, as unfit for occupancy and the safety of records. The jail was again condemned at the following term of court. Thereupon the commissioners having employed R.S. Christy, of Tidioute, as superintendent, ground was broken for the new or present jail, June 18, 1874, and in the spring of 1875 it was completed. During the same year the commissioners sold to Thomas Struthers a lot thirty feet wide from the west side of the court-house grounds, and purchased from the same, lot No. 212. The south one-third of the old jail lot, being the northeast corner of Market and High streets, was sold to F.A. Rankin June 30, 1875.

Meanwhile, the old court-house having been condemned a second time, and it being considered a waste of money to repair and enlarge it, the commissioners determined to build a new one. Therefore on the 11th day of April, 1876, the plans for a new court-house, submitted by M.E. Beebe, an architect of the city of Buffalo, N.Y., were adopted, being substantially the same as those from which were built the court-houses at Lock Haven, Williamsport, and Sunbury. The following day the commissioners rented "Roscoe Hall," for a term of eighteen months, in which to hold courts, and three days later - April 15, 1876 - the demolition of the old court-house began, under the superintendence of Thomas Bell.

Only a few days subsequently J.P. Marston was engaged to superintend the construction of the new building which it was estimated by the architect would cost, by day’s work, from sixty to sixty-five thousand dollars, but, as we shall see, he was true to the practices of his trade or profession, and under-estimated the cost by about one-third. The work of laying the "footing course" for the new structure began on Wednesday, May 10, 1876, the day the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia opened, and on the 4th of July following the corner-stone was laid during a heavy rain storm. Good progress was made during subsequent months, and on Monday, December 3, 1877, the building was opened to the public and dedicated. A vast number of people were present. Appropriate addresses were delivered by Hon. Samuel P. Johnson, Hon. Rasselas Brown, Hon. Lansing D. Wetmore, and Hon. William D. Brown; and Judge Abner Hazeltine, of Jamestown, N.Y., contributed an interesting letter of reminiscences of the first term of court held in the county. Court convened in the new court-house for the first time December 4, 1877, Hon. L.D. Wetmore presiding.

This handsome structure, pronounced by the State Board of Charities, on inspection, to be the "model court-house of the State," is built of pressed brick with stone trimmings, and finished inside with black walnut. The spacious corridors are laid with marble tiling, and the stairs are of iron. The entire building is heated by steam, is thoroughly ventilated, and cost, with furniture and carpets complete, $107,000.

The County Farm. - On the 17th day of April, 1861, Hon. Henry R. Rouse, of South West township, Warren county, was so severely injured by the unexpected ignition of gas and oil at the well of Lytle & Merrick, near Titusville, that he died within a few hours. Before his death he bequeathed the greater portion of his estate in trust to the commissioners of Warren county, the interest thereof to be expended one-half on the roads and one-half for the benefit of the poor of the county. He had taken an active interest in the development of petroleum when it first appeared in such abundance on Oil Creek. He had also been successful in other business enterprises; therefore the amount of the bequest realized after the completion of arrangements found necessary to make it available, was about $186,000.

The county commissioners then serving, viz. - Erastus Barnes, of Sheffield, Alden Marsh, of Youngsville, and Melancthon Miles, of Farmington, at once took measures to make the fund of the Rouse estate practically beneficial. They bought a farm of four hundred acres, i.e., two hundred and fifty acres from John McKinney, and one hundred and fifty acres from James Short, adjoining the pleasant little village of Youngsville, on the Brokenstraw Creek, at a cost of $13,500. The tract stretches across the valley, is well watered, and is as capable of high cultivation and productiveness as any in the county. The poor-house, erected thereon during the high prices prevailing in 1865, cost $25,000. It is a large, plain, but imposing two-story brick building with a stone basement, the main part being 100 by 37 feet, and the L, or wing, 36 by 20 feet. From its tower a fine view is obtained of the farm, the village of Youngsville, the picturesque valley of the Brokenstraw, and the hills beyond.

Near the house stands a marble monument, erected in memory of Mr. Rouse, at a cost of $2,100. It is inclosed by an iron fence, on the gate of which is cast the word "charity." On each side of the monument’s base in large letters is the name "Henry R. Rouse." Higher up on one side is the following inscription: "In memoriam, Henry R. Rouse, the founder of this Charity, born at Westfield, N.Y., October 9, 1823; died from injuries received at the burning of an oil well April 18, 1861. He represented Warren county in our Legislature two years, and was a pioneer in the development of petroleum in Northwestern Pennsylvania." On another side is an extract from his will, thus: "I bequeath the residue of my estate in trust to the commissioners of Warren county, the interest thereof to be expended one-half on the roads, and one-half for the benefit of the poor of said county."

The advantages derived from the Rouse estate are hardly appreciated by the people benefited. True, the sum distributed annually is not large, but it is a perpetual insurance against a poor-tax, unless the people shall become much more numerous than at present. The different townships, also, are materially aided by the road money, not for a single year, but for all time. Present and future generations should warmly commend the liberality of one who was so suddenly stricken down in the midst of his prosperity and usefulness. Mr. Rouse was a single man and had few relatives, hence he made the county his principal legatee. As a legislator he was intelligent and trustworthy. As a citizen he was a public-spirited, sagacious, and useful. As a friend he was a little eccentric and nervous, but faithful, agreeable, and true. He has a monument, as we have described, at the home of the county’s poor, but his most enduring monument will be in the hearts of a people who will learn to appreciate his beneficence and worth.



* John Andrews, the county commissioners’ clerk, was paid for the year beginning November 1, 1822, the sum of $156. Prior to that time he was paid at the rate of $1.25 per day for his services while actually at work for the public. He was one of the earliest settlers in the county; was a surveyor, and may have been a very good one; but he was a wretched scribe and book-keeper. Hence, on viewing his work, it is not to be wondered at that on the 5th day of September, 1823, the commissioners agreed that one of their number and their clerk should proceed to the town of Erie "for the purpose of getting some more information relating to keeping our books and accounts."

** At that time the county allowed the sheriff fourteen cents per day as pay for the boarding of each prisoner.

*** It was the intention, doubtless, that the jail which succeeded the first one should be strong enough to hold the prisoners therein confined, but such seems not to have been the case, since escapes from it were apparently easy, and altogether quite numerous. The Mail describes how a prisoner gained his freedom in July, 1854, as follows:

"Sloped. A prisoner named Joshua Burdick, who was confined in our jail for stealing lumber, escaped last Thursday night. He made a key of tin, with which he unlocked the padlock on the back door, which let him into the yard and over the wall."

In March, 1859, another prisoner, known as Charles Williams, confined in jail for stealing some articles at Youngsville, belonging to Thomas Struthers, made his escape in broad daylight, while court was in session and two hundred men not farther away than ten rods. Some of his friends threw a rope over the wall, by the aid of which he easily scaled it and made good his flight.

In May of the same year (1859) four other prisoners departed without thanking the jailor for their entertainment, and their example was successfully followed only five months later by four more, two of whom were dissolute women.

Even the present well-constructed jail has one or two escapes charged against; it, the last to depart from its walls without leave being one Robertson, who in April, 1886, succeeded in crawling through a window only 5-1/2 by 30 inches in size, and encased on either side by massive blocks of sandstone.

(4*) Since the above statement was placed in type, we have learned from an old number of the Warren Gazette that the stone building, termed the "County Offices," was in existence as early as 1828.

SOURCE: Page(s) 253-258, History of Warren County, J.S. Schenck & W.S. Rann, Syracuse, New York: D. Mason, 1887