Leyden was the first town formed in what would become Lewis County on March 10, 1797. It included territory referred to as Inman’s Triangle as well as all of Lewis and Jefferson counties lying east and north of the Black River.
The first settler to this town was William Topping who came here with his family from Meriden, Connecticut in early 1794. Their home was on the East Road, a little northeast of Sugar River. Topping was shortly joined by his brother, Jared, William Dustin, Asa Lord, and Bella Butterfield.
The first birth took place in June 1796 when Topping and his wife had a son, Jonathan.
These early settlers were joined by other families, primarily from Haddam, Middlefield, and Middletown, Connecticut.
The first sawmill in the county was built in 1795 at Talcottville by Bella Butterfield. The first gristmill in the town of Leyden, and the second one in the county, was built on the Black River at Port Leyden, then called Kelsey’s Mills, after founding father, Eber Kelsey. He built his first mill in 1799 and had it operation by 1800. This village remains the largest in size in this township to date.
The hamlet of Talcottville is located in Leyden and served as a summer residence of the late author Edmund Wilson. At one time it was a thriving hamlet with a sawmill, a gristmill, stores, a cheese box factory and others. The schoolhouse is now used as the Leyden Town Hall, but the Methodist church, believed to have been built in 1868, is still in use today. The town of Leyden Highway Department is located in Talcottville.
Locust Grove, little more than a “four corners” area today, has had quite a distinguished past, serving as the long-time family home of the Merriam family. The patriarch, Nathaniel Merriam, came to Leyden in 1800, serving in the NYS Assembly and then later serving as one of Lewis County’s earliest Judges. He would be followed by his son, General Ela Merriam, his grandson, acclaimed banker and congressman Clinton Levi Merriam, and his great grandchildren, Dr. C. Hart Merriam, the eminent zoologist, and noted ornithologist Florence Merriam Bailey.
The Black River Canal ran from Rome to Lyons Falls, a distance of 35 and one half miles. The Canal was started in 1838, water was let to Port Leyden in 1850 and in 1851 the canal was put to use. By 1855, the canal was brought to the Black River below the falls in Lyons Falls (called High Falls at that time). This waterway, as anticipated, brought wealth and prosperity to the northern part of New York State. Farmers, and others took advantage of it. The canal’s heyday was in the 1880s-90s when lumber, potash, and dairy products were carried from Lewis County to New York City or Buffalo via the canal’s connection with the Erie Canal in Rome. Most of the canal was closed by 1922, and the last boats were used to carry limestone to build Delta Dam.
In 1931, a proposed new state road from Boonville to Port Leyden to Lyons Falls would follow the old canal bed through the Village of Port Leyden. Accordingly, the canal was filled in and a two-lane highway (Route 12) was built through the village, being completed in 1935. In 1966, this same Route 12 was changed again – four lanes through the village of Port Leyden toward Boonville – then back to two lanes until four lanes were formed around a restored section of canal locks at Denley – back to two lanes just before the Sugar River bridge.
The Utica and Black River Railroad was organized January 29, 1853, with a roadbed opened in Trenton and then to Boonville by 1855. Due to financial trouble the company was reorganized under the name of the Black River and Utica Line on May 22, 1861. The road was completed to Port Leyden in 1867, Lowville in 1868 and Carthage in 1871. The roadbed was leased to the Rome, Watertown, Ogdensburg Railroad in 1886 and the RWO leased the line to the New York Central in 1891. In 1882 the locomotives on the line were converted from wood-burning to coal.
In the 1880s through the 1930s as many as 10 trains passed daily through Leyden. Many passengers relied on daily training service – to work, school, shopping, visits, etc. The freight trains carried cattle, coal, produce, milk, lumber, and other supplies that our area had to sell or wanted to buy. Refrigerator cars were first used in 1899.
By May 1961, however, all passenger service was discontinued. A few years before this, a combined passenger and freight train, the Beeliner, provided daily service through Port Leyden. In July 1964 the track between Lyons Falls and Lowville was taken up, and shortly thereafter the rest of the line between Utica and Lyons Falls was sold.
Many industries and businesses have come and gone in the town of Leyden – sawmills, cheese factories, farming and many more. The Port Leyden Knitting Mill, built in 1907, closed in the 1990s.