Boat Building & Racing on the Genesee River: Wilna C. Harris (1826-1914)

W C Harris boat builderI love discovering ancestors who demonstrate a lifelong passion for something. For people like Wilna C. Harris, my paternal great-great grandfather, it was perhaps a matter of being born in the right place at the right time which developed his passion.

Wilna was born in his parent’s large brick house on Byron Street in Rochester, NY. The house faced the Erie Canal. That waterway, and others, would shape Wilna’s life. Unlike his sister, Helen Amanda Harris Deming, it wasn’t an innate talent which distinguished Wilna. Rather, his achievements were the result of dedication and hard work.

In the year Wilna was born, 1826, Rochester had not yet incorporated as a city. The population was close to 8,000, yet none of the adults in the city at the time had been born in Rochester. Most of the residents had immigrated from eastern New York and New England. Wilna’s father, Sluman W. Harris, was born in Otsego County and had come to Rochester with his father, Daniel Harris, about 10 years before Wilna was born (1816). The opening of the Erie Canal the year before Wilna was born brought rapid growth to the area as Wilna was growing up.

Wilna C Harris circa 1845Sluman Harris was a boat contractor and agent. He also served as a city constable. He had a fairly comfortable income, most notable by the fact that when Wilna, his only son, was about 12 years old, Sluman commissioned a life-size oil portrait of the boy. Lamentably, at some point, the painting was cut down to about 30″ in height and placed in an oval frame. As late as 1975, the painting was still in possession of the family and presumably still is.

A written family history reports that when Wilna was old enough to attend school, his father often had him taken in a horse and carriage. As a boy, Wilna would travel through the woods to visit his grandfather, Daniel Harris. To his grandchildren, Wilna told of being afraid of the bears, wolves and bobcats which roamed the woods in those days. He also related to them his fondness for visiting his grand-aunt, Lucretia Lee, where he was treated to pumpkin pie with fresh whipped cream for breakfast. (Sounds great to me!)

Another piece of family lore is this story:

Wilna had a dislike for school which may have been inspired by the fact that he had to travel through the forest to attend classes. His dislike finally overcame reason and he decided to run away. A family negro maid servant was in sympathy with his plan, so one night she tossed a tied bundle of clothes to him from an upstairs window. The young boy ran away to sea, it has been said, but there is no record of how long he remained away, or when he returned. This period must have been in the six or eight years after the portrait had been completed.
(Harris Genealogy: A line of direct descendants from James Harris of Boston, Massachusetts, to the present generation in 1975, by Robert Garrison Elliott)

Presumably, R. G. Elliott did not consult the 1840 U. S. Census record, which shows that WIlna, then 14 years old,  was still living in his parents’ home. This helps narrow the time frame of his “escape.” The census record also shows that there was indeed a young black woman (under age 23) living in the Harris home at the time. I suspect that rather than “running away to sea,” Wilna simply hopped aboard a canal boat and traveled to west to Buffalo, where he would later live for a number of years.

Within a few years, Wilna was back home in Rochester where, on May 25, 1846, he married the young Harriet Farnham. Wilna was just a few months shy of his 20th birthday and Harriet was only 14 years old when they married. The couple remained in Rochester, as the 1847 city directory contains a listing for “Wilna C. Harris, Boat-builder” boarding at 9 South Street.

He is not listed in the 1849 Rochester city directory, so presumably the couple had already moved to Buffalo, where they are found on the 1850 U. S. Census. The enumerator got a few things wrong here, which is why finding people on Census records can be a challenge. For one, Wilna is listed as “William” and born in Canada; it was Harriet who was born in Canada. Also, their 1 year old child was a boy named Harry Clay, not a girl named Harriet. Sarah Winters was Harriet’s mother; Harriet’s father, Bela Farnham had died and Sarah remmaired. Josephine Farnham was Harriet’s younger sister.

1850 US Census - BuffaloBy 1857 or so, Wilna had returned to Rochester where he continued his work in boat construction. He also made a name for himself as an amazing oarsman. This article from the Lockport Journal and Courier, dated Dec. 6, 1859, recounts Wilna’s record-setting rowing journey from Buffalo to Rochester.

1859 Dec 6 Lockport Journal and CourierAt the time of the 1860 U.S. Census, Wilna and Harriet, living in Rochester, had four children: Harry, Mary, Sluman and Frank, and a young live-in maid, Sarah. in 1865, their youngest child, Wilna Jr. was born. Sadly, though, he did not survive infancy.

1860 US Census - RochesterWhen not crafting boats, Wilna turned his skill to making toys and sleds for his children and useful household tools for Harriet, such as a lap sewing board.

Mid-century, the country became engulfed in the tragedy of the Civil War, and Wilna was drafted. But as he had a family to support, the law of the time allowed him to pay $300 to another man to serve in his place.

By 1866, Wilna was so closely tied to the marine community in Rochester that he was appointed a Canal inspector.

1866 Jan 25Watkins NY Express - snippet

Watkins NY Express. Jan 25, 1866

At the time of the 1870 U.S. Census, Wilna’s children are all still living at home. His oldest son, Harry, was working with his father at the boat yard. His 2nd eldest son, Sluman, was working as a clerk in a shoe store. Two more children have been added to the family:  Jennie and Bertram. Interestingly, while Bert’s older brother was working as a shoe store clerk when Bert was still in school, Sluman would never rise above the occupation of salesman, but Bert went on to become vice-president of the Rochester Shoe Manufacturing Company. Note that here, again, the census enumerator is stumped by Wilna’s name and records it as “Vilney.”1870 US Census - Rochester - cropped The Monroe County Library System Local History division makes available online the Rochester Newspaper Index. I found in the index reference to an article about Wilna dated Jan. 18, 1878, the matter of which is that Wilna was “in Brunswick, Georgia: describes condition and territory there.” Below is the article:

Union Advertiser -Rochester NY- 18 Jan 1878

Union Advertiser -Rochester NY- 18 Jan 1878

Wilna’s family became homesick for Rochester, so they returned after little more than a year in Georgia. Wilna remained to fulfill the terms of his boat building contract.

Wilna continued to compete in regattas and other boating events across New York state. At times he was was crewman, and other times it was a boat of his construction which competed. I love this little newspaper item in which he won a skiff race and was not at all shy of accepting the prize of “filthy lucre,” much to the chagrin, no doubt, of his competitor.

1875 Conesus Lake Regatta - Rochester NY Union Advertiser

Rochester NY Union Advertiser. Jun 10, 1875

Wilna’s craftsmanship as a boat builder was much sought after and the commissioning of his work was often noted in the local papers.

1880 May Oswego Daily Times

Oswego Daily Times. May 1880

At the time of the 1880 U. S. Census, Wilna and Harriet were living at number 70 Mount Hope Ave. His eldest son, Harry, had moved out by that time (he later ended up in Chicago) and his eldest daughter, Mary, was married and living in Rochester with her husband, Frank Foster, and their 3-year-old daughter, Alice. Wilna’s other adult children seemed loathe to leave the nest. Sluman had left off with being a shoe store clerk and was learning his father’s trade. Frank was employed as a printer. This census record again shows how enumerators get things wrong: Sluman’s name is misspelled and Bertram is listed as Wilna’s daughter!

1880 US Census - Rochester - croppedAbout 1884, Wilna and Harriet moved from #70 to #103 Mount Hope Ave. and remained there through about 1888. Behind the home was the boat house on the banks of a feeder to the Genesee River in which Wilna built row boats and canoes. In 1888, Wilna and Harriet moved to #18 Alexander St. and remained there for the rest of their lives.

Robert G. Elliot’s Harris Genealogy includes a few photos of the elderly Wilna and Harriet. The photos are dated about 1912.

Wilna C Harris 1912 Wilna C Harris and boat 1912

Wilna passed away on March 18, 1914. The obituary for him printed in the local paper recalls his career as an oarsman and a boat builder. Harriet survived her husband by about 2 years, until she passed in October of the following year. They are both interred in the Harris family plot at Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, NY, though, oddly, there is no headstone to mark their graves.
1914 Oldest Boat Builder Dead

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2 Responses to Boat Building & Racing on the Genesee River: Wilna C. Harris (1826-1914)

  1. Kathy Irvine Burke says:

    Where does this man fit in the Irvine family tree?

    • Site Admin says:


      Harriett Farnham Harris is my paternal great great grandmother. She is not in my maternal (i.e. Irvine) line.

      If you have any family stories or photos to share, please contact me! I plan to print my blog posts into a booklet at the end of the year.

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