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A picture of the Fairbanks Mansion dated 1987.
A picture of the Fairbanks Mansion dated 1987.

Counting down to Lewiston's bicentennial: The story behind Fairbanks Mansion

Fri, May 27th 2022 11:15 am

The Historical Association of Lewiston and Lewiston Bicentennial Committee are teaming with Niagara Frontier Publications to highlight news, events and features commemorating Lewiston’s first 200 years. These exclusive pieces will count down to a grand celebration, scheduled to take place July 1-4, 2022.


105 S. Third St.: Fairbanks Mansion

The mansion on 105 Third St. belonged to one of the earliest settlers of Lewiston, who built the home sometime around 1815. This man is Joshua Fairbanks. He was born Jan. 14, 1768, in Dedham, Massachusetts, and moved to Lewiston in 1805 after creating a successful tavern in Queenston, Canada. It is known that Aaron Burr and his daughter and son-in-law stayed at his tavern on their way to see Niagara Falls around 1805.

He also had a part ownership of a boat that sailed people and goods across the Niagara River to Kingston, which first set sail in 1801. However, this business didn’t last long, as the ship mysteriously vanished one day on a particular stormy night in 1806. The shipwreck was discovered in 2016 – it is the second-oldest confirmed shipwreck in the Great Lakes, and the oldest confirmed commercial ship to have sailed it.

The next noteworthy owner of the home was James Van Cleve, who had an even greater connection to the Great Lakes than Joshua Fairbanks. Van Cleve made his way to Lewiston by becoming an unpaid worker in Amos Tryon’s store at 16. Two years later, a captain offered him a job as a clerk on the Ontario and he was more than happy to leave for a paying job.

The Ontario was the first American steamship on Lake Ontario and the beginning of Van Cleve’s illustrious career on the Great Lakes. After just a few years on the lake, he would become captain of the Martha Ogden, and would spend 51 years of his life captaining various ships.

Outside of the waters, he would make himself a memorable member of Lewiston after marrying Samuel Barton’s daughter, Harriet. She was also the maternal granddaughter of Fairbanks, so she inherited the mansion where both of them would live.

After Van Cleve retired from the waters, he was able to dedicate himself to the arts which he cared much about. Throughout his career. He earned the nickname “Sailor with a Paintbrush,” because he was such a talented artist. His subject of his work was oftentimes ships on the water and landscapes of the Great Lakes or Lewiston region. However, his magnum opus was a book, “Reminiscences of Sailing Vessels and Steam Boats on Lake Ontario.” He created it with the knowledge he had gained from a lifetime of sailing. It detailed the Great Lakes, everything he knew about the ships that sailed them, and had over 100 illustrations all made by Van Cleve. This work has helped contemporary divers find long-lost shipwrecks due to his detailed records.

The house is more than the home of historic individuals, it was a staple of the early Lewiston community. This is seen in the elaborate parties and balls held there in the 19th century and even through “basket parties.” These were dinner parties where affluent women would show up with a basket of food and they would pass it around for everyone to share.

Even in the 20th century, it wasn’t uncommon for the Fairbanks home to have famous individuals staying there: Silent film star Mary Pickford lived there as a child, and it is said the Aaron Burr visited the home. During World War II, the government turned the building into apartments that were under strict rent control.

After the war, the home was quickly deteriorating before Pearl Arlington bought the home and restored it. The home is an attractive sight to anyone who may see it today, because it has original ceilings, floor and marble fireplace mantles to accompany its refurbished exterior.

Bicentennial Weekend

The Lewiston bicentennial celebration is near. Visit www.Lewiston200.org for details. Be sure to invite all your former Lewiston friends and family to join us for the four-day celebration of Lewiston’s history.

Thanks to Ken Slaugenhoupt, Tom Collister and Austin Heinz for the article.

•Find all of the HAL articles HERE.

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