The history of the Village of Chatham dates back to the early 1700’s when the community was settled by Yankee emigrants from Connecticut. Because of the ample water supply provided by the Stein Kill Creek which flowed nearby, the place became attractive to settlers who found its rocky banks provided many mill sites. The Chatham Turnpike Road was incorporated on April 18, 1804, and a Canaan to Chatham Road was opened in 1808.
William Thomas, one of the earlier settlers, owned the greatest part of the village and opened the first business, a tavern, built on the site of the present 1811 Inn on Central Square. Captain Thomas Groat followed and for a time the place was called Groat’s Corners. Peter Groat established a stage line and opened a post office in the community’s tavern. William Thomas built a store almost opposite his inn on the site now occupied by Central Interiors on Central Square.
Chatham Four Corners, as the community was known by the mid-1800’s, was now a bustling hub of railroading centered on the New York Central’s Harlem Division, whose trackage was extended northward from New York City, arriving at its northern terminus in
The village was incorporated in 1869, and a petition to the courts noted the place had 1,355 residents. On March 8, 1869, an election was ordered on the question of incorporation, and 284 votes were cast, and only 86 were opposed. Chatham was the proposed name, but, as Old Chatham was then called Chatham, the title became Chatham Village. The village’s first election was held in April 1869, and the governing officers named were a Village President, five Trustees, a Clerk, a Board of Assessors, a Pound Master, a Police Justice, a Health Officer and two police constables.
A village hall was purchased in 1869 at a cost of $5,500, which would house fire equipment, a firemen’s hall, room for a Police Court and a hall for village meetings. The village fathers also directed that the three-story structure “contain a good clock and bell,” thus establishing Chatham’s most visual landmark, what is known today as the “Town Clock.”
The Great Fire
The Great Fire of 1869 broke out at 2:00 a.m. of April 5 on the west end of Main Street, and, swept by a strong wind, it burned building after building, despite the efforts of Ocean Fire Company No. 1 and its old hand engine. Telegrams were sent to Albany and Hudson for help, and fire apparatus was dispatched to Chatham via railroad cars to help fight the conflagration. East Greenbush firemen also responded and did their part to contain the flames which burned through the following day. A firebreak was created by tearing down a home on the site of the present Mini-Chopper Store to save the Reformed Church which stood in what is now the store’s parking lot. In all, seven families were left homeless, a dozen places of business suffered heavy damage, and total property loss was set at $130,000, with only $75,000 of that figure covered by insurance.
Like the Phoenix of old, Chatham rose from its ashes, and a new row of brick buildings on Main Street was constructed. During the 1890 period, the Chatham Shirt Shop opened a factory on Church Street giving employment to 300 people. The Payn Mills just north of the village employed 120 in the making of paper products; but the largest employer was the network of railroads that entered the village from all points of the compass. In the 1890’s, as many as 100 trains a day entered and left Chatham on the Rutland Railroad, the Harlem Division, the Boston and Albany and the B&A Extension from Chatham to Hudson. Little by little, passenger service was terminated following World War II, and now Chathamites can only stand and watch as trains pass through the village over the Conrail System between Albany and Boston.
Chatham has been fortunate over the years to have excellent fire service provided first by members of Ocean Fire Company No. 1, organized in 1858, and followed by Sanford W. Smith Hook and Ladder Company, formed in 1930. The Chatham Rescue Squad, made up of thoroughly trained technicians, has served the community well since 1931 and provides a fleet of modern ambulances to transport persons in times of emergency. The firemen have occupied a number of buildings, first the Town Clock structure, then a building at the rear of Tracy Memorial Village Hall and finally their present headquarters on Hoffman Street.
Chatham’s educational system dates back to 1795 when a group of citizens organized a panel of School Commissioners. In 1859 a school was erected on School Street, and at this writing the structure still stands, serving as an apartment building. Numerous public and private schools dotted the community until the establishment of Chatham Union Free School in 1881. The following year a grammar school was erected on Woodbridge Avenue, followed in 1893 by a high school. In later years, the Chatham Central School District was consolidated until today there is only the Mary E. Dardess Elementary School, the Middle School and the Senior High School in the Village of Chatham.
In a day when many villages have seen their places of worship disappear with the passing of the years, it is a tribute to the people of Chatham that of the six churches that were eventually established here, all are still in existence: the United Methodist Church, whose worship services date back to 1812; the First Reformed Church, which traces its local roots to 1842; St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, dating to
1883; Emmanuel Lutheran Church, whose Charter is dated 1874; St. James Roman Catholic Church, which began as a mission in 1850; and the Payn AME Church, which came into being in 1892. All have dedicated and active congregations.
Chatham in the late 20th Century can look back on two centuries of accomplishments in the fields of business and civic endeavor. It holds an excellent reputation for its civic government and the maintenance and administration of its holdings.
Recognized far and wide as a shopping center because of its many and varied places of business, Chatham still holds an attraction for not only those who live here year round, but for the increasing number of city residents who have purchased homes in the village. Never destitute for trade or industry, Chatham’s prosperity continues to grow as does the pride of Chathamites in their community.
– by Albert S. Callan, Village Historian, 11/25/1988