For the first time, the New York State Court of Appeals is set to hear two cases in the Fulton County Courthouse on Sept. 8, the same day many will celebrate the 250-year-old building’s rich history as the state’s oldest courthouse still in use today.
“There were only two years where the courthouse did not operate because the county seat moved from Johnstown to Fonda in 1836,” said Samantha Hall-Saladino, the executive director of the Fulton County Historical Society.
It was erected in 1772 when New York was still a British colony – four years before the Declaration of Independence was signed and 15 before the United States Constitution was created.
“This courthouse saw the earliest years of our country both the good and the bad parts of that,” Hall-Saladino said. “Walking into a historic space that is still being used today is like a sense of magic. You kind of feel the energy of all the things that have gone on there over the years.”
THROUGH THE YEARS
The courthouse hasn’t always been called the Fulton County Courthouse, either. Originally it was the Tryon County Courthouse situated in Tryon County, which was created out of the Western half of what had originally been Albany County. It was named for Lord William Tryon, the last provincial governor of New York.
“So of course after the revolution anything named after the British crown was not palatable to the people,” Hall-Saladino said.
Hall-Saladino said the county was renamed after General Richard Montgomery, who died during the Revolutionary War. Along the way, the county seat switched from Johnstown to Fonda. That moved angered people, so in 1838 Fulton County was created. It was named for Robert Fulton, who improved steam engine. The courthouse was eventually bought and has remained the Fulton County Courthouse since then. The main structure of the building – a red brick facility believed to be designed by Samuel Fuller, a well-known architect in Schenectady County – has stood the test of time even as additions were added throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and the interior changed inside to fit space needs.
Judge Michael Smrtic said he was in awe the first time he stood at the bench swearing in his first jury, thinking about how many came before that and how the space is still used to this day.
“It’s not modern in the sense of other courthouses, but it still works today,” he said “It’s just a beautiful courthouse.”
In Smrtic’s office is a photo of the courthouse during sunset with a rainbow.
“If you made that black-and-white it could be the same picture from 250 years ago,” he said.
The courthouse, which in its early years served as a showcase for many well-known orators and some interesting cases, has its own aura, he said.
He said when you have a moment to sit there and think about the historical moments that took place there – you can almost feel it.
ARENA FOR LAW, DEBATE
One of the most well-known cases to take place at the courthouse was that of Solomon Southwick, the former speaker of the state Assembly was charged with bribery in 1812 by Alexander Sheldon, then the speaker of the state Assembly, for trying the get Sheldon to back a plan to create a federal bank for the county in New York City, said Noel Levee, the Johnstown historian.
The case gained lots of attention in part because Aaron Burr was one of the attorneys in it. At the time Burr, who had served as the vice president between 1801 and 1805, was facing treason charges for killing Alexander Hamilton, Levee said.
A second well-known case to be held in the courthouse was that of Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh, who was executed in 1846 by hanging after being found guilty of killing her husband with arsenic, Levee said.
Levee said she was only the third woman in the state at the time to be executed.
The courthouse also became an arena for many historical figures to speak, Levee said, like Henry Wilson, who was vice president under Ulysses S. Grant. There was also George Francis Train, who organized the Union Pacific Railroad and spoke at the courthouse and Cassius Marcellus Clay, a well-known emancipationist and early founder of the Republican Party who also spoke at the courthouse in the early years, Levee said.
The courthouse was also the meeting place for people involved in the Women’s Rights Movement, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who lived just down the street. Susan B. Anthony also spoke at the courthouse, as did Oswego’s Dr. Mary Walker, a Medal of Honor recipient.
Now various organizations, including the county and the courthouse are creating events to celebrate the momentous 250th anniversary in a way that celebrates what the courthouse is today but looks back at what has taken place there over the years.
The Office of Court Administration is planning an event to culminate the 250 years of existence for the building, but those plans are still in the works.
“We don’t have a set program just yet,” said David Joseph, the chief of security for the 4th Judicial District.
Hall-Saladino and Levee are also hosting an event on Sept. 10 to commemorate the history of the building, Levee said.
“It’s a gem,” Levee said of the building.
They will try to open the courthouse to the public for the first time in years so that people can come in and see documents and memorabilia. Levee also said they are looking to get actors dressed in 1800-style clothing.
Levee said they will also have a proclamation honoring former Judge Robert P. Best. Best was behind the push to keep using the courthouse in the 1970 and 1980s when there were talks of closing it and building a new one closer to the jail, Levee said. Best went on to help ensure the building had work done including painting the window sills and cleaning the brick exterior, Levee said.
“One of the goals of hosting these events and bringing attention to this anniversary is so that we can get more people interested in it and recognize it as a place of course where law happens but where we can also discuss issues of inequality and oppression and where we can try to meet these more head on to create a more equal and fair society in our own community and beyond,” Hall-Saladino said.