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Mount Albion Tower: THE great small-town Civil War memorial

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 2 May 2013 at 12:00 am

The tower, nestled in the southeast section of Mount Albion Cemetery, rises 68 feet from the hill it stands on. From the top, which can be reached by climbing the spiral staircase inside, visitors can admire Albion’s countryside and, on a clear day, see clear north to Lake Ontario.

ALBION – For 11 years after the Civil War, Orleans County residents fought to raise money for a memorial to 463 county residents who perished in the war.

Quarrymen cut the stone and hauled it to the heart of Mount Albion Cemetery. The community built a 68-foot-high tower, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, that has endured for nearly 140 years. An 84-step spiral staircase allows people to climb the tower, to enjoy a view above the trees.

The tower is a tremendous achievement, one of our most magnificent sandstone structures – and an overwhelming expression of grief.

The tower was built in stages. Several times, the community ran out of money for the immense project, County Historian Bill Lattin said.

But residents wouldn’t be denied a chance to pay their respects to the fallen. The monument was dedicated on July 4, 1876, the 100th anniversary of the country.

This tower isn’t merely decorative. It’s a memorial to 463 Orleans County residents who died in the Civil War.

I’ve been researching Civil War memorials on-line, and taking pictures of ones from other nearby communities. I want to be respectful and not criticize other memorials. In fact, I admire every one. But I think it’s clear that the Civil War memorial in Albion is one of the most unusual and perhaps most magnificent of them all, especially in a small town.

Many of the Civil War memorials include a plaque with a retired cannon from the war. Kendall has one at Beechwood Cemetery. Bergen has a Civil War memorial with a cannon mounted on a big stone block. The memorial includes the names of the soldiers from the community who died in the war.

Bergen mounted a cannon on a stone block as part of its memorial to Civil War soldiers at Mount Rest Cemetery.

There are a lot of obelisks as monuments. Batavia has a 36-foot-high obelisk with a bronze statue of a soldier in front. A lot of the memorials include statues. Some of them are on stone pedestals that are elevated 50 feet or more above ground. Warsaw in Wyoming County has one like that in the middle of a traffic circle. It’s impressive.

But the Mount Albion tower can be experienced, not just admired. Climb into the tower and you’ll see the names of the local dead carved on nine marble slabs that hang on the walls. Many of the last names, such as Davis and Root, remain in the community.

The Upton Monument in Batavia depicts a Civil War hero and Batavia native, Maj. Gen. Emory Upton. The monument, dedicated in 1919, includes a 36-foot-high obelisk and honors Civil War soldiers and other Genesee County veterans.

A grieving Orleans County didn’t pick the highest-ranked solider from the community and commission a bronze likeness of that solider, and then offer a general comment about how the memorial honors all who died in defense of the union.

In Orleans, every solider who gave his life is remembered. Rank didn’t give a solider a loftier position in the memorial. I think that’s a radical idea, and different from many of the Civil War memorials.

The Civil War memorial in Warsaw features a statue on a pedestal in the middle of Route 19. There are four cannons at the base of the monument.

The Albion tower is one of only two (I think) made of Medina sandstone. Brockport built a 52-foot-high tower in 1893. The tower has crumbled and today partially stands on Owens Road. Calls to save the tower have met with apathy.

Due to safety concerns, the tower in Albion was off limits in the early 1970s. A group of high school students attended a Village Board meeting when one trustee suggested the tower be torn down. The high schoolers were outraged and spearheaded a “Save a Tower” campaign that raised $30,000 to strengthen masonry joints and repair the staircase. The tower was rededicated on July 4, 1976, the country’s 200th anniversary.

The community raised $30,000 to repair the steps and masonry joints inside the tower in the 1970s.

“We saved something that is really important,” Lattin told me. “Out here in Western New York it is certainly one of the more outstanding monuments.”

Locally, we benefited from the close presence of so many sandstone quarries. That provided a superior building material for the memorial. And we had immigrant stonecutters who could shape the stone. They also loved their adopted country, and wanted to express their gratitude for the soldiers’ sacrifice “in defense of the union.”

Lattin said some communities spent more than Orleans County “with exotic memorials with statuary.”

Nine marble slabs bear the names of Orleans County residents who died in the Civil War.

But our tower shows what happens when regular people get together and give their best. A shared sacrifice resulted in a magnificent monument that should endure for decades to come.

I take visiting friends to the tower, and they are filled with awe when they reach the top. I’ve been asked to give tours of the cemetery recently, showing it off to Cornell graduate students last month and a Rotary exchange group from the Philippines last fall.

They act like tourists at Niagara Falls, especially at the top of the tower. They are overwhelmed, shocked by the achievement from 1876.

This group form the Philippines climbed the top of the tower in October.

We should promote the tower, include it as part of a community marketing plan with its likeness on gateway signs and tourism brochures. It could be the focus on a bigger “Civil War Trail” in Orleans County and perhaps Western New York. If we developed a “Sandstone Trail” with roadside markers of sandstone buildings and quarries in the county, the top of tower should be the iconic symbol for the signs.

The tower is absolutely incredible. No other Civil War tribute, at least locally, quite compares.