From railroad engines to medicine: A sample of architectural evolution in Dunkirk


Special to the OBSERVER

The most frequently seen image of Dunkirk’s original Brooks Hospital building shows a late Victorian mansion. The photo was taken by H. G. Jones about 1900. Copies are found at the Dunkirk Historical Society, at the D. R. Barker Museum in Fredonia, and in the hospital archives. However, the former house looked very different in 1881.

The mansion that became a hospital in 1898 was the former home of Horatio G. Brooks and his wife Julia A. Haggett. Much of it was built as a smaller house in the 1870s, and it was located at Central Avenue and West Sixth Street. It had an expansive front lawn on Central, and an equally large side yard on Sixth Street.

In the Jones photo, the home is shown with three stories, including the mansard roof, a double set of three-story bay windows on the Central Avenue facade, a matching three-story bay window on the Sixth Street side, and a four-story tower with a rectangular footprint on the Sixth Street side. A decorative fountain is shown on the Sixth Street lawn. Behind the home, on the Sixth Street side, is the two-story, mansard-roof cottage that became the Dunkirk’s Young Men’s Association (YMA) building.

Yet, as J. A. Chewning pointed out in his 1992 book “Dunkirk, New York: Its Architecture,” a lithograph appearing in the 1881 F. W. Beers “Atlas of Chautauqua County” shows the house in a much simpler form. Although the house was larger than most other homes in the area when it was first built, it was only two stories in height at that time. The home’s Italianate design included the bay windows on the Central Avenue side, brackets under the eaves, a cupola, and a two-story wing on the west side of the house.

Also in the 1881 drawing, the original Dunkirk Academy building could be seen behind the house on Eagle Street, where the Dunkirk Middle School’s lawn and parking lot are located today. It was a three-story building, including a mansard roof, and it was topped by a cupola at the Eagle Street facade. The Historical Society in Dunkirk and the Museum in Fredonia both have copies of a photograph of the Academy building, after its cupola had been removed. The photo was taken shortly before the old Dunkirk High School building was constructed at the front of the Academy building, which then became the west wing of the High School. Both of those old buildings were demolished long ago.

The fountain on the Sixth Street side of the Brooks home was shown as early as 1881, but it disappeared by the mid-twentieth century, when a large wing was added to the hospital on that side. The new wing featured a second-floor lobby, which was accessed from the Sixth Street sidewalk by a dozen steps. The Historical Society in Dunkirk has a postcard of this wing and a photograph by Cecil Knowlton showing the back side of this wing, after the Brooks house had been demolished.

In the 1960s, a north wing was added to the hospital along Eagle Street, and the lobby was moved to the Central Avenue side, between the two wings. A cafeteria was tucked into a corner of the lobby. By the end of the twentieth century, the Sixth Street wing had been expanded at its southerly and easterly sides to create administrative offices, and the Eagle Street wing had been telescoped to the north several times. This accommodated an ever growing emergency room, and also an outpatient facility.

Homes and medical offices along Eagle Street, West Fifth Street, and Central Avenue were gradually demolished for staff and patient parking lots. Last to go was an 1870s Italianate house that had been remodeled in the early twentieth century to become a Gothic Revival church at the corner of Central Avenue and Fifth Street.

Horatio Brooks was born in New Hampshire, and in 1844, at age 16, he apprenticed as a machinist in Boston. At age 18, he began work in the Amherst, Massachusetts shops of the Boston and Maine Railroad. Within a short time, he had been promoted to the positions of railroad fireman and engineer. He was assigned in 1850 to take the Hinckley & Drury Engine No. 90 to Dunkirk for the nearly completed New York and Erie Railroad.

He could not travel into Dunkirk along railroad tracks, however. Because the railway lines into the city would not open until the following year, Brooks had to bring his engine to western New York by means of the Erie Canal and Lake Erie. According to the Horatio Brooks life story in the 1881 atlas, and according to Leslie F. Chard’s 1971 history of the city, Brooks and his engine arrived on the steamship known as the Commodore Chauncey. The locomotive was unloaded onto tracks at the pier, and then was used to help complete the new railroad’s last stretch.

As mentioned in his 1881 life story, Brooks was proud to have had “the honor of having blown the first locomotive whistle in the County of Chautauqua.” Nineteen years later, Brooks took over the Erie Railroad shops in Dunkirk, saving them from closing. He morphed those shops into his new company, Brooks Locomotive Works, which was organized in 1869 and turned out one locomotive per month. By 1872, the company completed nearly two locomotives per month, but the Panic of 1873 caused the company to operate at a loss for several years. Fortunately, the enterprise survived, and by 1880 produced eight engines per month.

Brooks and his wife were also active in the Baptist Church and in Dunkirk’s civic affairs. He died of a stroke in 1887 at only 59 years of age, and his wife Julia died in 1896 at only 66 years of age. One of their daughters had died as an infant, and another died as a young adult. As Chard explained, it was Horatio’s and Julia’s two surviving daughters who donated the home, cottage, and grounds to the YMA, to be used as YMA headquarters as well as a hospital and public library. Thus were born the Brooks Memorial Hospital and the Brooks Memorial Free Library, both of which operated in the old mansion 120 years ago.