Excerpt from Dunkirk, by Diane Andrasik

“Dunkirk historian Canon Leslie Chard summed up Dunkirk’s easiest beginnings by saying that the city emerged from ‘out of the wilderness’ just after the year 1800. Dunkirk has now had a little over two centuries of history. Its early efforts to establish a settlement set the tone for later strugglers the community would strive to overcome. If the swampy nature and overgrowth of trees near the harbor hampered settlement in 1805, economic conditions would threaten the city in later years. Yet 200 years of history have been accomplished, and the city looks forward.”


“Dunkirk’s history began at its harbor,the French traveling along Lake Erie’s southern shore in 1749 and 1759 on military missions. In 1790, Andrew Ellicott, Surveyor General of the United States, crossed the area Dunkirk now inhabits. In 1798 others surveyed the harbor, and Dunkirk developed from that harbor area. Its swampy, overgrown shore hampered settlement, Historian Obed Edson stating, ‘The dismal woods came down to the very shore of the lake.’  Yet some realized its possibilities, including Zattu Cushing and Seth Cole. Cushing passed through in 1799 and purchased land parcels at Point Gratiot and Canadaway Creek. Subsequently,  Cole bought part of Cushing’s property and settled near the creek after arriving with Cushing by ox-drawn sleigh in the  winter of 1805. Timothy Goulding’s family settled a mile west of the harbor in 1808.  In 1809 his brother-in-law Solomon Chadwick built his cabin on the harbor shore, leading it to be known as ‘Chadwick’s Bay.’  By 1810 the first vessel arrived in the harbor.

Daniel Garnsey purchased Chadwick’s land in 1817, and the area came to be called  ‘Garnsey’s Bay.’  As Chautauqua County’s first district attorney and representative, he worked to improve lighthouses and harbors, and soon steamboats and schooners regularly arrived here from larger cities. In 1818, when businessman Elisha Jenkins visited Dunkerque, France, he noted the resemblance of its harbor to that of his own village. Returning home, Jenkins advocated changing the village’s name to ‘Dunkirk.’  

Dunkirk struggled to grow, no more than 50 people residing there in 1825. When Dunkirk was considered as terminus of the Erie Canal and New York and Erie Railroad, even Dewitt Clinton purchased local real estate and Walter Smith moved to Dunkirk in 1826. But excessive land speculation caused financial panic, the real estate and shipping industry collapsed, bankruptcies affecting even Smith.  Yet once again, news the village would be the railroad terminus restored confidence.

Several historians assert that the 1851 arrival of the Erie Railroad in Dunkirk marked the end of the pioneer period for both Dunkirk and the county.  The railroad linked communities, the flow of people and goods increased,  and Dunkirk prospered.”      ©Dunkirk by Diane Andrasik, Arcadia Publishing Co, Charlestown, S.C., 2008.

The Dunkirk shoreline as seen in 1835 in a sketch by George A.H. Eggers