History Makers: Cheshire’s first historian and his famous family

History Makers: Cheshire’s first historian and his famous family

Sometimes, it takes one historian to recognize the work and influence of another.

Peter J. Malia is a historian by trade and a book publisher by profession. He’s also a Cheshire resident and utilizes one man’s work to better tell the story of his hometown when necessary – Joseph Perkins Beach.

Beach’s most famous work is the comprehensively-titled “History of Cheshire, Connecticut, from 1694 to 1840, Including Prospect, which as Columbia Parish, was a part of Cheshire until 1829.” It is a scholarly work of history which has allowed subsequent generations to study their town’s past, looking for clues and facts to illuminate the present.

The “History of Cheshire” was compiled by Beach and first published by Cheshire’s Lady Fenwick Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1912. It remains a touchstone today.

“Hopefully you will agree that the series’ logical start should begin with Beach, whose work is still considered a standard today. We would not know much about the town’s past without Beach’s sweat equity of several decades of research. And his family does date back to the Mayflower, after all, so there’s a starting point,” says Malia.

Despite his work, of Beach himself relatively little is known. He seemed to live in the shadows of his famous family.

Beach’s father, Moses Yale Beach, was born in 1800 in Wallingford. Blessed with an entrepreneurial spirit and an apparent abhorrence of failure, the senior Beach played the fife in the War of 1812, worked as a cabinet-maker, owned a paper mill, founded the fire department in Saugerties, New York, and eventually invested in the New York Sun newspaper and became its sole proprietor.

While living in Springfield, Massachusetts, he started a family which included Joseph Perkins Beach (born in 1828), Moses Sperry Beach (born in 1822) and Alfred Ely Beach (born in 1826).

Moses Yale Beach continued his innovative career by revolutionizing the newspaper industry, growing the Sun’s circulation by using horses, railways, and even pigeons to expedite his information-gathering.

Beach amassed a $300,000 fortune (around $3.3 billion today) and was so fascinated by the wealth of his surroundings that he published a compendium of New York City’s wealthiest citizens, of which he was one. (According to the book, published in 1846, Cornelius Vanderbilt was then worth $1.2 million, and John Jacob Astor, a staggering $25 million.)

He would also found the Associated Press as the nation’s newspapers flourished thanks to a curious, well-educated and growing population.

During the Mexican-American War, President James K. Polk convinced Moses Yale Beach to work as a secret emissary, sending him to Mexico for peace talks with Santa Anna.

Joseph’s two brothers would become notables in their father’s manner as well.

Alfred Ely Beach was one of the founders of Scientific American magazine (still published today) and an inventor of New York’s first subway, the Beach Pneumatic Transit. Following the Civil War, he founded the Beach Institute in Savannah, Georgia, the first school for freed slaves.

Moses Sperry Beach, like his brothers, worked for the Sun and succeeded his father in ownership. Moses S. Beach, through the paper, supported Abraham Lincoln and the cause of emancipation. He was also a close friend of Mark Twain, and traveled with the celebrated author on a voyage which became the basis for his “The Innocents Abroad.”

In 1849, Joseph Perkins Beach also embarked on the adventure of his lifetime, a voyage by sea from New York to San Francisco that would provide the basis for his other printed work, “The Log of Apollo.”

The ship was owned by Joseph’s father, and berths were available from $75 for steerage to $250 for round trip with board. “The advantages offered to passengers by this conveyance cannot be surpassed,” boasted one advertisement.

According to the Online Archive of California, which first published the book in 1986, Beach’s narratives "have a tone of humor when describing the discontent and disorder among passengers. There is frequent mention of the passengers ‘grumbling’ about the food, breaking into the galley at night, drinking, gambling and being noisy. Among the comments about the majority of the passengers are mentions of the Episcopal minister and an occasional service performed by him. Also there is mention of kinds of fish seen and caught. In San Francisco, there is more narrative and description including desertion of crew members.”

Now part of the National Register of Historic Places, under the control of the National Park Service, the Apollo’s story is a curious one.

“Beached on the mudflats of the San Francisco waterfront at the corner of Battery and Sacramento streets,” the Apollo was transformed into a “popular doughnut and coffee house.” An 1851 fire destroyed the ship’s structure to “the turn of the bilge,” and what goods remained fell down into the hull. The ship’s remaining structures were topped with sand and occasionally excavated by construction projects built on and around it. The largest of these, the Federal Reserve Bank, exposed several treasures of the era, but the site has not apparently been disturbed since 1925.

An archeologist who examined the site in 1986 called it “the most comprehensive assemblage of cultural materials dating from the Gold Rush era ever excavated systematically in San Francisco.”

Prior to that fateful journey, “Joseph attended the Episcopal Academy at Cheshire in 1840 and 1841, where his daughter says he developed a last lasting love of the little hamlet and its past. It was a passion he never surrendered and he is still highly regarded by amateur genealogists and professionals alike for conducting exhaustive research on the Beach family throughout America as well as the Yale and Brewster families,” adds Malia, happy to see a colleague get some of the recognition he deserves.

Though he worked at the family’s New York Sun newspaper for several years, once it was sold in 1867 to Charles Anderson Dana (Assistant Secretary of War under Lincoln), Beach returned to Cheshire to settle permanently. There he lived a quiet life researching the genealogies of his hometown, a long process that led to his most famous work.

His daughter, Louisa B. Beach, wrote in a preface to his “History of Cheshire” that he had gathered material for a paper to be read at Cheshire’s centennial, but declined to publish it, wanting to create a more “comprehensive history.”

She also mentioned that her father often rode from Cheshire to Wallingford on a horse called “Dolly,” consulting records for his work, and going also to Hartford and New Haven to verify his facts.

The book itself consists largely of transcriptions of events such as baptisms, burials, marriages, last wills and testaments, births, and official Town business. While not a gripping narrative, its dutiful collection of records provides a firm basis for local research, as well as possible inroads into countless other questions.

The well-heeled Beach gained a good reputation among the citizens of Cheshire, just as he had in New York and elsewhere. He died January 9, 1911, at his home in Cheshire, at the age of 82.

As one eulogy, published in the Sun on January 11 of that year characterized him, “He was a pleasant man to meet; a vein of humor ran through all he said, making him always interesting. He was broadly benevolent. The educational expenses of many successful professional men were paid by him, the beneficiary often not even knowing the name of his benefactor until later years. He was a true and loyal friend.”


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