Politician, lawyer, and businessman Smith Weed is the subject of Mark L. Barie's biography, "The President of Plattsburgh." Weed was born in Belmont in 1833 but lived most of his life in Plattsburgh, where he died in 1920. In his almost 87 years, he profoundly influenced the North Country, and Barie's book chronicles those achievements.
In 1865, Weed became the 24th president of Plattsburgh. (At the time, many communities used "president" for the manager of the municipality.) At the time, Plattsburgh was connected by rail to Montreal while Whitehall was connected by rail to New York City. As both Plattsburgh president and area assemblyman, Weed succeeded in getting New York state to subsidize ($250,000) the linking of Whitehall to Plattsburgh in 1867.
A few years later, Weed convinced the D&H Railroad to build the Hotel Champlain on property he owned. Thus, Plattsburgh had a beautiful hotel on a railroad connected to New York, Albany and Montreal, making Plattsburgh an important post-Civil War tourist vacation destination.
In addition to his business ventures, Weed also generously contributed to his community. He donated the property for Plattsburgh's first hospital, Champlain Valley Hospital, staffed by the Grey Nuns of Ottawa, which opened in 1910.
Weed's largest contributions, however, were probably in the field of education. SUNY Plattsburgh had its birth as the Plattsburgh Normal School, which Weed championed for 20 years. Its first class of future school teachers entered in 1890.
As involved as he was in Plattsburgh Normal School, Weed's contributions to K-12 education are even more impressive. Weed joined the first superintendent of public instruction, Victor M. Rice, in his efforts to make school available to all children. In the 1860s, local public schools in New York received a subsidy from the state, but students still had to pay tuition. Poor students, of course, were often unable to pay the tuition and get an education. But Rice and Weed eventually got legislation passed that eliminated tuition in public schools. In 1894, their law became Article XI of the state constitution: "The legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools wherein all the children of the state may be educated."
In addition to shaping legislation for all of New York's schools, Weed also influenced the schools in his hometown. He served on the Plattsburgh school board for 54 years!
Weed has been pretty much forgotten, even in Plattsburgh. There is a Smith Weed bridge over the railroad tracks near Plattsburgh's city hall - but no hockey arena or middle school or science center named after him, as has been the case for another North Country giant, Sen. Ronald Stafford. (Curiously, Sen. Stafford's law offices were located in Smith Weed's mansion.)
But Mark Barie's biography reminds us of Weed's accomplishments, and his effort is exhaustive and meticulous. He provides 364 notes among his 32 chapters, which are arranged topically rather than in traditional chronological order. This is effective, allowing us to focus on Weed's tasks and contributions over the breadth of his career.
More of Weed's personality, however, would be welcome. The data of his life does not adequately communicate his humanity. Perhaps there is not enough historical material for Barie to bring more life to Weed. Even so, Mr. Barie, a businessman from Champlain, recalls a man who should be better known, and his book is a welcome addition to area history.
This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.