Postcard images of Auburn State Prison (left) and the Auburn Theological Seminary's Willard Chapel (right). For a list of links to a larger version of the prison image and other Auburn postcards, visit the beautiful Vintage Views web site. For a list of links to a larger version of chapel postcard and other Auburn views, visit Bill Hecht's excellent site.
[Image selection & caption by NYCHS webmaster]

John N. Miskell's Offering Hope, the Connection
between Auburn Theological Seminary & Auburn State Prison

Page 3 of 8


The two most impressive building projects in the Village of Auburn during the early days of the 19th century were erected for contrary purposes.

  • Auburn State Prison was scheduled to become the mandatory residence for convicted lawbreakers from the western part of New York State. Construction costs were defrayed by taxpayers.
  • Auburn Theological Seminary was created for a more noble purpose the development of young men destined to serve congregations in rapidly growing sections of the state. Funding was furnished through donations made by private individuals.

Fortunately early on a common bond of faith was established between the two institutions when the builder of the prison, a firm believer in religion, came to the assistance of the founder of the seminary. The meeting took place at noon on the day ground was broken for the seminary, Tuesday, November 30, 1819.

To fully understand the importance of the connection established between the seminary and the prison on that day, a brief review of several events which had preceeded the occasion must be examined-before continuing this story.

It is a matter of record in the archives maintained by the Cayuga County Historical Society that on February 20, 1792, Colonel John Hardenbergh , a veteran of the Revolutionary War, purchased Lot #47 in the military tract. He came into the Township of Aurelius in 1793 and took possession of his farm which bordered on the banks of the Owasco Lake Outlet. As soon as possible after becoming settled in his home he had a dam and a grist mill built on the nearby river. The erection of the mill was the great event which helped to build the settlement.

The direct result of the operation of the mill was an accumulation of settlers near the junction of two roads there which for a time was called, Hardenburgh Corners. Soon every road was choked with emigrants to the area. By and large the heritage of Aurelius and Cayuga County of which it was a part was that of Calvinist New England. Calvinism provided settlers with a basis for the creeds of Presbyterian and Reformed Protestant religions.

Auburn described prior to prison & seminary.

The above description of Auburn Village from the 1813 Gazetteer of New York mentions houses, the courthouse and county jail, stores, manufactories and mills as well as the lake and "a fine stream with falls."

The state prison and theological school were then still years away in Auburn's future.

For a list of image links to a larger version of this and other Auburn views, visit Bill Hecht's excellent site of old maps, pictures, postcards, air photos, and geology info for Cayuga County and the Finger Lakes.

[Image selection & caption by NYCHS webmaster]

Many settlers were sober, middle class people of agricultural stock. They had been pushed out of New England by adverse economic conditions. They brought with them a desire for civilization, refinement, and law and order. Additionally they sought to establish churches, schools and other institutions which would help to nourish a stable culture.

In June, 1803, Hardenburgh Corners was given the shorter and more euphonious name of "Auburn". The place had been designated as the county seat and a more dignified name was desired. The population of the surrounding area of Cayuga County had increased to over 16,000 residents and was now a very active business place.

Auburn was legally incorporated as a village by the State Legislature on April 18, 1815. Auburn then contained about 200 buildings and had 1,000 inhabitants.

The first board of trustees sought help from the State Legislature for a new industry that would confer importance and create prosperity in the village.

For some years the Legislature had been considering a proposition to build a prison in western New York. The people of Auburn wanted to have the prison built in the villager believing that it would stimulate business as well as promote land sales. Local citizens offered to donate land beside the Owasco River as a site for the institution. Their offer was accepted and on June 18, 1816, the southeast cornerstone of the wall was laid. Auburn was going to be in the -prison business.

The Auburn Theological Seminary, a school of higher education: for the preparation of candidates for the ministery of the Presbyterian church, was established by the Synod of Geneva in 1819. The seat of the institution was fixed at Auburn as a result of liberal contributions towards its endowment by several local citizens.

Offering Hope, Connection Between Auburn Theological Seminary & Auburn State Prison ©1998 by John N. Miskell
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