The History of Fairbanks Mansion


A photo of the Fairbanks mansion from 1987.

Fri, May 27, 2022 11:15 a.m.

The Lewiston Historical Association and the Lewiston Bicentennial Committee team up with Niagara Frontier Publications to highlight news, events and features commemorating Lewiston’s first 200 years. These exclusive coins will count towards a grand celebration, scheduled for July 1-4, 2022.


105 S. Third St.: Fairbanks Mansion

The mansion at 105 Third St. belonged to one of Lewiston’s early settlers, who built the house around 1815. That man is Joshua Fairbanks. He was born on January 14, 1768 in Dedham, Massachusetts, and moved to Lewiston in 1805 after establishing a successful tavern in Queenston, Canada. It is known that Aaron Burr, his daughter and son-in-law stayed at his tavern en route to view Niagara Falls around 1805.

He was also part owner of a boat that carried people and goods up the Niagara River to Kingston, which first set sail in 1801. However, this business did not last long, as the ship mysteriously disappeared one day on a particular stormy night. in 1806. The wreck was discovered in 2016 – it is the second oldest confirmed wreck on the Great Lakes and the oldest confirmed commercial vessel to have sailed it.

The house’s next notable owner was James Van Cleve, who had an even greater connection to the Great Lakes than Joshua Fairbanks. Van Cleve made his way to Lewiston becoming an unpaid worker in Amos Tryon’s store at age 16. Two years later, a captain offered him a job as a clerk on Ontario and he was more than happy to leave for paid employment.

The Ontario was the first American steamship on Lake Ontario and the start of Van Cleve’s illustrious career on the Great Lakes. After only a few years on the lake, he would become captain of the Martha Ogden and spend 51 years of his life leading various vessels.

Outside the waters, he would become a memorable member of Lewiston after marrying Samuel Barton’s daughter, Harriet. She was also Fairbanks’ maternal granddaughter, so she inherited the mansion where they would both live.

After Van Cleve retired from the waters, he was able to devote himself to the arts which he held dear. Throughout his career. He earned the nickname “Sailor with a Brush”, because he was such a talented artist. His subject matter was often ships on the water and landscapes of the Great Lakes or the Lewiston area. However, his magnum opus was a book, “Reminiscences of Sailing Vessels and Steam Boats on Lake Ontario”. He created it with the knowledge he had acquired over a lifetime of sailing. It detailed the Great Lakes, everything he knew about the ships that sailed them, and contained over 100 illustrations all by Van Cleve. This work has helped contemporary divers find long-lost wrecks through its detailed records.

The house is more than the home of historical individuals, it was a staple of Lewiston’s early community. This can be seen in the elaborate parties and balls held there on the 19e century and even through “basket parties”. These were dinner parties where wealthy women would show up with a basket of food and pass it around for everyone to share.

Even at 20e century, it was not uncommon for the Fairbanks house to host famous people: silent film star Mary Pickford lived there as a child, and Aaron Burr is said to have visited the house. During World War II, the government turned the building into apartments under strict rent control.

After the war, the house was rapidly deteriorating before Pearl Arlington purchased and restored it. The house is an attractive sight to all who see it today, as it has original marble ceilings, floors and fireplace mantels to accompany its remodeled exterior.

Bicentenary weekend

Lewiston’s bicentennial celebration is approaching. Visit for more details. Be sure to invite all of your old Lewiston friends and family to join us for the four-day celebration of Lewiston history.

Thanks to Ken Slaugenhoupt, Tom Collister and Austin Heinz for the article.

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