Lake frontage, its relatively flat land, and the powerful Bouquet River made the town of Essex readily accessible to settlement, and sped its rate of development.
Essex County's best known early settler, William Gilliland planned a baronial estate for Essex in 1765. His brother-in-law finished the first house the next year, and a lake shore community rapidly developed. But, when English troops passed through the area during the Revolutionary War, most of the settlers fled their homes, returning to their families. Once the trampling feet of the opposing armies were gone, the settlers came back to the land.
When the settlers returned, development continued along the lake where the current village stands, but grew even faster at Boquet, where the river supplied power for grist mills, a rolling and slitting factory and a horsenail operation. Typical early industries, such as potash factories, were also in operation.
When the War of 1812 began, Essex was the principle shipbuilding port on this side of the lake. Apple orchards thrived on the plain. By the late 1800's Canadian merchants would boat along the Champlain shore contracting for the apples grown in adjacent fields. These apples, and grains for distilling, were agricultural cash crops but hay and dairy products were the primary cash products. Active dairying continued through the 20th century. New ideas and methods such as endive farming and organic farming have been initiated in the town. were the principal agricultural cash crops of Essex. The Split Rock Lighthouse, which operated from 1838 to 1928, and later, reactivated, demonstrated the importance of the lake strategically and economically. John Bird Burnham had a flourishing summer resort near the lake in the 1900's. The idea was tried again eighty years later in Essex County.
There was an active quarry in Essex. The Essex Parkhill Quarry was believed to have provided stones for the foundation of the Brooklyn Bridge as well as the Burlington breakwater. Small niche industries, similar in scope to the endive farm developed at the end of the 20th century. Boat building, a knitting mill, and a buttery were among the business in the first two decades of the 20th century. Industries fell away as the 20th century progressed. When the horse nail factory at Begg's Point burnt down in 1918 it was not rebuilt. Today tourists are drawn to its quaint shops and restaurants, the ferry service to Vermont and the beauty of the remaining farms.
Area: 38 square miles
High point: South Boquet Mountain 1,217 feet>
Principle waterway: Boquet River
Settled: 1765, William Gilliland
Town Hall: 355 Main St., Essex, NY 12936 (518)963-4287
Population: 1850: 2351, 2000: 713
Major industry: manufacturing, tourism, farming, quarrying
Named for: Other New England settlements named Essex