William Gilliland, for whom the town of Willsboro is named, began to purchase of land along the lake in 1765. He was a prosperous New York City merchant of Irish descent who planned to establish a baronial estate in the Champlain Valley. He left the city on May 10th and spent the ensuing summer and fall establishing a homestead and exploring the area including a 40 day round trip to Quebec. In the course of his explorations, he discovered AuSable Chasm. During this time, he laid out lots in the land he had purchased, granting it to settlers who started farming operations, while he continued in his search for sites for mills. The settlers were self sustaining farmers. They kept cows, sheep, chickens, and pigs, and there were plenty of fish in the streams. There was still much wilderness in the late 18th century. In 1795 Willsboro was paid a share of 40 pounds for destroying wolves.
In Willsboro sits one of the earliest relics of the Adirondack settlement, the Adsit Cabin. Believed to have been built in 1779 by Samuel Adsit, it remained in the family until the 1900's. Open to the public during the summer, it has been restored to its original appearance.
By the end of the 18th century the lake towns of Westport, Willsboro, and Essex had developed rapidly. Platt Rogers had received a contract from the state and connected Westport and Willsboro by road. A mountain trail connected Willsboro to Bosworth's Tavern in Chesterfield.
The first ironworks were built in Willsboro in 1800 with the iron being shipped by boat to Albany. The early settlement contained a blacksmith, a hatter, a potash factory, a tavern, as well as school districts. "The Father of Churches in Essex County", Father Cyrus Comstock founded the Congregational church here as the century turned. In 1826, two members of the Congregational Church were expelled, one for nonattendance, the other for intemperance.
Many of the settlers arriving in Willsboro in the first decade of the 1800's were from Connecticut. New England's influence could be felt in the new wilderness town with rules such as a $10 fine for letting a horse over 18 months old run loose, and sheep and hogs not allowed to run free on the commons.
During the Revolution, the mouth of the Boquet River was the site of General Burgoyne's campground. In the same location on May 13, 1814, a pivotal moment in the war occurred when the British attempted an attack up the Boquet. They were repulsed. Forty British were killed or wounded to every three colonials wounded.
The census records of 1835 show 654 male and 599 female citizens, with 112 subject to military duty, and 235 eligible to vote. There were 50 unnaturalized aliens. There were 1,370 meat cattle, 412 horses, 4,717 sheep, 709 hogs and 8,169 acres of improved land. There was one grist mill, eight saw mills, one wool fulling mill, one carding mill, two iron works and one ashery.
Willsboro had a thriving quarry industry. Clark's Quarry, on the margin of Willsboro Bay was composed of two varieties of Trenton Limestone. In 1869, they employed nearly three hundred laborers and loaded a canal boat daily from their wharf. They had won a contract for supplying stone to be used in the construction of the new state capitol in Albany.
Industry collapsed here as it did elsewhere in the county, by the beginning of the 1900's. When the horsenail factory burned down in 1918, it was not rebuilt. The town is currently home to NYCO Minerals and Commonwealth Home Fashions. The Willsboro Heritage Society has developed the old bank building to serve as a museum to preserve the town's history.
Area: 72 square miles
High point: Sugarloaf Mountain 1,467 feet
Principle waterways: Boquet River, Black River
Settled: 1765, William Gilliland
Boundary changes: 1792, 1798, 1799, 1802, 1805
Town Hall: 1 Farrell Rd. Willsboro, NY 12996 (518)963-8668
Population: 1850: 1,932, 2000: 1,903
Major industry: agriculture, quarries, lumber, tourism
Named for: William Gilliland