The City of the Hills, A Walk Through History in Oneonta, New York

Oneonta Historical Society on Main Street

Oneonta, New York, (oh-nee-ON-ta), the “City of the Hills” is located about a half hours drive from Cooperstown. This eclectic town was at the center of some of the world’s most notable early industrialists. From the humble beginnings of the founders of IBM to new education opportunities, this small town played a huge role in New York State’s and the Nation’s history.

Oneonta began as a railroad depot between Albany and Binghamton which led to its incorporation in 1848. Ironically, the Historical Society is housed in the oldest remaining building on Main Street that dates to 1866.  I met Bob Brzozowski, Executive Director of the Greater Oneonta Historical Society (GHOS), for a walk back through Oneonta’s past accomplishments.


True to its railroad roots, Oneonta once had the largest railroad roundhouse in the world.  These roundhouses allowed the locomotives to be serviced and turned around for transport. The Railroad Brakeman’s Union was founded in Oneonta in 1883 and it was soon a million members strong. In the late 1890s, you could have ridden a horse-drawn trolley.  It would later develop into the Southern New York Railway and would ultimately reach Mohawk, New York. The rail line was shut down in the 1970s.  Today, The Train Depot Restaurant and Tavern occupies one of the remaining local rail depots.


George Fairchild, the founder of IBM (International Business Machines) was born in Oneonta. Harlow Bundy and his brother Willard were the first to use a new invention, a time clock, in order to track his employees’ time. Fairchild became an investor in The Bundy Time Recording Company. Bundy would move Bundy Time Recorders to Binghamton, New York where it would eventually become a part of IBM.

Carlos Huntington was born into a railroad family and would later bring his railroad smarts to Los Angeles where he would have great influence in real estate.  He established the Huntington Library in Huntington Beach, California and The Huntington Memorial Library in Oneonta.

Wilbur Bank

David Wilbur began his banking business in Oneonta in one small corner of the hardware store at the present location of the GHOS.  It would soon outgrow the confines of the store and would set up shop just down the street as Wilbur National Bank. Charted in 1874, it merged with Community Bank in 2011 after 137 years of service to its customers.


Oneonta SUNY was once a teacher’s college in the late 1880s and became the founding member of the State University of New York in 1948.  Hartwick College, originally founded in 1797, as a seminary, joined the education community in 1928. Both play a significant role in the Oneonta community with some 7500 students in attendance at both colleges.


Photographer Carleton E. Watkins was born in Oneonta but would leave to follow the gold rush of the 1850s. He found his passion for landscape photography in California. It was Watkins’ photographs of Yosemite’s Half Dome and El Capitan that would help to encourage President Lincoln to preserve the California lands.

Today, Oneonta’s citizens are working to preserve the Oneonta Theater built in 1897. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. It served as both a vaudeville theater and cinema. The theater closed in 2016.


Downtown Oneonta saw its losses in the urban renewal of the 1960s and ’70s.  Many buildings have been lost to time but the main downtown corridor remains. The Oneonta Downtown Historical District was established in 2003.  Today, it is a vibrant downtown commercial district.

Wilbur Mansion

The Wilber Mansion, a Victorian designed home, is a focal point for Oneonta’s downtown history.





Fairfield Mansion now the Masonic Lodge

The Fairchild Mansion was added to the National Historic Register in 1974 and is now the home of the Masonic Lodge. The Lodge has kept the structure in the Queen Anne style as it was when George Fairchild held the property.

The GHOS Building has a third-floor ballroom that is in the early days of its restoration.  Once complete, it will house lectures and events for the area.  The society holds local fundraisers and campaigns to raise funds for the restoration of the building.  Bob explained, “We have generous donors. Unlike a lot of groups that say if you get a donation of stock that you have to cash it in the next day, we tended to get IBM blue-chip stock and just hold it until we could spend it on the building.”


The GHOS houses a player piano that was made in Oneonta by the GB Shearer Company and is over 100 years old. While it took a significant investment of time to get the piano running, it can still play a tune. Playing the piano is a bit of a workout because it uses a bellows and compressor to produce music and it must be pumped in order to play the notes which are punched onto paper roles. The player piano is the only instrument that combines wind, strings, and percussion. You could call it the first Karaoke machine. The GHOS has a large collection of donated player piano rolls and has produced two CDs of player piano songs.

The Greater Oneonta Historical Society’s work is to enhance the future by providing a tradition on which our contemporary culture can be based and out of which it can grow. Oneonta’s combination of tradition with contemporary culture is easily recognized on a walk through the downtown historic district.  During the year, GHOS will offer walking tours in the downtown area.  Don’t miss the eclectic small-town New York, you will not be disappointed.

Holiday Inn and Express in Oneonta

My overnight accommodation in Oneonta was at a brand new Holiday Inn and Suites. A helpful staff greeted me with smiles on check-in. The room was simple in decoration but well appointed for this road weary traveler.  Waking up, overlooking the city and mountains wasn’t bad either. Albeit a short stay, I was very comfortable, well looked after and well fed at breakfast.

Autumn Cafe

It was a chilly and night as I searched out, the Autumn Café on Main St in Oneonta. Delighted to be out of the rain, I ordered the wild boar pasta and a glass of wine. The chill of the day quickly passed with delicious food and first class service. Always search out a local recommendation; I doubt you will be disappointed.

Related posts

Leave a Comment