Backtracking: The Early Years: Sidney worked hard to land federal penitentiary in 1930

Mark SimonsonThis recent view along county Route 23, east of the village, was part of the ‘White City’ tract near the turn to Sidney Center, a total of 10 land parcels from the Plankenhorn Road area to here, which was in the running for location of a proposed federal penitentiary in 1930.

 Sidney, a prison town?

First word of this proposition was heard during the spring of 1930. It wasn’t for a small facility.

Readers of the May 8 edition of The Sidney Enterprise learned that a bill was before Congress to build two new federal penitentiaries. At that time there were only three such federal facilities, in Atlanta, Georgia, Leavenworth, Kansas, and McNeil Island, Washington. One new prison would be located somewhere in the Northeastern United States, and a second west of the Mississippi River.

“Sidney is fortunate in having a live Congressman in Washington who is keeping in touch with the developments, and as soon as anything does develop, Hon. John D. Clarke will advise the local committee, so that steps may be taken to further the work…who has charge of the selection of this vicinity for the Federal penitentiary to be located in the East.”

The Enterprise of May 22 reported how the Sidney Chamber of Commerce had met, where Frank L. White was appointed chairman of a committee to make a survey of sites for inspection by prison authorities, and to communicate with Clarke.

Just a week later it was reported that three sites had been examined. They were “…the tracts beginning at the Plankenhorn farm in the Brooklyn edge of the village and extending over a mile up the Susquehanna river, taking in about ten parcels,” along today’s county Route 23 near the turn to Sidney Center, as well as the “old fairground, and south to about where the land ‘pinches’ at the hills near the Susquehanna about half way to Bainbridge,” and “…the Meyers’ farm and following up the Unadilla river to about East Guilford.”

Sidney had a lot of competition for this federal penitentiary. The Oneonta Star reported on June 22 that a similar group had formed in Norwich. Other locations in New York included Hornell and Jamestown, as well as Pennsylvania cities of Erie, Sunbury, Corry, Milton and Uniontown.

“Four million dollars are at stake in the rivalry, that being the estimated cost of the penitentiary. It will have an annual payroll of a quarter million dollars and yearly expenditures for supplies and food of about a million.”

Sidney had plenty behind its cause, because key requirements of locating this prison included being near water and on a railroad line. Having the Susquehanna flowing through it, Sidney had two railroads, the Delaware & Hudson as well as the Ontario & Western. Also having the New York State Police Troop C barracks here probably didn’t hurt the matter.

Prices for the plots of land became an issue. A maximum of $100,000 had been allotted. The first tract, also known as White City, collectively wouldn’t sell for less than $130,000, but the other two were apparently within the limit.

The Enterprise reported on June 19 that the committee had submitted its bid to Washington, and was ready for federal officials to come to the area and inspect their offer of the two remaining sites. It was announced on July 3 that the Hon. Sanford Bates, superintendent of federal prisons, was coming to Sidney.

Excitement was in the air during July when Bates and other federal prison experts toured the area. One expert included a former Cooperstown architect, Alfred Hopkins, who would soon draw up plans and specifications for the penitentiary.

Bates apparently liked what he saw, but there were still other areas in the Northeast to look over, as the waiting game began.

 Sidney was a strong contender, but the Enterprise of Aug. 7 delivered the public message of defeat. “The announcement was sent out from Washington last Friday morning that the Attorney General had recommended the site offered the government by Milton, Pa.,” on the west branch of the Susquehanna River, about halfway between Williamsport and Harrisburg. There was a brief glimpse of hope in September, after the Milton deal fell through. The Sidney committee and others invited federal inspectors to have a second look, but it apparently was never taken. The federal prison was finally located in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and opened in 1932.

On Wednesday: Our area’s business beat in the summer of 1995.

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area before 1950. His Tuesday columns address local history 1950 and later. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at His website is His columns can be found at

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