119 Wasington Street
The story of the YMCA in the Watertown area is one of constantly reaching out to address the needs of the community and receiving its support. “YMCAs bring people of all walks of life together,” said Denise K. Young, CEO of the local YMCA.
It was a quiet beginning. A group of young men are talking about the formation of a Young Men’s Christian Association, the Watertown Daily Times reported in a brief notice buried inside the paper 150 years ago, on Dec. 17, 1869. The first meeting was held last evening. What those young people created would be one of the first YMCAs to be organized anywhere.
The YMCA — Young Men’s Christian Association — was founded in 1844 when George Williams, a clerk in a London dry goods store, suggested that young people like him needed “fellowship and a place for mutual pleasure and growth.”
It was when the Industrial Revolution had taken hold and young men were leaving their farms and rural areas for jobs in cities.
“Cities were not organized as they are now,” according to a pamphlet published by the international YMCA in 1944, to mark its 100th anniversary. “No ball games to go to, few sports to play at, no gymnasiums to speak of. Recreation was not considered important, and for a long time swimming pools were considered unhealthy.”
In Watertown, the YMCA was chartered in 1869. There had ben an effort in 1855 to create a chapter, but during the Civil War that association folded.
In 1869, a Capt. Wilkinson — “an earnest and aggressive Christian” — was stationed at Madison Barracks, Sackets Harbor, according to Times’ files. He saw the need for an organization of young men and influenced a group of prominent Watertown citizens to carry out his plan. John Sherman, owner of Washington Hall, donated a room to be used by the YMCA.
At that first meeting of Dec. 16 1869, organizers of the local Y decided to meet after the holidays to get things rolling.
By 1881, Mr. Sherman had donated a total of three rooms to the organization. At the time of his death in 1882, his will gave Washington Hall to the YMCA.
Between 1912 and 1915, the first in a history of fundraising projects for local YMCA capital projects was held. Washington Hall was torn down to make room for the new, six-story $300,000 YMCA. The cornerstone was laid in the fall of 1913 by Jacob Schurman, then-president of Cornell University, Ithaca. The building opened in 1915 and has seen a handful of updates and renovations over the years.
“We can be really proud of the fact that while there’s 2,700 Ys in the U.S., this is the 33rd,” Mrs. Young said. “We’ve been constantly running since then without a break, serving the needs of this community.”
Edited from a article by Chris Brock in the Watertown Daily Times dated Dec 25, 2019: