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Originally named Aurora House, the Aurora Inn was built in 1833 by Colonel E. B. Morgan, a native of Aurora and original investor in The New York Times. By the mid-19th century, Aurora became a major stop on the Erie Canal for boats carrying agricultural products from area farmers to New York City. Henry Wells, of Wells Fargo stagecoach fame and the founder of American Express, established Wells College there in 1868.
During its colorful past, the Aurora Inn was a favored overnight destination for travelers borne by coach, canal boat and rail. It has long been a popular gathering spot for students from Wells, Cornell University and other nearby colleges. In the early 1840s, William D. Eagles purchased the Inn and engaged his uncle John Eagles, a former sea captain, to manage it for him.
When a fire destroyed the main building at Wells College in 1888, many students lived temporarily at the Aurora Inn, which they renamed the Wayside Inn. Fire struck again on February 18, 1919, destroying Aurora’s tiny business district between the old post office and the Aurora Inn. When the south cornices of the Inn caught fire, Wells College President Kerr Duncan McMillan climbed onto the roof and helped to douse the blaze.In 1943, the Inn was deeded to Wells College. Despite a series of additions, renovations and new managers, from the 1970s, the Inn faced financial struggles. A drain on the college’s resources, it was closed several times during the last three decades, most recently in October 2000.
E.B. Morgan House
One of Aurora’s most notable and distinctive landmarks is the former home of Edwin Barber Morgan, his wife Charlotte Wood Morgan, their children, and succeeding generations of the Morgan-Zabriskie family. The residence, designed in the Italianate style, was constructed between 1857 and 1858 for $50,000, a staggering sum in that era.
E.B. Morgan (1806-1881) was born in Aurora and attended the local Cayuga Lake Academy. At an early age he showed considerable business acumen, working at his father’s store in the heart of the village that was, during his youth, a bustling port. On the commercial dock that once stood behind the Aurora Inn, Morgan first met his lifelong friend and partner in both business and philanthropy, Henry Wells (1805-1878). Having generated capital from the lake trade, Morgan built the Aurora Inn in 1833 and was an early investor in Henry Wells’ American Express Company as well as Wells, Fargo & Company, which included the stagecoach line that has become a national symbol of the pioneer spirit. Morgan also invested in many local enterprises, including the construction of steamboats and the Oswego Starch Company.
Both Morgan and Wells were friends and business partners with a prominent citizen of nearby Ithaca – Ezra Cornell (1807-1874), a self-taught mechanic and inventor who became the largest stockholder of the Western Union Telegraph Company and founded Cornell University. Morgan and Cornell invested in the Cayuga Lake Railroad Company in the 1870s; it ran through Aurora along the lakeshore. Many waterfront homeowners might find this a detriment; Morgan saw it as an opportunity to monitor his investment. Reportedly, he stood with a watch and checked the train’s punctuality when it passed through his yard.
Another of Morgan’s investments was in a fledgling New York City newspaper. Within a few years, he held controlling shares of the New York Times. He supported the paper in its efforts to expose the corruption of the notorious Tweed Ring, which led to the arrest and imprisonment of “Boss Tweed.” Surrounded by friends and family in his beloved home on Cayuga Lake, Morgan’s later years were increasingly devoted to supporting local philanthropic causes in the area of education, culture, and human welfare. He had a deep love for the people of Aurora and every year on the Fourth of July holidays, the Morgans treated the villagers to a spectacular fireworks display on their lawn.
Morgan was a dedicated supporter of Henry Wells’ dream to establish a liberal arts college for women in Aurora—Wells College—that first opened as a seminary in 1866. He gave generously to the college, including $100,000 to establish its endowment. He was a Wells trustee and provided leadership in all aspects of college administration. He was also president of the Cayuga Lake Academy for more than 25 years, a trustee of Cornell University, and generous contributor to the Auburn Theological Seminary, a leading institution of its time.
Following E.B. Morgan’s death, the mansion became the home of his daughter, Louise, and her husband Nicholas Lansing Zabriskie. It remained a Morgan-Zabriskie family residence until 1961 when it was given as a gift to Wells College by John L. and Lesley Zabriskie. It served as a residence hall for students studying French—only French was allowed to be spoken inside. E.B. Morgan’s former home was so conducive to the mastery of French that it remained in use for that purpose until the 1973-74 academic year. During that time it became known as French House in the village, a designation still used by local residents today. French House was renovated in 1979 and served as a college guest house for a quarter century.
A Storied Past Lives On
The Aurora Foundation, a partnership between Wells College and the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation, began a complete renovation of the Aurora Inn and E.B. Morgan House in 2001 to restore them to their former grandeur and make them appealing once again for lodging, dining and special events. The Inn and Morgan House reopened in May 2003 and July 2005, respectively, to rave reviews by visitors and media alike. The properties now stand as crown jewels in the revitalization of Aurora, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, along with Wells College and many homes in the village.