An Adirondack Love of Mystery and Intrigue in the 1880’s

One mystery remains which my research has never fully solved. Why did the last two generations of our family have no knowledge of the original Thacher cabin? And why are there no photos or drawings of the cabin? Most importantly, why did the cabin disappear? Here is one surprising theory that could shed light on these questions.

The Thacher and FitzPatrick families are proud of our Irish heritage thanks to the courage of our grandfather Kenelm R. Thacher (KRT) choosing to marry Catherine Callahan.   Family lore is that this act labeled KRT as the black sheep of the family given the unfortunate bigotry toward Irish Catholics by blue blood Protestants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.   My Aunt Ellen spoke of certain Thacher family members crossing the street in downtown Albany, rather than conversing with her parents.  It turns out that my grandfather was not the first Thacher to marry an Irish Catholic, nor was the resentment toward him the result of societal bigotry alone but rather a reflection of personal experiences.

After the death of our great-grandfather George Hornell Thacher 2nd (GHT2), his properties (including Thacher Island at Blue Mountain Lake, his summer residence in Manchester, VT, the mansion in Albany, NY, and the family business) were divided among his five sons. Our grandfather was given the least valuable undeveloped lands at Raquette Lake with its one room cabin and lean-to. We have often believed that our present day enjoyment of the beauty of Indian Point is the result of this bigotry.

Given this family lore, it was most surprising when my research discovered three facts completely contrary to a perceived bias against Irish Catholics.

  • Reverend Henry Gabriels, President of St. Josephs’ Catholic Seminary in Troy, NY served Catholic mass at the Thacher Camp on Indian Point on July 11-14 in 1878.
  • Mayor George Hornell Thacher Sr. (GHT1) secretly donated $100 dollars (about $3,000 today) each year for the construction of a new St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral in Albany from 1866 to 1869.
  • In July 1887, after GHT’s death in February, Mrs. George Hornell Thacher hosted Reverend Henry Gabriels at Thacher Island in Blue Mountain.

Why would GHT1 have a strong personal connection to Reverend Henry Gabriels and so generously support the construction of St. Mary’s? GHT1 had attended the Princeton Seminary and served as a Presbyterian Minister from 1843 to 1847.   Hardly a non-religious man, he was even less likely to find friendship with a Catholic.

The mystery began to unravel as I was researching another line of investigation regarding John Boyd Thacher 1st .   Look at the last paragraph of this newspaper article regarding his funeral in 1909:

funeral png

Our family never knew about and none of the official biographies of the Thacher family in Albany ever mentioned half-siblings. However, this gave me another epiphany.   Ursula Jane Boyd Thacher, mother of JHT1 and GHT2, died in 1874.   Clearly, the Mrs. George Hornell Thacher who hosted Rev. Gabriels in 1887 was GHT1’s second wife (incidentally also omitted from all official biographies).

Using the names of William A. Thacher and Mrs. J. W. Morris, I began searching for more information and came upon this startling information.

Eliza obit png

So GHT1 had remarried after his first wife’s death and started a second family with an Irish Catholic woman. Who was this Elizabeth Thacher from Ireland?   What was her maiden name? The first clue came from an in memoriam to Mrs. J. W. Morris’ late husband which identified his wife as Mary Agnes Thacher.

Dr. Morris in memoriam

GHT1’s daughter’s name led to a reference in the St. Peter’s Catholic Church of Troy’s online listing of church donations and gifts. Dr. J.W. Morris and Mrs. J. W. Morris had donated a church bell chime in memory of their daughter Gabrielle Mary Thacher Morris.   In the same online listing, an “Eliza Thacher” had donated a stained glass window in memory of her father Matthew Toomey.

Based on the hunch that Elizabeth Thacher was originally Eliza Toomey, I pursued that name. As the 1860 US Census shows, Eliza Toomey, age 24, was a servant in George Hornell Thacher Sr.’s home in 1860.

1860 census png

So did GHT1 fall in love and marry Eliza Toomey after his first wife’s death?   No, not as simple as that. Mary Agnes was born in 1866, a full eight years before Ursula Jane Boyd’s death in 1874. William was born in 1868.

It appears that Eliza moved away to birth the children out of the prying eyes of Albany society. Mary Agnes supposedly was born in Pittsfield, MA and William in nearby Canaan, NY.   I have not yet found birth certificates nor baptismal papers for the children, nor a marriage certificate for GHT1 and Eliza. My suspicion is that the Rev. Henry Gabriels played a role in both aspects. While I have no proof, the strong, decades long personal friendship between Gabriels and Eliza Thacher leads me to believe that he secretly married the two sometime after GHT1’s first wife died. I find the timing of GHT1’s secret donations to the construction of St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral an interesting coincidence. Might that have been compensation for private, off-the-record baptisms for the children in 1866 and 1868?

Even after GHT1’s death, Eliza continued to be a generous patron of the Catholic Church, such that her funeral was attended by several bishops and officials from different dioceses from across the State. Conjecture to be sure, but is it surprising that the Rev. Gabriels, possessing knowledge of a damning personal secret of one of the wealthiest political families in New York State, became the Bishop of Ogdensburg in 1892?

It appears that GHT1 continued his affair for over a decade. While we do not know exactly when they married, it must have been after his first wife’s death in 1874. We do know that the 1875 NYS Census shows GHT1 maintaining two households, one on Washington Avenue in Albany accompanied by his late wife’s sister, and one at 65 Grand Division Street in Troy where he resided with Eliza and the children.

Although they appear in the census, I believe GHT1 was attempting to keep this second family a secret from the Albany society. Nothing was published in the press actually naming Elizabeth Thacher nor identifying the children as being the son and daughter of GHT1 until after his death in 1887.

GHT1’s last will and testament makes no mention of nor bequeaths anything to Eliza or the children. In addition, his sons John Boyd and George Hornell, Jr., prepared a legal document by which Eliza signed away any rights she had to her late husband’s estate. A cruel act, I thought, until I learned that prior to his death GHT1 had provided for Eliza and the children’s future by giving her a sizable fortune in railroad company stock. It is unknown how much of the family wealth went to Eliza, but it could easily explain the apparent resentment that George Hornell Jr. displayed toward the second family and his future disdain for his son’s (my grandfather’s) wife Catherine Callahan.

Which brings us back to the Adirondacks. According to the History of Hamilton County, John Boyd Thacher “built a cabin for the use of his father,” in 1867 on Thacher Island on Blue Mountain Lake. An interesting choice of words by the authors Aber and King? Could it be that the island was purchased specifically for GHT1 to have a place to spend time with his secret second family, one year after Mary Agnes’ birth?

Although the deed to Thacher Island is in John Boyd Thacher’s name, there is little evidence of his using the lodge there until after 1876, when he also purchased Indian Point on Raquette Lake. John Boyd appears to be the owner of Indian Point in name only. I have not found any evidence that he ever spent time there.

Conversely, the evidence shows that his father, Eliza, Mary Agnes and William regularly stayed at the Thacher Camp on Indian Point. According to the historian Larry Miller, it was common for the camp owners on Raquette to end their long day of travel by train, stage coach and steamer at Ike Kenwell’s Raquette Lake House on Tioga Point for the night and then move to their private camps the next morning.

Entries for GHT1 and his second family appear at least two times in Ike Kenwell’s guest registry, July 8, 1882 is shown below.

kenwill

We also have letters written by GHT1 to his son George Jr. from the Thacher Camp on Indian Point referencing the children’s nicknames Willie and Mamie.

willie letter

mamie ltr

I believe that GHT1’s move from Blue Mt. Lake to Raquette Lake in 1876 may indicate that was the year that he revealed his second family to his sons. Perhaps the sons’ less than charitable response required GHT1 to build a new cabin at Raquette while John Boyd and George Jr. continued to use Thacher Island on Blue Mt. Lake.

While he may have come out to his sons, I believe GHT1 still wanted Albany society to be in the dark about his new family. This could explain why the land on Indian Point was put in John Boyd’s name. While most of the other private camps on Raquette Lake at the time appeared on maps and in the photos of Seneca Ray Stoddard, the Thacher Camp was notably absent.

The property on Indian Point appears to have been abandoned between 1886 and 1910, and the original Thacher Camp cabin disappeared without a trace.   At the time of their father’s death in 1887, John Boyd established a summer residence in Altamont, NY and George Jr. began to summer in Manchester, Vt. I suspect that they associated the Adirondack camps with Eliza and her family.

We may never know the truth but fortunately, all trace of the second family was not lost. Last summer I hosted Nancy Morris Tuthill, the great-great-granddaughter of George and Eliza, at our cabin on Indian Point. It is fitting that this descendent of Eliza, who brought the Thachers to the Adirondacks, is a resident of Lake Placid.

While I feel that our story has come full circle and our history on Indian Point is now understood, I will forever be searching for just one photo of the original Thacher Camp on Indian Point.

The End

Thacher Island Revisited

GHTSr & TomYou see me here standing where my great-great grandfather George Hornell Thacher Sr. once stood on the porch of the family lodge built in 1867 on Thacher Island on Blue Mountain Lake.   The photo is not dated but given his aged appearance (no, the guy on the left), I believe it to be from the early 1880s.

My father spoke of visiting his uncle on the island as a young boy in the 1940s.   No Thacher has had the opportunity to walk the island since then. It had always been a dream of mine to visit my family’s first summer home. A dream fulfilled thanks to the hospitality of John and Janet O’Loughlin, whose family has owned the island for over two decades.

I am extremely grateful to John who, after discovering my writing, sought me out and extended an invitation for my family and me to visit their island.

The island holds a special place in the hearts of the O’Loughlins and their extended family.   Janet and her brother spent many childhood summers lodging at Potter’s.   She often visited the Anderson family, who owned the island at that time. She and her brother always fought over just which one of them would one day buy the island and make it theirs. In the end, it was Janet’s beloved, late brother who made the island part of their legacy.

Their family has lovingly restored and expanded the lodge.   The original walls of the 1867 lodge still remain within newly finished interior and exterior walls, noticeable by the almost one-foot-thick door jambs. Just as the original cabin remains, albeit hidden, on the island, I wondered what other traces of my family remained on Thacher Island.

When I researched my family’s time on the island, I came across this interesting 1920 postcard showing a wooden plaque affixed to a tree.

Thacher lonesome pine postcard

Was this still there?

The postcard intrigued me because the lettering is too small to discern anything other than “The Lonesome Pine”. I assumed the meaning would be lost to posterity until I made a find in my cousin’s family photo album.

erecting

In this photo, four of the five Thacher brothers are seen erecting the shrine in September of 1919. My grandfather Kenelm is at left, GHT 3rd is hammering, and Edwin (whom some of you may know as Ebby T.) and Thomas are crouching on the right.

Another photo shows a close-up of the text of the shrine.

the poem

It is the poem “The Lonesome Pine”, written by Charles Frederick Stansbury.   The words of the poem evoke a tall pine tree on the island that towers over all the others.

In this 1870s photo of the island by Seneca Ray Stoddard, one pine tree eclipses its neighbors by more than thirty feet, located about one hundred feet behind the lodge.

Thacher island lone pine

A different vantage appears to show the same tree not looking very healthy in a postcard from the 1930s.

Thacher Isle 1927-1940 AZO Postcard

 

Alas, the tree is no more. Whether it succumbed to old age or the July 1995 microburst is not clear. John said that the island lost hundreds of trees in the microburst and it took him and the family weeks to clean up the destruction.

Momentarily dejected by this discovery, my spirits rose when John revealed that another part of our family legacy has indeed survived on the island. John mentioned having seen a photo in one of my earlier articles of John Boyd Thacher 2nd rowing a guide boat off the north shore of the island.

1922 JBT2 in guideboat

John led me along a path through the woods from the cabin to their boathouse.   As we entered the boathouse, John pulled away a large tarp and there she was.

JBT2 guideboat

The photo of JBT2 is from 1922, but it could be that this guide boat dates back to the Thachers’ earliest times on the island in the 1870s.   (Perhaps a guide boat historian would like to take on the challenge of determining the age of this boat!)

As we prepared to leave the island, I realized that I misspoke when I said we were the first Thachers in over seventy years to walk the island’s paths. John and Janet’s two-year old grandson, who now explores these shores, carries on the island’s name as legacy to their family and ours.

The Search Begins…

While this book hopes to expand  beyond simple stories of my family, it is through our history that I became aware of the heritage of Indian Point both before and during our tenancy.

red cabin

To be clear, “our” tenancy speaks not solely of those named Thacher.  My father’s sister Ellen married Michael FitzPatrick.  Both families enjoyed summers together sharing the cabin and two lean-tos until 1981 when our family built a new place on the north shore of the peninsula.  Each summer, a growing brood of FitzPatrick cousins continues to inhabit the little, red one-room cabin at the point’s tip.

My journey began with a desire to learn when this cabin was built.   As a child I would fall asleep in the lean-to that sits just to the right of this cabin, being driven to sleep by the flames dancing in the stone fireplace and the hypnotic pulsing of the green and red lights which adorned the channel buoys in the Needles.  My father is shown here as a boy in the same lean-to.

1945 Ken in Indian Pt

Kenelm R. Thacher Jr. in 1945.

By the fire, my father and aunt would tell stories of their times here and on Blue Mountain Lake.  Originally, the main family summer home was on Thacher Island on Blue Mountain Lake.  The island lodge was the first and only privately owned summer home on the lake for a decade beginning in 1867.  The island was purchased by John Boyd Thacher, who built a lodge for the use of his father, George Hornell Thacher.

Photo by Seneca Ray Stoddard 1880's    Courtesy of the Adirondack Museum.

Photo by Seneca Ray Stoddard 1880’s Courtesy of the Adirondack Museum.

The island lodge remained in the family until the 1940s while the lands on Indian Point, purchased in 1876, were always referred to as the “hunting and fishing” grounds.  We have always considered ourselves extremely lucky to still possess these wonderful acres on Indian Point.  Yet we wonder what transpired here between 1876 and now.

The oral history speaks of John Boyd Thacher and his brother George Hornell Thacher Jr. using Indian Point for guided camping adventures, with their father remaining at the island in Blue Mountain Lake.  Family lore holds that the red cabin was the first thing to be built on the point.  We have vague memories of our parents claiming that the cabin dates to 1910.  My challenge is to prove them right.

A review of several historic maps of Raquette Lake show no indication of a cabin at the point between 1886 and 1903.

Survey  Map Raquette Lake in 1886 shows the Thacher property in gray but no structure on the point.

Survey Map Raquette Lake in 1886 shows the Thacher property in gray but no structure on the point.

1890 Map of Raquette Lake by Seneca Ray Stoddard makes no mention of a Thacher cabin.

1890 Map of Raquette Lake by Seneca Ray Stoddard makes no mention of Thacher at Raquette but identifies Thacher Island on Blue Mt. Lake.

Map of Township 40 in 1900 shows the Thacher property line traversing Indian Point, but no cabin   location.

Map of Township 40 in 1900 shows the Thacher property line traversing Indian Point, but no cabin.

1903 USGS Raquette Lake Quadrangle shows numerous structures on the lakeshore and nothing on the point.

1903 USGS Raquette Lake Quadrangle shows numerous lakeshore structures but nothing on the point.

A 1905 photo from the family of Donna Phinney Geisdorf (owners of Sunny Cliff Camp deep in Sucker Brook Bay) shows Birch Point.   It shows no cabin and no dock.

1905 photo of Birch Point

1905 photo of Birch Point. Courtesy of the Geisdorf Family.

It is unclear if the photo shows any structure, but when blown up larger, there is an image that might be a primitive, makeshift lean-to.   It has oddly straight edges and corners that would seem unlikely to be natural trees.   I have highlighted the lines in red.

Possible evidence of a lean-to at the Point in 1905.

Possible evidence of a lean-to at the Point in 1905.

 

The only map that I have found to date which does indicate a structure in the location of the little red cabin is the 1954 USGS Raquette Lake Quadrangle.   Unfortunately, there appear to be no USGS surveys done between 1903 and 1954.

USGS Raquette Lake 1954

USGS Raquette Lake 1954

So the cabin was built sometime after 1905 and before 1954.   Couldn’t we narrow it down a little better than that?  Perhaps it was time to talk with the locals of Raquette Lake to see what they knew of the cabin’s history.

Fortunately, there is one person with direct personal knowledge of the cabin.  Warren Reynolds was born and raised at Raquette Lake.  His family rented the little red cabin for the summer of 1938 and then lived there for a whole year beginning in the summer of 1939.  He shared stories with me of his family living through the winter of ’39-’40 in the small one room cabin.  Warren travelled to school by boat when the water was open and by dogsled over the ice in winter.

His father worked as a guide in season and hunted, fished and trapped for his family’s sustenance.   The family could not have survived if his father had obeyed the Game Warden’s regulations.  To hide his illicit bounty of fish and venison taken out of season, Warren’s father dug a 6′ by 4′ hole six feet deep and set 350 feet back in the woods to the west of the cabin with a wooden cover camouflaged with pine pitch, sticks and leaves.  The remains of this “ice box” are still there today.

I next approached the local Raquette Lake historian, Jim Kammer, to see what he might know of the cabin.  He produced a photo that is part of a collection from the Carlin Boat Livery, one of the first marinas on the lake, located near the present day dock of the Raquette Lake Navigation Co.’s W. W.  Durant.

The Carlin Boat Livery was in operation from 1900 to 1935 and dates the photo of the cabin to within those years.

Earliest photo of little red cabin.  Courtesy of Jim Kammer.

Earliest photo of the little red cabin. Courtesy of Jim Kammer.

We know from the previous photos that this has to be after 1905.  When I showed Warren Reynolds this photo, he remarked that the boat appears to be a row boat without motor moored off shore with no dock visible.  In 1938 there was a dock and the Thacher’s gave Warren’s family use of a boat with a small outboard engine.  The photo is also missing a tool shed that Warren remembered being between the little red cabin and the lean-to.  Lastly, Warren commented that the cabin was far from brand new when his family lived there.  He thought it was about twenty years old at the time, which would date it to 1918.

Given all that we know – the local lore, photographic and map evidence – we can say that the little red cabin was built sometime between 1905 and 1918.   While this does not contradict the family oral history, I strive to narrow the window in time.  Perhaps through reviewing historical newspapers and contemporary literature, I might glimpse proof of this alleged 1910 date….