Saturday, August 22, 2015

Raquette Lake Mystery: An Albany Mayor’s Secret Irish Family

George Thacher SrOne mystery remains which my research into the early cabins on Raquette Lake’s Indian Point has never fully solved. Why did the last two generations of our family have no knowledge of the original Thacher cabin on Indian Point from 1878-1886? Why are there no photos or drawings? Why was it abandoned?

Today, my family is proud of its Irish heritage thanks to the courage of my grandfather Kenelm R. Thacher in marrying Catherine Callahan.  Family lore has it that after the marriage Kenelm Thacher was labeled the black sheep of the family, the result of the bigotry toward Catholics by members of my Protestant family.  My aunt spoke of certain Thacher family members who crossed the street in downtown Albany, rather than converse with her parents.  It turns out however, that my grandfather was not the first Thacher to marry a Catholic, to the chagrin of some of his family.

Ursula ThacherGiven the family lore, I was surprised to discover three pieces of information contrary to our family’s understanding of its historical anti-Catholic biases.

  • 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.
  • Albany Mayor George Hornell Thacher Sr. 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, just months after George Thacher Sr.’s death, his wife hosted Rev. Gabriels at Thacher Island in Blue Mountain Lake.

Why would George Hornell Thacher Sr. have a strong personal connection to Reverend Henry Gabriels and so generously support the construction of St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral? He had attended the Princeton Seminary and served four years as a Presbyterian Minister!

The mystery began to unravel in an obituary notice that mentioned two half-siblings, unknown to our family – Mary Agnes Morris of Troy and William A. Thatcher of the City of New York.  None of the biographies I’ve seen of the Thacher family in Albany ever mentioned half-siblings.

This provided an epiphany. George Hornell Thacher Sr. had remarried after his first wife’s death and started a second family with an Irish Catholic woman. The Mrs. George Hornell Thacher who had hosted Rev. Gabriels, was George Sr.’s second wife  – also omitted from biographies – Eliza Toomey.

Eliza can be found on the 1860 U.S. Federal Census, age 24, working as a servant – in the home of George Hornell Thacher Sr. and his first wife Ursula.

1860 census png

So did George Sr. fall in love and marry Eliza Toomey after his first wife Ursula’s death? It’s not as simple as that. Eliza and George Sr.’s daughter Mary Agnes was born in 1866, a full eight years before Ursula’s death in 1874. Their son William was born in 1868.

From my research so far, it appears that Eliza birthed the children away from Albany.  I have not yet found their birth certificates or baptismal records – nor for that matter,  a marriage record for George Sr. and Eliza.

I suspect however, that Rev. Henry Gabriels played a role in these events. That would explain the decades long friendship between the Gabriels and Eliza Toomey Thacher. Perhaps he (secretly?) married the two after George’s first wife Ursula died.  Were George Thatcher Sr.’s contributions to the construction of St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral compensation for private, off-the-record baptisms for the children in 1866 and 1868?

Eliza obit png Even after George Sr.’s death, Eliza remained 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 George Sr. and Eliza continued their affair for more than decade. Ursula died in 1874; in 1875 George Sr. was maintaining two households, one in Albany with his late wife’s sister, and one in Troy, where he resided with Eliza and their children.  I believe George Sr.  – who served as Mayor of Albany from 1860 to 1862, 1866 to 1868, and from 1870 to 1874 – was keeping his family in Troy a secret from Albany society. I can find no notice of Eliza or their children in the press of the time.

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 [George Sr.],” in 1867 on Thacher Island on Blue Mountain Lake. Could it be that the island was purchased specifically as a place for George Sr. to spend time with his secret second family?  I’ve never found evidence John Boyd Thacher ever spent time there at all.

The evidence does show that George Sr. and Eliza, and their two children, regularly stayed at the Thacher Camp on Indian Point. According to historian Larry Miller, it was common for Raquette Lake camp owners to end a long day of travel by train, stage coach and steamer at Ike Kenwill’s Raquette Lake House on Tioga Point. They would stay the night and then move on to their private camps the next morning.  Sure enough, George Sr. and Eliza and their family appear at least twice in the Raquette Lake House guest registry.

kenwill

We also have letters written by George Sr. 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 George Sr. hoped to keep Albany society in the dark about his relationship with Eliza and their children. This could explain why the land on Indian Point was put in John Boyd Thacher’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 George Hornell Thacher Sr.’s death in 1887, his son John Boyd Thacher 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’s side of the family, but we may never know the full truth.

Last summer I hosted Nancy Morris Tuthill, the great-great-granddaughter of George and Eliza, at our cabin on Indian Point. It’s fitting that this descendant of Eliza, who brought the Thachers to the Adirondacks, is a resident of Lake Placid.

Portraits of George Sr. and Ursula courtesy American Miniature Portraits.


Tom Thacher

Tom is the great great grandson of the very first “summer folk” on Blue Mountain Lake. The Thacher family built the first private summer home on Thacher Island in 1867.

Tom has spent every summer of his life on Indian Point of Raquette Lake on lands purchased by his family in 1876. In researching the origins of his family’s century old, one-room cabin, Tom is discovering over 200 years of Adirondack History seen through the lens of one plot of land.

Extended versions of this article and other stories and photos can be found at Fifty Acres of Beach and Wood which chronicles tales of iconic characters of Adirondack history whose footprints have graced the shores of Indian Point.

Tom is currently fundraising to publish a book of his research. The proceeds from the book will support the Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts. You can make a contribution to the book fund here:



2 Responses

  1. Lynne Sisk says:

    My daughter forwarded your story and I found it fascinating. I sent the link to Jack McEneney, former NYS legislator and Albany Historian. I have been pursuing the history of my Irish and German Albany families for many years and am always amazed by new information that comes on line. Which paper published that obituary for Elizabeth Thatcher and what was her date of death? Would the North Broadway cottage refer to Saratoga Springs? Thank you for sharing your story.

  2. Tom Thacher Tom Thacher says:

    Hi Lynne,

    The cottage that she rented for many years was in Saratoga. I have to check my notes for the newspaper. Another obit I have was published 12/4/1908 in the semi-weekly Times of Troy, so she died a few days prior to that. I have the exact date somewhere in my notes, but I am away from home right now.

    Thanks for reading,
    Tom