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Warren County Historical Society Presents …
The Digital Version “REWIND”
September 1, 2015
From 1959 through 1965, Howard Mason dictated his local history column to his daughter, who typed the material and sent it to the local newspapers for publication.
Howard had the good fortune to live in the greater Glens Falls area during a time of great change. Warren County and the Town of Queensbury changed from an agrarian to a suburban environment. Through his columns, he was able to tell this story of change and recall the hundreds of people whom he met during his lifetime.
The Warren County Historical Society has reprinted Howard Mason’s books, Backward Glances, Volumes I, II & III into one volume. Fully indexed, the new volume includes some new photographs. It is available from the Historical Society for $30.00, tax included (add $5 for shipping and handling). Call 743-0734 for details or stop in the office on Tuesday or Thursday from 9 am – 5 pm.
THE SETTLERS OF SHELVING ROCK
About 1885 George O. Knapp, president of the Union Carbide Co., came as a guest to the Hundred Island House at Shelving Rock owned and operated by Reuben C. Bradley. He liked this spot on the lake so much that he not only bought the Hundred Island House but the nearby Pearl Point House as well. This hotel was built by Darwin W. Sherman of Glens Falls, son of the pioneer lumberman, Augustus Sherman. Then he kept buying both wild forest land and the cleared mountain farms until he had a block of land about ten miles square – nearly ten miles of lake shore. After Mr. Knapp bought these mountain farms he allowed the owners to remain as long as they wished, rent free, gave them employment for years afterward and paid them wages much in excess of the prevalent scale.
Everything on the estate was laid out in a grandiose manner. Over thirty miles of carriage roads and bridlepaths were built under the supervision of “Uncle Ed” Benton. As this was before the birth of the automobile, Mr. Knapp had the finest custom-built carriages I ever saw. At one time he had twenty-seven beautiful driving and saddle horses, among them the first palominos I ever saw. The stables for housing these animals were finer than many houses. John Olson, blacksmith at Pattens Mills, shod these horses for several years. He went to Shelving Rock several times a year and stayed there until the job was finished.
The main house itself was built in 1901, several hundred feet from the lake and on the side of the mountain. Although it burned in 1918, the massive foundation may be seen today among the trees which have grown up since. Thousands of man hours went in to the cutting of stone from the native rock which was used for steps, borders and patios all around the main house. A cable car and railroad brought Mr. Knapp, his family and guests from the spacious boathouse on the lake to the basement of the mansion. There an elevator took them to any floor in the house. For transportation on the lake from the D. & H. station at Lake George, Mr. Knapp owned the largest privately owned steam yacht on the lake – (there were no gasoline boats before 1900) – the “Sayonara” which is still in service on the lake. Before 1900 Mr. Knapp had a private telegraph line built from Glens Falls up the Ridge Road, on up the east side of the lake to Shelving Rock. I remember in the early ’90’s asking my father. “Why can’t we hook on that line and send telegrams?” The first country telephones came in 1898 and we had to set all the poles ourselves.
One feature of the Knapp estate deserves especial mention – the rose garden. Against the side of the mountain – on a level spot in the rear of the main house – was a rose garden laid out in beds or squares with tan-bark walks between. It was said that every variety of rose that would grow in this climate was in that garden. I have been there in November and seen many still in bloom.
At the rear of the rose garden was a natural waterfall tumbling down over rocks and running into a little brook through the center of the garden. Large fruit and vegetable gardens were maintained to supply the house. John Phillips was the head gardener.
John Stiles, brother of Jesse, of Fort Ann, put in over 50 years of service with the Knapps and retired recently as manager. Albert McMore was also employed there for nearly 50 years.
J. Sutherland Stuart, whose wife was one of the Rugge sisters of Glens Falls, ran the Pearl Point House for several years before Mr. Knapp bought it and razed it as he had already done with the Bradley Hotel.
At the head of all this operation was Henry E. Nichols, the guiding spirit in all that was done to beautify the estate. Mr. Nichols died in the ’20’s and his widow continued to live in Glens Falls until her death about 1934. Their daughter, Louise, married Dr.Elmer Tidmarsh, director of music at Union College.
Perhaps I should mention a terrible accident which happened near the Pearl Point House. In 1895 a small steamboat was carrying a group of guests from the Marion House on the Bolton shore to a dance held at the Pearl Point House. Under cover of darkness the boat struck a rock and sank rapidly. Fourteen persons met death by drowning. The late Claude Granger was pilot of the boat. Being an expert swimmer he was able to reach shore. He was exonerated of all blame. In the absence of the regular coroner, Dr. Frederick B. Streeter acted as coroner.
I well remember the incident and have talked with a man who saw the fourteen bodies lying on the pool tables in the Pearl Point House – not a pretty picture. This, I believe, is the worst marine accident ever to happen on Lake George since the Colonial wars.
There are two families whose roots go deeper into that mountain soil than most others – the Bentons and the Stiles. The Benton brothers included Abram, Octa Samuel, Edmund, ‘Al’ and George Royal. Abram went to California in the ’49 gold rush and Octa Samuel was killed in the Civil War.
Edmund is the one who built all the roads on the Knapp property. He lived on the farm on the way to Bee’s Ranch where the big rock overhangs the road. A little pond opposite is still called Benton’s Pond. Another brother, John Benton, was the father of Sam Benton who lived in Hudson Falls and owned all the land around Echo Bay before selling it as building lots. Al fought in the Civil War but returned home unscathed. I knew him best of all the brothers. On the few trips a year that he made to Glens Falls he always stopped at our farm to visit for a few minutes. He always drove two horses and a wagon with three cross seats, usually filled with family or neighbors.
George Royal Benton was the father of Mrs. Jesse Stiles, and the youngest of the Benton brothers. Incidentally, Mr. and Mrs. Stiles will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary this summer (1960).
As far as I know, not a single member of these Shelving Rock families is living in those hills today.
Those old families and others for miles down the road didn’t go to town very often but when they did they made the most of it. There was one day when more of these people left home and took to the road toward Glens Falls than any other day in the year. No, not the Fourth of July nor the County Fair. It was the day the biggest circus came to town. These people, whose names I don’t recall, were loyal circus goers. One circus day over 69 years ago, I sat on the horse block in front of our house on Ridge Road and in an hour counted 54 horse-drawn vehicles pass on their way to the circus. Some started the day before to watch the circus unload. This was followed by the big street parade and then the show in the Big Top. Most of them would stay to see the last wagon roll on the flat cars in the small hours of the morning.
From Glens Falls City Historian Photo Collection – Stoddard Photo
Why was the circus so popular with country people? It was their one contact with strange people and strange animals which otherwise they would never see. The children today see all these things on television and in the movies so it is no treat to them.
Of the Stiles brothers living today there are Jesse Billings Stiles of Fort Ann; Delbert, who keeps a grocery in Fort Ann; John, who lives in Glens Falls; Ralph, who for years was caretaker at 14 Mile Island in Lake George for the Beardsleys and now manages a large estate for them in Dorset, Vt., and Fred, who lives on the old home acres near South Bay.
After George Knapp died at the age of 92, and shortly before World War II, his heirs sold a great part of his estate to the State of New York for a reported $200,000. This would be only a little over three dollars an acre! What a lumberman’s paradise. For much of this land was, and still is, covered with virgin timber. Now it belongs to future generations to enjoy as a state park.
The Knapp heirs still own several cottages on the lake-shore with land extending back about a half mile. W. J. Knapp’s widow still goes there for a while every summer. Ernest Granger is the resident manager.
During World War II the Knapp Family disposed of surplus buildings such as the horse barns, the boarding house for hired help, the four-story lookout tower and the dormitory to W. C. Sheldon and Walter Pierce, who demolished them.
* * * *
In my last column I stated there was not a descendant of the original families now living at Shelving Rock or Hogtown Hill. I overlooked the fact that “Bea” Owens of Bea’s Ranch is a granddaughter of Al Benson. Also, Susan Dacy Granger, wife of Ernest Granger, the present manager of the Knapp estate, is a granddaughter of Edmund Benton. Perhaps I should also mention here that Edmund and George Royal Benton built the little church still standing at the fork of the road.
Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Granger live at Shelving Rock all year except during the coldest weather when they live in their home at Fort Ann.
No doubt the largest area of cleared farmland that was absorbed by the Knapp estate was the Jack Dacy farm. Mr. Dacy was famous for growing fine potatoes. The cool mountain climate was ideal for potato growing – same as northern Maine or Stony Creek. And how he loved fine horses.
In the great blizzard of 1888, Mr. Dacy was treed by a female bear. He had seen bears before and usually they could be scared away, he said, but this one refused to scare. She probably came out of hibernation early, being hungry and thinking winter was over (March 12). Finally she shuffled away with her three cubs trailing behind her and Mr. Dacy was able to get away safely.
The Dacys had four daughters, Susan Dacy Granger, mentioned above; Mary (Mrs. Will Stevens) who now lives in Fort Ann with her sister Dorothy, and Myrtle, now deceased. As long as the Pearl Point House was in operation Mr. Dacy supplied it with milk, butter, eggs, poultry, lambs and all kinds of vegetables.
There were several McCabe families in this area who sold their places to Mr. Knapp. Irving McCabe moved to Pilot Knob where he died recently at the age of 86. His daughter, Victoria, still lives there. Mr. Knapp bought the John McCabe place and gave it to Mr. and Mrs. Stevens. They in turn, sold it some years later to the Rev. E. V. R. Stires of Lake George.
Will Stevens was with the Knapp people in some capacity from about 1908 until his death in 1956 except for a year or more in World War I when he served as a cavalry sergeant in France. The Knapp family owned large estates at Rye and at Millbrook in Dutchess County. Mr. Stevens had charge of both these properties, first at Rye and then Millbrook after the big house burned at Shelving Rock.
Mr. and Mrs. Stevens’ son, John Dacy Stevens, served four years in the Pacific Theatre in World War II. He was at Iwo Jima and later in Japan. After graduation from Dartmouth College and Fordham Law School he began the practice of law in Rye, where he now resides with his wife and four children. Besides his law practice, he is also a judge.
Ernest Granger (present manager at Shelving Rock) tells me he began working for the Knapps when he was nine years old. He was on the scene when the mansion burned in 1915. He says Mrs. Knapp would not let the men try to remove any of the contents of the house for fear someone would be hurt. He has in his possession now the “Santa Barbara”, oldest gasoline boat on the lake. It will still run today.
Mr. Granger says one of the last projects Mr. Knapp completed was a bridlepath extending almost to Huletts Landing – nearly 10 miles.
Another wellknown family that lived on the top of the mountain was the Washburns. They moved from there about 1910 to the Coolidge farm near The Oneida where Closson Hewitt now lives. David Washburn Sr. told me at that time he had been lumbering for Orson W. Sheldon of Fort Ann for more than 50 years. His daughter married L. D. Bull who lived on and owned the farm where Bea’s Ranch is located today.
There were also the Maranvilles who lived in this section. One of the Benton brothers married a Maranville but I believe most of them moved across the lake to Bolton where their descendants now live.
This is the Knapp story as I recall it. I would appreciate hearing from anyone who knows of mistakes or serious omissions I may have made.
Fort William Henry Hotel – Lake George
Glens Falls City Historian – Hoag Collection
©September 1, 2015, Warren County Historical Society.
Rewind maintained by Gary Evans 1 September 2015