Part II of a two-part biography of Henry R. Heath, a pioneer promoter of the Thousand Islands. This is the second article published in TI Life. Part I, Henry R. Heath: Union Soldier, Thousand Islands Pioneer, (April, 2010) was the first article in TI Life to connect an islander with the US Civil War. Heath was also one of the early summer settlers of the Thousand Islands, erecting his first cottage on Nobby Island in 1871.
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Private Henry R. Heath was barely seventeen in April 1862 when he received a medical discharge from the Union army. He had experienced the stark terror of nighttime combat and the desperate hopelessness of a prisoner's confinement. In the parlance of the era, he had "seen the elephant." He was suffering from the ravages of lung disease, pleurisy, measles and chronic diarrhea. Heath's former employer, upon seeing the young veteran after his return to Massachusetts in the spring, swore "no one thought he could live long." The physicians treating Heath agreed.
Unable to work nor adequately care for himself, Heath's older sister, Huldah, and her husband took him in. Heath remained with them through the spring and summer. Although his recuperation was proceeding slowly, Heath -- apparently through force of will and ambition -- regained sufficient strength to resume his education by the fall of 1862 at Claverack Academy and Hudson River Institute in Claverack, New York.
Claverack, having an enrollment of several hundred students, was located within sight of the Catskills in Columbia County. The country's eighth president, Martin van Buren, had been a student there in the school's earlier years. Stephen Crane -- author of The Red Badge of Courage, the preeminent Civil War novel -- would attend some years after Heath. Crane described his two years at Claverack as the best of his life. Heath also established a warm relationship with the school -- and a beneficial one with his classmates -- that would endure a lifetime. The following spring and summer of 1863, Heath completed a commercial course at Eastman's Business College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and set off on a business career in New York City.
The earliest years in the business world must have been difficult for Heath, still suffering from his wartime experience. He held a succession of positions selling hats and other dry goods at Manhattan firms beset by postwar financial and management problems, culminating in the financial panic of 1873. Nevertheless, Heath's position as a salesman and his genial demeanor -- as well as his family ties -- gained him a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. One was George M. Pullman, the Chicago railroad-car magnate.
Pullman's mother, Emily, and one of her sons, Royal, had visited the Thousand Islands at the time of the Civil War. She became enamored with the region, mostly visited then by sportsmen seeking good fishing. At her urging, son George purchased two islands there in 1864, each for $40: Sweet Island, later renamed Pullman, and Nobby Island, said to be so named because of a large rock near the water's edge resembling a door knob. George Pullman invited Heath to camp in the tents on Pullman Island in the summer of 1870, saying a few such weeks might restore his health. Heath accepted and he, too, was smitten with the islands in the St. Lawrence, even if not fully cured on his first visit.
Shortly after his camping trip on Pullman Island, Heath -- with New York friend Charles S. Goodwin -- purchased Nobby Island from the Pullman family, reportedly paying somewhere between $25 and $100, confusion as to the amount perhaps arising from there being two purchasers. Goodwin would remain a co-owner of Nobby for more than a decade. On July 18, 1871, the two friends took possession of their newly erected house on the nearly three-acre island. The Gothic home would soon be called the first "modern" summer cottage in the region. The Watertown Re-Union, in striking prescience, took the occasion to opine, "The Thousand Islands would all be dotted over with summer homes if the wealthy people in cities and large towns only knew the pleasure of living among them in the hot season."
Indeed, upstate New York newspapers and downstate tourist guides widely carried inviting descriptions of idyllic life on Nobby Island, likely with the encouragement of railroad and steamship operators serving the region. Two seasons after Nobby was "settled" by Heath and Goodwin, the Syracuse Daily Standard described it this way:
“The island is situated about half a mile from the main land -- nearly opposite the Thousand Island House, and is in close proximity to the celebrated "Pullman Island," and rivaling it in beauty. Upon it are two Swiss cottages, in one of which are dining room, kitchen and bed rooms; in the other are sleeping rooms exclusively. Rustic seats are arranged in shady places at different points, hammocks are suspended, and tents are pitched. Through the centre is a beautiful glade, in which are many chairs, games, etc., affording a lolling place for the idle and pleasant pastime for those energetic enough to handle a mallet or throw a ring.”
In New York City, illustrated excursion guides, with such names as “The Hudson River by Daylight”, were written and distributed by Heath's close friend and fellow Claverack Academy student, Wallace Bruce. Rather than pursue a business career after leaving Claverack, Bruce had followed a literary one upon graduation from Yale. He spent several days at Nobby -- or "this fairy land," as he called it -- in the summer of 1873, which led to his writing the tourist guidebooks, as well as some romantic poetry about the place. For the former, Bruce sometimes adopted a pen name befitting a writer firmly rooted in the fullness of his Scottish heritage, "Thursty McQuill."
Two events of the prior summer had created a market for Bruce's descriptions of the Thousand Islands and also helped accomplish the vision of the Watertown Re-Union for the region. At the end of June 1872, Watertown was hosting a large association of newspaper editors. On the 26th, the editors made an excursion to Pullman Island, where they were grandly entertained at an outdoors event catered by Crossman & Son. And in the first week of August, President Ulysses S. Grant, with his family and General Phil Sheridan among his party, enjoyed several days at rustic "Camp Charming" on Pullman. The event was well covered by the press in view of Grant's campaign for reelection that fall. The presidential party likely also visited nearby Nobby. As a result of these happenings, many around the country would read that summer about the unique charms of the Thousand Islands.
At the time Heath bought and settled on Nobby Island he was employed in New York by Williams, Harris & Co., a hat and fur business located on Broadway. For a while, he commuted from Cranford, New Jersey, where he had been drawn by family friend and mentor, James H. Partridge. The relationship would later lead to Heath becoming one of the largest landowners and developers in the town. At about this time, Heath's father, Silas, passed away in Massachusetts, leaving his son with an estate. Not long after purchasing Nobby, Heath also helped found the Westcott Chuck Company in Oneida, New York, where his friend and island co-owner Charles Goodwin had been raised. Several years later, on June 23, 1875, Heath married Jane Maria Bush Williams, the daughter of the elected sheriff of Kings County (Brooklyn), Aras G. Williams. He was also the lead partner of the firm for which Heath worked in the early 1870s. Sheriff Williams often summered on Nobby with his daughter and son-in law. When he died in 1880, he was said to have left a "handsome fortune" to the family.
Heath's wife, "Jennie" Williams -- a lineal descendent of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island -- actually had been raised in Utica by her grandfather, Abijah J. Williams, her mother having died three months after giving birth. By some accounts, A. J. Williams was the richest man in Utica, owning controlling interests in cotton and woolen mills based in Oneida County, as well as in the manufacturing of related machinery. He also was president of the Oneida National Bank. Moreover, grandfather Williams was a director and major shareholder of the only railroad line then providing an all-rail route to the Thousand Islands, with connections at Clayton and Alexandria Bay. After Jennie's marriage, the line's excursion brochures would include alluring portraits of Nobby Island in promoting travel to the region. When Williams died in 1886 while summering on Nobby, he left much of his estate to Jennie, in addition to having made generous gifts to her during his lifetime. Jennie was left very well off.
The year following his marriage, Heath left the dry-goods business to become the New York agent for the Empire Transportation Company of New Haven. The company had been founded several years earlier by the family of George B. Martin, another Claverack classmate and close friend of Heath's. Although Heath went on to diversify his pursuits within five years, he retained an interest in the company for the remainder of his life, holding various positions as officer and director. For several years beginning in 1882, Heath acted as the New York agent for the Empire Woolen Company, one of the business interests of Jennie's grandfather in Utica. In 1885, Heath was elected president of the People's District Telegraph Company, five years later becoming a director of the Brooklyn District Telegraph Company. He also had acquired an interest in a Minnesota bank early in his business career. By the 1890s, Heath had amassed a large amount of real estate. He was president and director of the Cranford (NJ) Realty Company, with sizeable landholdings there and in Lakewood, New Jersey. Henry Heath had become a model of those who would join him on the Saint Lawrence River.
Whether testimony to the restorative powers of the river or not, Heath was much improved in health after several seasons on Nobby Island, having regained his weight and strength. He did not miss a single summer on his island for thirty years, until he took a grand European tour during the summer of 1900. Each season he regularly entertained numerous guests worthy of mention on the society pages, never passing an opportunity to promote the region to others. It was reported that Heath was responsible -- directly or indirectly -- for encouraging between twenty and forty families to take up seasonal residence on the St. Lawrence. Among those so induced were Edward W. Dewey (Friendly Island), William C. Browning (Hopewell Hall), Nathaniel W. Hunt (St. Elmo Island), Michael Chauncey (Cuba Island), George C. Boldt (Heart Island), Rev. Abel G. Hopkins (Felseneck on Wells Island) and James H. Oliphant (Nemah-Bin). The last, a banker and broker, lived next door to Heath, who resided in Brooklyn at 333 Washington Avenue from 1879 until his death there.
While tending to his many business interests, Heath took an active role in creating the social institutions that would support the life style of the seasonal inhabitants of the Thousand Islands, or at least of Millionaire's Row. Prior to the 1894 summer season, a dinner was held at the Union League Club in New York, with only the elite of the Thousand Islands being invited, for the purpose of establishing an exclusive club. The Thousand Islands Club was organized for "the promotion and cultivation of social intercourse among its members and the protection and advancement of their mutual interests as summer residents." Among the first club governors was Henry Heath. Within three years, Welcome Island was obtained and a fine home for the club was built on it. As described at the time in the Ogdensburg News, the new clubhouse "will be the sun of Thousand Island swelldom around which all satellites will travel."
In 1895, Heath assumed the presidency of the newly formed Thousand Islands Transit Company, which obtained the yacht Crescent to provide transportation on the river for its members. For many years, Heath served as vice president of the Anglers' Association of the St. Lawrence River. Created in 1883, the association actively promoted fish conservation, with Heath often taking a principal role in communicating with New York State officials. Moreover, Heath was instrumental in establishing the State and International Parks in the Thousand Islands, receiving dual appointments in 1896 as an American representative and a New York State commissioner to secure the necessary land in Canada and the United States.
Heath also devoted himself to many improvements on Nobby Island. One unexpectedly gained some notoriety. Early in the 1884 season, Seth G. Pope of Ogdensburg was retained to perform some construction on the island, which required digging a foundation. Pope, who then owned Welcome Island across from Nobby, was a familiar figure on the St. Lawrence. He built many of the summer cottages and castles that sprouted there, including George Pullman's "Castle Rest." As Pope and his crew were making the necessary excavations on Nobby, they uncovered the well-preserved remains of several Indians long ago buried under rock and earth. According to one account, Pope -- an imposing 6 feet 4 inches and some 240 pounds -- was superstitious and reburied the bones in an old crate elsewhere on the island, without having them first examined by a physician. Some years later, two of the skulls mysteriously appeared in a business in Watertown. Local papers speculated about a possible cover-up that "agitated the minds of the good people of Alexandria Bay."
However, the grandest improvement undertaken by Heath was the construction of an elegant new cottage on the water's edge of Nobby during the season of 1889. Pope was again retained for the work. Begun in the spring, it was not ready for inspection until well into the fall. The Heaths named their handsome new summer residence "Norman de Lodge," after their one child, Norman Abijah Heath, born in Brooklyn on September 20, 1882. It is this cottage that still greets those sailing by Nobby Island today.
Like so many who had fought in the Civil War, Heath also joined the Grand Army of the Republic, the leading organization for the war's veterans. He was inducted into U. S. Grant Post No. 327 in Brooklyn on March 7, 1889, later becoming a trustee. From time to time, dressed in uniform and white gloves, he would represent the G. A. R. at a comrade's funeral. But his most notable G. A. R. representation had its roots on Nobby Island.
In September 1892, Wallace Bruce, Heath's old friend, spent several days with him on Nobby. Bruce was then U. S. Consul at Edinburgh, Scotland. He told Heath how Union soldiers had been buried in unmarked graves in Edinburgh's pauper grounds, the widows and families unable to afford better. Heath and Bruce resolved then and there to build a monument in Edinburgh to the memory of the Scottish-American soldiers who had fought for the Union and were now lying in graves in Scotland. Heath immediately took up the task of chairing the committee to raise the funds to erect the monument. On August 21, 1893, in a late-afternoon rain at Edinburgh's Calton Hill Cemetery, Heath -- representing the U. S. Grant G. A. R. Post -- spoke at the dedication of the first overseas statue of Abraham Lincoln. It remains to this day the only monument on foreign soil to those who died defending the Union during the Civil War.
In addition to his veterans', business, and Thousand Islands activities, Heath still found time to pursue other civic and philanthropic interests. He was on the advisory board of the Prospect Park and Maternity Hospital. In 1892 he was appointed trustee and treasurer of the Maple Grove Cemetery Association, where his old friend Charles Goodwin was a longtime officer. He was the driving force behind the Claverack Alumni Association. He was a member of the Long Island Historical Society, the New England Society of Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Republican Club, the Congregational Cub of Brooklyn, and the Union League of Brooklyn. He also took a personal interest in the affairs of Cranford, where he had briefly resided and owned much of the taxable land.
Heath spent his later years traveling extensively, making several wide-ranging trips to Europe and the Middle East, as well as across the United States, usually traveling with a genial party of friends and family. He took ill during such a trip to the Holy Land in 1906, never fully recovering. He died two years later at age 63 on Sunday, April 19, 1908, at his Washington Avenue home. But he had spent the last summer of his life on his beloved Nobby Island, entertaining his many friends. Just before he died, he received his final monthly pension check for his Civil War service, in the amount of $12. His funeral took place at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, where he had long served as deacon and elder. He was buried at Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens, New York, three days after his death. The editor of the Cranford Chronicle wrote, "Mr. Heath was a gentleman in every sense of the word, and all who had social or business dealings with him will feel a sense of loss at his death." In the Thousand Islands, he was simply remembered as the "dean of the St. Lawrence corps."
In his will, Heath left Nobby Island to Jennie, with the expressed wish that it would later be conveyed "by deed or will" to their son Norman. In the fall of 1915, Jennie closed up her Brooklyn home of more than 35 years and moved to California. On June 16, 1916, she passed away at age 64 in Los Angeles. In fulfillment of her husband's wishes, Norman was given Nobby, which, like his mother, he continued to call his "country home" for many years.
|Three views of Nobby Island, ca. 1890s, from the collection of Robert and Prudence Matthews.
A view of Nobby Island from Dewey's Friendly Island, published by photographer A. C. McIntyre in 1895.
[Editor’s Note: Kristen Pinkney first published this photograph in TI Life’s, “May Dewey’s Diary”. The Dewey family were close friends of Heath R. Heath and his family]
Henry Heath and Jennie acquired other properties in the Thousand Islands. Within a decade of purchasing Nobby, Heath obtained Devil's Oven, a storied landmark. He also purchased land on Wells Island, near that of William C. Browning, where Heath erected a large hothouse. Jennie was said to have acquired some 100 acres called "Lakeside." During the 1899 season she was reported to have established an Adirondack camp with log cabin, open bark shanty and six tents, which she named "Kalarama" ("beautiful view" in Greek). Photo Island was variously reported to be owned by Heath or A. C. McIntyre, the ubiquitous St. Lawrence photographer.
By Steven D. Glazer
Steven Glazer recently retired from litigating patent-infringement cases at a Manhattan law firm, but continues to teach at Rutgers Law School. He now spends much of his time researching and writing about the Civil War, especially as it relates to the history of Cranford, New Jersey, where he and his wife have lived for many years. Steve has been researching Henry Heath for some years, and has collected, what he says are “many hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of pages of material about him and his experiences”. This article will correct a number of historical mistakes made by others (e.g., regarding the seminal events of 1870-1873). Although Steve has not yet been to the Thousand Islands, he hopes to visit soon to see the area about which he has heard and read so much.
Editor’s Note: Our readership will appreciate the author’s efforts to provide some fascinating material about the settling of the Thousand Islands in the 1800s and the role Henry R. Heath played in building pride in the region.
This month the New Jersey Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee published a important handbook, written by Steven D. Glazer. “Discover Your Community's Civil War Heritage”. The book serves as a comprehensive and up-to-date manual for those wishing to research the stories of their own community's Civil War veterans. It will appeal to a wide range of readers, including local historians, educators, genealogists, grant writers and journalists.