A Biography of John Magee
A New Community
With defeat in the recent election bearing upon him, and the coal business
prospering due to the war, Magee decided to leave Bath and establish residence
in Watkins, location of the main offices of the Fall Brook Coal Company.
The charter had expired on the Steuben County Bank, and twice he had suffered
political embarrassment in Bath. Although he felt remorse about leaving
his home in Steuben County, he said; "I cannot stay there; they have made
me a pariah."314
Magee purchased his Watkins mansion from a friend, George Freer, in September,
1863, for $6,885.06.315 Standing at the northwest corner of what is today
Fourth and Decatur Streets, the house was built in 1845 by Dr. Samuel
Watkins, for whom the town of Watkins was named.316 After Dr. Watkins
died in 1851, his widow married George Freer, her cousin and lawyer. When
she died in 1853, Freer was left alone with the house. When he moved to
another home in Watkins, the mansion stood deserted for a time. Duncan
Magee and his wife, Catherine, had already established residence in the
house before John and Arabella Magee bought it and moved in with the young
The mansion was Greek Revival in design, just as the Magee home in Bath
had been. The front of the house looked majestic with six huge columns
"entwined with a large growth of wisteria." 318 Included with the house
was a large vegetable garden about two acres in size. Today, the "vegetable
garden" is the entire village block bordered by Fourth Street on the south,
Third Street on the north, Decatur Street on the west and Porter Street
on the east.319 A gardener, Henry Hendy, was hired by the Magees to look
over the mansion grounds and garden.320
The residence in Bath was not sold by Magee until 1866. Ambrose Howell,
a Bath merchant, purchased the Magee home for $7,000 in February that
year.321 Not included in the sale were the iron fence, iron
hitching posts, two iron dogs, and two large chandeliers. The old iron
fence that today surrounds the site of the Magee residence in Watkins,
is probably the fence that once stood guard around the Magee mansion in
Magee made himself very active in improving his newly adopted community.
Along with George Freer, Magee established a cemetery in Watkins. The
land belonged to George Freer, having received it through his marriage
to Cynthia Watkins. Dr. Samuel Watkins was buried there in a vault he
had built on the site.322
When Magee discovered that Watkins had no cemetery, he proposed to Freer
that they establish one. Together they selected twenty-two acres of the
Freer land overlooking the village and lake for a cemetery they named
Glenwood. Magee paid Freer fifty dollars per acre on the condition that
Freer donate the land to the village. On April 14, 1865, Freer deeded
the land over to the village trustees.323 The trustees took
one thousand dollars already appropriated for a cemetery, plus five hundred
dollars raised through taxes, to erect a fence and improve the grounds.324
Freer and Magee were allowed to pick out choice spots for themselves.
Magee knew it would not be long before he would make eternal use of his
selection. Certainly the death of his wife, Arabella, made him aware of
that. She died at Watkins on May 16, 1864.325 She left several thousand
dollars to the Presbyterian Church in Bath designated mainly for mission
work by the church board. In her memory, John Magee donated an ornate
marble font to Reverend L. Merrill Miller of Bath for his new church in
Ogdensburg.326 Shortly before his wife died, Magee had deeded the Watkins
home to Duncan and Catherine. The elderly Magees continued to live there
until their deaths. Duncan was being groomed to handle the business interests
that his father had built. The house was only a small part of what he
Magee had always been a devout Presbyterian. Watkins needed a new Presbyterian
church, and Magee saw to it that a stately one was built. On July 9, 1864,
he bought village lots seventeen and eighteen on Cincinnatus (Sixth) Street
for $1600.327 He then donated $50,000 to build the church,
which was completed in 1868.328 The congregation raised $6000
to buy carpets, cushions, furniture, and an organ.329 A plaque
high on the front of the church reads:
First Presbyterian Church
o f Watkins
By Liberality of John Magee
There was one condition Magee had placed upon his donation. The church
was not to be used for "secular lectures, concerts, or political purposes."330
The mixture of politics and religion was something disconcerting to Magee.
Magee's generosity made a noticeable effect upon Watkins. His coal company
certainly had been an economic boost to the town, and he was a benefactor
to the spiritual development of the community. He was no longer a pariah,
but a respected citizen in a grateful community. This recognition brought
a call to perform what would be his last civic duty.
Notes to Chapter Seven
314 Irwin Near, History of Steuben County, p.
315 Watkins Glen, N.Y., Schuyler County Clerk's Office,
Book 8 of Deeds, p. 302.
316 Watkins Express, "Historical Picture of
the Week," Nov. 4, 1970, p. 3.
317 Watkins Glen, County Clerk's Office, Book 9 of
Deeds, p. 403.
318 Schuyler County Historical Society, Magee genealogy
folder, newspaper clipping, "Correction," by J. B. Sanford.
319 Watkins Glen, Schuyler County Clerk's Office, Book
8, p. 302.
320 Schuyler County Historical Society, Magee folder,
newspaper clipping dated 1881.
321 Bath, N.Y., Steuben County Clerk's Office, Liber.
110, p. 5.
322-24 History of Schuyler County, 1879, p.
325 Schuyler County Historical Society, Magee genealogy
folder, Magee genealogy compiled by Barbara Bell.
326 Nora Hull, ed., Centennial Celebration, Bath,
NY, "Reminiscences" by Rev. L. Merrill Miller, D.D.
327 Schuyler County Clerk's Office, Book 10 of Deeds,
328 W. W. Clayton, History of Steuben County,
329 History of Schuyler County, 1879, p. 63.
330 Schuyler County Historical Society, Magee folder,
"Glenfield" by Robert Hartman, p. 10, taken from Memorial of John Magee
by Rev. F. S. Howe.