The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2001

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A Biography of John Magee

Chapter Eight


Gary M. Emerson

Introduction, Chapter One and Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four
Chapter Five, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven, Chapter Nine

The Final Year

When the people of Schuyler County called upon their prominent citizens to attend the 1867 State Constitutional Convention, one of those chosen was John Magee. At the age of seventy-three and in poor health, he traveled to Albany to offer his experience and sagacity to the work of the convention.

The convention began its business in the spring of 1867, and dragged on throughout the year. On September 11, 1867, Magee addressed the convention and offered his views on some of the problems placed before the delegates. A proposal had been made to enlarge the canals. Magee argued that the existing canals were suitable but poorly managed. He felt that more money should be allocated to keep the canals in good navigable condition and under proper management.331 The convention was also pondering making changes in the qualifications for voting. Magee offered his views upon the suffrage question saying:

…allow me to explain my creed. It is that every male citizen of the age of twenty-one years, irrespective of nationality or color, who is a citizen in fact, and has a locality and place of abode, who seeks to support himself and improve his condition by honest employment, and pays a small tax to support the government that gives him protection, should enjoy the right of the ballot with all the immunities of a citizen, taking the tax roll marked 'paid' for the registry. All others, I claim, have no interest in fact, in the government or the advancement and prosperity of the country, and should not be allowed the privilege of suffrage. 332

The convention also pondered restrictions upon trade with Canada, to which Magee commented:

Our Canadian neighbors are a part of God's people, entitled to all the commercial advantages and facilities presented to them by their natural position…If I had the power, I would remove all commercial restrictions between Canada and the States. They need our products…we need theirs…Why should we permit petty jealousies to retard the progress of either? 333

Throughout his speech Magee made it clear that the opinions he offered were untainted by the allegiance to a political party. They were his own views from his own conscience, and he strongly urged the other delegates to cast aside the hinderance of party politics so that the work of the convention could be carried out more quickly. He warned that the leaders of the political parties only selfishly sought their own ends and should be ignored.334

The convention was plagued by long adjournments, long-winded speeches, and excessive absences of delegates.335 Magee often missed many of the sessions due to his failing health. The work of the convention progressed slowly and was not completed until February 1868. Too ill and feeble to continue, Magee had returned to Watkins before the convention was finished.336 At home he found comfort and care from Duncan and Catherine.

His health continually worsened. In late March he suffered a stroke that left him barely able to speak. 337 One or two words were all he could manage. He was able to walk about his room, and for a while seemed to be improving. Suddenly, his condition worsened, and on April 5, 1868, at age seventy-four, John Magee died at his home.338 Work on the new Presbyterian church had earlier been expedited in anticipation of the death of its benefactor. Magee's body was kept at the mansion, where friends could visit and pay their last respects.

At two o'clock on Wednesday, April 8, the first religious service was held in the Presbyterian Church: the funeral of John Magee.339 The cold snowy weather hindered traveling, but hundreds showed up to attend the services.340 The operations of the Fall Brook Coal Company in Watkins, Corning, and Fall Brook were closed for the day. A special train arrived from Fall Brook and Corning carrying over four hundred employees of the Fall Brook Coal Company; Wearing black armbands, they marched in twos from the railroad cars to the Magee home, where they filed in to view their late employer for the last time.341 When the body was taken to the church, the workers formed a procession behind the relatives.342 The casket was "plain but rich." 343 An impressive group of men acted as pall bearers. They were William Haring, George Freer, Daniel Jackson, and George Guinnip of Watkins; John Arnot and Asher Tyler of Elmira; Judge Thomas Johnson of Corning; and James Wilson of Mansfield.344

By two o'clock, all businesses in Watkins had closed.345 The villagers of Watkins turned out in force to pay tribute to the man who had done so much for their community. The people pressed into the church until it was overflowing. A large number of people were left standing outside.346 The Reverend F. S. Howe, pastor of the church, offered a short eulogy.347 After the services, "A large company in carriages, and on foot, followed the body to Glenwood Cemetery;…"348 There, at the site he had chosen, John Magee was buried.

At the time of his death, John Magee was an extremely wealthy man. Estimates of his wealth ranged from fifteen to forty million dollars. Under the terms of his will, a group of trustees, consisting of George Magee, Duncan Magee, Daniel Howell of Bath, Daniel Beach and John Lang of Watkins, Samuel Ellsworth, and Horatio Seymour of Utica, was created to manage the extensive Magee business affairs as one large enterprise, and to oversee the distribution of the wealth as the will requested.349 The property left to the trustees for their care included 996 shares of stock in the Fall Brook Coal Company; 2299 shares of stock and 150 one thousand dollar bonds in the Blossburg and Corning Railroad Company; stock, land, and bonds in the Buffalo Union Iron Company in Buffalo; and stock in the Wellsboro and Lawrenceville Railroad, the Corning and Seneca Lake Railroad, and the Green Bay and Mississippi Canal Company.350 The terms of the will called for all debts and claims to be paid first. Then, thirty-thousand dollars was to be given to both the American Bible Society of New York and the American Tract Society of New York.351 The annual profits of the Magee interests were to be cut into four equal shares. One share was bequeathed to Catherine Magee. Upon her death, her one share was to be equally divided between her two children, Helen and Arabella Magee.352 The other three shares went to George Magee, John Magee, Jr., and Hebe Magee Ellsworth.353 Duncan Magee was bequeathed nothing in the will, but he was to take charge of the Magee businesses. The role he inherited was shortlived, since on May 8, 1869, he followed his father to the grave.

The rags to riches life of John Magee seemed a perfect narrative for a Horatio Alger story. When the story ended, the central figure had reserved "an honored place in the memory of us all; and … he will not lack for outward monuments to his great designing and executive abilities;…" 354 Western New York had undergone remarkable growth in his lifetime. It was the life of a remarkable man that helped make it possible.

© 2001, Gary M. Emerson
Introduction, Chapter One and Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four
Chapter Five, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven, Chapter Nine

Notes For Chapter Eight

331-34 Watkins Express, Oct. 3, 1867.

335 Watkins Express, Nov. 14 and 21, 1867.

336 Irwin Near, History of Schuyler County, p. 264.

337 Watkins Express, March 28, 1868, p. 3.

338 Elmira Weekly Advertiser, April 11, 1868.

339 Corning Journal, April 9, 1868, p. 2.

340-41 Elmira Daily Advertiser, “Funeral of Hon. John Magee,” April 9, 1868.

342 Corning Journal, April 9, 1868, p. 2.

343 Elmira Daily Advertiser, April 9, 1868.

344 Schuyler County Historical Society, Magee folder, “Article Fifty-Two.”

345 Elmira Daily Advertiser, April 9, 1868.

346 Schuyler County Historical Society, Magee folder, “Article Fifty-Two.”

347-48 Elmira Daily Advertiser, April 9, 1868.

349 Watkins Glen, N.Y., Schuyler County Surrogate Court, Book 2 of Book of Wills, p. 361 and p. 370.

350 Ibid., p. 369.

351-52 Ibid., p. 366.

353 Ibid., p. 367.

354 Watkins Express, April 9, 1868.

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