A Biography of John Magee
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
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
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.
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,
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,
345 Elmira Daily Advertiser, April 9, 1868.
346 Schuyler County Historical Society, Magee folder,
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.