Spellbinding Stories of Lives Lived Here in St. Philip’s Churchyard Tour

A ghostly history of personalities from David Gordon; Beware: read no further if you’ve no interest in local history…

By Alison Rooney

A hardy contingent of brave souls gathered outside of St. Philips as the day darkened recently, summoning their courage (fortified by the supplied wine, no doubt) as they moved en masse, through the churchyard. Guiding these travelers through the twilight graveyard was David Gordon, who proved a most informative escort.

Beckoning the sizeable crowd to follow him through the lich gate which provides entry to the graveyard, Gordon explained that that after weddings in St. Philips, tradition had it that children would surround the structure and the bride and groom would have to give them a treat in order to get out. The lich gate was also, explained Gordon, where the funeral companies’ hearses would pull up to drop off coffins.

Speaking outside the lich gate, Gordon gave a brief history of St. Philips, noting that it “got off to a rough start. In 1777 the British came up with a plan to end it all [the Revolutionary War].” Battling them was General Israel Putnam, who was headquartered at Garrison’s Mandeville House. As the battles raged at Fort Montgomery, “in the cacophony of war” Putnam’s wife heard news of the capture of Ft. Montgomery and died of the shock of hearing of the loss.

According to Gordon, “Putnam returns after the war and discovers his wife in her casket, her hair grown longer and claw marks … buried alive.” Lest one think that Gordon was simply supplying a ghostly tale to start the evening off with some fright, visit the New York Times archive for January 10, 1904, where the tale is confirmed.

Advancing into the churchyard the sad graves of the young were pointed out, including two daughters of one of the St. Philip’s rectors, Edward Chorley, who died at ages 16 and 21; the elder of the two, said Gordon “volunteered at Butterfield Hospital, caught the flu and died.” Noting the equally moving stones of two young men killed in Vietnam, Keith and James Livermore, Gordon personalized these young lives lost, noting that that they were both members, as he was, of the Brooklyn Dodgers Little League team which also fielded current Philipstowners Nat Prentice (who took part in the tour) in right field and George Stevenson in the outfield. Gordon pointed out a commemorative birdbath in honor of Sandy Freeman, and a bench dedicated to Morrie Roberts, both of whom passed away recently.

Edging back towards earlier lives lived, a stop was made at the Richard Upjohn gravestone. Gordon called Upjohn a “renowned ecclesiastical architect of the 19th century, famous for Manhattan’s Trinity Church, [completed in1846], which was, at the time, the tallest building in Manhattan. In 1850 he moved his family to Garrison. They bought Mandeville and turned it into a Victorian country house. He started the Architects Institute of America and was its first president.” Upjohn designed the home “Rocklawn” (now the home of Patricia Hearst Shaw) for Henry W. Belcher.

Segueing from Upjohn to Belcher to the Wheeler brothers, via their markers, Gordon continued, “brothers named Wheeler … New York City politicians …Dems got popular vote … Wheeler mentioned by JFK as upright and true…” Returning to Upjohn, Gordon pointed out that as a Garrison resident and Vestry member he “built the structure behind us [the church] in 1861/62 for a cost of $9,000. Two of his children died as infants, and the round windows there are in memory of Edwin and Emma.”

A large cross, surrounded by flowers, and flanked by the graves of railroad magnate Samuel Sloan and his wife, Margaret Elmendorf Sloan, was the next focus of attention. In Gordon’s words: “He was the president of the Hudson River Railroad, and in 1862 he moved to Garrison. He built a home called Lisburne Grange, up above where the Desmond-Fish Library is now, on a knoll. In 1867 he became president of the Delaware Lackawanna Railroad. By the time he died, in 1907, he had been president of 17 different corporations. He was born in Ireland and when he died, his family gave the funds for the new rectory.

“Sloan was very religious, and the railroads never ran on Sundays. He was the head warder for 11 years. He had three daughters, all married at St. Philips and he built homes for then on [what is now] 403. … His grand-daughter, Marguerite Walker Rogers, an avid painter, had a freestanding art studio, which she moved from house to house, including, finally, to the gate house at Dick’s Castle. When the Foundry School was purchased by the Putnam County Historical Society (PCHS), the art studio was donated and today it is Mindy Krazmien’s [Executive Director of the PCHS] office.” The words on Sloan’s tombstone say “The law of his God is in his heart.”

Shifting the crowd a bit, Gordon announced, “Now, we move into Osborn territory. In 1856, William Henry Osborn bought property in Garrison. During the Civil War he went to Chicago, where he became president of the Illinois Central Railroad. He returned late in the 1870s, living at Wing and Wing, at what is now Nat Prentice’s home, while his new home was built at Castle Rock. His sister Amelia fell in love with J.P. Morgan. Engaged/cough/taken to Algiers to recover/dysentery/died…” Continuing on a freewheeling ramble through the history of person and place, using the graves as reference points, Gordon touched upon names still heard frequently round these parts today

William Henry Osborn was a patron of the arts and buddy of Frederick Church. Osborn gave the middle name of Church to one of his sons. Osborn had four kids. Virginia died at 20 in Rome, her brother Frederick swam in the Hudson and drowned — a window in St. Philips honors him — two children lived, William Church Osborn and Henry Fairfield Osborn.

William Church Osborn married Alice Dodge and they lived at Forest Farm and they had four children: three boys and a girl. One, Frederick Osborn was called ‘The General;’ he sited his home at Cat Rock, now home to Fred and Anne Osborn. Every fourth of July ‘The General’ would come down to Highlands Country Club and he would read the Declaration of Independence in a deep voice; there would be fireworks timed with the final notes of his speech.

Now Henry Fairfield Osborn was called ‘The Professor.’ He was the president of the American Museum of Natural History. He lived next door to the castle, in a retreat called ‘Woodsome Lodge.’ ‘The Professor’ would go over there to read, write and study dinosaur bones. Naturalists John Muir and John Burroughs were in residence there for months. Another guest was Roy Chapman Andrews, who explored the Gobi desert. Andrews found the first dinosaur eggs, killing vipers, surviving sandstorms, all with a six-shooter strapped to his leg. Back to Osborn, he had five kids, including Ann, who started the St. Philips nursery school fifty years ago. Well — that was a quick nutshell trip through the Osborns!

Round the next bend was the memorial to Edwards Pierrepont. In Gordon’s words: “Lawyer. Government attorney. Was appointed as the 33rd Attorney General, then Minister to the Court of St. James. He married Margaretta Willoughby, who was from a well-to-do Brooklyn family. In 1867 they moved to Garrison. Their daughter married a Beckwith. Their son, Edward Pierrepont Beckwith’s vocation was engineer, but his avocation was photographer. He participated in many Smithsonian expeditions. He’d put on shows at Highlands Country Club — he led many talks and shared movies. Mary Pierrepont Beckwith — she was a pip! She decided at 95 to move out to a smaller home on her property. That’s real optimism, to build a home at 95. She died in the 1970s.”

As the group wandered past other markers, these tidbits were thrown out.

Here’s Walter Thompson. From 1883 to 1898 he was the Rector at St. Philips. He built at North Redoubt, at what will be called Winter Hill.

William Moore. New York businessman, import/export. He brother was president of Columbia. His cousin was Clement Clarke Moore who wrote Twas the Night Before Christmas. We had the same crews of Moores up here.” He inherited 55 acres near here. With the building of the Hudson Railroad in 1849 he moved up here. Friends of the DeRhams, who purchased land near Constitution Marsh. Upjohn designed Woodlawn for him. From 1902 to 1920 Woodlawn lay empty. By 1926 the property passed to Frederick Goodrich. In 1927 Amy and Malcolm Gordon started the school there, yes, the Malcolm Gordon School, which is now the Hastings Center. Yes, my grandfather. In the 1930s a group of men repaired to my grandfather’s study for meetings, and that’s where the Hudson River Conservation Society was founded. In the 1960s it morphed into Scenic Hudson.

Towsey. General Manager of New York Central Railroad system, a vast mega-company. He moved to Garrison in the mid-1800s and built his home, Cedar Crest. near Avery Road. After Towsey died, Horatio Rubin — sugar baron, vast holdings in Cuba — owned it. He was an early backer of the nationalist, anti-Spanish movement. It was then bought by O. Rundle Gilbert: large voice, big smile, ran auction house. Six kids, all boys. In 1956 his son Tippy held sports car climbs up Cloudbank Road. As for Cedar Crest, for a while Union 32B had it, and now it’s the Walter Hoving home. Towsey gave an organ to St. Philip’s in 1895 and endowed a music program too.

With this the group paused by perhaps the most striking monument — of two facing, robed, women, standing with their arms bent, palms facing the large cross between them — and heard its story from Gordon: “This is the most recognized stone in the churchyard. The sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was born in Dublin and also did the statue of Sherman in Central Park. Hamilton Fish commissioned the piece. Fish was the son of Nicholas Fish, a Revolutionary War hero.

He was a revered leader in the New York Assembly, a senator representing New York, governor of New York and President Grant appointed him Secretary of State for eight years. He became warder at St. Philips soon after his retirement, and settled at Glenclyffe. The Fishes also lived at Rocklawn. His daughter, Julia Kane Benjamin lived in what is now the Pataki house.”

After covering “a slew of DeRhams” and another “slew of Nelsons — the most popular family here. One of the oldest stone is that of Sylvanus Nelson, from 1793 … There were stones within the church as well, but these were taken and re-buried outside.” Closing the graveyard walk, Gordon spoke the words etched on the stone of Sylvanus Nelson:

Behold and see as you pass by For as you are now, so once was I As I am now, so will you be Prepare for death and follow me With that the troupe of graveyard walkers prepared not for death, but repaired instead to the warm confines of the Parish House, where food, drink and music awaited the now fully history-sated in what was billed as “a party to die for.”

The St. Philip’s Churchyard Tour was the focal point of the Graveyard Party hosted by the Young Associates of the Putnam County Historical Society on Oct. 15. A great deal of the history of St. Philip’s and those who created it can be found on the St. Philip’s website, which also includes a section with brief biographies of some of those buried in the church yard.

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