George Foster Peabody: A Fading Lake George Legend Deserves to be Remembered
No One Did More to Ensure the Average Citizen’s Enjoyment of Lake George
If Brooklyn politician Edward Morse Shepard is remembered on Lake George today, it’s probably because the park in the Village is named in his honor.
George Foster Peabody, who actually paid for the park and gave it to the Village, has fared less well.
Yet he not only preserved Shepard Park for future generations, he also had a role in preserving Wiawaka, Prospect Mountain, Hearthstone, Diamond Island and French Point, all for the use of the public. Peabody also recruited the Rev. E.M. Parrott for St. James Episcopal Church and his nephew Charles Peabody to design the Lake George Club.
Peabody is also far less well known than Spencer and Katrina Trask, whom he met in the 1870s. In 1881 he became a partner of Trask’s in the investment banking house that bears his name and in 1921, he married his widow.
It’s possible that it was Peabody who introduced the Trasks to Lake George, rather than the other way around.
Edward Morse Shepard, with whom Peabody formed the Young Men’s Democratic Club in Brooklyn in 1881, began renting a house on Lake George in 1891.
That same year, Peabody bought Price Manor, which he renamed Abenia and installed his mother as its hostess.
(His brother, Charles Peabody, bought another Price property in 1891, this one from Alfred Steiglitz’s father. Owned today by the Koncikowskis, it faces I-87’s exit 22.)
The Trasks bought the Saratoga property that would become Yaddo, their estate and after their deaths, an artists’ colony, in 1881. They did not acquire property on Lake George until 1903, when, with the aid of Peabody himself, they purchased the old Crosbyside Hotel.
Peabody and the Trasks immediately turned that property over to the founders of Wiawaka as a vacation retreat for working women, which it remains to this day.The Trasks bought Three Brother Islands in 1906.
One year before that, in 1905, Peabody had purchased Prospect Mountain.
The property consisted of a 160 to 174-acre sized lot, which included the summit, the Mountain House hotel and the incline railroad that was built in 1895.
It’s not clear what Peabody intended to do with the property other than allow its views to be enjoyed by the public. It’s been said that he had heard that the hotel was to become a gambling casino, a use he found objectionable. The mountain was, after all, a popular destination for the women of Wiawaka. He might have retained the railroad, but after the US entered World War I, he scrapped the railway and donated the steel to the war effort.
We do know that Peabody did not wish Prospect Mountain to become ‘forever wild.” State law, however, required that any property in any county within the Blue Line acquired by the state become part of the Forest Preserve.
It was not until 1925 that the legislature found a way for Peabody to donate the land to the state without it reverting entirely to wild forest land.
That year, a bill was adopted that authorized the state to accept lands within the Forest Preserve “for park or reservation purposes.” Two months after the bill was signed into law, Peabody gave his Prospect Mountain lands to the state. Little more than forty years later, the Prospect Mountain Highway opened.
In 1926, Peabody sold 25 acres north of Abenia to New York State, also for use as a public park. A year later, work began on Hearthstone campground.
Peabody had sold the estate to New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs in 1918. It’s not clear to me if the land that became Hearthstone was a part of Abenia retained by Peabody, or a separate purchase altogether.
Even less clear, at least to me, is Peabody’s role in the acquisition of French Point, the land at the base of Tongue Mountain which was once the site of General Electric’s own retreat for its workers.
On the site is a bronze plaque that reads: “These forty two acres are a gift to the people of the state of New York in memory of George Foster Peabody.”
But who gave that gift to the people of New York State? Peabody died in 1938. Was the land purchased from General Electric and donated to the state by Peabody’s heirs, among whom were the middle-aged secretary he had adopted as a daughter? Had Peabody left any provisions in his will for the preservation of lands on Lake George?
Here on Lake George, we have a myopic tendency to weigh the significance of people and events by their importance to Lake George, so it’s useful to be reminded that Edward Morse Shepard was once viewed as a potential candidate for the Presidency and that Peabody himself played an even more influential role in national affairs.
He was among those responsible for the nomination of Woodrow Wilson as the Democrats’ candidate for president in 1912; after he was elected, Wilson offered Peabody the post of Secretary of the Treasury. Peabody declined, stating that he had “a life-long conviction that I can render my quota of public service outside the constraints of office.”
Peabody was also a trusted counselor to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Their relationship dated back to Roosevelt’s years as a state legislator and deepened after Roosevelt was struck by polio. Peabody advised Roosevelt to visit Warm Springs. The two became partners in the development of a therapeutic center there, as well as neighbors.
A career as long and as varied as Peabody’s can’t help but have unexpected and unanticipated ramifications, and the affair of the Reverend Melishes is one of those.
The Reverend J. Howard Melish was recruited by Peabody in 1903 to become the pastor of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights, a post he would retain until 1949.
Peabody, who was a pillar of the church, also suggested that he buy his own property on Lake George, which he did, building or buying a house in Lake George Village on a site now occupied by Scotty’s motel and Scrimshaw Estates.
During his years on Lake George, Melish was a controversial figure, allied with John Apperson, Irving Langmuir and others in the effort to force the mill at the foot of the lake to cease manipulating the lake’s water levels for its own benefit.
But he was even more controversial in Brooklyn.
In 1949, he was ousted from his post at the Church of the Holy Trinity, largely because he would not fire his assistant rector, who also happened to be his son.
The Rev. William Howard Melish was chairman of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, a target of Senator Joseph P. McCarthy’s anti-Communist campaign.
The only way the Episcopal bishop could rid himself of Melish the younger was to disband George Foster Peabody’s old church, which he did in 1957.
In 1969, the parish was reconstituted and the church re-opened as the Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity. (It was, and in some cases is still, loosely affiliated with St. Ann’s School, St. Ann’s Warehouse and other Brooklyn institutions.)
William Howard Melish returned to the Church pf St Ann and the Holy Trinity as an assisting priest, a post he retained until shortly before his death in 1986.
According to local historian Bill Gates, someone set fire to the family’s Lake George house in the 1970s.
Peabody and Melish the elder “found themselves akin on social issues, and spent many hours discussing problems of the day,” according to Peabody’s biographer. Perhaps Peabody would have supported Melish in his fight with his congregation and his bishop, despite the fact that Peabody was among the foremost capitalists of the era.
What can be said, without hesitation, is that Peabody deserves a more visible memorial on Lake George than the plaque on French Point. Arguably, he did more to ensure the average citizen’s enjoyment of Lake George than any other single individual.