John Boyd Thacher was a state senator, mayor, author, and collector — as well as a preservationist

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

At the turn of the 20th Century, a popular form of snobbery for wealthy individuals was to call their mega-mansion summer homes “cottages.”  Even though John Boyd and Emma Treadwell Thacher were a childless couple, they had many nieces and nephews including one who was named John Boyd Thacher II. This may be the reason that a large addition was added to the rear when they purchased the “cottage” in 1900.

For decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, late spring and early summer warm weather’s return brought several wealthy, prominent Albany families to the escarpment above Altamont to reopen their summer “cottages.”

Well known in their day, these affluent summer residents are long forgotten except for John Boyd Thacher whose name is attached to the nearby state park, although few know why or who he was or are aware of his association with Altamont.

A very wealthy man, Thacher’s affluence was derived from Thacher Car Works, founded in 1852 by his father in the north end of Albany. Manufacturing wheels for railroad cars including the New York Central System was a huge and very profitable business. As his father aged, Thacher and his brother became actively engaged in running the company.

Political involvement came next, a natural since Thacher’s father had served as Albany’s mayor during the Civil War years and after. A Democrat, John Boyd Thacher was first elected to the State Senate in l883 where he introduced legislation to construct a new capital building for one million dollars.

Next, he served as mayor of Albany in l886 when he organized a grand celebration on the occasion of the bicentennial of Albany’s city charter. After his term of office ended in l888, his involvement with politics continued as president of the New York State League of Democratic Clubs. He served a second term as Albany’s mayor in l896.

Attracting international attention, the Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in l893, was a huge world’s fair attended by large crowds. Thacher became widely known when New York Governor David Bennett Hill appointed him to the commission to organize the New York State exhibit. He was also named national chairman of the awards committee for the exposition.

Interest in historical scholarship and research was another aspect of John Boyd Thacher’s personality. A discriminating collector of autographs, historical documents, manuscripts, and papers relating to the French Revolution, he was well known for his collection of l5th Century printed first editions called incunabula.

Much of his collection was donated after his death to the Library of Congress. In addition, he was the author of books on Shakespeare, Christopher Columbus, and a volume describing the evolution of maps depicting America during the early years of exploration. He made several trips abroad to do original research. At the time of his death in 1909, Thacher was in the midst of writing a book about the French Revolution.


Time in the Helderbergs

In the 1890s, John Boyd Thacher and his wife, Emma Treadwell Thacher, had begun to spend time in the Helderbergs above Altamont, their presence sometimes mentioned in The Enterprise. The date of his first visit isn’t known although an 1895 comment in The Enterprise noted that “John Boyd Thacher who has been spending the summer on the mountain near the village, has been nominated by the Democrats of Albany for mayor.”

An 1897 Enterprise article, “A Serious Runaway,” noted that John Boyd and Emma Treadwell Thacher had stayed “at the white cottage near the Kushaqua Hotel for the past several summers when describing a terrible accident involving a team belonging to Altamont liveryman Peter Hilton.

Just as Hilton was about to load some of Thacher’s luggage, the horses bolted, the runaways wrecking a buckboard owned by Judge Rufus W. Peckham, seriously injuring his two employees, and minutes later resulting in the death of one of Hilton’s horses. Thacher generously offered to pay for the buckboard, though no mention was made of the liveryman’s horse.

In November 1900, a news item reported that Thacher had purchased the late Paul Cushman’s summer home visible from the Kushaqua. Paul Cushman, an Albany merchant, had built the cottage in 1893, but sadly died there during the summer of 1895.

Thacher hired Albany contractors Feeney & Sheehan to do carpentry work on both the interior and exterior including the addition of a large extension. George Weaver, an Altamont mason, was employed to do the stonework.

In addition, Thacher intended to cut a private road beginning on Helderberg Avenue opposite Hellenbeck’s furniture store (now Fredendall Funeral Home) running up the gulch to his new home. Land had been purchased from George Severson for this purpose.

Altamont benefited economically from the demands for goods and services made by Thacher and other members of the summer colony above the village. Liverymen Peter Hilton and others were in demand to move people including the Thachers and their luggage for trips up and down from the depot before the automobile came into use.

Later Peter Hilton (though this may not be the same man as the liveryman) was the overseer at the Thacher summer property. Alvin Wagner replaced him after having earlier worked for Thacher doing projects at the cottage. He used materials purchased from Altamont’s Crannell Lumber Yard as was noted in The Enterprise.

Robert Thornton, who had recently established a stable at Altamont Driving Park and Fair Grounds, was in business training several well bred horses including a “handsome young horse belonging to Mayor Thacher of Albany.” This may have been “Nancy May,” Thacher’s horse that won a race run during an event of the Altamont Hose Company’s Field Day in 1896.

Thacher was also one of the group of summer cottage owners who formed a syndicate to buy the Helderberg Inn when there was concern it would fall into the wrong hands.

An 1897 article, “As Others See Us,” originally published in the Albany Sunday Press, reprinted in The Enterprise, included this line: “Not the least of Altamont’s charms is the delightful possibilities for social intercourse due to the presence of so many Albany families who occupy cottages there.

 Among the list of summer residents, John Boyd Thacher’s name was included. However, if there were any local residents who may have had social contact with Thacher, there was never any word of it in print, unlike business contacts.



One guest whose name did make the paper, although certainly not a local resident, was David B. Hill, former governor and former United States senator, a man very involved with Democratic politics. It was during Hill’s administration that land began to be set aside in the Adirondacks to preserve its wilderness. Perhaps Hill’s action had some influence on Thacher’s desire to preserve the area around Indian Ladder.

Thacher intended to continue his stay at his summer home as long as the weather remained warm, according to a note in an October 1906 Enterprise issue. He was always one of the last of the summer colony to return to the city, one of the “old Altamonters” as the writer referred to him.

October, when the autumn foliage was at its best, was according to Thacher, one of the most pleasant times of the year there. In his later years, Thacher settled into the routine of spending part of the year in Europe, adding to his collections while doing research; part of the year at his South Hawk Street home in Albany; and the summer and early autumn at his country home in Altamont.

Thacher began to take a real interest in the preservation of the historic and scenic area of Indian Ladder. At that time, much of the area around the top of the escarpment in the area of Indian Ladder had long been cleared and were hardscrabble farms that farmers were all too willing to sell.

A 1906 acquisition was detailed in The Enterprise when Thacher’s purchase included the C.F. Dearstyne farm along the top of Indian Ladder and a strip of land “some 60 acres in extent” of Simon Winne along the top of the mountain, this adjoining the Dearstyne property on the north. In addition he was in the process of negotiating for the purchase of a private road to the east end of Thompson’s Lake.

That same year, an Albany Argus article reprinted in The Enterprise, told that he had conferred with John M. Clarke, the New York State geologist, regarding his planned geological exploration of caves on the tract of land that Thacher had recently purchased. According to the article, this area was claimed to be “the richest and most interesting to geologists in this section of the country.” 

This 1905 article already announced, “Mr. Thacher is anxious that this part of the mountain he owns shall be preserved from the ravages of man.” And, before his death, he and his wife, Emma Treadwell Thacher, had agreed that the land on the escarpment he had acquired be turned over to New York State. In the meantime, he allowed the public to visit the land he’d purchased.

Thacher died at his Albany home on Feb. 25, 1909. The Enterprise remarked, “Altamont loses another of her esteemed summer residents. He had been ill for more than a year past, being confined to the house most of the past summer while a resident here ….”

His widow continued to use the summer cottage for a few years. In 1914, she transferred to New York State the 350-acre parcel of the escarpment land, preserving a spectacular scenic and historic area combined with a huge number of fossils and deep caves.

It now became officially a state park and appropriately named John Boyd Thacher State Park. On the September 1914 day of the park’s dedication, Governor Martin Henry Glynn and the official party first arrived at the Thacher cottage where lunch was served before the group, accompanied by Emma Treadwell Thacher, went to the park for the dedication.

Finally, in July 2001, Emma Treadwell Thacher’s generosity in carrying out her husband’s wishes to donate this special area to the state for public use was recognized with the opening of a nature center named in her honor.

Eventually the Thacher cottage was sold to the Sewell family of Albany. After 1950, the cottage sat empty, abandoned, stripped of fixtures, and vandalized.

In the early 1960s, the property was purchased by the LaSalette Fathers whose seminary had been erected on the site of the old Kushaqua Hotel nearby. Wishing to erect a modern building on the site, the old cottage now described as “an eyesore” had to go.

The decision was made to remove it by burning it down as a firemen’s exercise. And so on Jan. 30, 1965, the “White House of Highpoint” came to a sad end. John Boyd Thacher’s last connection to Altamont was gone.