Altamont nearly became the namesake of a wealthy Supreme Court justice

— From the United States Library of Congress

In Washington, once Rufus Wheeler Peckham took his position on the court, he neither mingled socially nor gave any public speeches. After 1899 he was known to be grieving the loss of first his older son and a few years later his younger son, too.

— From the National Archives and Records Administration.

President Grover Cleveland’s Dec. 3, 1895 nomination of Rufus Peckham to serve on the United States Supreme Court.

— Photo from Postdlf

Rufus Wheeler Peckham, who lived from 1838 to 1909, is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands. There is also in that plot a cenotaph or marker for Peckham's father, New York State Court of Appeals Judge Rufus Wheeler Peckham, and his stepmother who were lost in the sinking of the Atlantic steamer Ville du  Havre in 1873. The elder Peckham was also a prominent Albany lawyer.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Coolmore, Rufus Peckham’s summer home, where he died in 1909, was bought by Bernard Cobb, a utilities magnate, who named it Woodlands. After Cobb died in 1957, his daughters donated the property to the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary who ran the Cobb Memorial School there for children with disabilities, adding modern buildings and a playground to the campus. The 65.3-acre property (most of it in Guilderland with about 13 acres in Knox) has a full-market value of $2.7 million, according to the Albany County assessment rolls. Although the Cobb Memorial School is now closed, “The property is not for sale. The sisters use it for retreats and vacations,” said Marcia Hansen, reached at the sisters’ Haswell Road location in Watervliet. “They’re there all the time.”

Who was Rufus Wheeler Peckham?

The short answer is: A United States Supreme Court associate justice.

He was appointed in 1895 by Democratic President Grover Cleveland; his confirmation followed six days later by a voice vote of the Republican majority Senate — the last time for this political occurrence.

Rufus W. Peckham is making an appearance in The Enterprise because he happened to be an Albany native, a member of the city’s wealthy, prominent elite, who was also a longtime resident of Altamont’s summer colony.

Born in 1838 to a father who was a very successful, well known attorney and judge, Rufus Peckham received a classical education at Albany Academy, then traveled to Philadelphia for additional studies. After a lengthy tour of Europe accompanied by his brother, he returned to Albany where he resumed his studies. Admitted to the bar in 1859, he joined his father’s law firm, beginning a very successful legal trajectory that ended at the summit of an attorney’s career.

His private clients, being chiefly banks, insurance companies, and corporations such as the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad, earned him a reputation for being an effective attorney who almost always won his cases. He was reputed to be on personal terms with such moguls as J. Pierpont Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John D.  Rockefeller. In later years, as he served on the New York State Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, and then on the U.S. Supreme Court, he definitely seemed to favor business interests.

Within 10 years of joining his father’s firm, the young lawyer became district attorney for the city and county of Albany. In addition, he served as special assistant to the New York State Attorney General from 1869 to 1872. During these years, he dealt with a series of criminal cases where his success at trial proved to be equal to his competency at corporate law.

In spite of his busy legal commitments, Peckham was a staunch Democrat, becoming acquainted with prominent politicians, and was especially friendly with Governor Grover Cleveland in the years before his election to the presidency. Peckham served as a delegate in both the 1876 and 1880 Democratic conventions.

In 1883, he was elected to the New York State Supreme Court, the lowest court in the state’s three-tiered system. Three years later, he became a judge of the Court of Appeals where he remained until his 1895 appointment to the United States Supreme Court. At that time, Peckham is supposed to have exclaimed, “If I have got to be put away on the shelf, I supposed I might as well be on the top shelf.”


Personally, Peckham was described by his contemporaries as “vigorous, of forceful character, frank, and outspoken.” Physically, he was described as having a “cameo face and piercing eyes,” while in company he was considered “an agreeable, entertaining conversationalist.”

Married in 1866 to a New York City woman, Peckham became the father of two sons, Rufus Jr. and Henry, always called Harry. The family home was on Albany’s lower State Street adjacent to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

In 1884, when his sons were in their teens, Peckham’s decision to acquire a large tract of land brought the family to the escarpment above Knowersville. After the construction of the Peckhams’ large summer home, sometimes referred to as a “villa” in The Enterprise, the name “Coolmore” was given to the estate.

The spectacular outlook from the property, described by Fletcher Battershall, a friend of Peckham’s sons who had been a frequent guest at Coolmore, was an “unbroken view of the valley of the Hudson stretching to the foothills of the Berkshires,” while “behind stretches the rocky Helderberg tableland, rolling and diversified by woods, farms, and isolated hamlets.”

It was “an ideal place for growing boys and their pleasures,” and the Peckham sons were welcome to entertain their young friends as regular visitors at the estate. Summer neighbors included other wealthy and well-connected Albanians James D. Wesson, Mrs. William (Lucie) Cassidy, and Charles L. Pruyn who also had children.

In those early years, a steady stream of guests were entertained at Coolmore, stirring the recollection of the Peckham sons’ friend who reminisced, “There were good times on the hills of Altamont.”

In one instance, Harry and Edward Cassidy imported Belgian hares, let them go in the surrounding woods and fields, inviting their young adult friends to pursue the hares with a pack of beagles. At other times, they hunted raccoons by moonlight. Much tennis was played and exploration of the nearby countryside was another pastime.

The summer colony’s attractions not only included lovely scenery, healthy air, and pure water, but its location was easily accessible, only an hour away from Albany on the frequently scheduled D&H locals. Commuting was feasible for those with professional or social commitments in town. D&H Conductor Joseph Zimmerman, obviously highly thought of by regular riders, was gifted with “a beautiful conductor’s lantern with his name neatly inscribed.” Among the contributors was Judge Peckham.

Judge Peckham apparently purchased his tract of land not solely as the site of a summer home, but also for a farm to be supervised by a local farmer, particularly to provide a sizable hay crop. Having had a strictly urban background, Judge Peckham while inspecting his farm during haying season one day was puzzled by the piles of grass all over his fields. It had to be explained to him that it wasn’t refuse littering his land, but freshly cut hay drying before being taken to the barn.

Peckham, like the other wealthy summer colony residents, provided employment for local men on his property and patronized nearby businesses, earning the good will of Knowersville’s (as Altamont was called until incorporated in 1890) residents and certainly helped to boost the village’s economy.

Men were hired for farm work and as farm managers and, in addition, an estate supervisor was employed. The names of various men who worked for the Peckhams were often mentioned in the Enterprise’s village column.

Note was also made that lumber for an 1895 expansion of the Peckhams’ cottage was being supplied locally and at least one wagon was purchased in the village. And at the end, the services of the Altamont doctor and undertaker were provided.

What’s in a name?

A few years after the Peckham family became regular summer residents, there was difficulty with mail delivery, due to the name Knowersville being frequently confused with a village in the western part of the state having a similar name, leading to a movement to rename the community.

A piece appeared in The Enterprise asking, “Shall it Be Peckham?” offering the suggestion that the village should be designated “Peckham” in Rufus’s honor. After all, the writer argued, he was a Court of Appeals judge; “Peckham” was easier to write than “Knowersville”; and besides, the judge might “honor himself and the village in some substantial manner.” It ended with, “By all means, let it be called Peckham.”

A protesting, upset citizen responded a week later, representing a faction not in agreement with the thought of living in Peckham, New York. Very shortly, the discussion became a moot point because Lucie Cassidy had used her influence with President Cleveland to rename the village Altamont.

Upon becoming a Supreme Court justice, Peckham sold his Albany home, moving to Washington, but he continued to summer each year at Coolmore where he died in 1909.

Laissez-faire decisions

As an associate justice on the Supreme Court, he was best known for writing the majority opinion Lochner vs. New York State in 1905 when the court ruled, 5 to 4, that the New York Bakeshop Act, a law prohibiting bakers from working more than a 10-hour day, six days per week, was unconstitutional.

Peckham’s opinion put forth the argument, “The freedom of master and employees to contract with each other … cannot be prohibited or interfered without violating the 14th Amendment.” This case has been mentioned unfavorably in mainstream newspaper and magazine articles about the Supreme Court in recent years and on occasion Peckham’s name is also mentioned.

Peckham also voted with the majority in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896, upholding the constitutionality of southern Jim Crow laws.

Justice Peckham, who considered himself a strict constitutionalist, is today remembered by legal scholars and students of the Constitution as a “nonentity, “a pygmy of the Court,” his reasoning described as “unfathomable,” the Lochner case “notorious.” His approval of Jim Crow laws is held against him. Peckhams’s extremely conservative thinking does not resonate with modern sensibilities.

The demise of High Point Farm

When the two Peckham sons were grown, each became a lawyer. Harry had developed a deep love of the land and a genuine interest in agriculture. Even though he was active in his father’s Albany law firm, he purchased a farm on the same ridge as Coolmore to the east of his father’s property which he named “High Point Farm.”

Registered stock including bulls, cows, pigs, geese, duck, and turkeys — some imported — found a home at this farm. Running a serious agricultural operation, Harry commuted out of Albany to work on his beloved High Point Farm whenever he had the opportunity and employed several hired farm workers.

Ads appeared in The Enterprise during 1899 and 1900 with the offer that for a dollar local farmers could have their cows serviced by one of his pedigreed bulls. Pigs and poultry were also for sale.

Unfortunately, a disastrous fire broke out in June 1900 when the hay barn, stables, wagon and tool house, pig pen and other buildings, equipment and much stock were all destroyed. Harry did not rebuild because by this time his health had begun to fail.

Sadly, Harry seemed to have developed consumption, now known as tuberculosis, a disease that in those days was fatal to rich as well as poor. He moved to Saranac Lake, then a center for treatment, later relocating to the west in a desperate attempt to revive his health. Harry died in 1907 in California. His brokenhearted parents had already buried Rufus Jr., also a promising young lawyer who had died at Coolmore after a lengthy illness in 1899.

Mourned by the president

As usual, Justice Peckham returned to Coolmore for the summer of 1909. Despite his health being a cause for concern, he was planning to return to Washington in the fall. However, his heart failed and he died at the summer home he had visited for a quarter of a century. At his death, tributes and messages of sympathy poured in.

Justice John Marshall Harlan referred to him as “one of the ablest jurists who ever sat on the American bench.” President William Howard Taft and Governor Charles Evans Hughes (who the next year became an associate justice himself and later the chief justice of the Supreme Court) each sent his widow their condolences.

At his impressive funeral at Albany’s St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, the eight surviving Supreme Court justices were in attendance. Rufus Wheeler Peckham was interred in the family plot at Albany Rural Cemetery.

Locally, Peckham has been almost entirely forgotten, though he was once the most important of the area’s summer residents. The Peckhams must have loved their summer home, which remained in the family from 1884 until Justice Peckham’s death there in 1909.

In the early 1920s, the estate came into the possession of the Cobb family who renamed the property “Woodlands.” In 1958, after Bernard Cobb’s death, his daughters donated the 32-room house and 40-acre tract of land to the Albany Catholic Diocese.