Jay Gould's Roxbury
By Edward J. Renehan, Jr.
The farmhouse built by Abraham Gould, Jay’s grandfather, in 1789. Here Jay Gould was born in 1836. Only the front portion of the home, located on West Settlement Road, existed in Jay’s time. Photograph by Ed Renehan
The name Jay Gould is synonymous with America’s “Robber Baron” period. Gould, who controlled the Missouri Pacific and other railroads along with the Western Union Telegraph Company, left a conservatively-appraised estate of $72 million upon his death at age 56 in 1892. His wealth was staggering. A recent inflation-adjusted listing of the all-time richest Americans—this comparing fortunes as percentages of GNP—places Gould in eighth place. Although he ranks behind such luminaries as John D. Rockefeller (1) and Cornelius Vanderbilt (2), Gould comes out ahead of Henry Ford (11), Sam Walton (14) and Bill Gates (31). His roots, however, were humble. Jay’s natal village—the Catskill Mountain hamlet of Roxbury in Delaware County—was a place to which he and his family frequently returned through the years, and where numerous physical reminders of their presence remain.
Down West Settlement Road about two miles out from the village, one comes upon a rough slice of rocky land and a modest frame house. This structure—built by Jay’s grandfather Abraham (“Abram”) Gould, who came from Fairfield, Connecticut in 1789—rests beneath a ridge and looks out over a thin valley. Given over to dairying through all the years of the Gould proprietorship, these acres provided the stage for the early childhood of Jay Gould, who was born here on 27 May 1836.
A Catskill Mountain Boyhood
Jay’s father, John Burr Gould (1792–1866) was the first white child born at Roxbury. In 1823 he married Mary More (born 1798), a granddaughter of John More (1745–1840), the Scottish founder of nearby Moresville (now known as Grand Gorge). Mary presented John with five daughters before the birth of Jason. The boy was just a few months short of five when, in January of 1841, Mary passed away from tuberculosis. John buried Mary in the Old School Baptist Church Cemetery between Roxbury and Kelly Corners near Stratton Falls, close by the neighborhood’s Yellow Meeting House, where Mary had always worshipped. Later on, Jay would see his father bury two more wives in the same plot: the last of them, Mary Ann Corbin, was mother to Jay’s half-brother Abram, born 1843.
Jay’s boyhood friend John Burroughs—himself destined for fame as a writer and naturalist—would recall that the studious Jay disdained farm chores. Jay told his father bluntly that he had no ambition in dairying. For this reason, the elder Gould swapped his farm for a tin shop on Roxbury’s Main Street and a house on the village’s Elm Street (now Vega Mountain Road). The family moved in 1852 when Jay was 16, but Jay did not stay long. After having taught himself the skills of a surveyor, he took a job helping to map neighboring Ulster County. In the next few years, Jay developed and published several maps, including an elaborate rendition of his own Delaware County map which came off-press in 1856. That same year, the 20-year-old Gould self-published a book he’d been researching for quite some time, History of Delaware County and the Border Wars of New York.
Kirkside, the former Main Street mansion of Helen “Nellie” Gould Shepard, eldest daughter of Jay Gould. This is now a retirement home. Photograph by Ed Renehan
Return of the Native
In time, after a brief detour into the tanning trade, Jay’s career took him to Wall Street. There he harvested a fortune as the hand behind a host of audacious financial moves. Jay’s escapades included the Erie Railroad “wars” against Cornelius Vanderbilt and a bold 1869 attempt to corner the gold market in collaboration with Jim Fisk, an enterprise that triggered the infamous Black Friday panic and ruined many investors. In time, Gould’s personal fortune became one of the largest in the land, and his reputation, through the manipulations of a hostile press, one of the foulest.
Jay made his home on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and also at Lyndhurst, an estate overlooking the Hudson near Irvington, NY. At Lyndhurst, Jay would sometimes climb with his six children to the top of his ornate greenhouse—the largest in North America—and from there point northward to the distant blue of the Catskill Mountains, which he always referred to as “home.” Through the years, whenever passing on business, he’d make hasty stops at Roxbury to visit with old friends and cousins. During 1880, he came and stayed long enough to oversee the installation of a large obelisk marking the family plot at the Old Yellow Meeting House. Seven years later he paused for several days with his wife. Then in 1888, shortly after being diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would kill him within four years, he made a more extended jaunt, bringing several of his children and a niece.
In the midst of the late August sojourn, Jay—sans his normal retinue of bodyguards, who were not needed here—guided the young people personally. The party stopped at the former Gould home in the village, the tin shop, the farm and the Yellow Meeting House. They also visited with the many locals Jay had known since boyhood. On another day, a delighted Jay took time to trout at Furlow Lake: a beautiful stretch of land and water just a few miles from Roxbury. (Jay’s eldest son, George Gould, soon bought the place and started construction on a rustic house: Furlow Lodge. “I have never seen Father so merry,” Jay’s eldest daughter Helen (“Nellie”) wrote her mother during the trip. “[He] has been so different, the old memories and the old friends have quite brightened him up.”
Just a few months after Jay’s death on 2 December 1892, Nellie joined her four brothers and one sister in carrying out a promise their father had made to help rebuild the Reformed Church of Roxbury, recently destroyed by fire. Built at a cost of $100,000, the Jay Gould Memorial Reformed Church stood complete by mid 1894. Two years later, Nellie, who already possessed life-use of both Lyndhurst and Jay’s Fifth Avenue townhouse, purchased a small, old cottage next to the church which she substantially enlarged and named Kirkside. In later years, more than one annual gathering of local Mores and Goulds occurred on the grounds abutting Nellie’s home. These 11 acres were ones on which Nellie created a beautiful park. Today the opulent fields and woods of Kirkside Park, beautifully restored and embracing a particularly picturesque portion of the East Branch of the Delaware, remain gems. Nellie’s Kirkside, meanwhile, survives as a retirement home. In addition to creating the park for the town, Nellie, encouraged in part by Jay’s old friend John Burroughs, funded the creation of a public library in the Gould home on Elm Street. Then, in 1911, she built a large Greek Revival structure next door to the library to house the town’s YMCA. (Today the YMCA building serves as headquarters for the nonprofit Roxbury Arts Group. As for John Burr Gould’s tin shop, that is a local center of contemporary fine art: the Enderlin Gallery.)
The monument erected by Jay in 1880 near the Old Yellow Meeting House to mark the burial place of his father, mother, sister, and two step-mothers.Photograph by Ed Renehan
After Nellie and George established summer homes in the Catskill Mountains, other family members returned as well. Jay’s niece Alice Northrop Snow purchased a residence right across Main Street from Nellie’s Kirkside. She died in 1947. Thirteen years later, her daughter Helen Gould Snow bought a place on Roxbury’s Lake Street. As well, Anna Palen—a daughter of Jay’s sister Bettie and her husband Gilbert Palen, the latter originally from Palenville in the Catskills—lived on Roxbury’s Main Street for several decades before dying in 1944. There she was followed by her brother, Dr. Gilbert J. Palen, a Philadelphia physician who’d once owned a farm outside the village and who died in the house on Main Street in 1958, aged 88. His son, Dr. Gilbert M. Palen, grandnephew to Jay Gould, spent most of his adult life in the Catskill Mountains, dying in 1986 at the age of 73.
Nellie was 44 when, in January of 1913, she surprised her family by marrying a handsome executive with the Missouri Pacific, Finley Shepard. Nellie and Finley adopted three children and became legal guardians to another. All four went to the best schools. All four also played with their father and mother on the private 9-hole course Nellie built on lands adjacent to Kirkside Park. This course, which includes a man-made lake and a stone clubhouse, remains in use today as a private facility open to the public. Nellie died in late 1938 at age 70. Finley passed away in 1942. Some of their adoptive descendants remain in the neighborhood of Roxbury as of this writing.
Another local Gould is Jay’s great-grandson Kingdon Gould Jr., the grandson of George Gould. A Yale-educated attorney and longtime developer of real-estate in the Washington, D.C. area, Kingdon spends his summers at George Gould’s Furlow Lodge in nearby Arkville, where he is surrounded by several other Gould homes, one of them owned until recently by his sister Edith Gould Martin, who passed away during the summer of 2004. Kingdon and his wife Mary boast 28 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren. The couple, amateur actors, sometimes perform Love Letters, A.R. Gurney Jr.’s romantic comedy, for the benefit of worthy causes. In May of 2004 they gave one such performance for the Roxbury Arts Group in the building Nellie funded so many decades ago as a gift for Jay’s hometown.
What would Jay think of Kingdon’s keen talent in business combined with his love of family and his sensitivity to the Goulds’ Catskill heritage? One imagines he would find it all quite satisfying.
Edward J. Renehan Jr. is the author of Dark Genius of Wall Street: The Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould, published by Basic Books in the spring of 2005. His other books include The Kennedys at War (Doubleday, 2002), The Lion’s Pride (Oxford University Press, 1998), The Secret Six (Crown, 1995) and John Burroughs: An American Naturalist (Black Dome Press, 1992).
Edward J. Renehan Jr. will have two appearances in the Catskill Region associated with Dark Genius of Wall Street: The Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould (Basic Books, June 2005). On Thursday, June 9, at 7 pm, he will lecture and sign books at an event hosted by the Delaware County Historical Society at the Cannon Library, 40 Elm Street, Delhi, New York. Details: 607 746 3849 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Thursday, July 28, at 7:30 pm, he will lecture and sign books at an event hosted by The Mountaintop Historical Society at the Twlight Park Clubhouse, Twilight Park, Haines Falls, NY (top of Palenville Mountain just off Route 23A). Details: email@example.com.