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Vanderbilt House

From Stephentown Genealogy

This is one of the many Valley Tales written by Rev. Ernest D. Smith. It is from his Valley Tales Volume two published in 1980 and no longer in print. It is being recounted here with his permission.


"Milo Daniels was no ordinary man. He had money and foresight and most men are lacking in one or both. He wanted to put his money to work to make money, and with all his foresight he thought he knew just the way to do it.

The rumors had become reality and Milo knew that a group of men had put up money to finish the Lebanon Springs Railroad through to Bennington, Vermont, and that the line would pass right through the village of Stephentown. So he bought the most valuable piece of land which bordered both proposed railroad and the main road.

Sure enough, in 1869 the railroad bed was finished through Stephentown. In 1870, the trains began to run and the familiar old steam whistle was heard several times a day. One year later Milo had finished building a beautiful and graceful hotel and immediate financial success. Today (1980), over a hundred years later, even though the railroad has been long gone, the Vanderbilt House still graces the village section of the little country town of Stephentown.

About 1971, I noticed the Vanderbilt House for the first time. I had just come to the Valley area and was on my way to a meeting in the Stephentown Federated Church. Noticing Boy Scouts milling around the porch, I glanced up and saw the sign "Vanderbilt House". Immediately I was curious. Why would a building sitting 'way back in this country area have such a great name? Also, it was the only building that seemed to have real character to it. coming from the State of Maine, I was intrigued with the real reason for having a "Captain's Room" on the roof, and I wondered if there might be a "Widow's Walk" surrounding it. Such things are common in Maine. It took six years and a lot of hard digging, but finally the truth came to light, and it was all so fascinating that I thought the Valley people would like to know what they have in their midst.

In a book called "Architecture Worth Saving in Rensselaer County, New York," published by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, there are only four buildings listed and photographed from Stephentown. They are The Methodist Church, The Federated Church, built about 1868, The Douglass House, built about 1824 and the Vanderbilt House, built in 1871.

Since this book was published, the Douglass House has burned and The Methodist Church is abandoned and boarded up.

I went into the Vanderbilt House, now owned by the Stephentown Fire Company. It has suffered with the years. Changes have been made internally until only the exterior remains as Milo Daniels had it and much repair is needed outside. A cement floor extends out to where the old sills once were, and the absence of sills makes it nearly impossible to elevate the grand old lady to her former glory. However, much remains. I made my way up a fireman's ladder to the Captain's Room on the roof. I found this eight foot by seven foot room of glass to be as it was in the olden days. I llked over the town from this vantage point. I could see 'most everything from Presbyterian Hill in the south to the Baptist Cemetery in the north-east; and then I knew why Milo Daniels had built this room.

In Maine, these Captain's Rooms were mostly built along the coast and owned by the captains of sailing vessels. As the ship put out to sea, the captian's wife watched from this room until the sail was lost from sight. She came up every day until the sail made its appearance again. Nearly fifty percent of the time, the sail would never again appear, as the ship was lost at sea, and so her nervous pacing became known as "the Widow's Walk."

Here in Stephentown there was no ocean to be see, but only a railroad. To the south for a half mile and to the north for another long way, I could make out the old railroad bed. I could imagine coming up here, either day or night, and watching with fascination as the trains would rumble into Stephentown Station. The engines coming from the south would have to stop almost under where I now stood if it were to let the passengers off at the station. What an experience for any small lad! This must have been Stephentown's most popular room about 1880.

None of the "old-timers" in Stephentown could tell why Milo had named the hotel The Vanderbilt House. It was not to be found in any book that I knew about, but in re-reading an old "Tale" of mine entitled "The Corkscrew Division," I think I found it.

In 1853, an attempt was made to get Commodore Vanderbilt interested in investing one million dollars to build this section of the railroad from Lebanon to Bennington. However, Vanderbilt, while showing interest, finally turned down because he said, "If I put a million dollars into this railroad and finish it, I know that grass will be growing in it in three generations." Attempts were still being made when Milo built his hotel to get the Commodore to take an interest in the reailroad, and so the name for railroad hotel, The greatest name in railroading - "Vanderbilt."


Great events have taken place there in the last hundred years. At first it was mostly used by salesmen who would stay overnight while traveling in the area to all the businesses. They were called "drummers" at that time. The hotel would provide livery service for them. Then there were a few years when it was used mostly as a bar. Mothers wouldn't let their children go there because as they said: "At the Vanderbilt House All you can hear Is the tinkle of money And the slurping of beer."

All that has now changed though, with the laughter of the Boy Scouts and the serious discussions of the firemen.

One great event of many years ago that stands out in the minds of all the "old-timers" of Stephentown took place at the Vanderbilt House on an election day.

In one of those years before 1895, Barber Rathbun, a man of great strength and large frame, came into the village of Stephentown to vote. After voting, he stopped for a drink at The Vanderbilt. Barber was an uncle to Lewis Griffin's sister's husband and Lewis (1895-1983) remembers his folks telling of Barber's great fighting ability. At the bar was a young man named Mark Casey, also large and good looking, but always looking for a good fight. Barber had some nephews (not Lewis) who came in at that time and picked a fight with Mark, knowing that Barbra would aid them, which he finally did. As Barbra was getting the best of Mark, in walked Mark's gather, Luke Casey. Luke had the reputation of being handy with a gun and lived up to his reputation as he whipped it out and shot and killed Barber Rathbun. Lake did eight years for this in a Troy jail, and years later others got their revenge on Mark by killing him. Quite a place, this Stephentown of old.

Today, Vanderbilt House is quiety sitting there in all its dignity, awaiting further unfolding of history. Perhaps someone will recognize the architectural heritage in Stephentown, and compensate for the many losses of recent years such as the Douglass House, with the restoration and preservation of what is left. Indifference to our architectural heritage may cause us to spend major portions of our waking hours amid visual trash, until we lose our ability to see and recognize the treasures still about us."


Note from Tina: I remember seeing the Vanderbilt House on Main Street every time I went to my grandmother's house in Stephentown Center, and years later, when I took my growing family back to the places where I grew up. In February, of 1998, I got a phone call from my Uncle Pete (Nelson Sweener) telling me that the Vanderbilt House had been razed. We talked about how it had been there forever, and how it had been such a beautiful building, and now it was gone to apparently make way for a parking lot. I have thought about that building many times since then, thinking how it would have been so nice if someone had looked at it and realized how important it would be to restore it, encouraging people to donate materials and time. What a wonderful local museum it would have made. I often think of the old railway depot and how that would make a great museum, telling the story of the railroad and its effect on the town. However, on my last visit to the town, the depot had declined into a worse state of disrepair than I had seen previously. It is a shame.

Below are some pictures of the Vanderbilt House, probably the last ones taken.

1vandyhouse1998.jpg


Vanderbilt House in its prime




The End of an Era February 28, 1998