HISTORIC BUILDINGS OF HERKIMER COUNTY
JORDANVILLE AND THE ONCE FAMOUS CASTLE
The word "castle" evokes a picture of romance, bold knights, jewels, velvet and silks dripping off a castle's residents. Gelston Castle, or Cruger Mansion, has been called by several names and it is still the house built by Harriett Douglas Cruger, who is a story in herself. Gelston Castle, as it is called today, was one of the passions pursued by Harriet Douglas during her lifetime. Her other passions included collecting famous male acquaintances.
After a whirlwind tour of Europe lasting for several years, Harriett returned to America and was married to Henry Nicholas Cruger, a New York City attorney. Cruger was not too happy about building a house "in so wild and remote spot," but Harriett prevailed.
It is said that her mother, Margaret Douglas, was the first of the Henderson heirs to take a real interest in the Henderson lands in the Mohawk Valley, and built a twenty-four room wooden structure referred to as the Cottage.
It was Harriett, the red-haired social lioness of the 1800's, who in 1833 fulfilled her dream - the building of a "Castle" on the Henderson property in remote Jordanville. After her death, "Aunt Harriet" became a renowned poltergeist of the Mohawk Valley. Historical accounts indicate that she may have been the strongest willed of her family. She made plans which she forced, by one means or another, to be carried out.
At some point in time, an inspiration struck the grande dame: Her heart - and the rest of her too - could remain at the Henderson House forever. She ordered granite from Scotland for a grandiose sarcophagus. It was duly carved and installed in readiness for Douglas's demise and her instructions were spelled out in her will. It is thought that the "frustration of her spirit" may have been caused by the change in her plan for burial. Harriett was felled by her heirs. When the eighty-two-year old Douglas died in 1872, her family broke her will and gave her a thoroughly conventional burial in a New York City churchyard. It was wondered what to do with the sarcophagus? Some practical soul had it hauled out of the cellar and installed outside, where it became a water trough for horses. Eventually the sarcophagus disintegrated. Some say years of freezing split the granite into pieces, while others report its destruction was due to a bolt of lightening. Harriett Douglas would have, no doubt, preferred the latter explanation.
As if reading from a list in an 18th century American and British "Who's Who," Harriet Douglas knew the most prominent men and women of both countries just as you would know your own family. Descended from a branch of the "Black" Douglas clan, the family had the right of the "winged heart" coat of arms, a very appropriate symbol for Harriett, whose own love for man was flighty at best. This too, is a story in itself and may be read in a 255-page book authored by Angus Davidson and titled "Miss Douglas of New York." Davidson was a cousin of Helen Roosevelt Robinson and both were descendents of Harriett. The Roosevelt family at one time owned the Castle and had a private cemetery in a back wooded area, where members of the Roosevelt family are buried.
The Douglas family were industrious Scots, who managed to pile up a fortune through various businesses in New York and London, and by farming in Scotland. Harriett's father, George Douglas, settled in New York City during the 1760's. George was one of four brothers who arrived in this country during that time. All were to become very wealthy. Two returned to Scotland and acquired large tracts of land in Galloway. William Douglas built Gelston Castle on his Scotland holdings, while brother James founded the town of Castle Douglas.
George Douglas was the only brother to permanently settle in America and eventually married a Margaret Corne, Harriett's mother. Margaret Corne was the daughter of a Captain Peter Corne, and a granddaughter of Dr. James Henderson, a Scottish physician who, for services rendered at Greenwhich Hospital in Britain, received a grant of 16,000 acres from King George II.
Dr. Henderson travelled to America hoping to build a country house on the grant, but apparently learned it was a wild and desolate area inhabited only by Mohawk Indians. It was then that he built a home in New York City, and called it Greenwich House, located on Greenwich Street in an area now known more familiarly as Greenwich Village.
The royal grant descended to Harriett's mother Margaret Corne, Dr. Henderson's granddaughter, the first of the Henderson heirs to visit the family holdings overlooking the Mohawk Valley. The land was partly cleared, a survey had been made, and Margaret, with her husband, George Douglas, built a small summer cottage.
George and Margaret Douglas had six children, including Harriett, during their 11-year marriage. George died of yellow fever at his wife's home at King's Ferry on the Hudson River.
The time period between Harriett's father's death to the time she built Gelston Castle in Jordanville is one of the most intriguing tales of 18th and early 19th century European high society. Names like William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, President James Monroe, Samuel Taylor, Colerdige, Tom Moore, Fenimore Cooper, Marquis de Lafayette, Washington Irving, and others continually crop up in the book on her life. Miss Douglas was called "The Lion Huntress of the Social Jungles."
As members of her family died off, Harriett eventually gained possession of the royal grant land. The castle later was built about 50 feet from the cottage according to Harriett's plans. This was not like her mother's cottage, and, like most of the other houses in the region, to be built of wood. It must be of stone, like the houses in Scotland; and to accomplish this unusual and unique design, and with protesting by Harriet, her husband Henry Cruger had to arrange for blocks of stone to be dragged up the hill from Little Falls. "Fourteen miles away, over the snow," Angus Davidson said in his book.
Although there is a popular family legend that said Harriett built an exact replica of the family home in Scotland, this is far from true. It had been over 20 years from the time she visited the sprawling castle in Scotland to the time she built Cruger Mansion. Her biographer said "she had visited the castle as a girl and she had dreamed then of building, on the family estate in the Mohawk Valley, a house that would resemble Gelston." But the author and descendent states that the plans were no "slavish" copies of the Scotland castle - "Gelston was on far too large a scale." Harriett's resolve to build a castle had been cherished secretly and tenaciously; it had been known only to her mother, who inserted in her will a clause giving Harriett the right "...to purchase from her estate, after her death" the 14 farms on the Henderson Patent for $14,000.
At one time in the 1970's it was reported that the castle was in poor condition and that the roof had collapsed. The last owner was the noted Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovitch, who purchased the property in 1979. Mstislav Rostropovitch eventually decided to return to Russia. Several realtors have been trying to sell the property without much success, largely owing to the price, which was $2.6 million. The price for the property had been dropped to $1.9 million. In the year 2003, the castle is crumbling in and thought beyond repair. As of July of 2004 the property has yet to be sold.
(The above information was gathered from a Herkimer Evening Telegram article dated April 6, 1976
on file at the Basloe Library in Herkimer, and from information gleaned from an article on file at the Jordanville
Information gathered by another researcher is provided on this page (off site link). Much of his information was gathered from the memories of local residents who had a connection to the house in one way or another. Very interesting reading!
Another well written history of the Gelston Castle can be found here (off site link).