The Other Durant

by | August 2016, History

William West’s maverick sister, Ella


If what Harvard historian
Laurel Thacher Urlich said is true, that “well-behaved women seldom make history,” then one would think Heloise “Ella” Durant Rose (1854–1943) would have a whole biography. But she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.

Ella was the daughter of Dr. Thomas C. Durant, the tycoon who forged the Transcontinental Railroad across the West in the 1860s, and then turned his sights on the Adirondack wilderness, intending to build a railroad system between New York City and Canada. His son, William West Durant, is well known for his rustic architecture in the Adirondacks, including the Great Camps Pine Knot, Uncas and Sagamore.

Though she’s mostly known for the lawsuit she waged against her brother in 1895 for her share of the Adirondack Railway Company fortune, Ella had an interesting life in her own right. She wrote Pine Needles; or, Sonnets and Songs, which included poems about the Adirondacks; a novel called A Ducal Skeleton; and numerous essays, short stories and articles for The New York Times and ladies’ magazines. Like her brother, she was well-traveled and fluent in several languages.

Ella and William both lived in London with their mother, Hannah, while Dr. Durant built the transcontinental line. Across the Atlantic, Dr. Durant was ordering his lawyers to buy up Adirondack land on the cheap, at state tax sales. By the early 1870s he had accumulated over half a million acres and had purchased a house in North Creek as a base of operations (the house, called the Gables, burned in 1959). Durant also invested in a lumber mill in town and set to work building an extension of the railroad from Saratoga to North Creek. After the financial panic of 1873, brought about by over-speculation (particularly in railroads), Dr. Durant ordered the family to New York and insisted they economize.

For a young woman like Ella, used to the social circles of high-society London, the move to North Creek must have been a hard transition. Even so, Dr. Durant expected his family to go along with his grand plans to pioneer the Adirondacks and insisted that William, who had no formal training in the business, help rebuild the family fortune. Durant’s plan was to lure wealthy investors for the Adirondack Railway Company and sell them land to build their vacation homes in the wilderness.

When Dr. Durant died intestate in 1885, Ella signed over power of attorney to William and took off for London. Within months she hired a lawyer to have the power of attorney revoked, but she never went through with it. Ella lived in London until 1892, maintaining a close friendship with the novelist Lady Anne Thackeray Ritchie. Lady Ritchie was likely Ella’s gateway to literary society—Henry James, George du Maurier and Rhoda Broughton were just a few of Lady Ritchie’s friends. While she lived in London, Ella wrote a play on Dante, which was published in 1889.

Ella’s literary works were not enough to support her lavish London lifestyle. She was dependent on the monthly allowance of $200 and sporadic gifts of money from her mother and William. However, once she learned about the sale of the Adirondack Railway Company to the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company in 1889, she demanded her share. She was expecting a third of the estate. William gave her $25,000 (about $650,000 in today’s dollars and less than five percent of the total amount he realized from the sale) and told her that would be all she would receive.

William may have been reluctant to hand over more money to Ella when he learned that she had given away a substantial portion of her inheritance for an investment that went sour. After that fiasco, she married a medical student, who died soon after they wed. Ella was stuck with his doctor’s bills. 

When Ella heard that William was building his Great Camp Uncas and traveling abroad in his $200,000 yacht with the money he gained from the sale, she sued.

While the New York Supreme Court was deciding the fate of the lawsuit, Ella wrote an article for The New York Times that underscored her connection and right to the Durant fortune. “Old Days in the Adi-rondacks,” published in 1902, described the arduous trip from North Creek to Raquette Lake along primitive roads to reach her family’s camp and recalled outings with her father on the Fulton Chain. During one excursion the party stopped at a carry near the guide Alvah Dunning’s hut. While no one was watching, Ella commandeered his canoe, which she had found half-hidden in the bushes.

“Following an impulse of the mo-ment, I jumped into the canoe and pushed off quite a distance from the land, and lay at the bottom of the boat to watch the clouds, letting the craft drift. … Suddenly my reverie was rudely broken by the confused sounds gradually nearing and developing into remonstrance. I … was soon made to understand I had incurred Alvah’s wrath.” She apologized profusely and, according to her, they remained friends ever after.

In the article, Ella recalled shooting a bear that was stealing food from the kitchen—and that she’d helped shingle the camp’s roof. “I was able to manufacture a few [shingles] myself,” she wrote, “and one proud day, in a drizzling rain, was allowed to nail some on.” She also took credit for naming the camp Pine Knot after finding a limb with an intricate knot in the property’s woods.

William had used Ella’s misadventures as his defense, since he had no other, and pulled all the family skeletons out of the closet during the court proceedings. He testified that Ella was unruly and disobedient in her youth. A newspaper headline called her “naughty” for opening the family camp in 1881 with her friends when no one was there to chaperone (she was in her mid-20s at the time). Given her independent nature, it is no surprise that after this incident she escaped North Creek and fled to the homes of friends in New York City. Her father responded by renouncing her. She ended up working among the poor at a convent before being accepted back into the family home when her father became seriously ill and was believed to be dying.

Ella won the lawsuit against her brother in 1903, but it had dragged out for so long that William was broke by the time it was decided. He had spent most of the money from the sale of the Adirondack Railway on building Great Camps, entertaining lavishly and buying up luxury items. He’d also been contending with several lawsuits related to his divorce and disgruntled investors. His admitted lack of financial acumen was one of the many reasons he never made a profit on the Great Camps he built around Raquette Lake.

An article titled “American Millionaires and Some of Their Magnificent Country Estates,” from the Brooklyn Daily Standard in 1903, was a harbinger of how William was to be remembered by history: “Mr. Durant is entitled to the honor of being the original promoter of the Adirondacks as a place of recreation for the moneyed classes.”

Ella, on the other hand, left little behind but her published work, a mere footnote in biographies about the family. Her only son, Durant Rose, married the artist Lillian Tiffany and had no offspring. Given the strained relationship between William and Ella, it may be that Lillian never relinquished any of Ella’s mementos to William’s family after his death. Only a few letters survive, housed at Syracuse University, to provide more insight into this interesting woman’s life.

Sheila Myers is the author of Imaginary Brightness: A Durant Family Saga (2015). In her sequel novel, Castles in the Air (2106), William and Ella wrangle over the legacy left behind by their father. Learn more at www.wwdurantstory.com.


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