New York City Supreme Court Judge Donahue Summer Home On Steamboat Island
One of the early mansions in the Thousand Islands, the Judge Donahue summer home on Steamboat Island, has been a bit of a challenge to find information on as is Judge Donahue himself. Once Judge Donahue, a Supreme Court judge from New York City, acquired the island in 1881, he would rename it to St. John Island though searching still turned up its former name. In fact, even today it remains confusing: Google Maps refers to it as the latter while the small cottage that now sits on the five or so acre island has St. John’s printed on it.
There’s also a matter of searching for “Judge Donahue” himself, Donahue and Donohue referenced in different media. After finding his name as being Charles E. Donahue, with a family of eight, no obituary and no dates have been found. A brother Frank Lawrence has been noted, as has a sister-in-law Catherine, a daughter and a son, Charles E., Jr., but no connections revealed any further information to vital statistics. Even finding photos of the Judge Donahue summer home only produced two results over the course of several years.
With that, below is what information was found, short as it may be.
The first mentioning of Judge Donahue in the Thousand Islands came in the summer of 1881 when he and his family of eight checked into the Crossmon Hotel for the summer. One can assume that the Donahues were on a quest to find an island as, by November 1881, the Watertown Daily Times reported–
S. G. Pope is now fitting and grading up the island owned by Judge Donahue, of New York, and will soon commence the erection of a fine cottage on the island, to be ready for use next season.
What exactly brought Judge Donahue to the Thousand Islands is uncertain, but the fact that Steamboat Island, as it was named upon his purchased, and its proximity to Manhattan Island where Judge James Spencer, also a judge in New York City Superior Court, had his summer home makes one speculate whether the two judges living in the same city were, at the very least, acquaintances. Judge Spencer was one of the earliest settlers having purchased the Manhattan Group of Islands along with partner John L. Hasbrouck in 1867.
Another commonality between the two Judges is both had Seth Pope as contractor for their summer homes. Furthermore, they were built a season apart from one another. The Judge Spencer cottage was started in 1880 at a reported cost of $5,000, while the Judge Donahue summer home was started in 1881 at a reported cost of $7,000.
That the islands are just under 1,000 feet, slightly more than the distance of three football fields, almost assures the two knew one another, if not before, then at least after. It very well could be that if they hadn’t known one another, Judge Donahue may have came upon the constructing of Judge Spencer’s cottage in 1881 which influenced his decisions to purchase the neighboring island.
At any rate, Captain Visger would note in his Meanderings Among a Thousand Islands, published in 1882–
We pass near the foot of an island formerly known here as Steamboat Island, on which for several years stood a small hunting and fishing lodge, owned by A. E. Hume, Esq., an English gentleman of leisure and sporting taste, who was said to have been formerly engaged in business at Charleston, S. C., but who for several years almost made his home in the vicinity of Alexandria Bay.
He called the island “Plantaganet.” But this year (1882) the hunting lodge has given place to a more pretentious erection. The island was sold some months since to Judge Donahue, of Brooklyn, N.Y., for whom Mr. Pope has superintended a most extensive and elaborate improvements in grading, and erecting a large house with all the most modern conveniences, finished throughout in a style second in beauty to none, for a summer residence of the best class. Judge Donahue has also we believe baptized the Island with the new name of St. John’s.
Like many of the wealthy islanders from outside of the area, Judge Donahue would contribute to the community in various ways. In 1881, he was already discussing plans to erect a Catholic church in Alexandria Bay. In 1893, Judge Donahue would donate the land for the new Catholic church to be built upon, located at Crossmon Street fronting Edgewood Bay.
His wife donated $1,000 of the $7,000 needed for its construction (a later article noted it as his sister-in-law, Mrs. Catherine Donahue, who had within the last two years lost her husband and two children and lived alone. The church would be named St. Cyril of Alexandria.
In an August 7, 1893 article from the Watertown Daily Times, some additional information was given—
The Church of St. Cyril of Alexandria was incorporated under the name of St. Joseph. When the Thousand Islands became popular as a summer resort the necessity of the Catholic Church at Alexandria Bay became more apparent every year. Some years ago mass was celebrated Sundays at St. John’s Island, the summer home of Judge Donahue, of New York, and latterly at the opera house in this village.
The wealthy Catholics from New York, Brooklyn, Pittsburgh and other places who own summer homes on the St. Lawrence river started the movement to built a church here a few years ago, generously subscribing to a fund for this purpose. Judge Donahue, of New York, gave the lot on Crossmon street, upon which the edifice now stands, and his sister-in-law Mrs. Catherine Donahue, contributed $1,000 last summer. Large sums of money were given by Mr. and Mrs. (Harriet Martin Oliver) G. T. Rafferty of Pittsburgh and Imperial Isle, and others.
Incidentally, the Church of St. Cyril would be the recipient of the then Rafferty family-owned Bonnie Castle in 1941, transferring it a year later to another Catholic entity. Other than a single blurb about Judge Donahue having guests to St. John’s Island in 1896, there were no further mentioning of him or his summer home again until 1929. It was on July 6 that the Watertown Daily Times reported–
CHICAGO MAN BUYS ISLAND
Purchases St. John’s Island, Near Alex Bay
Plans to Build Log Cabin
Alexandria Bay, July 6 — Wiltse & De Young today announced the sale of St. John’s Island to Jesse L. Smith of Chicago. This island was originally known as “Steamboat Island,” before its purchase by Judge Charles Donahue of New York. The island consists of about five acres. It is located near Manhattan Island on the American side of the St. Lawrence River and about one-half mile below and across from Alexandria Bay.
Mr. Smith contemplates the demolishment of the present house on the island and the building of a log cabin and boathouses and other buildings. This island being located in the immediate vicinity of Alexandria Bay and near Boldt’s Castle will with its improvements mean a decided improvement to this region.
The house on the premises has not been occupied for a great number of years, in fact, not since the death of Judge Donahue.
No further information was found on Smith’s ownership and whether the Judge Donahue summer home was razed at that time, but most assuredly it would be gone by 1936 when it was reported the firm of Garlock & Son were building a new house for Rodger (sometimes Roger) Whittesley on Steamboat Island. Whittesley was the vice president of the Central Hanover National Bank in New York City and also served as the Commodore of the Thousand Islands Yacht Club.
The cottage, at this point, was described as having three rooms, as well a boathouse and caretaker’s lodge on the island. The boathouse would burn in a fire in 1948 which claimed 2-24 ft. cruisers as well prompting a call for a fire boat for the local fire department. The fire boat would come in hand for a 1960 fire on the island when it was then owned by Frederic H. Taylor, Jr., managing director of Hotel Woodruff in Watertown, N.Y. Taylor purchased Steamboat Island from Whittesley in 1956 and would dispose of it himself in 1962 to Bruce Bloom of Freeville, N.Y.
In recent years, the property sold in 2016 for $1.3 million. It was also, at some point prior, or after, part of the Vladi Private Islands group and its archived listing with photos can be viewed on their website here.