Neh-Mahbin, Summer Home (Or Island?) To James H. Oliphant And Family
One of the more curiously named islands of the Thousand Islands region, Neh-Mahbin, has outdone its landbound neighbor, Keewaydin, in the various spellings found over the years in various media. They include, Neh-Nahbin, Neh-Mahbin, Neh-Mahdin, Nehmahdin, Ne-mah-bin, Neh Mahin, Neh Nabbin, Nehmabin, Nemabbin, Neh-Mabin and finally, Neh Mahbin. It will be referenced herein as Neh-Mahbin which, according to The “Phat Boys” 18 years on the St. Lawrence, published in 1891, means “Twin Islands” or “Twin Lakes.”
Confusing matters even more is the name has been both attributed to the Victorian Mansion built by James H. Oliphant and the Island it was on. Today, it resides on Comfort Island, but originally, a channel ran between Comfort and what was called Centennial Island, making them twin islands. Centennial would be renamed “Neh-Mahbid” as a result. As the river level decreased over a period of years, the channel dried mostly up and then was filled in making the two islands into one.
Very little information could be located through about 50 years of searching for Neh-Mahbin as a key-word until the 1980s when the Victorian mansion was for sale and made the newspapers more frequently known as the Neh-Mahbin estate. I note this for anybody else who may undertake their own research in hopes that it helps them find pertinent information a little easier.
The Oliphant Family Years
In June of 1886, James H. Oliphant of Brooklyn would build his first “very large house of handsome design” on Neh-Mahbin. Oliphant, a banker with the firm Lathrop, Smith & Oliphant, was also a member of the New York Stock Exchange specializing in railway and other corporate securities.
Five years later, the Watertown Daily Times would note “Mr. Clark’s island, Comfort, and Neh-Mahbin, owned by Mr. J. H. Oliphant, are one island now, as far as being separated by water. The little channel which divides them is dry, caused by low water.”
The following year (1892), James H. Oliphant’s first summer home would be destroyed by a fire. It would be replaced in 1893 with the current home which the Watertown Daily Times wrote about on July 10th of that year—
Two new, handsome cottages have been erected this year, and they will attract the attention of all visitors coming to the Bay. J. H. Oliphant, of Brooklyn, has completed a beautiful cottage at Neh-Mahbin, on the site of the one destroyed by fire a year ago, and opposite, on the main shore, is the new summer home of J. W. Jackson, Plainfield, N. J. It is of the Renaissance style, with many turrets. Though not so large as W. C. Browning’s Hopewell Hall, which it much resembles, it makes a commanding appearance from the channel.
In December of 1907, James H. Oliphant would be shot three times inside of his business in New York. The Watertown Daily Times would report—
The name of the man who shot Mr. Oliphant is said to be C. A. Geiger. He called at the office of the firm this afternoon and had a dispute with Mr. Oliphant supposedly over some business troubles. The man appeared to be making some demands which were refused. He then drew a revolver and fired three shots at Mr. Oliphant. The man then turned the weapon on himself and committed suicide. Mr. Oliphant was taken to the hospital (where he died.)
It was learned that Mr. Geiger owned the firm $5,000 and asked for a settlement which was denied (he had lost “no less” than $75,000 in dealings with Steel Common and still owed $5,000.)
At the time of his death, James H. Oliphant was the head of the firm of James H. Oliphant & Co., and was a well known figure in financial circles. He was also director of the Lafayette Fire Insurance Company, the St. Lawrence River Real Estate association and the Title Guarantee and Trust company. He was pre-deceased by his wife, Helen Culver Oliphant, who passed at the age of 49 in November of 1901, and a daughter, Gladys, who died in 1888 at the age of 25. He was survived by a son, James Norris Oliphant, who himself would pass away at the relatively young age of 46.
James N. Oliphant would continue to spend summers at the family home Neh-Mahbin. In August of that year, the Watertown Daily Times would print an article, “Oliphant Home Described” that would give some details—
Alexandria Bay, Aug. 26 – Neh-Mahbin, the island on which the Thousand Islands villa of J. Norris Oliphant, of New York, is located just opposite Keewaydin, the residence of Mr. and Mrs. (Mary Louise Wheeler Dewart) William T. Dewart, which is on a point of the mainland, and just above the home of Mr. and Mrs. (Elizabeth Florence Hamlin Clark) Mancel T. Clark of Chicago, whose home is on Comfort Island.
Mr. Oliphant has spent his summers at the Thousand Islands since he was a child. He is the son of Mr. and Mrs. James H. Oliphant, of New York. James H. Oliphant was a pioneer resident of the Thousand Islands. He was one of the ten founders of the Thousand Islands Yacht Club, the founders purchased Welcome Island, where the attractive and spacious Yacht Club is now located from S. G. Pope, of Ogdensburg, and built the club on it.
The house is at the top of a beautifully terraced lawn, whose velvet green lends a sort of fascination. Getting out of a motor boat at the dock, one ascends a series of stairs built from native stone, to a specious front verandah. The porch furnishings are deep wicker chairs, with gaily colored upholstery of cretonne, sofa pillows of the same color pattern of cretonne in profusion, and porch swings also upholstered in cretonne of the same pattern and a generous supply of sofa pillows on these, where on may sit at will, enjoying the wonderful view of the St. Lawrence River obtainable here, chat with friends, or enjoy a game of auction bridge.
The article’s author, Nannette Lincoln, writing special to the times would go on to describe the various rooms in Neh-Mahbin which include a large, round living room with several mahogany bookcases and tables and six windows, each giving different views of the St. Lawrence River. A dining room with oak-beams described as an “exceptionally spacious and attractive” room. A writing room and library with views of both the river and mainland.
The article would conclude with—
This home has always been one of the most hospitable at the Thousand Islands, and during the season there are many house parties given there and Commodore Oliphant entertains extensively at the Thousand Islands Yacht Club and the Country Club. The Oliphants have always been prominent factors in the social life of the Thousand Islands. Mrs. (Emma Morse Oliphant) Percival G. Morse of New York, who is a sister of the late J. H. Oliphant and an aunt of the Commodore, is passing the summer as the guest of her nephew.
At the time of his death from a short battle with pneumonia in 1927, James N. Oliphant, a Cornell graduate, had served as Secretary, Treasurer and Commodore of the Thousand Islands Yacht Club. Flags were flown half-mast at Alexandria Bay. His obituary would read, in part—
For about 43 years he had been coming to the river, living at his island home Neh-Mahbin and he was one of the best known and most popular men on the river. He entertained quite largely while here and last year had as his guest the Chinese ambassador to the United States, Mayor James Walker of New York City, and W. L. Wright and family, president of the Savage Arms. He took a great interest in the Holland Free Library at the Bay and at the death of George C. Boldt was elected president of the board of trustees, and still held that office.
Realizing the need of a trained librarian, he under wrote the expense for one for three years, until a sum was appropriated for that purpose. He was one of the best informed men on club matters on the river. He joined the Thousand Island Yacht Club when very young and at different times held the office of secretary, treasurer and commodore.
The Lipe Family Tragedy
Sometime afterward, Neh-Mahbin would be owned by W. Charles Lipe, a millionaire manufacturer from Syracuse who also an aviation enthusiast and sportsman. Lipe originally had a summer home at Manatauk Point, had several speed boats and sold one, “The Chucklette,” in October of 1927. Two others he owned were “The Chuckle” and “Miss Syracuse.”
The following summer, W. Charles Lipe would make headlines with an accident when his boat, Chuckle, struck Chapman’s shoal near Clayton at high speed as the headline pronounced “NINE NEAR DEATH AS BOAT GROUNDS.” Three occupants were hurled into the river, but were able to swim to shore. An attempt was made to tow Chuckle, a Chriscraft speed boat valued at $8,500, but it sank in about 50 feet of water.
The following year, Chuckle would be replaced with the 225 h.p. Christcraft speed boat he would christen “Giggle.” Less than a month later, the 27-year-old millionaire and his wife Eloise Estelle Hoyt Lipe would drown along with the boat’s pilot, Captain Devila Rogers, when Giggle slammed into a tour boat with 38 passengers. The couple were survived by three young children, Suzanne (4), W. Charles Jr. (2), and Gordon Clifford (1), who were at Neh-Mahbin at the time of the accident.
The Papworth Legacy
After years of very little press, other than eight ship groundings in 37 years on shoals just off Comfort island (and even more with nearby Stony Crest Island), Neh-Mahbin would be put for sale in 1989 by the Papworth family. The estate at the time was owned by the sons and daughters of Edwin F. Papworth and had remained in the family since 1946. It was that year Edwin made the purchase and a bit of déjà vu occurred.
On June 3, 1946, the Watertown Daily Times reported—
Five Escape In Boat Crash
Alexandria Bay, June 3 — Five persons—two men and three women—escaped serious injury in the St. Lawrence river here Sunday afternoon at 4:30 when the pleasure boat in which they were riding burst into flames after an explosion of undetermined origin.
Persons in the boat included Mr. and Mrs. (Mary Jane Pearson) Edwin F. Papworth of Syracuse, owners of the craft; Mr. and Mrs. William Hickey of Syracuse and Alexandria Bay; and Mrs. Clara Brown, 76-year-old mother of Mrs. Hickey, of Reading, Pa.
Mr. Papworth, a retired engineer and summer resident at “Neh-Mahbin” Island, two miles west of this resort, had docked at the Furness marine service station at the end of Bethune Street to refuel the gasoline tanks.
Mr. Papworth would suffer minor burns fighting the fire and Mr. Hickey a severe singeing from the first blast.
43-years later, the Neh-Mahbin was listed for sale with the price tag of $795,000, complete with Tiffany wallpaper, eliptical doors and windows, round decorative ceiling, stained and leaded glass, three large fireplaces, marble sinks and toilets, antiques, boat and ice house. The boathouse alone has a large gameroom downstairs and bedrooms, bath, kitchen and dining areas upstairs.
After four years on the market and no-takers, Papworths decided to auction off the 1.75-acre property to the highest bidder, regardless of price with no minimum bid. The estate, now the property of Edwin’s sons and daughters, would be put up for sale after the family found it difficult to keep things in order with several people involved in the ownership.
The following month, more than 600 people came from throughout the Northeast, Canada and beyond to partake in the auction. The winning bid of $335,500 was below the estimated value of $350,000 – $500,000, but I’m sure the sellers didn’t mind. The new owners with the winning bid were Third-generation family members, though the sellers didn’t know how many Papworths were involved with the purchase.