Cecil County DecoysCecil County Decoys


Part 2: The Gunning Clubs of Charlestown

Gerard William Wittstadt, Jr., Esquire (c)2023

Chapter 7: The Seneca Point Club

Seneca Point, named after the local Seneca Indian tribe and located just southeast of town on the road between Charlestown and Carpenter's Point, was, in the early history of Charlestown, the town's shipyard. The earliest deed, then called an "indenture," indicates that the property was owned by Robert Johnson in 1728 and transferred to Edward Oldham in 1741, just one year before the town was incorporated. In the Supplementary Act of 1744, the General Assembly gave the town commissioners the authority to purchase two acres of land at Seneca Point for a shipyard, and to build a cart road from the town to the shipyard. Instead, it appears that the commissioners elected to rent the property for the shipyard, and several small vessels were built there by John Cooper, who owned a plantation just outside town, which he had purchased in 1754.

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The picture above, courtesy of Mrs. Rebecca Cooper Phillips, shows the plantation home of John Cooper. The home, which no longer exists, was located along the cart road, not far from town. The right-hand side of the home was colonial, with a later addition in the Victorian style. The "M. Cooper" is not known to be the artist's name, but rather a depiction of the fancy rose garden Mary Cooper often maintained on the property. Mary Cooper was the child of William C. Cooper and Rachel Ann Bryson.

According to the Portrait and Biographical Records of Harford and Cecil Counties Maryland, published in 1897, William Charles Cooper "occupies a pleasant home in District No. 5. Like many of the residents of the county, he has spent his entire life here and is a member of one of its oldest families. The old homestead where he resides was purchased by his grandfather, in 1754, and has been in the possession of the family ever since. John Cooper was the owner of a ship yard at Seneca Point and later carried on the same business in Baltimore until his death in 1794."

John Cooper was born December 2, 1736. His wife was Ann Kankey, born August 6, 1759. They were married on January 31, 1781, and had a son, John Cooper Jr., born November 28, 1787, who married Jane Little (born July 20, 1789) on February 8, 1829. Their child, William Charles Cooper, was born August 12, 1833, and he married Rachel Ann Bryson (born August 27, 1840) on October 8, 1860. In addition to Mary Cooper, they had a son, Cecil C. Cooper, who was born October 18, 1869 and married Ella Viola Lynch (born June 15, 1875) on June 14, 1894. Their child Lloyd Leslie Cooper (born October 29, 1895) married Margaret Murphy (born September 10, 1890) on September 7, 1921. Their child Rebecca Elizabeth Cooper married Robert Earl Phillips on March 6, 1945.

In 1807, Seneca Point was acquired by James Hasson, who was at the time married to Nancy Meeks. After the death of James Hasson in 1808, James Hasson Jr. and his brother, John, who were at the time minors, inherited the property, and in 1837, James Hasson Jr. built a grand mansion house at Seneca Point, replacing the old home.

In 1859, the property was sold to Honorable Commander Joaquim Cesar de Figaniere e Morao, the Portuguese Minister to the United States. According to the Great Portuguese and Brazilian Encyclopedia (interpretation supplied by the Embassy of Portugal, Washington, D.C.), Commander de Figaniere was born in Lisbon on October 7, 1789. His parents were Cesar Henrique de Figaniere and Violante Rosa Morao. He served as Enviado Extraordinario (Envoy Extraordinary) and Minister Plenipotentiary of Portugal in Rio de Janeiro and subsequently in Washington, D.C. From May 25, 1820 to February 27, 1821, Joaquim Cesar de Figaniere served on the joint Portuguese-British commission for the abolition of slave traffic, established in Sierra Leone on April 15, 1820. He served as Portuguese Consul General in Norfolk; and on May 7, 1822, he was appointed to serve concurrently as Acting Attach‚ at the Portuguese Legation in the United States. He held that post from October 9, 1822 to October 18, 1823, the Norfolk Consulate having been abolished on July 19 of that year. He served as Consul in New York from March 15, 1824 to January 10, 1829. He served in the court of Queen Maria II until June 14, 1832. On October 15, 1833, he was appointed Charge d'Affaires in the United States and promoted to the rank of Consul General. He served in that posting until May 31, 1838. On August 28, 1838, Joaquim Cesar de Figaniere was transferred with the rank of Charge d'Affaires to the court in Rio de Janeiro and was honored with the Carta de Conselho on January 2, 1839. He was appointed Resident Minister in Rio de Janeiro on the same date, and held that post from May 2, 1839 to July 30, 1840, even though he had been transferred, at the same rank, to the United States on April 24 of that year. While serving in Rio de Janeiro, de Figaniere was instrumental in putting an end to slave traffic, which at that time was being carried out under the Portuguese flag. He was one of the founders of the Sociedade Portuguesa de Beneficiencia.

Joaquim Cesar de Figaniere e Morao began his service in the United States on December 27, 1840. During the time of his service in Washington, he succeeded in obtaining restitution of considerable sums of money that had been demanded and collected by the U.S. government from importers of Portuguese wines from 1840 to 1846, due to an erroneous interpretation of the treaty between the two countries. The correspondence regarding this matter, and regarding the claims of those imprisoned who had been submitted under the flag of Artigas, was printed in Washington by order of Congress.

Joaquim Cesar de Figaniere was fidalgo-cavalerio of the Royal Household and a member of the Conselho de Sua Majestade; and commendador of the Ordem do Cristo and the Ordem da Nossa Senhora de Conceicao. He was honorary member of the Maryland Academy of Sciences and Literature, an amateur scientific society of "natural Sciences" founded in Baltimore in 1797, of which the sons of Charles Willson Peale were also members. He was also a member of the Historical Society of Philadelphia, the Instituto Historica-Geografico do Brasil, and the American Ethnological Society of New York.

Commander de Figaniere died in Brooklyn, New York, on December 24, 1866, only seven years after he acquired the magnificent property at Seneca Point, although excerpts from the ledgers at Black's Store in Charlestown indicate that he spent significant time at Seneca Point between 1859 and 1865.

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(Copied left is a typical page from the Black's Store ledger, dated September 1861 through May 1862, for the account of "Hon. J. C. De Figaniere," courtesy of J. Edgar McMullen, Charlestown, Maryland.)

After the death of Commander de Figaniere's wife, Catherine Stuart de Figaniere, the property was sold to William Hill, who in turn sold the property to a group of twelve persons, one of whom was Horace C. Disston, the son of wealthy Philadelphia saw manufacturer Henry Disston. These twelve men, who also included Jesse W. Neale and John S. Wetter, had purchased the property specifically for use as a clubhouse for leisure and duck hunting.

The Seneca Point Club of Cecil County, Maryland, was incorporated by Act of the Maryland General Assembly in 1868. In 1874, a legislative bill entitled "A Bill to Authorize the Seneca Point Club of Cecil County, Maryland to Elect Non-Resident Directors" was passed by both chambers of the General Assembly and signed into law by Governor James Black Groome (1838-1893), who, incidentally, was from Cecil County and related, through his mother, to the Black family of Charlestown.

In about 1875, members of the Seneca Point Club commissioned Henry W. Green to draw a picture for a lithograph produced by T. Sinclair & Sons in Philadelphia entitled "House and Grounds, Property of the Seneca Point Club, situated near Charlestown, Cecil Co., Maryland." The view above is the front of the mansion house from the North East River, and the view on the next page is the rear of the home. Notice the ladies and gentlemen playing croquet on the front lawn and the gentleman behind the house with a gun under his arm.

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(Lithograph courtesy of Henry Stansbury, Baltimore, Maryland.)

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The Disston Family of Philadelphia is known for the saws manufactured in Philadelphia through the mid-1800s and early 1900s. According to The Directory of American Toolmakers, published in 1871 by the Early American Industries Association, Henry Disston & Sons originated in Philadelphia in 1840. "Disston made hammers, knives, levels, marking gauges, pliers, saw tools, saws and squares." Members of the Disston family, shown below, left to right, are Horace C., Hamilton, Albert H., and William. Jacob Disston, another son, is not pictured here.

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(At left, the sons of Henry Disston, left to right, Horace C., Hamilton, Albert, and William. Photograph taken in 1881, courtesy Harry C. Silcox, A Place to Live and Work: The Henry Disston Saw Works and the Tacony Community of Philadelphia, Penn State Press, 1994; Erik von Sneidern.)

The Seneca Point Club disbanded in 1889, and the property was sold at foreclosure auction to Edward T. Stock of Philadelphia for $7,800. Mr. Stock, in turn, sold the property to Horace C. Disston. At the time of the foreclosure sale, the farm was described as consisting of 1451/2 acres improved by a fine mansion house with fifteen rooms, two tenant houses, and other buildings situated on the west side of the North East River one and a half miles from Charlestown. Upon acquiring the property, house, and grounds in his own name, Horace C. Disston began a renovation of the mansion house. Shortly thereafter, he purchased the Hughes farm, an additional 325 acres to the south, and continued to spend time at Seneca Point with his beloved Rachel Asch.

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(Above, Mansion House at Seneca Point, rear view, circa 1900, courtesy of Ruth Patchell Wright, Charlestown, Maryland. The woman pictured is Rachel Asch.)

Disston was an avid hunter, gunning over his own stool of decoys carved locally by John B. Graham and branded "DISSTON."\

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(From the collection of and courtesy of Joe Walsh.)

During his time in Charlestown, Horace C. Disston befriended Jonathan James "Jim" Graham, who owned a general store in town where he sold decoys carved by his uncle, John B. Graham. The friendship grew in mutual admiration, so much so that Jim Graham named his firstborn son Horace Disston Graham.

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(Photograph at left, the "J. J. Graham Store" in Charlestown, circa 1910. Pictured are, left, Carrie Patchell and Reba Graham, holding Francis D. Lafayette Graham, courtesy of Ruth Patchell Wright, Charlestown, Maryland.)

In the 1897 publication Portrait and Biographical Record of Harford and Cecil Counties, Maryland, Seneca Point Farms is described as follows: "On a high knoll overlooking the waters of the bay stands the spacious mansion that is one of the most comfortable in Cecil County. Surrounding the mansion and extending westward from the bay are the spacious and well-kept grounds, adorned with shrubs and trees. The estate originally consisted of one hundred seventy-five acres, which stretch out like a grand old park as far as the eye can see. The place is the pride of Cecil residents."

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(Above, Seneca Point circa 1917, in disrepair.)

After the death of Horace C. Disston, the Seneca Point Farms and the Hughes Farm passed by Last Will and Testament to Mr. Disston's "beloved friend Rachel Asch." Sometime thereafter, Rachel Asch married a Mr. Baxter, to whom the property passed upon the death of Ms. Asch. The property was then sold to the Arundel Corporation and later to the Philadelphia Electric Company. During the period that Arundel Corp. owned the property, two gentlemen lived there as caretakers.

The first caretaker was Mr. Kelly, who lived in the boathouse. There is little known today about Mr. Kelly other than that he was from Philadelphia and came to Charlestown specifically to work as caretaker of the mansion house. Older residents of Charlestown recall that the boathouse at Seneca Point contained a full-sized stuffed alligator that stood just inside the doorway. During his time in Charlestown, Mr. Kelly befriended the Patchell family and was an active member of the Charlestown ball club, playing with Wally Algard, "Snake" Heverin's boys, and Francis D. L. Graham, the grandnephew of John B. Graham.

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(Pictured left (l-r) is Mr. Kelly, Francis D.L. Graham; and Percy Morrison, circa 1923, photograph courtesy of Ruth Patchell Wright, Charlestown, Maryland.)

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(Above, Sam Presnell, circa 1951, on the front lawn of the mansion house at Seneca Point, with a string of white perch. Notice gas lamps and paved walkways. Photograph courtesy of Gail Ess, Langenburg, Pennsylvania, and Janice Jackson, Bear, Delaware.)

The second caretaker and last person to reside at the mansion house was Sam Presnell (1888-1962). He moved to Charlestown during the Second World War and in about 1943 became caretaker of the property, a position he held until the mansion house burned in 1962. In 1948, Mr. Presnell's two granddaughters, Gail Ess (nee Stewart) and Janice Jackson (nee Stewart), lived at Seneca Point. Each describes the home as "grand." They recall it had three floors, with hardwood throughout and gas fixtures in each room. On the second floor was a magnificent bathroom with a large square bathtub made of marble. The home has an icehouse off the kitchen, with a wine cellar beneath. Located throughout the home were hidden staircases no more than two feet wide, obviously used by servants in earlier days. The widow's walk on the roof was a forbidden place to venture.

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(Above, the lady friend of Sam Presnell, Lorraine Castile, circa 1952, and left, view of mansion from the boathouse in a snowstorm, 1958. Photographs courtesy of Gail Ess, Langenburg, Pennsylvania, and Janice Jackson, Bear, Delaware.)

Descriptions of the interior decoration of the home are vague, although in 1957 Charlestown resident and local historian Nelson H. McCall entered the main house and removed two ornate pieces of tile (shown here) that surrounded the main fireplace in the library.

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The backs of these tiles read "Baxter's 1957." The tiles were made by Mintons China Works in Waldroom, London, and are engraved "Stoke on Trent" on the back.

Mintons China Works (1830-1914) was undoubtedly amongst the best for quality of manufacture, both in the technical skill of molding and glazing, and the accuracy of painting. This company was the leader in printing technology in the mid 1800s. Their tiles were especially suited for fireplaces.

The founder of Mintons Stoke-on-Trent was Thomas Minton. He was a master engraver in London, having studied under both Josiah Spode and Josiah Wedgewood.

These tiles are the only remaining evidence of the once eloquent interior of the Seneca Point mansion.

Also existent today are the grand iron gates that once greeted Mr. Disston and his guests at the "spacious mansion that was one of the most comfortable in Cecil County."

The mansion at Seneca Point burned in 1961, the result of arson. The iron gates bearing the initials of Horace C. Disston are all that remain of the physical structure, though not at the site. There, all that remains is a pile of rubble, some bricks, and the foundation of the icehouse.

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The property is currently owned by Cecil County.

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(Above, photograph of unknown gunner in a sinkbox in front of the Seneca Point Club, circa 1905. This photograph was one of several taken together. See page 70, and next page. Photograph courtesy of Bob Gibson, Chesapeake City, Maryland;, and J. Edgar McMullen, Charlestown, Maryland.)