In the 1890s and early 1900s, James W. Eager summered in a beautiful cottage just north of 10 Mile Point, probably not a future he imagined when he was serving as a Private in the Confederate army.
Born in North Carolina in 1846, he was just 16 when he enlisted. He served for most of his time as the paymaster for his company. Once, when riding with saddlebags full of Confederate currency to pay soldiers, his horse lost a shoe. He knew he would need every bit of his horse’s speed in order to evade capture by Union army scouts, so he was relieved when he found a blacksmith, who replaced the shoe for $25. But when Eager tried to pay with Confederate money, the blacksmith threatened to take the shoe back. Luckily, James Eager had a U.S. dime hidden in his boot and offered it to the blacksmith, who accepted it gladly.
The next spring, Eager became a part of Capt. Moseley’s Company, North Carolina Artillery (Sampson Artillery) at Wilmington. He was captured when Fort Fisher fell; the war was over for him, and soon after for the Confederacy as well.
What to do next? His mother, Rosaria (Wilson) Eager, was from Manlius, N.Y., where the war years had been kinder, and so the family moved north. In Syracuse, James Eager went to work for a salt manufacturer, J. W. Barker & Co., who made him superintendent, not realizing he was only 18 years old. After five years, Eager took his savings and went into the hardware business.
He prospered, but in May of 1891, a fire broke out in his four-story building on Walton Street. Thousands gathered that evening to watch the fire and by all accounts enjoyed the two-hour conflagration enormously, especially the collapse of the roof and walls which sent fountains of fiery embers high into the sky. But the $35,000 brick building, built the previous year, was a total loss, including its contents. Eager came away with only a modest insurance payment, but he was a wise man. Instead of going back into hardware, he began manufacturing electrical components.
In April, 1895, his company was incorporated as the Onondaga Dynamo Company, with James Eager as president; David Cronin, vice-president; and Frank R. Eager, secretary and treasurer. [Dynamos were the first electrical generators capable of delivering power for industry, and the foundation for other devices, including the electric motor and the alternator.] In 1899, Eager built a new building at 221-223 Walton Street. By 1901, the business was doubling every six months, with customers all over the U.S., and orders coming in from as far away as Barcelona.
In the summers, the Eager family enjoyed a cottage at Ten Mile Point, said to be one of the nicest on the lake. In 1892, the Eager family became known also for an unintended adventure. The Skaneateles Press account follows:
“A Narrow Escape — An accident which but for most timely assistance would have resulted in the greatest fatility in the history of Skaneateles lake, occurred just after I2 o’clock to-day about four miles from Glen Haven. The six people who for a time were in a most perilous position, are all well Known Syracusans, who are spending their summer on the shores of the lake at James W. Eager’s cottage. The thoughtfulness of Herbert A. Livingston, of this village, and his ability in handling a boat probably saved more than one life.
“Last Sunday, Mr. Eager had the catamaran belonging to ‘Jeff’ Brown, who has a boat livery and small hotel opposite Glen Haven, brought down to his dock by the steamer Ossahinta. Yesterday the boat was sailed about the lake and this morning Mr. Eager made up a party consisting of Miss Mitchell, his guest, Frank R. Eager, his brother and his three small children. Willie, Charles and Frankie Eager, and taking advantage of the slight breeze that was blowing, sailed out towards the middle of the lake and then in the direction of Glen Haven.
“The Eager cottage is opposite the New Hope landing. On that side of the lake and about a mile towards Glen Haven is Glen Cove and across the lake from the latter place is the cottage of J. C. Willetts of this village. When the catamaran with its load was between Willeft’s landing and the Cove, being nearer the former point, it was noticed by Mr. Eager that one compartmeat of the craft was settling in the water. He realized at once that something must be done and that quickly. He tried to run the boat in Lett’s landing but there being but a slight breeze blowing no progress could be made . He called to the Willett’s cottage on the shore, but could get no aid from that quarter as the cottage is tightly closed, not having been opened this season.
“Then the party waved their hats and handkerchiefs. The Ossahinta steamer, running up ahead of the Glen Haven boat, was in the center of the lake at this time, and although signaled and called to in the most distressing manner, the Ossahinta‘s captain had no time to go to the aid of the fast sinking boat . That steamer’s business this season seems to be to beat the Glen Haven and from its chasing up and down the lake five minutes ahead of the big boat, is commonly referred to as ‘the rapid transit.’
“There were two fortunate points to the accident. One was that the lake was quite still, and the other was that it happened that a party of campers from this village, consisting of Herbert A. Livingston, George Tucker, Adelbert F. Polley. Benjamin Williams, Frank H. Gillet and Edward Miller, who were playing tennis at Glen Cove, had had a late breakfast. If they had not been thus delayed, they would probably have been picking up a dinner when the accident happened. As it was they were playing tennis at the noon hour. The direction of the wind made it impossible to hear, but the waving of hats and handkerchiefs was noticed from the grounds.
“At first it was supposed that the steamer was being saluted. Mr. Livingston, after the Ossahinta had passed, noticed that the sail was being taken down, that the commotion on the catamaran continued, and that one side seemed to be sinking. He appreciated the situation at once, and hurrying to the beach, was into a boat and away in an instant. A rapid row of 10 minutes brought him to the disabled craft. When he was within 200 feet of the boat, those upon the perfect compartment were no longer able to keep her upright, the weight of the mast turning her over on the side.
“With this capsizing, all aboard were thrown into the lake. Mr. Eager was protecting his youngest child and caring for Miss Mitchell. His brother Frank had in his custody the other two children. As the boat went over Miss Mitchell slipped from Mr. Eager’s grasp and went down. He caught her and held her around the waist. Although greatly frightened, she was very brave, and having gained a hold upon the boat again, hung on for her life. The children screamed loudly, but the arrival of the row boat quieted the entire party.
“They were transferred and taken to Ten Mile Point, J. W. Eager piloting Miss Mitchell and the children to the cottage and F. R. Eager returning with Mr. Livingston to the catamaran, which after some trouble was beached, it was found that one of the floats was completely filled with water. The craft had been left in the hot sun for a day, and not been pumped out, and a seam had been opened, through which the water poured upon its being so heavily loaded. The boat was put in shape and sailed back to the Eager deck. Mrs. Eager is at present visiting in Connecticut, and knows nothing of the narrow escape of her husband and children. Mr. Livingston is the hero of the day.”
James Eager, Confederate veteran and successful man of business, died in 1916 in Berkeley, California, where he had moved four years earlier for his health. His earthly remains are buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse. In 1918, the Rev. Claude Porter Terry, Presbyterian minister of Syracuse, purchased the Eager estate.
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A note: James Eager’s building on Walton Street in Armory Square, which was home to the Onondaga Dynamo Company, is occupied in 2012 by Urban Outfitters and other tenants. For a brief but wonderful time in the 1990s, it was also home to Signet Advertising, where I plied my trade as a copywriter, not knowing who had walked those floors before me.