COLONIE — Hidden along Denison Road, on wooded land that could soon see 80 new homes built, are remnants of a stone foundation and a water well that date to sometime around the Revolutionary War.
The history of the remains — and the tragic tale of John Dennick — began to take shape when two residents of the Denison Road neighborhood, brothers Scott and Sean Murphy, told Kevin Franklin, the Town of Colonie historian, about the stone foundation when one iteration of the housing development was working its way through the planning process.
An architectural survey conducted in 2017 by Hartgen Archeology found the structures were likely built in the late 1700s by Jacob Seamon, an original tenant of the sprawling VanRensselaer farm that once dominated what is now Colonie. Records indicate Seamon had leased land in the East Manor of Rensselaerwyck, in what is now known as Rensselaer County, in around 1773. A few years later, Franklin said, he moved across the river to work VanRensselaer’s land along Denison Road where he likely built a home.
That portion of the renowned VanRensselaer estate was purchased by the Creiger family, who in 1863 sold 65 acres of it to a John Dennick. He, in turn, according to Franklin’s research, sold the land and the building, which based on the size of the foundation was no larger than a one-car garage, to William Dennison in around 1870.
The Murphy brothers told Franklin they remembered seeing a gravestone somewhere near the foundation when they played in the woods as children but years later it could not be located. It was not uncommon for families to have family burial plots and there are a number of them scattered around the Capital District, but the Murphy brothers could not remember if there was a name engraved on the stone and never did an exhaustive search for other stones at the time.
Intrigued by the foundation, Franklin dug in and discovered the tale of Dennick’s life, which he relayed in a 2018 Town of Colonie Historical Society Newsletter.
As the story goes, Dennick had married Eleanor Lape and the couple lost two children at young ages before having two, Cornelius and William, who lived to adulthood.
Eleanor Lape’s life was as hard as her husband’s. In around 1850, her parents packed up all 10 children and moved from Sand Lake in Rensselaer County to Virginia, where they invested the family’s life savings on a bad land deal. The clan returned to Sand Lake “in very poor financial condition,” and bounced from house to house as their “financial conditions worsened,” according to Franklin.
Five of Eleanor Lape’s siblings died young, but one in particular had a profound effect the family. Cornelius Lape Jr. was fighting in the Civil War “Battle of the Wilderness” when he was shot in the wrist by a musket ball. Sometime later, on July 2, 1864, he died of blood poisoning.
The death of his namesake pushed the father, Cornelius Lape Sr., over the brink and “having been worth only about $2,000 in life,” was reduced to a “shell of a man” thanks to “intoxicating liquors,” according to Franklin. He had neither the means nor desire to support his family any longer and the family apparently reciprocated, with the exception of his daughter.
Cornelius Lape Sr. ended up living with the Dennick and his wife for an unknown amount of time in a home along Albany and Schenectady Road — now known as Central Avenue — which Dennick purchased from Col. H. Lansing in around 1880.
Franklin found an obscure book, “Blind Peter,” written in 1876 by preacher William Frothingham, who recounted his interactions with Dennick prior to his untimely demise.
According to the book, Dennick was struck by a mysterious “sudden inflammation” that took his eyesight and he slipped into a deep depression before meeting Frothingham and confessing to, and atoning for, his sinful lifestyle. The two had that in common, according to the book, and Frothingham and successfully imparted the soul-saving ways of Christianity to Dennick.
The resurrection, though, was short-lived and his life’s hardships and serious illness — possibly a stroke and what was then simply called “sugar” — began to again get the better of him.
According to Franklin’s research, Dennick was “said to sigh and sulk in his chair and become violent towards his wife, threatening to kill her” but “suddenly become quiet and calm.” The ever-faithful Eleanor Dennick took a doctor’s suggestion and stood by her husband, keeping a near round the clock watch because the sudden and radical mood swing had been worrisome.
On Oct. 31, 1891, Dennick feigned a more positive state of mind and convinced his wife to get out of the house and visit friends in Troy. Once alone, Dennick hung himself from a rafter in the attic of his home.
He was 60 years old, and is buried in the Albany Rural Cemetery. Eleanor died on Sept. 4, 1908 at the age of 74, but Albany Rural Cemetery records say it is with the last name “Lansing.” It is not clear, Franklin said, if she re-married or if there was another reason behind the name change.
The current proposal to develop an 80-home subdivision along Denison Road includes provisions to protect the unique foundation and the water well. Franklin’s research preserved the story behind the people who lived there.
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