Who Was Sylvia?
The Story of Sylvia Lake
In Northern New York, in the Town of Fowler, there is a lovely lake that was once known as Lake Killarney. Sometime between 1814 and 1830, the lake was renamed after Sylvia DePau Fowler. There are many versions of how Lake Killarney became Sylvia Lake. Some versions of the story are dramatic, some historic, and one version is even tragic. There are facts and there is fiction. I'm going to assemble the pieces…and try to fill in the details.
Who was Sylvia?
We know this...Theodosius Oliver Fowler was born Feb. 11, 1786 and died October 12, 1861; he married Amelia Silvie, daughter of Francois and Silvie de Grasse DePau, on February 10, 1820. Records tell us that Amelia Silvie DePau was born in South Carolina. They lived in a mansion on the shore of Lake Killarney, in Northern New York State. They had seven children. Amelia Silvie DePau Fowler died Dec. 22 1887.
The N. Y. Gazette for March 12, 1798, contains the following: “Married at Charleston, S.C. on the 23rd, Francois Depau, Esq., to Silvia, daughter of the late Admiral Count de Grasse.” Admiral de Grasse had been the commanding officer of the French forces at the surrender of Yorktown in 1781. Also present at the surrender of Yorktown, was Theodosius Fowler, the father of Theodosius Oliver Fowler.
Young Theodosius Oliver Fowler may have met Amelia Silvia (and her two sisters, Sylvia and Eliza) at his family home on Fifth Avenue, in New York City. Or perhaps Theo might have been invited to the home of Francis dePau where he was introduced to the three daughters of the house. Mr. dePau was, among other things, a real estate developer and built houses for himself and his three daughters and their husbands, all in a row, in New York City on what is now Bleeker Street. At the time he called it dePau Row. (Info sent in by Will Johnson)
Captain Fowler, Theo's father, had received a land grant in Northern New York as a result of his service in the military. The property, Township #7 of the Great Tract belonged to Robert Gilchrist and Theodosius Fowler and included Lake Killarney. In 1810, Gilchrist deeded the land to Theodosius, who hoped that his son, Theodosius Oliver Fowler, would manage the property and start a settlement.
In 1814, Theodosius Oliver, paid a visit to the Lake Killarney property and reported back to his father that yes, he would live on Lake Killarney, if his father build a house for him there. He expected this house to be very special— a mansion. So, according to this version of the story, Theodosius Fowler the elder, build a mansion for his son and new wife, Amelia Silvie DePau, on the shore of Lake Killarney. In another version of the story, it was the DePau family who offered to build a fine home on Lake Killarney for the newly married couple. In that version, the house was a wedding present to their daughter, Amelia Silvie.
We believe Theodosius renamed the lake, Sylvia, after his bride. (Editor’s note: Spelling was not always consistent in records of the day.) The Mansion was built of marble, for a sum of around $16,000.00, an enormous amount of money in those days. Construction was not begun until 1816, according to the Town of Fowler historian. In 1817, Theodosius was appointed Captain of the Militia in Jefferson Co., NY. Theodosius O. and Amelia Silvia lived in the mansion for about 20 years. More than one account says they left Sylvia Lake in 1830. Both Amelia and Theodosius lie in the Fowler family vault in the churchyard at Eastchester, NY. Their son, Degrasse Fowler enlisted in the Civil War at Derby, Connecticut. The Mansion property was sold to John L. Carpenter in 1838. In 1872, the Mansion was destroyed by fire, leaving only the stone foundation as evidence.
Where's the Drama?
So what about the romance? The tragedy? In one story, Theodosius O. was engaged to Amelia DePau, Sylvia’s older sister. The DePaus offered to build a lavish home on the shore of Lake Killarney for the newlyweds. While the house was under construction, Amelia left for France to visit friends and shop for her wedding trousseau. While Amelia was away, her younger sister, Sylvia and her father, Monsieur DePau, decided to visit the construction in Killarney.
During the visit, Theodosius fell in love with the young Sylvia. It is said that Theodosius struggled to be faithful to Amelia, but his growing feelings for Sylvia and an almost-tragic boating accident on the lake, convinced him that it was Sylvia he loved, not Amelia. When Sylvia and Theodosius capsized their canoe and Sylvia almost drowns, Theo realized his true feelings and resolves to marry Sylvia. The story never says anything about Amelia’s reaction. In this version, the mansion is named, Sylvia Hall and the lake is named Sylvia in honor of her narrow escape from drowning.
Although nicely romantic and dramatic, this story conflicts with historical records of Theodosius’ marriage. Records indicate that he did marry Amelia dePau. In another version of the story, Theodosius marries Amelia Silvie DePau and Sylvia Lake was named for their new born daughter, Sylvia. In a completely different version, it is Sylvia DePau who is betrothed to Theodosius O. Fowler. At that time, this legend says, Sylvia was living in the town of Fowler. The story doesn’t clarify how she came to live there, but Town of Fowler documents do exist that verify someone named Sylvia was present during the time of the mansion construction. Maybe this version is, in fact, the same version as the one when Sylvia and her father visit the mansion and Theo falls in love. Sylvia and her father could have made the trip and stayed in the area for a period of time.
But it’s the tragic version that the locals tell to visitors from “away.” Upon Sylvia’s betrothal to Theodosius O. Fowler, she decided to make a trip to England to shop for her wedding trousseau. She is gone a very long time. So long, that Theodosius thinks she has jilted him so he marries her sister, Amelia. When Sylvia returned from England, she found her older sister had married her fiance, with the family blessing. The newlyweds are living on Lake Killarney, in what was to be her mansion. Sylvia is so distraught over the situation, she throws herself into the lake from one of its highest rocks and drowns. After her death, the lake was renamed, Sylvia, in her honor.
No matter how you tell it, the legend of Sylvia Lake has everything: American History, Exploration, Love, Betrayal, and Tragedy. But at the center of every version is the beautiful “sheet of water,” the lake, which draws us closer to the people of the legend. All of us, then and now, recognize how special Sylvia Lake is and how lucky we are to be part of her history.
In compiling this summary of the Sylvia Lake story, I referenced three sources.
Sylvia Lake: The History of Sylvia Lake Since 1800, pamphlet by Charles A. Ferguson. April, 1956.
Pages from the Sketch Book of a Town Historian: Fowler 1807 - 1957, pamphlet by Helen Scott Cunningham. No date given, assume 1957.
Sylvia Lake, Gouverneur, New York: History and Genealogy 1800 to 1980, published by The Pendell Company, Midland, Michigan, 1981.