Mount Athos in Orange County, not Greece, has a rather “colorful” history filled with hard work, romance, excess, jealousy, betrayal, history, and to quote Agatha Christie, murder most foul. A good portion of this colorful history stretches back to a former owner of the property, Walter George Newman. Newman was born in Newmarket, Virginia on August 2, 1862. He left home as a boy and relocated to Orange where he lived with his uncle, Strother M. Newman. (Walter) Newman worked at various farms and at some point became a stable boy and hack driver for Fox’s Livery Stable. Lore indicates Newman worked in Richmond for a while and was asked to leave and never return. As intriguing as the story might be, there is no documentation to further illuminate us. Newman is believed to have spent some time out west working with cattle, however, his journey landed him in New York City. In a place as busy and crowded as the Big Apple, Newman's character and efforts must have stood out because he managed to impress Governor Roswell P. Flower who then guided him into the world of investments, or speculations as it was then called. By 1888 at the age of 26, Newman was a millionaire with vast holdings, including gold, silver and copper mines. He briefly returned to his uncle’s home in Orange to marry his second cousin Lelia Moore Newman, whom he’d admired for years. In time, they had a son and daughter, Walter, Jr. and Marian.
Though they lived primarily in Brooklyn, New York, Newman purchased the Mount Athos property and an additional 250 acres from his uncle in 1899 for $8,000.00. He added additional acreage as available, amassing about 1,000 acres. With its grand stone entrance and gate house, Newman referred to his property as “Newman’s Castle.” The gate house stone elicits images of some centuries old European properties.
(Mt. Athos Gatehouse Stone. James Madison Museum of Orange County Heritage Collection.)
The red sandstone was quarried near Blue Run and was also used for the tall, elegant water tower with a gold finial atop the copper roof-topped garden/observation . The only image we have of the water tower is rather difficult to see clearly, a result of being a copy, of a copy, of a copy... Newman is said to have enjoyed looking down on both his property and his neighbors.
Probably the best image of the larger than life personality of Newman, his desire to have the biggest and best is the blueprint of the front elevation of Mt. Athos. The copper domes were topped with gold finials which could be seen from vast distances as they glistened and glittered in the sun. (It is not surprising that Newman's nickname was "Copper Man".) The cost of building his "castle" was in excess of $500,000; the most expensive home to have been built in Orange County at that time.
(Copy of front level blue print of Mt. Athos for W. G. Newman, Museum Collection.)
Newman moved his uncle's home so that he could build his "castle" on the crest of the hill. After reviewing a topographical map, he realized that the Somerset plantation house was on a slightly higher elevation. Wanting to be the highest, Newman had fill dirt brought in and raised his hill another five feet. He was "king of the hill" in his world.
Only a few local residents can remember the eccentricities of Newman first hand. While reading an "Orange Review" article about Randolph Grymes, Jr.'s presentation to the Orange County Historical Society (August 26, 1991), I learned that one of the most prominent memories was Newman and tossing silver coins. According to Grymes, Bill Yager shared that Somerset residents were alerted to Newman's arrival to the train station so they could be present for his arrival. His coachman (Estes Stewart) would arrive in Newman's elegant carriage, pulled by four perfectly matched sorrel horses and the trumpeter Doody Durrett just as the train arrived. It seems that Newman rarely exited the train unaccompanied and usually had several lovelies from the Broadway stages with him. He further inflated his ego by tossing silver coins out to the crowd and watching the scramble to gather what they could. Wait....there was more...
As the carriage made its way toward Somerset, the trumpeter (Durrett) would keep people apprised of their progress. It seems Newman would toss coins along the route, as well as at the station. As you can imagine, Newman's character and desires for the best blended into all facets of his life; cars, homes, horses, a gold mine and more.
Despite the affluence, elegance and extravagance and two children, domestic bliss was never to be for the Newman's and they went through a very ugly divorce in 1902. Mt. Athos and his home (Gold Hill) near his gold mine in North Carolina were purchased by him, but placed under his wife's name, thus, the courts awarded the properties to Lelia. There was a all out war over property and in November of 1902, the judge decreed that the properties be sold and the money divided equally. The next year, both homes burned to the ground. Both Newman's remarried quickly and quietly. Newman's second marriage was not lengthy either, allegedly mirrors all over the place and his self-adulation proved more than wife #2 cared to deal with. Tragically, both of Lelia and Walter's children died young. Walter, Jr. at the age of 9, and Marian as a teen.
Newman's life-style choices were also reflected in his business practices and would eventually result in the destruction of his empire. Newman's success and familiarity with the halls of Congress went to his head. He used Congressional letterhead to present an unauthorized endorsement of one of his gold mines in North Carolina. This bogus endorsement lead to a 1914 Senate inquiry. At that time, Newman's Gold Hill Consolidated Co. stock was trading at $0.62.5 per share. Once the inquiry became public news, the shares fell to $0.06.25 per share. Newman would die four years later in 1918 at the Hotel Chatham in New York. He was 58 years old.
Note: The Hotel Chatham was designed by Warren & Wetmore around 1916 at Vanderbilt Avenue between East 48th and 49th Streets in New York City. The hotel has since been demolished.
Orange County Historical Society
"Orange County Review"