Despite being born into wealth, life was quite complicated for William Durant.
There was a failed marriage, then a second marriage to a woman 23 years his junior, and perhaps a mistress or two. There were great successes and failures, and a bankruptcy in 1904 that put a serious damper on the lavish lifestyle he had grown accustomed to. His life was the kind of story that would make a good book.
That's what Cayuga Community College associate professor Sheila Myers thought when she first stumbled upon Durant's story during a trip to the Adirondacks in 2012. Five years later she is on the verge of publishing her third book on Durant, all of them historical fiction, and tonight at 7 at the Saratoga Springs History Museum in the Canfield Casino, Myers will present a talk entitled "The Durant Family." The program is part of the Alfred Z. Solomon Charitable Trust Program Series hosted by the museum.
"He wasn't a good businessman, he built a yacht and all those summer camps in the Adirondacks, and he ended up spending more money than he had coming in," said Myers, a Rochester native and an associate professor at Cayuga CC in Auburn. "Then the financial depression of 1893 hit, and the family became land rich but cash poor. His sisters sues him, and he ends up going bankrupt. It's a very interesting story. It's a classic tale of going from riches to rags."
The title of Myers' third book is "The Night is Done: The Durant Family Saga." Her first book on the Durants was "Imaginary Brightness," and book two was "Castles in the Air," both with the subtitle, "The Durant Family Saga."
William Durant was the son of Dr. Thomas C. Durant, vice-president of the Union Pacific Railroad. While working to complete the eastern half of the Transcontinental Railroad, the elder Durant formed the Adirondack Company in 1863, his goal to build a railroad from Saratoga Springs through the Adirondacks to Canada. He only made it as far as North Creek. William, meanwhile, was building some of the Adirondack's biggest summer camps, hoping to attract New York's most prominent citizens, such as the Vanderbilts, the Morgans and Huntingtons, to spend their summer months up north. When Dr. Durant died in 1883, William took possession of the family fortune.
"The money was bleeding from all the mortgages he had on the summer camps, and he ended up selling them to some very wealth people who got a great deal," said Myers. "He was selling these great camps at a huge loss because he didn't have any business sense."
When the depression of 1893 struck, things got worse.
"I learned through my research that he was very well liked by his servants, and that he treated people very well," said Myers. "But he was also a perfectionist and that drove some people crazy. He was a real maverick for his time, but he also had a lot of family issues. Divorcing his first wife and the trouble that his sister gave him really proved to be his biggest downfall. Those things and the depression in 1893 really hurt him."
During their time in Saratoga Springs, the Durant family lived on Union Street, and they also had residences in New York City and Racquette Lake. It is Dr. Durant whose character, Doc Durant, was a central character on the AMC series, "Hell on Wheels," which ran from November of 2011 through July of 2016. Durant was also prominently featured in the PBS American Experience special on the Transcontinental Railroad.
"I had just started doing research on the family, and then I suddenly heard about the show and Doc Durant," remembered Myers. "They make him out to be something of a tyrant, and I would agree that he wasn't a very pleasant person."
The Durant Family
WHAT: A talk by author Sheila Myers
WHERE: Saratoga Springs History Museum, Canfield Casino, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: 7 p.m. tonight
HOW MUCH: Free admission
MORE INFO: www.saratogahistory.org