Sheila Myers ’85 did not set out to become an expert on the family of one of the most famous magnates of the Golden Age, Dr. Thomas C. Durant.
But she did. By serendipity closely associated with SUNY Cortland, Myers is now a source of information and commentary on this late-19th-century American well-respected enough to be interviewed by the History Channel and invited to lecture professional historians on the topic. The Cayuga Community College science teacher and the school’s Honors Program administrator are living proof that no matter what your specialty is, a SUNY Cortland education helps you achieve all the varied goals you set for yourself.
Myers’ past is not history. She received a BA in Political Science from SUNY Cortland and an MA in Environmental Science from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in 1992.
- Myers on October 10 was a featured guest on the “Race for the railroad”Episode of History Channel’s“ Engineering That Built the World ”series. She was interviewed about Durant, the family patriarch and head of the Union Pacific Railroad. He was instrumental in the construction of the overland transcontinental rail route, which transformed the colonization and development of America in the west. Durant has become a main character in the AMC drama series “Hell on Wheels”, which takes place during the time when he was working to connect the two coasts of the country.
- She has written a trilogy of novels about the Durant family that includes Imaginary brightness (Independent publishing platform CreateSpace, 2015), Castles in the air (Zahigkeit Press, 2016), and The night is over (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017). The latest standalone volume won the 2017 Adirondack Center for Writing Literary award for best fiction book in 2017 and received a Kirkus Star live review.
- Myers has presented his research on Durants at the Sagamore Institute’s Gilded Age series, the New York State Association of Public Historians, the Researching New York Conference, and other venues.
- In 2019, she gave a conference as part of the workshop “Forever Wild: The Adirondacks in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) ‘Landmarks in American History and Culture'” organized at Raquette Lake by SUNY Cortland’s History Department.
“My books have a strong theme of the natural world,” Myers said. “This is one of the reasons I was interested in the Durants and their Adirondack landholdings and the period, because of all the changes that were happening in Adirondack Park at the time.”
His path to becoming the go-to source on the Durants began during a 2012 summer vacation with several other Red Dragon alumni at the far-flung Kirby Camp of the William H. Parks Family Center for Environmental and Outdoor Education at SUNY Cortland, Camp Huntington, at Snowshoeing. Lake, New York
Campers can only get there by boat. Camp Kirby is a favorite spot for students learning to live in the great outdoors as well as a nice, short hike for visitors to the main buildings of Camp Huntington.
But the tiny cottage on the shore of Raquette Lake is steeped in the history of Thomas’ son William West Durant, who designed and built what is considered the original, rustic-style large Adirondack camp, now owned by SUNY Cortland. .
“I started writing this Durants trilogy because I stayed at Camp Kirby with some elders, and heard the story of (Thomas’ son) William West Durant and his supposed mistress,” he said. Myers said. “I thought I was going to write a love story about this family.”
She had already written a love story that took place in the Finger Lakes, Ephemeral summer (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014), she said.
Her husband, Joseph Judge ’84, their friend Karen Streiff Conlon ’85 and her husband, Jack, joined Myers for the long weekend at remote Kirby camp. The result of this short vacation was three novels featuring his semi-fictional Durant family saga.
The four had heard local folklore that Thomas’s son William West Durant used Kirby Camp to secretly meet his alleged mistress Minnie Kirby (niece of camp owner Cornelia Kirby), destroying his marriage on the road to the financial ruin of the family. .
“I really didn’t know anything about the Durants back then,” Myers said. “And I started to research the Durants and found there was a lot more to the story and the story and I kind of went down into this family research burrow.”
She had visited Camp Huntington before, not as a college student, but when she previously worked for Cornell Cooperative Extension.
“But it was really my first time at Camp Kirby,” Myers said. “Since then, I’ve been there several times and wrote the second book of the trilogy at Camp Kirby. I stayed there alone for about four or five nights. It was fun, I did a lot of things.
What is well known about the Durant is that after their patriarch lost his shirt to his railroad business, the family still owned half a million acres in the Adirondack wilderness, including what is now Camp Huntington. William West Durant, a pioneer in the architectural style of Grand Camp, built Camp Huntington and other Grand Camps in the Adirondacks.
“The hardest part for me was finding information about his sister, Ella, who is the one who sued William for his inheritance,” Myers said. “Because (William) wasted all the money and lost all the Durant family land in the Adirondacks. I found a collection of letters about him in the archives of Syracuse University.
She also consulted original family journals at the Adirondack Museum and William West Durant’s letters at the Library of Congress. She also credits biographer Craig Gilborn, who donated his research on the family to the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Winterthur, Delaware. His examination of correspondence uncovered details such as the broken friendship between the owner of Kirby’s camp, Cornelia of Saratoga Springs, NY, and William’s wife, Janet, who borrowed $ 15,000 from her companion in middle of the divorce. Cornelia, in turn, sued her friend to get her money back.
Myers took an online screenwriting course and used it to write the screenplay for an unproduced television pilot episode and preview of the Durant family series, before realizing the portrayal of “Hell on Wheels ”by some characters.
Myers too blogged about her research for the trilogy because she knew it would be of interest to people.
“This summer, out of the blue, I got a call from someone at The History Channel,” Myers said. “I think maybe they found me because I blogged about it.
“I went to New York and interviewed for about two hours and talked about Thomas Durant and his motivation to build the transcontinental railroad (to make a lot of money). Writing these books just turned into a huge thing that I never expected. I went from thinking I would write a love story to becoming an expert on Durant and appearing on The History Channel years later.
She has a fifth novel due out next spring by Black Rose Writing set in the Great Smoky Mountains. As she did for her books located in Finger Lakes and the Adirondacks, she spent a lot of time there, unearthing information about the Great Depression-era families displaced for the creation of the national park.
Her outdoor works of fiction have earned her a limited but steady number of followers, including some of the Alpha Sigma Phi sisters.
“I think there is such a rich history in the Adirondacks and the Durants were part of the golden age history in the area,” Myers said. “There is a lot of folklore about this family and it just generates a lot of interest in people to know more about them.”