Third Regent (1891-1909)

Justine Van Rensselaer was born in Albany, New York, on September 18, 1828, to Stephen Van Rensselaer IV and Harriet Elizabeth Bayard. The Van Rensselaers were a prominent Dutch family; her father was familiarly known as the “Young Patroon” and “the last of the patroons.” In February 1853, Justine married Howard Townsend, an Albany physician. His father’s Stirling Iron Works forged the chain barrier that kept the British Navy from deploying up the Hudson River during the American Revolution. Dr. Townsend died in 1867, leaving his wife and four children.

Serving as Vice Regent for New York from 1876 to 1891, Mrs. Townsend personally funded the restoration of the large dining room after its ceiling collapsed in 1885. She also raised thousands of dollars for Mount Vernon’s endowment fund through performances in New York City of two productions, The Sleeping Beauty and The Mistletoe Bow. She financially supported the installation in 1878 of the “burglar alarm telegraph,” which linked the first president’s tomb to the bedrooms of several employees living on the estate.

Regent

The Mount Vernon Rail Station in 1910. MVLA.

The Mount Vernon Rail Station in 1910. MVLA.

In 1892, early in Mrs. Townsend’s 18-year tenure as Regent, the Washington, Alexandria and Mount Vernon Railway opened, transporting visitors to the estate from Washington, D.C. The railway was created to accommodate the crowds who came to the nation’s capital for that year’s encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic, the national organization of Union Civil War veterans.

Indeed, the number of visitors skyrocketed, not only then but also in the years that followed—and the Association found itself faced with many new challenges regarding how best to deal with throngs of tourists.

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Honorary Regent

A Mount Vernon entrance placard from 1893. MVLA.

A Mount Vernon entrance placard from 1893. MVLA.

A major social highlight came in December 1899, when Mrs. Townsend and the Vice Regents hosted President William McKinley, his cabinet, and other guests at a commemoration marking the centennial of George Washington’s death.

Mrs. Townsend retired as Regent in 1909 due to failing health. But the Ladies immediately named her Honorary Regent for life. She died three years later in New York City and was eulogized by Mrs. Joshua Henry Rathbone, Vice Regent for Michigan, as someone who had “loved and served” both God and her fellow man while being “charitable and dispassionate in her judgments of others.”

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