Caleb Lyon, Jr., youngest son to Lyon family patriarch, Caleb Sr. – whose progeny have long been tied to the Lyons Falls community – was born up the Moose River in Lyonsdale in 1822.
Widely known over his lifetime as a poet, lecturer, traveler, and politician, he might fairly be looked on historically as the black sheep of the family. Notorious for feuding with his older brother Lyman, who it fell upon to run the family’s extensive businesses throughout the North Country, Caleb instead followed his fancies as an immensely talented, albeit somewhat disreputable, tumbleweed. And some would certainly call him much worse than that. But his poetry, written from his earliest days to his last, is first-rate.
By the time he was 25 he had secured an appointment as US Consul to Shanghai, although he never actually made it to China, choosing instead to use his official credentials to travel to South America and then California. And once in California, he quickly championed statehood, was appointed a member of the 1849 California Constitutional Convention, and even managed to be credited (somewhat questionably as it turns out) with designing California’s Great Seal.
Lyon’s restless feet soon brought him back to Lewis County, where he was quickly elected to the NYS Assembly and US Congress. But wanderlust again prevailed, and so he wrangled an appointment from Abraham Lincoln to be Governor of the Idaho Territory. The poetry-writing “Lyon of Lyonsdale,” as he often chose to call himself, was rather conspicuous in the roughshod wild west and not a popular Governor. His critics called him “Cale of the Dale” and while his negotiations with the indigenous Shoshone people are viewed as rather progressive in hindsight, they certainly did not go down well with Idaho miners and land prospectors at the time, who were pressing to attack and wipe out indigenous settlements. His unilateral decision to move the territory’s capital to Boise and his promotion of speculative diamond mining ventures that “ruined many a better man,” led the Idaho Stateman to once write that only a “military escort could prevent him from violence or death.”
So at risk was his life from the good folks of Idaho, Lyon ultimately chose to flee for the East Coast, pursued by allegations that he had stolen $42,000 that he was to deliver to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (for his part, he claimed some unknown thief had stolen the money as he slept on a train departing Idaho).
His last years were mostly spent at Lyon Castle, a large home he acquired and renamed, which had been built to replicate Windsor Castle in the Rossville section of Staten Island. He lived there with his sister while amassing a considerable art collection and awaiting possible indictment. He did manage to return to the North County briefly (to secretly exhume the bodies of his parents from their island burial crypt in Lyonsdale and have them reburied in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn), but that’s story for another day. No charges were ever brought against the Lyon of Lyonsdale, as he managed to drag the criminal investigation out for years until his death finally mooted it.
Regardless of what one might otherwise think of the Lyon, his poems are still to be admired and always worth reading, although they often are hard to find today. Around these parts, he is perhaps best known for three of his early poems, “The Thousand Islands,” “Stanzas,” and “Lewis County in the Olden Time” (click image to expand).