Suffolk County History -- 1883-1914

Suffolk County History -- 1883-1914

Source: Long Island Genealogy

Turn of the Century is a phrase that has many meanings but generally it is agreed that it covered those years just be- fore and after 1900 when America moved from rural, small town life to the complexity and interdependence of modern urban existence.

People may argue about the "real dates" for beginning and ending this transitional era but no one will argue about the tremendous changes that took place. Ideas and achievements that would significantly mold the present century were almost all on stage by 1900.

Locally, people of Long Island were thrilled with the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge in May of 1883. It seemed a miracle at the time. Imagine a roadway crossing the East River! And local folks were also caught up in the new Bartholdi statue rising above New York Harbor. The shining torch of the Statue of Liberty seemed to reflect the mood of optimism that people felt.

But any talk about the "good old days" must start with the most famous event of all, the Blizzard of '88. Sunday, March 11, 1888 was not unusual for early Spring. It had rained hard much of the day. During the night it had switched to snow. But a little snow often occurs in March; it's such an unpredictable month!

Unpredictable was a good word because without warning it kept right on snowing for three days. Finally, on Wednesday at noon the sun broke through. And on the ground was over three feet of snow with drifts going as high as the roof tops in some places.

John Tooker of Islip was a 14 year old boy at the time. He described the great storm in this way;

'Some small buildings were completely covered by drifts. The windswept the ground bare in front of our kitchen door, and piled up the snow in a drift that reached so high it closed off the view from two of our front room windows. Father was able to get to the barns to feed and water the stock, do the milking and other necessary things. He carried a scoop shovel to avoid being stuck in drifts. On Thursday, March IS father and a hired hand hitched a team of mules to a farm sled and taking me with them they broke a road out through the woods back of our house and got on the road to Islip.

Whenever we found drifts too deep for the team we would get out and shovel off the tops of the drifts. We reached Islip, got our mail and a few things that we needed and got back to the farm with little difficulty. The first train to get through from the city after the storm, arrived on Thursday the 15th, bringing mail, newspapers and passengers and If such a storm would have come in later years I believe that there would have been plenty of trouble on the highways, for horses or mules hitched to sleds can still get through snow drifts easier than automobiles."

On the north side of the Island, Margie Crossman, an eleven year old girl in Huntington, wrote about the storm in a letter dated March 19:

"Main Street in Huntington was filled up for tenor fifteen feet. It was so piled up that all the principal stores on the north side of Main Street moved all their goods to the second floor at the least sign of rain. When Main Street was dug out only narrow roads just wide enough for one way were dug. All the roads had to be dug out before they could be used. In some places they had to turn into the lots and make the road run through them for a ways . . .

The trains are all blocked up. The one that started for New York from here last Monday has not got there yet and the one that left New York for here is a little more than half way here. The telegraph wires were all broken so that since one week ago yesterday only thirteen teen telegrams have been received in Huntington.

The Sound is of use now for one boat went to New York from here last week. When it came back, Saturday, it brought some of the mail and other things that were needed. It also took and brought passengers. This has been our only way of communication with New York for a week . . . "

When the storm's damage was finally put right, people went back to the business at hand, which was mostly farming. Suffolk was still a place of family farms at the turn of the century but the shift to towns had begun. More and more people were leaving the land to build homes and lives around the businesses growing up at every crossroads of Importance here.

There was a zeal and religious fervor to business and industrial enterprises. People were proud of having conquered The West and proud of the many inventions that were now beginning to become a part of everyone's life.

Steam power and electricity had been harnassed and were starting to be used to relieve some household drudgery. For example, in 1893 the Huntington Gas and Electric Company received its permit to generate electricity at its new plant in Halesite. This power meant electric light, artificial Ice and water without pumping. Combined with the new water mains just installed in 1892, faucet water and inside plumbing became a reality. What would they think of next?

Well, for one thing, the trolley was to be electrified! This made the formerly horse drawn cars able to travel further, faster. And in time one line the Cross Island trolley would run from the Long Island Sound at Halesite to AmItyville on the Great South Bay. And at each terminus there were ferry connections which made a round trip from Connecticut to an Atlantic Ocean beach a one-day excursion!

Many towns had trolley systems and people loved them. The trolley car was the latest excitement in fast transportation. But it wouldn't compare to the biggest rage of the late 1880's and '90's-the safety bicycle.

The dirt roads hereabouts were filled with bicycles having wheels of equal size, ball bearings, rubber tires, improved coasting features and brakes that worked. Gone forever was the "bone shaker" with its great iron wheel out front and tiny rear wheel. In the days before the automobile, these new bicycles were the key to every man and woman's dream of freedom, a chance to get away from it all.

Bicycle enthusiasts were responsible for getting roads paved, grade crossings made, and a network of bicycle paths. Long Island sprouted countless wheel clubs which in turn held bike races and got special trains for longer excursions. A Mrs. Amelia Bloomer thought up some Turkish type pants to be worn by lady riders. These "bloomers" and their descendants pedal pushers paved the way for the sports clothes revolution of today.

Two entrepreneurs anxious to take advantage of the bicycle craze and give the Long Island Rail Road some competition began promoting the Boynton Bicycle Railroad in 1894. The men, Dunston and Hagerman, had three dreams to offer: a faster commute to New York; more tourist trade for Suffolk; and a 400% increase in land values for Brookhaven.

The two promoters raised $60,000 to build a test track erected between Patchogue and Bellport. This wooden monoraIl was to carry an unusual electric powered train at speeds up to 100 miles an hour and a specially designed steam locomotive for heavier work.

Ultimately this monorail system failed not because of technical difficulties, which they had, but because of local politics which Interfered with the fund raising. The promoters had costed the enterprise at $1.6 million. They never made it. Dunston and Hagerman are just names now; the latter for a lovely community, the former only a street. But even in their failure these two men deserve to be remembered among the illustrious dreamers whose vision, persuasiveness and energy helped to shape the county as we know it.

No discourse on bicycles or promoters in Suffolk would be complete without reference to the sporting event of the Nineties in these parts and the man who conceived and organized it.

Harry Barry Fullerton or Hal B. as he was known was hired as a Special Agent for the Long Island Rail Road. His agricultural expertise got him the job which was to convince farmers that Long Island soil could support good crops. He would do this, eventually proving that more than 1000 plant varieties could be raised here.

Hal Fullerton's genius was not confined to farming. He was dynamic and imaginative beyond measure. He helped develop a network of bicycle paths that were the envy of wheelmen everywhere. He ordered special trains for carrying bikes on excursions around the Island. And In the process he met a super star of the bicycle world, 'Mile-a-Minute' Murphy, with whom Fullerton concocted a scheme to prove his name was no fluke.

Fullerton had more than a mile of smooth planking installed on the ties of LIRR track running between Farmingdale and Babylon. He got the railroad to modify an observation car with an 11 foot hood to prevent wind resistance. Then, on June 30,1899, Murphy started pedaling his bike behind a moving train. And all the observers asked themselves: Could he really do it?

He did, and then some. Charles M. Murphy completed the measured mile behind the train in 57.8 seconds. Mile-a Minute Murphy had proved his name and became an International celebrity overnight.But not all sport was so energetic. Most people's idea of an athletic pastime was still baseball or fishing. Gentle games of croquet or tennis were being played by the upper crust and they enjoyed their yachting on Long Island Sound or on its many fine bays. And a few people had picked upon a brand new American sport, golf, which had its first real birth at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton.

Here, the Hamptons crowd enjoyed a 12-hole course laid out by Willie Duncan in 1891 and a clubhouse designed by famed architect, Stanford White.

Hunting and fishing which had been a way of survival for rhe Island's earliest inhabitants were now attracting some of America's most illustrious people. They wanted to take advantage of the abundant fish and waterfowl to be found in the waters between the Island's south shore and the great barrier beach: Great South Bay, Moriches Bay, and Shinnecock Bay.

It was a paradise for sportsmen, because a busy tycoon could board his private car on a Long Island train and be anywhere on the Atlantic side of the Island in a matter of hours. Even Montauk was accessible after 1895 when the L.I.R.R. tracks reached there.

Exclusive clubs for wealthy sportsmen with the right connections were not hard to find. Along the Nissequogue Rivet at Smithtown was the Wyandanch Club while in the South there was the Suffolk Club on Carman's River and the South Side Sportsmen's Club on the Connetquot River at Oakdale.

The South Side Sportsmen's Club began informally in the mid-l9th Century at Snedecor's Inn. By 1865 that inn had been purchased for the exclusive use of the club's members. By 1909 it had expanded its holding to over 2,000 acres so that men like William K. Vanderbilt Jr., P. Lorillard, W.R. Grace, Hugh Auchinsloss and W. Bayard Cutting might find a moment of relaxation.

But to most people summer relaxation and vacation meant what it means now: get to the shore and either get in the water or on it. Lacking the mobility enjoyed today, this meant going by steamer, railroad, or both to a large hotel for a stay of one or more weeks. Perhaps this was the last sedentary vacation enjoyed by Americans before the automobile liberated and captured us all at the same time.

One great vacation area if you could afford the expensive $4.00 a night tab was the Manhanset House on Shelter Island. Like counterparts in almost every shore town, this was a large wooden hotel with large porches fitted out with rocking chairs so one could enjoy the air and view.

The Manhanset offered accommodations for 350 guests which were "airy and perfectly ventilated," from which one could enjoy "charming views of marine and rural loveliness. Situated in Dering Harbor East, the hotel with 200 acres around it could boast "parlors, dining rooms, halls and groves" lighted by electricity in addition to some buildings lighted by gas. There was "ample protection against fire, abundant water supply, and perfect sanitary conditions."

Well, at least the fire protection wasn't perfect because in 1896 the main house or some of its turrets went up in flames. And some of the guests were not thrilled when the help didn't rush into the flames to rescue their baggage! In contrast to the way people of money spent their time was a whole lifestyle brought by a new people on the Suffolk scene: Immigrants who reached America's golden doors from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Poland, Lithuania and Russia.

Beginning in the 1880's, over two million of these Immigorants were Jews from Eastern Europe. Following the partern of those who had come before, most of them remained in the cities, creating their own ghettos in which the freedoms of America were overcast by dismal poverty. Yet the security of being among their own was comforting and the promise of America was there for their children and grandchildren.

A few men were not satisfied with that life. They were anxious to press on to find the dream of America for themselves. Many went west. Some turned east to Long Island. These enterprising souls struck out along the roads, the paths, the railroad tracks, moving east from New York. They walked the length and breadth of Long Island, carrying packs on their backs, a suitcase in each hand, selling needles and thread, ribbons and combs to farmers' wives, sleeping in baymen's homes, talking to the back door help of the wealthy.

In time some peddlars settled permanently, married, and raised children. Like others before and ethnic groups that would follow, the peddlar suffered the problems of the newcomer. But in time, by hard work, he earned respect and a place in the life of the east end.

Of all the people or inventions competing for attention at the turn of the century nothing had a more profound effect than the automobile. Not only did it capture every man's imagination, young or old in only a few years it made every other form of land transportation obsolete. But the automobile did more than that: it altered the landscape with new paved roads, created a host of new kinds of jobs, changed the lifestyle and created a whole new set of freer attitudes.

Auto cars were rich men's toys initially but soon businessmen were also purchasing cars. The automobile became a universal symbol of success. Where there had been a mere 8,000 cars in the U.S.A. in 1900, the demand put 460,000 cars on the dusty, rutted roads just ten years later. William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. who summered in Centerport was caught up with the automobile too. In his travels he had seen many car races. As a result young Vanderbilt decided America needed road races too. The Vanderbilt Cup Races were established in 1904 on Long Island's public roads. A field of internationally famous drivers including Louis Chevrolet from France, Benz from Germany, and Joe Tracy of the U.S.A., competed for a Tiffany-designed silver cup, valued at $2000. The first cup race drew 25,000 spectators who were breathless watching primitive cars roar by at more than 60 miles an hour.

In 1906 Vanderbilt organIzed the Long Island Motor Parkway Corporation for the purpose of building a paved highway which could also serve the Vanderbilt Cup Races. Some 45 miles of private roadway with 65 bridges and 9 toll lodges were constructed by 1908. The road stretched from Queens County to Lake Ronkonkoma.

The parkway had no competitors in the early 1900's. It was patrolled privately to enforce the 40-mile-an-hour speed limit. The fee for a drive along its full length was $2.00, a cost which limited the number of people who used this innovative road. Time and a publicly supported highway system eventually forced the Motor Parkway out of business, but not before it had given Americans a vision of the kind of road network that would be needed in the future.

Another aspect of Suffolk life was the array of great homes that stretched along the north and south shores. Magnificent estates with hundreds of acres of manicured lawns and carefully designed gardens surrounded American imitations of the great chateaux and castles of France, Spain, and England. In the era before the Federal income tax was enacted, business tycoons and their family members lavished untold wealth on these monuments to self importance and indulgence. The Long Island "colony" enjoyed huge parties, fine horses, steam and sail yachts with their whims carried out by a staff of servants.

But ordinary people enjoyed themselves too! Excursion steamers carried Sunday School picnickers from the city out to Cold Spring Harbor and Eaton's Neck.

For entertainment each village of any size had assembly halls with a stage. The Huntington Town Opera House, the Union Opera House in Northport, and the Burr Hometead Hall in Commack, filled with spectators for minstrels, orchestral Society concerts, and poultry shows.

The Music Hall in Riverhead had a distinguished run of plays, concerts, strawberry festival, and musical evenings. As this era closed it was to be the site of the public unveiling of "The Eighth Wonder of the World, Thomas Edison's Genuine Talking Pictures" as it was billed.

The Turn of the Century was a simple, robust time. People thrilled to the daredevils of a small traveling circus or turned out to line Main Street cheering their fathers and neighbors on parade for the glorious Fourth of July. They entertained at rag-sewings and masquerades or visited cousins In New York, Connecticut, Northport, or Southold; they ate chowder suppers at the firehouse and ran sack races at Sunday School picnics. And they sang around the parlor piano, or under the trees with a banjo and mandolin. But when the band played the Star Spangled Banner or a Sousa March they listened with pride in themselves and in their country.

This strong feeling of well being and patriotism was fed by the press and magazines of the day. In 1898 it led to grief. The Spanish-American War to free Cuba was our first big move into the game of international power. With high sounding phrases, much fervor, and little preparation thousands of young men went off to find glory. Instead they found dirty skirmishes in the steaming misery of tropical fever ridden islands.

The first glimpse at the price tag for this "splendid little war" in Cuba seemed modest. Imagine winning with only 379 battle casualties! But then the rest of the story entered the nation's consciousness as East Enders, then New Yorkers, and finally all Americans had a chance to see their returning heroes at Camp Wikoff at Montauk Point. Then they learned about the other 5,462 who died from Malaria and 'Yellow Jack' plus a host of other things that come when a nation sends off untrained young men without proper support to satisfy the ego of misguided "patriotic" people in power. But if the disgrace of Camp Wikoff shocked Americans, it didn't last long. Before a generation had passed Americans were even further embroiled with the super powers of that day, moving slowly toward the realities we deal with today.

The old virtues and simple life of the early 1900s became part of our folklore - a nostalgic heritage. But not all that was left behind was a loss. Child labor, oppressive working conditions, lack of educational opportunity, provincialism, and primitive medical care were also part of the Turn of the Century legacy. But that slow easy life when things were tuned to the cycle of the seasons would soon pass into oblivion as the boiling, cataclysmic Twentieth Century got under way.


This page was last updated August 28, 2000.