A NEW HISTORY OF EARLY WATER ISLAND 1877-1895 by John Bogack
Page 1 Introduction Page 4 Water Island before the W.I. House Page 21 Early prevailing view Page 22 Bishop-Jones-Shaw narrative Page 24 4 Newspaper Accounts of 1878 Page 28 The Fire of 1878 Page 29 Pavilions Page 30 Ferries Page 32 The Sammis map of 1878 Page 40 Green v. Sammis Page 41 First Founders Page 42 General Events 1879- 1882 Page 49 1882-83 Water Island Hotel story Page 56 Rewind: Summary of 1878-1883 Page 58 Water Island Rises: 1884-1887 Page 63 The Fire of 1888 and Rebuild Page 70 The Atlantic House Arrives Page 75 The Atlantic House Puzzle Page 79 1890-1895: It’s All Good Page 81 Old versus New History Summary Page 88 First Buildings Timeline Page 91 First Founders Timeline Page 99 Water Island Life Page 102 Concluding Comment Page 103 Acknowledgement/helpful links Page 106 Water Island: What's in a name?
This history fundamentally reshapes the early history of Water Island. Using facts some of its greatest mysteries of historical reporting are solved.
There is no doubt about its founding date: it’s 1877.
It’s first founder is not Daniel Thurber. Water Island has two early founders who are Nelson Danes and Capt. Richard Silsbe instead.
Whether and why there was a fire that altered how businesses developed in its earliest days is now known. There were two fires.
When the Atlantic House actually began as a business is now also documented: it was 1886.
There were nearly a dozen people who had significant roles in its first decades of founding not just two.
This history is a byproduct of research conducted for another history the Reformed History of Cherry Grove 1877-1895. As I did research for Cherry Grove's early history, I began to notice a few things. There were connections between figures in the foundation period of early Water Island and early Cherry Grove.
Additionally I noticed that the early history of Water Island bore some similarities to the early historical accounts of Cherry Grove. There appeared to be quite a mix of fiction mixed with fact producing more of a mythology than a reliable history.
Here there has been a reliance on documentation that can be substantiated with facts not rumors or hearsay. Facts are facts and identified as such with back up for them. Opinion is stated as opinion when that is needed. Unsupported “facts” are identified as such and fable where it appears as fact is also identified.
This narrative is fact based but there certainly has been at times a resort to speculation or call it reasonable inference where facts do not exist at least at present. When that occurs, it’s indicated.
In reconstructing history where the passage of time has obscured facts the issue becomes how to find a path that’s true. I have done my best to forge a true path for readers ahead.
This narrative replaces an earlier one published on this website. It reflects new historical discoveries since the earlier publication. Those discoveries have required a different narrative direction too. This narrative is more than an update of the earlier version. It’s a reformatted and better documented account of the early history of Water Island. This revised narrative does have one important addition. It begins with about a 15-page review of a bit more of 200 hundred years of history impacting the actual founding period of Water Island.
That section is not as visibly documented as the main history content. It’s sources however are drawn from the other two histories on this page.
Those are the early history of Cherry Grove and the Old House history for anyone looking for more documentation of the sources used but not otherwise specified in the “Before the Water Island House” section. There are links to those documents at the end of this history.
WATER ISLAND BEFORE THE WATER ISLAND HOUSE
Water Island did not just spring into existence in 1877 without a pre-history of events. Its very earliest history belongs to that of Long Island.
Now in some very broad stokes it’s useful to look at how that history developed for an area bounded in this fashion: Long Cove to the east, modern day Cherry Grove to the west, Water Island within that area.
Before the arrival of the English colonists the future Water Island area falls under the control of the Unkechaug Native Americans.
Native American populations on Long Island are in a constant state of flux.
Populations struggle for independence, form alliances for self-protection, pay tribute to stronger parties, or resist by force of arms if capable.
The Unkechaug are in tributary alliance with the Montaukette native Americans on eastern Long Island.
Eastern Long Island native Americans are subject to pay tribute to and consequently are sometimes subordinate to the New England based Pequot Native Americans and their allies the Narragansetts who sometimes raid parts of eastern Long Island to enforce their demands for tribute.
There is no evidence of any permanent structures built by the native Americans on Fire Island but the Unkechaug did have a large village located at today’s Poospatuck reservation in Mastic a shadow of the former site. Their western boundary of influence bordered upon the Secatogue native Americans who also had smaller villages along the
shoreline of the Great South bay west to present day Islip Town.
To the east there is some evidence of a large spiritual holy ground on what once was called Moriches island located in the Great South Bay near to Fire Island.
There is also some evidence that the Secatogue native Americans split Fire Island as hunting grounds with the Unkechaug having more say over the eastern portion of Fire Island east from the Patchogue area to their main village and still east for some distance.
The native Americans, based from their villages used their canoes to fish the waters of the Great South bay and their visits to Fire Island in addition would have been to hunt birds in great numbers on Fire Island, mine clam shells for conversion to wampum their form of money.
Fire Island too also was a source of wild berries of different kinds ready for hand picking:
beach plums, chokeberries, cherries, strawberries, and blue berries among those at hand.
Native Americans also hunted seals that at one point were present in great numbers on Fire Island and whales.
It’s in the area that has been bounded here for reference that will become the first area of economic development when colonists set up their first permanent point of economic exploitation of Fire Island.
This occurs when in 1653 Isaac Stafford of Babylon builds a whaling station on a permanent basis later called Whale house point in the vicinity of today’s Watch Hill area. This effort is assisted by the hiring of skilled whale hunting native Americans who help form the whale hunting crews originating out of that whaling station.
Native American control of Long Island and Fire Island is not in the hands of a population with a history of successes on the battle field.
The English do not meet centrally organized empires with vast military forces at their disposal to initially repel an invasion from across the ocean as the Spanish did in Mexico and Peru. They are met instead with cautious co-existence but in short order with pleas from Long Island’s native American population for protection from their rivals to the north across the Long Island Sound.
Their pleas are accommodated with military intervention by the colonists to protect them from raids coming from New England by native Americans there. But with a price namely land concessions helping to cement the foundation of early colonial settlements on Long Island.
It’s a process that will lead to the almost complete removal of native Americans from Long Island accelerated by perhaps the principal reason for their disappearance: plague.
It’s in 1658 that small pox, most probably brought to Long Island by European colonists,
strikes the native American population of Long Island resulting in the loss of two thirds of that population a best estimate then in the range of 10,000 persons. By 1741 no more than a few hundred native Americans are thought to be still alive on all of Long Island.
The impacts of population loss on a radical scale now create a societal shock for the native American population while at the same time pressures to reach more land concessions accelerate as colonial forces tighten their grip on Long Island.
It’s in 1697 that William Tangier Smith buys up the last Native American land not yet under colonial control forming a 50,000-acre Manor of St. George in the southern portion of what is today Brookhaven Town.
Included in that sale are lands from the Unkechaug native Americans including all of Fire Island.
From 1697 until 1704 with William Tangier Smith’s death, Fire Island including future Water Island is owned by one man. This is as well the beginning of the colonial land history of Fire Island. And for all practical purposes this marks the end of a native American presence impacting Fire Island. Fire Island is now private property.
In 1774 the second economic development of eastern Fire Island begins with a concession to Brookhaven residents of Fire Island land.
In 1774 Brookhaven farmers are looking to the pastures of Fire Island in the Long Cove area for fodder for their cattle. More in prominence than today in the low salty marsh areas of Fire Island was Spartina paten, known as salt meadow cordgrass more commonly known as salt hay. It had many uses. It could be dried and used for house insulation for one. And more importantly it could be used to feed cattle.
And just as a quick aside sort of lost to modern visitors to Fire Island is the appearance it
must have had to many in past days. It’s bay coast more a habitat of salt marshes the cord grass in the months of June to October flowering with purple flowers in profusion. It must have been quite a sight.
Fifty-five Brookhaven land owners, by lottery, get specified lots for a small but economically important slice of Fire Island land from the Manor of St. George. Just as importantly the arrangement included communal land rights to those pastures.
One owner could use the land of another as a right of way to transport salt hay, from his land holdings off Fire Island back to Brookhaven.
It’s unknown if the practice of bringing cattle by flat boat to graze directly on the land, returned when fattened, began in this time but that was soon on the horizon in any event.
This activity took place east of Water Island but presaged what was to come.
The American Revolution begins in July 1776. After the defeat of the revolutionary forces in the Battle of Long Island in late August 1776, the English crown tightens its grip on Long Island. Long Island is converted in a bread basket for New York City now occupied by the King’s army. This will be the state of affairs for most of the Revolutionary war. Long Island is in fact one of the last areas of to be liberated from the English Crown following the retreat of royal forces from New York city in November of 1783.
For all the years of the revolution Long Island is looted by the English crown of its natural supplies; wood in particular and grains and animals from its farm land to feed the English soldiers garrisoned in New York city.
Of some note is that it is across from Water Island at nearby Blue Point that the English occupation forces have set up a naval base to protect this flow of war supplies. Rebel privateers do seek to disrupt the flow of supplies by capturing cargoes from ships on
the Great South Bay heading for the New York city harbor through Fire Island Inlet.
It’s after the revolution ends that pressure grows on the Manor of St. George, widely viewed as pro-English during the revolutionary war, to divest its land holdings. A new revolutionary consciousness is in the air and the hold over entities associated with the defeated English King are fair game in the new American state of mind.
The concrete result is a new concession is made by the owners of the Manor of St. George in the person of Henry Smith. A new lottery is held and this time the “twenty yeomen” of Brookhaven arise. They will gain property rights over western Fire Island from Long Cove to the Fire Island Inlet in 1789.
Within this land arrangement the future Water Island area is included.
Like the earlier 55 land owners of the land carved out of the eastern portion of Long Cove years earlier they have communal rights to pasture and graze cattle over the land of a neighbor. This time though the span is from Long Cove west to the Fire Island Inlet.
From at least this period of time until circa 1878 cattle will be landed on the bay side of Fire Island in such areas as modern day FI Pines then known with the right on point place name of Head and Horns. They would graze the meadow lands in this area, eventually grazed west to the area of the Fire Island inlet where they were shipped back to Long Island for sale.
There isn’t any direct evidence that Water Island was included in this grazing area but this was the activity occurring nearby at the very least.
Along with the cattle grazing another influence is about to appear. It’s a societal response to an issue on both the bay and ocean sides of Fire Island: ship safety. The Fire Island coast is on the path of transatlantic shipping from Europe to the New York city harbor.
The waters of the Atlantic Ocean are turbulent. Wrecks occur frequently with economic loss to property owners and loss of human life as well.
The solution first appears in the form of volunteer run life saving huts. Bellport gets one in 1849, Blue Point in 1855, and Lone Hill in 1855. The intervention is not seen as effective as hoped for and in 1871 a lifesaving service is created with paid staff, permanent buildings, and formal governmental supervision. The initial stations are then upgraded; Bellport, Blue Point and Lone Hill are all on increased operational levels in the same year 1872.
One aspect of that enhanced operation: regular beach patrols by crewmen from the stations bring a minimal law and order presence to an area of Fire Island completely before a wilderness and absent any sense of law and order.
Into the Water island area now come crews to staff the three stations. A nine-month season also requires re-supply and people to do that. Some if not all of the stations also become tourist attractions as visitors from the main land come to see them and their crews.
At Lone Hill a informal fishing area also develops also drawing tourism. There can be no doubt that after 1872 a now steady stream of persons are visiting a previously hardly visited area of Fire Island including the future Water Island area.
Alongside this development there is also a continuing impact from the cattle grazing In time the cattle grazing activity required some minimal infrastructure. Circa 1858 first John Homan builds a house on the bay coast of present-day Davis Park. In time he and later his brother Daniel then followed by John Brewster Smith and John Davenport Jett and their families will use that house later called Old House as a base to patrol cattle from grazing too far east of Long Cove out of the land within the portion owned by the twenty yeomen.
John Brewster Smith and John Davenport Jett become as well the first pioneers of this area including the future Water Island area when they not only rustle cattle but also harvest sea weed that is dried on racks located on the fire island beach and sold as straw for home insulation among other purposes.
They both too are expert salvagers of wrecks on the bay and ocean coast as well. If there was anyone walking the area of future Water Island in this time period it was John Smith and John Jett and their family members. This area was within their zone of hard scrabble existence.
They lived in two houses, near to each other, almost two dozen family members between the two families at a time when conditions were primitive and contact with civilization meant a journey across the bay. There was no else around them until the arrival of the life saving crews.
In time the Smith-Jett presence will meld into the fabric of the life saving station presence. John Smith has oxen that pull a cart to harvest sea weed and salvaged goods from the ocean wrecks. He also provides haulage services for the life saving stations too from time to time.
This is an intersection of influences begun in 1789, amplified again in a major way in 1872.
It’s in the 1870s that attention to Fire Island, its eastern portion, begins to occur. The rail road has come to Sayville and Patchogue in 1869. The flow of New York city residents to Fire Island changes. Before then the last stop on the rail road had been Babylon for some years the one and only gateway to Fire Island. Across from Babylon the Surf Hotel had been built in the late 1850s but was expanded right after the Civil war in 1865 and began to boom.
From the train station by horse driven shuttle from it to the Babylon dock and regular ferry service the masses from the city went to Fire Island. This is on its western end near the Fire Island Inlet and near the Fire Island light house.
Once the rail extended further east hamlets from Sayville to Bellport began to see a boom in hotel building to house guests to the Great South bay area of Long Island.
And when they arrive Fire Island looks good to visit. Locals too have by now gotten into the same mind set.
This is the age of sail after all. The Great South bay is a great economic engine for those who live on the southern coast of Long Island. There are oysters to harvest, clams to be dug, crabs to be caught, plentiful fish in its waters. And this is the age too when many people have boats to do all these things meaning that local residents can get to Fire Island on their own.
And they go to fish, hunt, picnic, and cross the dunes to swim in the ocean surf.
What’s missing from all of this is what western Fire Island already had in the form of the Surf hotel: a place to eat, get drinks, day trip while swimming in either the still waters of the bay or the more adventurous ocean surf.
This slowly changes because regular ferry service to eastern fire island, already a staple far to the west, begins to take root.
It changes too because new places to visit begin to appear on Fire Island too.
In 1874 the Patchogue Advance advertises the Long Cove house where there is dining, and dancing and mentions that ferry service will bring visitors to it.
In 1877 Isaac C. Bedell opens the Ocean Grove Pavilion in what will become Cherry Grove just a few years later. This in a few years will become the Cherry Grove House and in later years the Cherry Grove hotel.
Fire Island by 1877 is in a process of historic change. It’s wilderness status, and its agrarian past too is now transforming: tourism already begun on its western end is now about to explode on its eastern end.
It’s in this context that Water Island begins to form in 1877.
Prevailing View of the Early History of Water Island
There isn’t a lot of written history about Water Island. And what has existed in some cases has been diminished by loss as time has erased all but the dead-end traces of the work of prior writers.
Water Island’s history does get included generally in surveys of larger topics such as the history of Long Island or Fire Island as a whole. There have been articles that also have alluded to or provided more details about its history. There are only a few authors who have written dedicated histories of Water Island to serve as any kind of reference and consequently that history has often been borrowed by other writers as described above as a go to source for the early history of Water Island including this author.
For the purposes of this historical narrative three sources have been drawn from.
Water Island: its history, land and people by Hewlett R. Bishop and Fred B. Jones. (1986)
(That book incorporates a contribution from former Brookhaven Town historian Osborne Shaw for facts about the early history of Water Island.)
Water Island / compiled by Fred B. Jones. (2007)
The above two cited sources are books. They are not online but generally can found in the reference section of local libraries.
The third source is an historical study of Fire Island: HISTORIC RESOURCE STUDY FIRE ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE LONG ISLAND, N.Y. by Laraine Fletcher and Ellen Kintz (1979).
This is a study published by the Fire Island National Seashore.
There is an online link for that document: http://npshistory.com/publications/fiis/hrs.pdf
That history offers a more comprehensive view of all the communities on Fire Island but does contain a dedicated chapter about the development of Water Island with important references in several portions of the study to Water Island from time to time in other sections of the study.
One important way that the 1979 study does differ from the two dedicated books is its focus on an analysis of land ownership history.
These three sources coincide with a basically similar description of the early history of Water Island that finds its best rendition of same in Chapter 2 of the 1986 Bishop-Jones Water Island history with a contribution to that work by former Brookhaven Town historian Osborne Shaw.
THE BISHOP-JONES-SHAW NARRATIVE
It’s fair to say that it’s the Bishop-Jones-Shaw historical account of the early history of Water Island that forms the accepted early history of Water Island today.
Osborne Shaw begins his account of the early history of Water Island by discussing the Jonathan map of 1878.
23 Shaw says about it: “The Sammis map of 1878 shows the Water Island Hotel on the bayside. This was Daniel Thurber’s bay hotel, which was built circa 1870.”
In another section of the book (not necessarily attributed to Osborne Shaw anymore) some more early history is described as follows: “The hotels started at Water Island on or about 1870. The first recorded one was Daniel Thurber’s hotel, destroyed by fire in 1880. It was nearer to the bay than the ocean.
The second hotel (called the Pavilion) was also Daniel Thurber’s. It was located in the same area but nearer the ocean and it was built circa 1890.”
And there is one additional reference to the Sammis map: "On the same map there is a “plus” sign mark indicating a house which by the position of the map should represent the original George Steel house”
In those sentences can be found the core basis that represents the accepted early history of Water Island:
The Thurber house is presented serving informally as something like a hotel for perhaps a decade, ended by a fire with a rebuild thereafter.
It’s a short narrative line that goes pretty much from point A to point B in an uncomplicated manner.
It’s an appealing tale that sounds plausible.
It’s also not completely true.
All these years later, since the above narrative was put into public view, there is now new information that adds to the facts known at the time. These facts now allow for a better analysis to be made about the origin period of early Water Island.
To do that what follows is a time line of presently known facts with comment about those facts.
The Four Newspaper Accounts of 1878 There are four newspaper reports in 1878 that exist from two newspapers that provides a lot of information about how Water Island became founded.
On this date the Patchogue Advance, in its Patchogue section, ran this short but historically important news account: “Richard Silsbe we understand will take charge of Water Island House on the beach this summer. Quite a large number attended this new
resort last season and we are sure, if properly conducted this season, a still larger number will while away many pleasant hours there”
Comment: This article is the missing piece of the early history of Water Island. It establishes that Richard Silsbe is the first business owner in Water Island not Daniel Thurber. It refers back to 1877 as the origin date for this “new” business in 1878 too. By doing so it also establishes the foundation year of Water Island: 1877.
Universally, up to now, it’s the August 10th 1878 account of Water Island that appeared in the pages of the Patchogue Advance that has been used to establish the earliest founding period of Water Island by many prior historical reporters.
This is what was reported: “Water Island has achieved a large degree of well-deserved popularity this season under the management of its present proprietor Mr. Richard Silsbe. In has many attractions and is daily visited by hundreds. Dick, is an especial favorite and at no watering place in the country can be procured a better clam roast and chowder and a better cup of tea or coffee or any of the plain dishes usually served up with such resorts. On Thursday last he entertained two hundred people.”
Comment: In the past it has been this August news account upon which most of the speculation about the early history of Water Island has previously depended. That has occurred because only till recently it was the only reported newspaper account to refer to.
And, out of context with the March news account now published anew, it left an inference of some past unknown period of operation for the Silsbe resort. This reading opened the door for speculation as to when the Silsbe business actually began and an origin point for Water Island too.
But that was not the only report in the pages of the Patchogue Advance that appeared in that year. Now this previously unknown article is added to the newspaper accounts of 1878.
In the Patchogue section of the 9/7/1878 edition the Patchogue Advance reported: “Silsbe’s Water Island Resort has been the favorite spot for many a pleasure
seeker during the past summer, and, indeed none have gone away dissatisfied. Sunday Schools have picnicked there and secular gatherings have clustered around his tables or tripped the light fantastic too to the strains of sweet music.”
Comment: These three news reports provide this information.
There is no mention of any overnight accommodations as a hotel would provide. Instead, people are invited to picnic, listen to music (dance by implication), and enjoy meals and nonalcoholic beverages at “tables” on the grounds of the resort.
Richard Silsbe, not Daniel Thurber is identified as the proprietor of the business identified as a “resort” not a hotel.
None of these newspaper accounts describe the Silsbe “resort” building but the last newspaper account of 1878 about Water Island is about to provide some information on that subject.
The Fire of 1878
On 12-15-1878 the Brooklyn Eagle published this short news account:
“On Thursday morning the dwelling house of Captain Silsbee at Water Island, was destroyed by fire. The family had left it for the winter. John Jett, who was in charge, got up and made a fire, and then went back again. When he got out of bed again it was to jump out of a window to save his life. He did not have a stitch of clothing, and such things as he had been permitted to remain in the house were with it consumed. The loss is estimated at $1,600, and there is $900 insurance”
While conducting new research for this narrative it turns out that there is a newspaper account explaining where house owner Capt. Richard Silsbe was during the fire: far away on the ocean waters.
From the 12-14-1878 edition of the Patchogue Advance this report:
“The ‘Minnie Still’ Capt. Richard D. Silsbe, from Virginia, reported on Cape May, N.J. loaded with oysters. Capt. Lewis Baker, owner of the wrecked ‘Ida. B. Silsbe’ has a one sixth interest in the ‘Minnie Smith’.”
Comment: this December 1878 newspaper article reveals the Water Island House operated by Richard Silsbe was based from his beach home in Water Island. It was a two-story house that met the qualifications of a “resort” not a hotel.
There is in fact actually a standard for distinguishing between a hotel and a resort in use at the time that relates to the definition of the term “pavilion”.
Since the term “pavilion” will be appearing often later it useful to look at this timely definition.
In an 7-15-1888 the Patchogue Advance published an article titled “Patchogue as a Summer Resort”. In the article the writer conducts a survey of pavilions and hotels in and around Patchogue including Water Island.
The writer under the subtitle “Pavilion” writes these descriptive words defining just what a Pavilion is:
“Resorts where excursionists can spend a day, and receive the necessary conveniences and comforts…”
Richard Silsbe did not identify his business as the Water Island Pavilion. It was instead identified as the Water Island House which it is now known was his actual beach home that served another commercial purpose: a resort that was open to the public.
FERRY TRAFFIC TO WATER ISLAND 1877-78
An impression that can be had from these early news accounts of the Water Island House is that they reflect a high turn out of people visiting Water Island. Some good questions to ask would be why, and how this occurred.
In the years prior to 1877 it’s the Surf Hotel on the western end of Fire Island that has dominated tourism. It’s now in 1877 at Water Island that this de facto monopoly begins to face its first real competition. The Water Island House is new and enjoyed the buzz that always comes with being the new club in town.
And for residents of Brookhaven Town and even Islip it was a shorter ride across the bay to get to then traveling west. Something else was also beginning to take shape. D.S.S. Sammis Surf Hotel owner didn’t just dominate the resort business on Fire Island. He also dominated the ferry service to Fire Island as well. He had his own fleet of ships and established the first licensed ferry line under his control to Fire Island as well
It put competitors at a disadvantage. That changed slowly. In 1877 the Bellport Bay House was all the rage. Its owner had a 500-foot pier at the business and he was running a twice daily packet to stops along the south shore including Fire Island.
In 1878 over in Bay Shore a ferry service was launched from there to Bellport presumably the Bellport Bay House and Fire Island included along the way.
Between the fledging ferry services, privately held boats, and no doubt some free lancers providing on demand boating to Fire Island, the infrastructure to bring people over to Water Island in considerable numbers did exist.
Brooklyn Eagle 7-25—1877 “Bellport and Blue Point: https://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn83031151/1877-07-25/ed-1/seq-3/#date1=07%2F01%2F1877&index=1&date2=07%2F31%2F1877&words=FIRE+Fire+ISLAND+Island&to_year2=1877&searchType=advanced&sequence=0&from_year2=1877&proxdistance=5&page=1&county=Kings&rows=20&ortext=&proxtext=fire+island&phrasetext=&andtext=&dateFilterType=range&SearchType2=prox5
The August 1878 Patchogue Advance article previously recounted has not been the only basis upon which a claim that Water Island was founded in 1878 has rested on. In 1878 the Jonathan Sammis map of 1878 was published and within its borders there was a survey notation of a “Water Island Hotel”.
The question that now has to be addressed is how that fact is to be reconciled from the multiple newspaper accounts that have been related already that suggest a different history for the building icon found in the Jonathan Sammis map of 1878?
The short answer is that these seemingly unreconcilable facts can be reconciled. That reconciliation can be arrived at by doing something that hasn’t been done before: an objective analysis of the Sammis map of 1878 beginning with the fact that the original copy does not appear to exist at least at this time.
There is the official copy on file copy 310 in the office of the Suffolk County Clerk that has served as the standard version referred to by historians. It is a copy of the 1878 map by the persons “Vieland and Wortendjke” of Jersey City who recopied the original Jonathan Sammis map by 9-10-1883.
The 1883 map has this notation within its borders:
“Replacing Lost Map 310 filed 7-16-1878”
This establishes that the “Sammis Map of 1878”, presently absent from historical view, may require an asterisk “as amended 1883”. The next question then being whether any such amendment or amendments impacted the representation purported for 1878.
And that question is answered by indicating that are such amendments that do impact the history of Water Island including the inclusion of an icon denoting a Water Island hotel.
Because of its size, once rolled out to full length it is more than six feet long, the Jonathan map has been reshaped into ten sections by the Suffolk County Clerk’s office.
Online each section can be viewed separately. The section relating to Water Island is panel 8 that appears on page 68 of this study: http://npshistory.com/publications/fiis/hrs.pdf
While most of the original Jonathan Sammis map appears faithfully reproduced there are some notable amendments that can be found.
In panel 1 of 10 this important notation previously noted appears about the1883 copy:
“Replacing Lost Map 310 filed 7-16-1878”
In that same panel this notation also appears “Green+ors v. Sammis + ors Action file No. 1277A 1880”
That would appear to describe the legal action of Green v. Sammis out of which the Jonathan Sammis map arose in the first place.
This is an 1880 reference appearing in an “1878” map that certainly suggests the “1878” map is not to be taken literally.
In panel 6 there is a note on the map referring to a 1947 deed abandonment.
Again, this is more than suggestive that the “1878” map contains information not completely from that period of time.
And right on point for this analysis in panel section 8 Lot 33, which is one of the several lots of land that comprise the original dimensions of Water Island, there is a notation that 506 feet of land has been transferred from L. Van Zandt to R.H.H. Steele. The notation is dated “July/82”.
This is truly on point. The “1878” map exactly in the location of modern-day Water Island contains a plain, visible, incontrovertible reference to an event that occurred in 1882.
The “1878” map already contains an alteration from 1882 and since it does its entirely possible that the designation of a Water Island Hotel in that map reflects an unacknowledged change made in 1883.
The 1883 change did reflect accurately that there was indeed a Water Island hotel but in reality, that did not occur until 1883 not 1878.
That claim is supported by this documentary reference:
On 7/7/1883 the first of several ads for the now Water Island Hotel is published in the Patchogue Advance.
This is the full text of the ad: “Water Island Hotel Archie Perkenson Proprietor The hotel is situated on the South Beach 4 and half miles south of Patchogue. Boarders taken by the day or week. First class bathing and pleasant rooms for pic-nic or dancing parties. A first class bar attached to the hotel. Meals gotten up at all hours. Clam chowders, roast claims etc., always on hand”
This news account documents the first use of the term Water Island hotel and it occurs in 1883 not before.
Jonathan Sammis was a competent surveyor. There is every reason to believe that if his original 1878 map was available today to look at it would contain some kind of icon noting a building he would have associated with Richard Silsbe in some way that he mapped when he surveyed western Fire island in 1877. So why isn’t it there?
That leads to this question: would a copyist felt authorized to amend an earlier notation by him that to the copyist eyes now needed an update?
That is of course an answer that only those alive then could answer now but there is some evidence that could have occurred. That evidence arises from the other amended “Jonathan Sammis map of 1878”, the amended map of 1912 recopied by “R.V. Leik and Jos. McGinnty assist”.
That 1912 copy makes no amendment impacting Water Island. But the copyists do make changes impacting Cherry Grove. In the Jonathan map of 1878 amended 1883, the now standard copy, a building identified as in existence in Lot 26 (cherry grove) was identified by Jonathan Sammis with the designation “I. Bedell”. The icon denoting the Isaac Bedell building says so. And Lot 26 is now designated as Cherry Grove.
So based on current information in 1912 the copyists of the “1878” map did feel authorized to make changes that made the map depictions more accurate. It’s an unacknowledged amendment process of the original map content. If they did that in 1912 it certainly could equally have been done in 1883.
There is no record yet found that indicates exactly when Jonathan Sammis conducted his survey. But a newspaper account from the Patchogue Advance in the late summer of 1877 documents that the Ocean Grove Pavilion was open for business in Cherry Grove. And an early summer account in the same paper one year later documents that same business was open with Isaac Bedell managing it.
This does strongly infer that a dynamic was occurring in Cherry Grove, perhaps similar to the one in Water Island in 1877 namely that Jonathan Sammis’ mapping results was but a snap shot of a moment of time just before other changes were imminent.
More to the point however is this. In the 1912 map version the copyists went beyond what Sammis had mapped and this time identified the building in Lot 26 as being identified with “Isaac Bedell” and Lot 26 was now renamed more correctly as “Cherry Grove”.
There is some precedent therefore to believe that map copyists did feel authorized to make what they felt were more accurate corrections to the “original” Sammis map when they were at work recopying it.
That is the most plausible explanation for why the “1878” map does not denote a Water Island Pavilion. Jonathan Sammis could not have surveyed a building that did not exist but he would have surveyed what building did exist (i.e., something attributable to Richard Silsbe).
In 1883 his earlier notation (whatever it was) was updated to reflect accurately the existence of the building that did exist in Water Island in 1883. It was not any building associated with Richard Silsbe, that was burned to the ground by the end of 1878. It was the Water Island Hotel which at that time was a relatively new building first called the Water Island Pavilion only constructed one year earlier.
The ultimate determinative factor that would decide this issue is of course the discovery of the original unamended map of 1878. But until that occurs the weight of cumulative facts i.e., newspaper accounts, and qualifications of the “1878” map bends in this direction:
Water Island was founded in 1877 when Richard Silsbe opened the Water Island House to the public as a resort using his beach home as a pavilion until it burned down late in 1878. 40
Green v. Sammis
After having spent a considerable amount of time assessing the Jonathan Sammis map it would be useful to explain its role in the history of Water Island outside of locating existing buildings in 1878.
Green v. Sammis (not Jonathan Sammis as defendant) was a property law suit that began in 1871. At issue was who owned land in western Fire Island from roughly Long Cove in the east to the Fire Island Inlet in the west.
More than a hundred land claims were reduced down to 78 lots that were recognized by the court as legitimate.
At the beginning of this history there was a discussion of the Twenty Yeomen of Brookhaven and the land arrangement of 1789 that created twenty equal shares of ownership. It also created equal grazing rights and other rights of trespass by one owner onto the land of another.
It’s the Green v. Sammis case decision that abolishes this arrangement by creating defined ownership and defined property lines. The privilege of trespass on another person’s property for example to graze cattle is also ended bringing a practical end to the cattle grazing history of Fire Island too.
The Jonathan Sammis map was a tool to illustrate those claims by showing not just buildings on western Fire Island but land boundaries. The Jonathan Sammis map is therefore important because it showed how the court fixed the land boundaries for Water Island that would govern original land ownership.
This information about land ownership compiled from the previously mentioned FINS FI study from which more details can be drawn:
Out of the 78 Lots created by the court in the Green v. Sammis case two relate to Water Island.
Lot 32 owned by Nelson Danes. Lot 33 owned by Leopold Van Zandt and R.H. Steel.
FIRST FOUNDERS CONCLUSION
The newspaper articles and discussion of the Sammis map and the Green v. Sammis case form a mass of information that along with some additional facts and analysis point in this direction: Nelson Danes and Richard Silsbe are the first founders of Water Island.
This is why that claim is made.
While the four newspaper articles of 1878 document that there was a building in Water Island from sometime in 1877 and all during 1878 those articles do not document who owned the building with the same exactitude. None explain the origin of the building. It did exist in 1877 at some point in time. But was it built earlier? And the other key questions are who owned it and who actually built it?
There is a mapping history for the Water Island area. Mapping was conducted in 1858: Chace et.al. The Beers mapping occurred in 1873. Lastly there was a coastal survey done in 1874 (Hosemer and Devitt). Those maps did include mapping of homes that were found at the time of the various surveys.
Up to 1874 no homes in Water Island are found as existent within in any of those maps. That’s one clue. That puts a probable origin date beginning in 1875 at the earliest.
The Sammis map of 1878 unfortunately does not provide a reliable reference point. The 1878 Sammis map, the original copy, is lost. The version that appears as an 1878 map is actually a map amended in 1883. It does accurately map the Water Island hotel that was in Water Island in that year, originally a newly built and newly erected in Water Island as the Water Island Pavilion in 1882.
That building cannot be the Water Island House of 1877-78 since it’s documented that it was burned down in 1878.
If the map history is not reliable then this assessment has to use a different strategy: find the person who owned the land the one person lawfully able to improve it with a building. The thinking here is that by doing so by finding the owner it’s then possible to find when building construction was possible and with that a founding date.
That leads back to the 1871 Green v. Sammis lawsuit.
It was about who owned land in western fire island including Water Island. Nelson Danes was not an original defendant in that suit in 1871 but by April 1877 he was already a part of the case earlier joining it to protect his land rights. That’s known because by April 1877 the court recognized his land claims on Fire Island including Lot 32 (Water Island) that same month. Interestingly neither Danes nor the court made any reference to any capital improvements in its decision. No beach home, no pavilion, no hotel is noted as in existence on his property by that date.
But the absence of those claims would strongly seem to suggest an origin point for the building: post April 1877.
Could Nelson Danes have built a house in Water Island in a short period of time after the court’s decision? The answer is yes. Firstly, after April 1877 he would now be secure in his land rights giving him the confidence to invest time and money in a building.
Building on Fire Island has to be seen in the context of a different time and era. It’s a less complicated one requiring little governmental involvement. Home owners built at their own risk but they could build not subject to numerous layers of approvals, permits etc. It was the insurance company and what it wanted that provided a basic standard for buildings.
How long would it have taken to build a house? The answer is: not long. There is a reference point to judge how long building construction on Water Island could take. In May 1889 Daniel Thurber decided to build the Atlantic House in Water Island. The building was finished by mid-June and the business opened in the space of just a few weeks. By today’s expectation for new building project this today would be considered amazing. In the late 1800s it appears to be do-able.
By the summer of 1877 Jonathan Sammis was busy surveying FI to map the land claims awarded by the court in April 1877. It is entirely possible that when Jonathan Sammis mapped Water Island in the summer of 1877 there was a building to map and he did although now his exact results still remain to be determined since his original map was lost.
Or it was built shortly after he left the area but based on all the foregoing there does not seem to be any reason to credibly believe it existed before 1877.
Did Richard Silsbe have any ownership role in the building of the Water Island House? There is no evidence he did. Richard Silsbe was not a party to the Green v. Sammis lawsuit at any time meaning he never presented any claim of building ownership nor land ownership during that period of time.
Consequently, whatever other agreements existed between Nelson Danes and Richard Silsbe for the operation of the Water Island House as a business and his residency of that building as a “beach house” he was a tenant of Nelson Danes, building and land owner.
One other indirect proof of that status arises after the fire of 1878 burns down the Water Island House. Richard Silsbe never returns to repair or rebuild it a behavior consistent with a tenant, non-owner of land and home.
There is one additional alternative analysis that has to be acknowledged about the arrangement between the two men that might have governed their mutual Water Island interests. In 2019 Cherry Grove’s historian penned an article titled “Lot 26 and the Founding of Cherry Grove”. In part it touched on early land practices on Fire Island and Cherry Grove specifically. It has some relevance to this discussion about early Water Island land practices too.
He introduced to the public this legal mechanism. “In civil law a “usufruct” is the right granted an individual to use and enjoy the property of another provided they care for and maintain it and/or pay rent”.
In such a scenario Richard Silsbe could have built a beach house in Water Island instead of Nelson Danes and then operated it as a pavilion resort. His rental agreement with Nelson Danes could have otherwise accounted for the use and ownership of the beach house he built. That would have created a no risk no effort situation for Nelson Danes with Richard Silsbe shouldering any risk that might have existed from an agreement gone wrong in the future.
That dynamic still leaves Nelson Danes in a primary role. For all practical historical reasons as history now records if such a usufruct agreement did exist it was extinguished by the same flames that burned down Richard Silsbe’s beach home in early December 1878.
But it’s a useful legal concept to remember. There will be a second beach home, John Ferguson’s, in Water Island appearing soon in its history in a time and circumstances where it too might have fallen under this doctrine.
The end result of this analysis is this: Water Island’s first two founders are Nelson Danes and Richard Silsbe. Capt. Richard Silsbe is the first business operator in Water Island. He is the proprietor of the Water Island House from 1877-78. The building functions as both a pavilion that is a resort and as the beach home for Richard Silsbe and his family. The building was most probably erected in 1877.
It remains unknown the exact relationship between Nelson Danes and Richard Silsbe. It is possible that as land owner Nelson Danes constructed a new building on his property and then rented it to Richard Silsbe for both personal and business use. In that instance Richard Silsbe would have been a formal tenant of Nelson Danes. Or the two persons may have simply reached a mutually agreeable arrangement permitting Silsbe to build a structure on Nelson’s Dane land for personal and business use on an appropriate rental basis with some future arrangement to account for the building ownership (e.g., lease with unfiled deed for building and land).
There is no documentation proving the survival of whatever agreement the two men had after the building burned down by accident and the business being operated by Richard Silsbe ceased to operate thereafter.
Richard Silsbe and his family are the first documented residents of Fire Island and the business he operated is Water Island’s first business as well.
General Events 1879- 1882
In the prior section of this narrative now the twists, turns, and tangles of land ownership, and map scholarship can be left behind for something a bit more straight forward. That is the mostly newspaper dominated documents of the early history of Water Island for the next several years.
Ahead the earlier time line and comment formula to report out this history.
Consistent with the loss of a venue due to fire in Water Island in the last month of 1878 there are no news reports or advertisements or other references about any business of any kind in Water Island this year.
But from 1880 to 1882 there will be newspaper accounts that shed a lot of light about what kind of building or buildings took the place of the burned-out home of Capt. Richard Silsbe.
Two years after the fire of 1878 in Water Island the Patchogue Advance now begins to publish advertisements for Water Island.
In its 6/16/1880 edition, one of many published that same summer, an ad appears for now the named “Water Island Pavilion” which is the first known use of that term in connection with a Water Island business.
Here is the full text of that ad:
“Water Island Pavilion on the Beach… opposite Patchogue… On and after June 21st the above well-known SUMMER RESORT will be again opened for the reception and accommodation of excursionists from all parts of the Island. Surf and Still water bathing and all conveniences for pick-nicking and dancing, music constantly at the Pavilion. Bathing suits at reasonable rates. Boats will run to the dock at Water Island Pavilion from foot of Ocean Ave all hours.
The managers will spare no pains to make Water Island Pavilion a highly respectable place of resort. LOSEE AND FERGUSON”
The ad catalogues a pretty extensive list of activities that can be enjoyed at the Water Island Pavilion.
There is no mention made of hotel accommodations.
Prior to the publication of the ad no news accounts explaining the circumstances of the re-opening of this kind of business have yet to be discovered. There is an indirect allusion to an absence of a year in this kind of operation in the words: “will be opened again”.
Richard Silsbe is no longer a proprietor on Water Island.
The new proprietors are John Ferguson identified in an 11/17/1877 Patchogue business directory appearing in the Patchogue Advance as an “oyster dealer”.
H. Clay Losee is the other proprietor. In the same business directory, he is identified as a “saloon” and “billiards” operator in Patchogue on Main St.
In sum newspaper accounts so far (1878, and 1880) document buildings in Water Island that are not hotels but instead houses hosting transient guests without any promised overnight accommodations.
A key question to ask is: where did the Water Island Pavilion arise from? In the past research answering this question appeared to reach a dead end. That is not true however because hiding in not so plain sight there is an answer to that question, or at least to part of it.
The answer is that the first Water Island Pavilion was the beach home of John Ferguson. This news account that explains why it can be documented now where the first Water Island Pavilion arose from.
In the 9-17-1881 edition of the Southside Signal, a Babylon based period newspaper, a very rare first-person account of a visit to Water Island is published. It’s of interest for any number of reasons beginning with this comment from its author about the Ferguson building in Water Island. He says John Ferguson “keeps a beach house there with accommodations for bathing, eating, and dancing”.
This account documents that the first Water Island Pavilion was operating out of a home being used as a pavilion for “bathing, eating and dancing”. And it’s John Ferguson’s.
There is one other development impacting Water Island of note. On 6-15-1880 the “Water Island Lot Association is formed”. It’s a company formed to promote “the planting, cultivation, taking up and protection of oysters”. Not all oysters but those from lots held by the corporation owners who have valid oyster leases. The trustees of the company are: Joseph Brown, Jacob B. Thurber (brother of Daniel Thurber), George Davis, Daniel G. Gerard and Moses Marvin.
Comment: it’s by 1880 that Water Island is back on its feet with the re-establishment of a private business serving the beach going public. The evolution of business activity moves from the Richard Silsbe based beach house/pavilion to John Ferguson’s beach house/pavilion building.
In 1881 as the summer season arrives advertisements for Water Island begin to appear. In the 6/25/1881 edition of the Patchogue Advance advertisements begins to appear that will be repeated in other editions. 47
Here is the full text for the 6/25/1881 advertisement:
“Water Island Pavilion This well-known and popular summer resort is now open for the reception of sailing. Picnic or other parties. It is fully appointed for their convenience having a good dock and splendid Dancing platform and Dining Hall.
Also, a private Sitting Room and Dining Hall. Refreshments of all kinds including claim roasts, chowders etc. as well as the usual beverages will be kept constantly at hand. Cigars, tobacco and candies and other confectionary in abundance. Music furnished to order.
Boats will run to the Pavilion from foot of Ocean Avenue and Green’s dock, Sayville. John Ferguson Proprietor, dated 6-11-1881”
The ad provides considerably more detail about what the Water Island Pavilion has to offer guests. It now is also under the sole proprietorship of John Ferguson.
There is now a practical ferry service from two locations to Water Island one from Patchogue and the other from Sayville.
The ad does not however describe a hotel nor make any promise of overnight accommodations for visitors.
This edition of the South Side Signal has already been referred to for its values as a first-person account of a visit to Water Island.
On his visit the account writer gets first-hand service from John Ferguson’s wife who serves up some chowder from a kettle on the beach. He does not stay overnight, traveling by small boat back and forth from the mainland for his two trips to Water Island.
There is also a prescient comment that John Ferguson’s days as a Water Island proprietor may be ending as he considering a move to Long Cove.
It's an evocative account of the early days of Water Island:
It’s now in 1882 that the first documented references to a hotel begin to appear in newspaper reports about Water Island.
On 1-21-1882, in a story about Patchogue, the Southside Signal reports the entrance of a new person into the history of Water Island: Andrew Jackson Smith. The paper reports that he is framing a new two-story building that will be 30 feet by 100 feet when done. It is going to be scowed, that is moved by boat as freight across the Great South Bay from Patchogue to Water Island when done.
See Patchogue section of this edition lower right hand corner:
On 3-25-1882 the Brooklyn Eagle tells its readers about Andrew Smith’s project for Water Island. It also reports that the “the frame is now ready” for the new hotel building he is proposing to site. In the article titled “Patchogue Developments” that includes a mention towards the end of the article about future Water Island developments too see the full report.
Interestingly it also reports that Daniel Thurber is building a house but in Patchogue not Water Island: https://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn83031151/1882-03-25/ed-1/seq-1/
In the Patchogue Section of the Patchogue Advance a short but relevant progress report about the new building: it has arrived in Water Island.
“Mr. Jackson Smith has now raised his Water Island Pavilion, and expects to have it ready for occupancy by the first of July”
But it turns out that Mr. Jackson Smith will beat expectations. The new Water Island Pavilion is open for business by late June. 6/24/1882
On 6/24/1882 an ad appears, again the first of many that summer in the pages of the Patchogue Advance about the opening of the Water Island Pavilion that season.
This is the full text of the ad:
“Water Island Pavilion On the Great South Bay, nearly opposite Patchogue Open June26th. The undersigned desires to inform his friends and the public in general that on June 26th he will open his new and handsomely arranged Summer resort on the Great South Beach known as the Water Island Pavilion.
Within 30 minutes of Patchogue landing foot of Ocean Avenue. Every accommodation day or night for boating, bathing, and fishing and dancing. Meals to order on short notice. Meats, shell and other fish, constantly kept and furnished as desired. Every inducement offered to Sunday school and Church parties and prices in every instance moderate and satisfactory.
Boats run constantly to Water Island, from foot of Ocean Avenue, and from Sayville, Capt. Jarvis Ketcham will run a packet. Archie Perkinson Proprietor”
On the above date appears in the Patchogue Advance titled “Patchogue as a Summer Resort” that also surveys nearby Water Island. The paper reports that Archie Perkinson is the new proprietor for the Water Island Pavilion which is “entirely new”.
Comment: As a summary for these 1882 newspaper accounts from various sourced the take away is this.
Although the project end of the Andrew Smith business operation is to open a hotel in Water Island there is nothing that appears in any advertisement or news account that indicates that goal was reached in 1882.
He opened a pavilion consistent with the definition of same provided earlier. Comment:
Once again an old proprietor has been replaced with a new one. John Ferguson gives way to Archie Perkinson. He too has a prior history just like John Ferguson as an oysterman becoming a new hand in the world of hospitality.
For more information about Archer Perkinson see p. 86 from the Reformed History of Cherry Grove (Bogack, 2020) at this link: http://www.fireislandstar.com/cherry-grove-history.html
John Ferguson has now become the proprietor of a new business in Watch Hill to the east of Water Island: the Watch Hill Pavilion as per an advertisement, one of many, that first appears in the pages of the Patchogue Advance in this year.
Also in that paper H. Clay Losee former proprietor of the Water Island Pavilion in 1880 is now the proprietor of the Mascot House in Patchogue as per an ad that appeared that year too in the Patchogue Advance.
And a new person in the mix Andrew Smith who seemingly out of nowhere builds a new hotel building, ships it across the bay and opens it in competition or replacement of the prior Water Island building of whatever dimensions existed in the years 1880 and 1881. This action displaces the prior management and the pre-existing building in one fell swoop.
The Water Island Hotel Arrives
In 1883 Andrew Smith’s new building gets the treatment he had held out for it since early 1882: it opens as an unabashed hotel.
This is the full text of the ad: “Water Island Hotel Archie Perkenson Proprietor. The hotel is situated on the South Beach 4 and half miles south of Patchogue. Boarders taken by the day or week. First class bathing and pleasant rooms for pic-nic or dancing parties. A first class bar attached to the hotel. Meals gotten up at all hours. Clam chowders, roast claims etc., always on hand”
It’s a small ad in the paper but big news. It’s Water Island’s first publicly identified hotel and has something else not previously promised to tourists has also arrived. There is a bar at the hotel. The business owners prior self-imposed prohibition on serving alcohol has ended.
Archie Perkinson has hung on for another year as proprietor and his young son Stewart has surfaced as the new proprietor of the renamed Watch Hill Pavilion now the Surf Pavilion knocking out John Ferguson from that role.
Between father and son the two Perkinsons dominate the hospitality trade in the two locations of Water Island and Watch Hill.
Comment: one fire and two prior buildings before the Water Island Hotel makes its entrance into the early history of Water Island.
Rewind: Summary of 1877-1883
Before this history moves on to 1884 and beyond this quick review of the years 1877-1883 as already reported although with one important 1881 addition.
Capt. Richard Silsbe manages the Water Island House as a resort open to the public from a building fairly characterized as a beach home/pavilion. It is on property owned by Nelson Danes.
Capt. Richard Silsbe manages a resort in Water Island open to the public. He is the first person to do so and his home is the resort location for the first business in Water Island. Capt. Richard Silsbe operates his resort business in Water Island for a successful second year.
In December the building housing the business burns down by accident.
The Water Island Pavilion opens under that name for the first time. It is managed by John Ferguson and H. Clay Losee. Its most probable location is the Water Island beach house of John Ferguson.
Andrew Jackson Smith wins the right from Brookhaven Town to build a 600-foot wharf (dock) at Water Island.
See the Corrector (Sag Harbor) article below in “Long Island Items”: https://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn83031606/1881-01-22/ed-1/seq-2/
Later this year John Ferguson alone continues to manage the Water Island Pavilion
In early 1882 Andrew J. Smith announced he has commissioned the construction of a new building that will be used as a hotel in Water Island. The new building is eventually completed and transported across the Great South Bay and raised in Water Island by June.
In June Archie Perkinson becomes the proprietor of the Water Island Pavilion replacing John Ferguson.
Advertisements confirm that the Water Island Pavilion is now housed in a new building. However, no hotel accommodations are announced as available to the public. The Water Island Pavilion remains open as in prior years as an eatery, place to bath, place to listen to music and dance among other attractions. Regular ferry service from both Patchogue and Sayville are now advertised.
The Water Island Hotel is now announced and opened as such. The Hotel also announced it has a bar located in the hotel as well the first suggestion of alcoholic drinks that are available for visitors to imbibe. Archie Perkinson remains as proprietor.
Ferry service to Water Island continues to be advertised as well.
Water Island Rises: 1884-1887
In this section what will be looked at will be the continuation of all these influences that converge to push Water Island to become the principal tourist attraction on eastern Fire Island by 1895 eclipsing the Surf Hotel on the end of western Fire Island that for so long has dominated Fire Island tourism.
Included in that narrative will be the facts, perhaps the first time completely told, of the second fire in Water Island in 1888 that had unexpected consequences following its destruction of the second Water Island Pavilion.
The format for doing all of this will be a combined narrative and time line.
This time line begins with few facts to report. Research into these two years has produced very little documentable information. That said there are however some facts that can be shared and an important inference to be drawn from them.
By the end of 1883 Archer Perkinson was finishing his second year as proprietor of first the Water Island Pavilion in 1882 and then under its rebranded name the Water Island Hotel in 1883. Like several other proprietors before him he departs.
In May 1884 the Patchogue Advance reports his arrival in Cherry Grove. It is the beginning of his tenure as a proprietor of Cherry Grove House there.
Along with his wife Elizabeth and his son Frank, Archer Perkinson will spend the remainder of his years on Fire Island in Cherry Grove until his retirement in 1895.
His son Stewart, the proprietor of the Surf Pavilion in Watch Hill also departs and is replaced by John Ferguson who will hold that position for many years to come. (June Patchogue Advance).
He will not re-appear in any newspaper post again until 1895 when he buys his mother's property (Elizabeth Perkinson) in Cherry Grove and replaces both her and Archer her husband in their business in Cherry Grove now his.
Newspaper advertisements in this period about the Water Island Pavilion do not identify its manager. Or so far none have been found that do.
However, what is now set up is a triple constellation of three tourist areas: furthest east Cherry Grove, in the middle Water Island, and to the west of both Watch Hill.
It won’t be long that as between these three tourist destinations that Water Island will come to dominate its two cousins and in fact will also assume the role of the Surf Hotel even further west on Fire Island as the primary destination for local and NYC residents to visit Fire Island by the late 1800s.
On the horizon is the dawning of the golden age of Water Island as a tourist destination for thousands.
The Water Island Pavilion is open but it has competition next door the new White House hotel, Edward Ryder proprietor, has opened. While there are many accounts that attribute its opening in 1890 the summer pages of the Patchogue Advance are flush with advertising for the White House all through the summer season of 1886.
Reputed to be built and designed by Edward Ryder himself with some aesthetically pleasing architectural features its other allure appears to have been it attracted the wealthy elites of Long Island’s south shore for example Robert Barnswell Roosevelt who had an estate in Sayville.
He was the uncle of Theodore Roosevelt a future President of the United States also reputed to have visited the White House in its hay days.
There is an 1897 news account of Robert Barnswell Roosevelt visiting Water Island that now helps to substantiate this past view: “A Queer but Speedy Craft":
The arrival of the White House is also a sign of the popularity of Water Island. There is enough business for two similar establishments to sit by side and cater to the masses each profitably.
In reviewing the Patchogue Advance there are White House ads but only one Pavilion ad that has been found and none elsewhere.
The Fire of 1888
Things are about to change in Water Island in 1888 because once again, ten years after the first fire in Water Island, fire strikes anew.
Before the start of the 1888 season an early morning fire burns down the Water Island Pavilion including nearby new lumber supplies that has been intended for a renovation of the wharf.
Later arson is expected as the cause of the fire.
In a stoke of determined will however Daniel Thurber finds a building to buy in nearby Patchogue, floats it over the bay and re-opens his business early enough to salvage it for the season.
Just to get on the same page the burned out building is the one originally built by Andrew Smith in Patchogue, floated over the bay to Water Island that becomes the new Water Island Pavilion in 1882, and later the Water Island hotel in 1883.
This is the series of news reports that appeared in print in the summer of 1888:
6-13-1888 Brooklyn Eagle “Thurber’s Water Island Pavilion Burned":
On June 28 the Patchogue Advance ran this news account about Daniel’s Thurber’s ultimately successful rescue operation of his Water Island business:
“Capt. Daniel J. Thurber has bought of Mrs. Hiram Newing, the pavilion which stood east of the Mascot House near Little Creek at the bay, and has floated it to Water Island to take the place of the building which was recently burned down there.”
Note: There is an 1888 map of Patchogue which shows the location of a small building east of the Ocean Avenue Hotel and the Mascot House. This may have been the pavilion building that the Patchogue Advance article refers to.
A week later the former Water Island Pavilion has now been rebranded as the “Thurber Hotel” and despite the June fire Daniel Thurber re-opens his business in Water Island. The Thurber Hotel is “now open”.
Daniel Thurber has taken into account the fire of 1888 and he has a new plan.
He plans on moving his “old” building, the Thurber Hotel, to a new location on Water Island. It will be moved from the bay side to the ocean beach side of Water Island. To get on the same page the “old” building is the one that had been in existence near the Great South Bay in Patchogue (origin date presently unknown), and then shipped during the summer of 1888 across the Bay to replace the burned-out Water Island Pavilion a building only 6 years old before being burned down in 1888.
Now it’s going to be picked up again and moved on land to a new site. Where it was once a bay facing building, it will be soon sited to take in ocean views.
70 See Suffolk County News article “Improvements at Water Island”:
Daniel’s Thurber thoughts out loud memorialized for the readers of the Suffolk County News take fruit later in the year but with an added unexpected twist. He opens not one but two businesses for the season of 1889
The Atlantic House Arrives
New research discoveries from the pages of the Patchogue Advance now sheds some light on just how Daniel Thurber’s musings in late January of 1889 actually turned out. And now the story of yet another new building that will figure into the history of Water Island. 71
In the 5/10/1889 “Brevities” section of the Patchogue Advance a small article appears as follows:
“A. Conrad is building a new summer home on Water island for Daniel Thurber. It is being built near the site of the old one and will be opened about June 15”.
To put that account into better context this news account from 5/24/1889 also in the Brevities section of the Patchogue Advance but this one a bit longer:
“Capt. D.J. Thurber and family will go to their new quarters at Water Island June 1st, to prepare for the opening the middle of June. Boss Conrad completed the new hotel last week and Boss O.B. Smith, the great American home mover, goes over this week to move the former kitchen, and the pavilion nearer the hotel. The new location is fine, the view from it, particularly of the ocean being grand. May the season be a good one.”
Consolidating all the information in those two news accounts and looking back at Thurber’s earlier musings in January this is what appears to have occurred.
He did hire a home moving company. It did move the “former kitchen” and the “pavilion”. That term pavilion is all encompassing and almost always refers to a building.
He also built a new building to be used for a hotel.
He also moved his operation closer to the ocean just as he promised earlier in the year. And just for a sense of perspective the distance from the bay to ocean has been reported in other historical accounts at this site to be about 500 feet or roughly one tenth of a mile.
Somewhat amazingly, by today’s expectations, it should be noted is the quick build of what was to be the Atlantic house, the new building. It took only a few weeks to do.
On 6/21/1889 an ad appears in the Patchogue Advance announcing the opening of the Atlantic House in Water Island. Similar ads will run in the Advance throughout the remainder of the season the last one ending on 9-4-1888.
The ad reads “The Atlantic House, Water Island, Opens June 15th. Now ready to accommodate parties and picnics at all hours. Dinners and refreshment served at short notice. Fresh clams, fish, and eels always on hand. Pool tables. Good bathing etc. Come and see me. D. J. Thurber Proprietor June 12th”.
The ad content caps all the preceding news accounts from January to May: the Atlantic hotel has been opened and Daniel Thurber is its proprietor.
Although Daniel Thurber has appeared to have consolidated all these buildings into one location in another newspaper there is a suggestion that he is running not one business in Water Island but two.
Over in the Suffolk County News ads for Thurber’s Hotel and the White House under Ed Ryder will also run during the season ending in the first week of September as well.
No ads for the Atlantic House ever appear in the pages of the Suffolk County News and conversely no ads for Thurber’s Hotel or Ed Ryder’s White house run in the Patchogue Advance in 1889.
This advertisement history does appear inconsistent and for the moment an explanation for it remains elusive. One might think that with so few buildings to account for that it should be relatively easy to keep track of them. Yet when it comes to the Atlantic house that isn’t exactly the case at all.
On point this fact: in just two years Daniel Thurber in a series of ads in the Suffolk County News appear offering for sale the Atlantic House in Water Island at “a bargain”.
Did Daniel Thurber sell the Atlantic House after all, his brand-new building?
There is one account from the son of Stewart Perkinson, already mentioned in this history with a connection to Water Island, that suggests he did. But it’s an incredible tale. As per Marion Perkinson in a brief comment made to a reporter from the Suffolk County News in 1936 his father Stewart first had a hotel in Water Island which he later moved to Cherry Grove the building still part of the Cherry Grove hotel in that year.
Were this tale to be believable it would mean that Stewart had a previous unknown history as hotel owner in Water Island for whatever period of time that was. The only hotel known to be for sale in Stewart’s time period before he settled into Cherry Grove is the Atlantic House in 1891. By coincidence 1891 is the same year that Elizabeth Perkinson, Stewart’s mother, purchased land in her own right in nearby Cherry Grove and it’s the same year she needed a building to site on it.
The Atlantic House could have been moved in the only way it made sense to do so in this time period…back to the bay coast of Water Island then freighted by boat to Cherry Grove not that far away by water. Daniel Thurber had already moved one hotel building by water across the Great South bay by ship. He had the skills to do it again if needed. Did that happen? The answer is not conclusively known but these facts exist to be considered as well.
In early 1895 the Atlantic House is again advertised for sale. But this time its location is in Cherry Grove and Archer Perkinson is selling it. He is Elizabeth Perkinson’s husband. As the advertised seller it’s implied it’s his property to sell. However, he could just as well have been acting as agent for either his wife or his son Stewart too.
A few months later Stewart Perkinson buys all of his mother’s land and buildings in Cherry Grove, the end of his parent’s career there and the beginning of his career in Cherry Grove. That acts makes moot any question about its prior ownership in Cherry Grove if that was the case at all of course.
In the end however it came to be, whatever twists and turns were involved, it would have been his as part of the land deal in any event.
And before this speculative line of inquiry some more interesting bits of information around for consideration. It’s in early April 1891 that the Atlantic House is put up for sale. This doesn’t happen often but there is actually a newspaper account surveying building in Water Island in August of 1891.
The Atlantic House does not appear in that survey in Water Island.
On August 22nd of that year the Suffolk County News ran an article entitled “Water Island’s Tornado”. What looks like a water sprite hit Water Island probably from its bay side. Parts of it were greatly damaged. The reporter inventories damage to the White House, the Thurber Pavilion, various cottages, and bath houses and even mentions the loss of ducks.
But not a word about the Atlantic House not event to remark on it escaping any damage. The reporting does suggest it wasn’t there and if so that would provide a time window for its removal from Water Island. That is between April and August of 1891.
See the full account at this link "Water Island's Tornado":
https://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn84031477/1891-08-22/ed-1/seq-3/#date1=08%2F01%2F1891&index=1&date2=08%2F31%2F1891&words=Island+Water&to_year2=1891&searchType=advanced&sequence=0&from_year2=1891&proxdistance=5&page=1&county=Suffolk&rows=20&ortext=&proxtext=WATER+ISLAND+&phrasetext=&andtext=&dateFilterType=range&SearchType2=prox5 Lastly a good question would be why would Daniel Thurber go to all the trouble to move a hotel in the first place. First practical answer of course would be it wasn’t exactly like a buyers’ market. There would only be a few buyers maybe only one in fact around.
In the case between the Thurber’s and the Perkinsons however there was also one other factor: they were family. It’s been a little noted fact that these two families did have ties and may have acted at times in business concert when mutually convenient to do so.
Daniel Thurber’s son Jacob was married to Archer and Elizabeth's daughter Emily and they had a child Emma. This is a connection that could have powered a deal needed to be made at all costs by all parties at the time.
At this point all of the above a mystery pending better documentation but certainly worth reporting as either lost history about both Water Island and Cherry Grove recovered or interesting speculation that needs further proof.
In summary whether three businesses or two Water Island tourism is booming now with one of those businesses with an ocean view to entice even more visitors.
1890-1895 It’s all Good
During these five years there are no more fires of any buildings to report. It’s a period of stability and growth as Daniel Thurber and E.O. Ryder grow their businesses.
Ferry service by private packet and some larger ships plying the Great South Bay do make their appearance. Service from Patchogue and Sayville is now more frequent.
This look-back article that appeared in the Suffolk County News “Old Times in Sayville” actually looks back at the period circa 1893. It’s a good review of resort activity in this period including Water Island:
Water Island continues to grow as a tourist destination for both Long Island and NYC residents in large numbers and Water Island does enter a period of dominance as a tourist destination.
Water Island Old Versus New History Summary
To sum up this narrative this is a helpful summary timeline comparing the “old’ history of Water Island to the “new” history laid out in this timeline.
Old: the home of Daniel Thurber was being used as pavilion where visitors would come to eat and drink at his house the very beginnings of Water Island.
New: there is no documented history affirming such a claim and it is not credible.
Mapping for the period up to 1874 show no homes associated with any person in the area of Water Island in fact.
Old: Daniel Thurber is operating a Water Island Pavilion.
New: Capt. Richard Silsbe is operating the Water Island House.
Old: the Sammis map of 1878 documents the existence of the Water Island Hotel in Water Island. It also documents only one existing building in Water Island at that time. And an August 1878 article in the Patchogue Advance documents a Water Island Pavilion run by Richard Silsbe.
New: The Sammis map of 1878 is actually a recopied version that appeared in 1883 that accurately documents the Water Island Hotel from that year on but not necessarily before then.
Newspaper accounts in the Patchogue Advance in June and August document that indeed Richard Silsbe was the proprietor of a “resort” in Water Island that is not otherwise identified as the Water Island Pavilion or Water Island Hotel but in one newspaper article is identified as the Water Island House.
An 1878 December news account documents an accidental burn out of this building. It is revealed to be the summer home of Richard Silsbe in Water Island.
Old and new history: there are no accounts about Water Island known at this time.
Old history: Water Island Pavilion opens again as per newspaper accounts. The joint proprietors are John Ferguson and H. Clay Losee.
New history: newspaper accounts do confirm the opening of the clearly identified Water Island Pavilion under the management of now John Ferguson and H. Clay Losee.
An 1881 newspaper account confirms that the Water Island Pavilion is the actual summer home of John Ferguson in Water Island.
Old history: Water Island Pavilion is open. John Ferguson is the proprietor.
New history: Newspaper accounts confirm that Water Island Pavilion named as such. The sole proprietor is John Ferguson.
Old history: Water Island Pavilion is open and Archer Perkinson is the proprietor.
New history: Newspaper accounts document that Andrew Jackson Smith has commissioned the construction of a new building to serve as a hotel being built in Patchogue and later report once built that it is towed across the Great South Bay on scows and erected in Water Island
The building retains the name “Water Island Pavilion” not yet a hotel as per additional newspaper accounts.
Archer Perkinson is the proprietor.
Old history: Water Island Pavilion or Water Island Hotel is open.
New history: There are newspaper accounts that the Water Island Hotel is open. Its proprietor is Archer Perkinson. These are the first documented accounts of a business in Water Island identified as a hotel.
Recopied in 1883 the Sammis map of "1878" documents a Water Island hotel in existence. It remains unknown at this time whether the original 1878 map did the same until an unaltered copy of the original map can be found.
Old history: Water Island Pavilion is open; Daniel Thurber is the proprietor.
New history: Archer Perkinson proprietor of the Water Island hotel in 1883 was now running the Cherry Grove house in Cherry Grove.
The former Water Island hotel is now renamed as the Water Island Pavilion.
There is no documentary history available at this time confirming who was managing the Water Island Pavilion during this period.
Old history: Water Island Pavilion is open. Daniel Thurber is proprietor.
New history: newspaper accounts confirm the opening of the White House a new business in Water Island. E.O. Ryder is the proprietor. Newspaper accounts also confirm that the Water Island Pavilion is open and that Daniel Thurber is its proprietor.
Old history: Water Island Pavilion is open.
New history: Both Water Island and White House open as per newspaper accounts
Old history: Water Island Pavilion open but references appear that circa this period of time a fire occurs burning down the Water Island Pavilion leading to it being rebuilt afterwards.
New history: June fire burning down the Water Island Pavilion, arson suspected is documented by newspaper accounts.
Daniel Thurber locates pre-existing building in Patchogue and floats it across the Great South Bay. The business and building are now re-opened under a new name the Thurber Hotel in July.
White House is open for the season as per newspaper accounts.
Old history: The Atlantic House opens in 1889. White House opens in 1890.
New history: Atlantic House opens in 1889. Thurber Hotel and White House are already open and those two businesses are the engines of tourism for Water Island.
Water Island continues to grow as a tourist destination for both Long Island and NYC residents in large numbers. This period of time is the beginning state of a long dominance as a FI resort area for all of Fire Island.
Whether it is the site of three businesses or two Water Island does enter a period of dominance as a tourist destination on FI for many years to come.
The above sections complete our early Water Island history almost. Below there are some special area discussions allowing for more particular reporting about niche issues regarding the early history of Water Island.
FIRST BUILDINGS TIMELINE (AND THE INVISIBLE HAND OF LAND OWNERS)
Before we begin a quick history of first houses and buildings in Water Island an observation about land owners, the first ones.
While many houses and buildings get their identification from the names of business owners who exactly owned this real property is a bit murky. In the 1878 Green v. Sammis court decision in that year only two lots of land denote land owners. There is Lot 32 owned by Nelson Danes. And there is Lot 33 owned by Leopold Van Zandt.
The “1878” Sammis map (amended in 1883) does note that Lot 33 is portioned with a section of it assigned to what appears to be joint ownership between Van Zandt and R.B.B. Steele.
It very well may be that land ownership had a dynamic aspect after 1878 even if the original land owners for example Nelson Danes may have been landlords initially. Nelson Danes may have a much more significant role in the early foundation of Water Island as a home builder as it would appear doubtful that persons would build buildings on someone else’s land, much more plausible that they rented property but otherwise managed businesses on that property after an arrangement with the property owner. Or he was busy selling off land immediately after 1878.
There is some evidence of this based on an 1890 newspaper article that shows Andrew Smith, not noted in the 1878 Sammis map as a land owner, selling land to E. O. Ryder business owner of the White House hotel.
If Andrew Smith earlier had actually bought land from Nelson Danes by 1882 that would certainly explain why he would have been so eager to go to great lengths to site a new building in Water Island. It also would have made him a landlord of the Water Island Pavilion otherwise managed by Archer Perkinson whose land history this author has surveyed.
There is no record that Archer Perkinson ever owned any Fire Island land during his stay first in Water Island and later in Cherry Grove.
Otherwise, this is the record of first buildings in Water Island that has earlier been recounted in this narrative but is now being put into one place to see it in a more organized fashion with some additions not previously noted.
Water Island House thought to be beach home of Capt. Richard Silsbe. Burned down by accident December 1878.
Water Island Pavilion thought to be the beach home of John Ferguson. Utilized as the Water Island Pavilion until 1881. Vacated as a business at the end of 1881. Survival and use thereafter presently undocumented but without a record of loss, or demolition otherwise in subsequent years. An example of just one of the continuing number of Water Island historical mysteries that remain unsolved.
In the May 26th 1882 edition of the Patchogue Advance, buried deep in an article that surveys summer homes in Patchogue there is a reference to Water Island. A “new beach project” is described. W.W. Handley of Brooklyn has bought a strip of land in Water Island 1100 feet wide from the bay to the ocean. A cottage development is planned to allow buyers to have homes near the ocean surf. Two lots have already been sold. One is to H.H. Steele. The other is to Zachariah Berges.
Other sales have already been made but their owners are not specified in the article. Mr. Handley also intends to establish “a steamboat line” from Patchogue to Water Island to speed access to the surf.
Note: by 1881 ads for the Water Island Pavilion were already advertising ferry service from the “foot of Ocean Ave” to Water Island.
By June of 1882 a separate development project actually reached its conclusion when Andrew Jackson Smith brought a new building across the Great South bay. It was still the Water Island Pavilion but now with a new building and new proprietor running it.
White House hotel building is built on Water Island. Operated by E.O. Ryder it's the largest building in Water Island. Land owner presently unknown.
Water Island Pavilion/hotel burns down, Jackson Smith constructed building, arson suspected.
Daniel Thurber then locates already built pavilion building in Patchogue (Newing), has it brought across the Great south bay and names it the Thurber Hotel.
The Atlantic House, a new building, is built in Water Island by Daniel Thurber. It opens on 6/15/1889. The building now faces the Atlantic Ocean
In the “Brevities” section of the Patchogue Advance this notice appears: “Mr. R.H.H. Steele and family of Jersey City were at Roe’s hotel a few days ago. Mr. Steele will rent his cottage at Water Island this season and himself and family will spend the summer in Europe”.
This account confirms at least one part of the 1882 news account of the sale of a cottage on Water Island to “H.H.” Steele who was actually R.H.H. Steele.
Newspaper ads in April appear announcing the sale of the Atlantic House building by Daniel Thurber. There is no documentation confirming the sale of building at the present time.
In August a “water tornado” strikes Water Island. A news account of the post storm damage refers to cottages in the plural sense as being impacted. Only one is mentioned specifically a cottage owned by a Mr. Steck. See the full details of the event: https://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn84031477/1891-08-22/ed-1/seq-3/
There is a reference to a William Steele cottage in Water Island, a mile west of the Blue Point life saving station on Fire Island, in a news account of a drowning victim found in Sayville “abreast” of the cottage across the Great South Bay:
In the old history of early Water Island one name dominates and that is Daniel Thurber who is associated with opening the Water Island Pavilion circa 1870 and operating it as a hotel for decades. The second name after his who dominates early accounts is that of E.O. Ryder proprietor of the White House who then served a long tenure as a hotel owner in Water Island.
The early history now available for the public to review paints a much different picture. It ought to be clear now that the founding period of Water Island belongs to a collection of persons. It’s been a bit of historical detective work to find them. One remaining task though has been to find out more about them not always an easy task as history fades and the facts about them fade too.
Here is however some back ground about these persons that has been uncovered during the research for this history that puts some more flesh and blood to the bones of history recounted in their deeds.
There are some common connections between a majority of them to first note. One is a maritime back ground. A lot of them were oystermen. Several of them sailors and commercial boat owners. A considerable number of them lived in Patchogue specifically now Patchogue Village area and were considered prominent members of Patchogue. Many were civil war veterans having served the union cause. And it seemed the sea air does have regenerative effects as most of them lived long lives.
These brief snapshots provided in order of the appearance in time in the early history of Water Island.
And this narrative is ever evolving. Other names may be added to this list in the future and as new information comes in the brief capsule pictures of these individuals will be expanded. In every case there is a link to an obituary source. Note however these obituaries particularly when it comes to describing fire island history may not include any reference when there should be one. Or might be inaccurate. They are somewhat dependable on that point. However, some provide a lot of interesting back ground. And in other cases, the absence of information is just another telling reminder of the disappearance of history.
Nelson C. Danes (1811-1885) age 73
Nelson Danes, land owner in Water Island upon whose land most of the early buildings were sited. His land holdings date from at least 1877. How long he kept control of his land in Water Island is poorly known but the status of land owner does suggest a more pivotal role for him in the early history of Water Island than has been acknowledged in the past. Early on he appears to have more of a landlord reaching agreement with other business persons to operate businesses on his property.
One newspaper article from 8/26/1876 in the Patchogue Advance has this to say about him: “Our veteran fisherman, Nelson Danes, is now fishing the 48th season of his life, and although his eye sight is failing he is still as good as the best”.
The obituary information for him is limited. It does not capture his life story. Obit: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/68740292/nelson-c_-danes
Richard Silsbe (1836-1921) 84 years old
Capt. Richard Silsbe, sailed on the Great South bay and beyond, his family had roots in the oyster business of the time.
He is reputed to have a been ship’s captain who “commanded ships in the coastwide trade” (2-18-1921 obituary notice Suffolk County News).
Even before beginning the Water Island House in 1877, he was also a business owner in Patchogue running a pavilion off the Great South Bay called the Bayview House. He appears to be the first resident of Water Island living in the first house that can be documented to have been in existence in Water Island from the years 1877-78 until the home burned down by accident.
In later years he kept to his pavilion business in Patchogue the Bayview House located at the very end of Ocean Ave right on the Great South Bay from which Water Island could be seen.
Stewart Perkinson, Patchogue resident and mariner, is the first known person of record to run a regular packet service to Water Island from Patchogue. His probable cargo being freight and mail. It began in 1878 for how long thereafter is not documented at this time.
In 1895 he will purchase from his mother Elizabeth her Cherry Grove land holdings and become the owner of the Cherry Grove hotel which he will manage for decades to follow along with his wife Sara.
He lives a long-life escaping death by boarding the last ferry out of Cherry Grove as the ocean flood waters approach Cherry Grove. The ship carrying him and one of John Ferguson’s son never makes it across the bay but is instead blown east to safety into the beach meadow land of Long Cove where shelter from the great storm is found.
There is at least one report claiming that Andrew Smith was Patchogue's first school master early in his life.
He is a long-term Patchogue resident whom however on 4-18-1867 along with other Patchogue residents petitions unsuccessfully to have Patchogue renamed “Smithport”. Included in that petition are other Patchogue residents: Archer Perkinson later proprietor of the Water Island Pavilion, Water Island hotel, Cherry Grove House and Cherry Grove hotel. Also, Daniel Thurber later another proprietor of the Water Island Pavilion following Archer Perkinson’s tenure there. Included as a petitioner as well Nelson Danes whose Water Island land claims will be validated by the 1878 court decision Green v. Sammis.
In a 5/13/1876 edition of the Patchogue Advance he is reported as having completed the construction of a 150-foot dock at the bottom of the “Lane” (a/k/a Patchogue Lane i.e., current So. Ocean Ave in Patchogue). The dock cost one hundred fifty dollars.
In a “Directory of Patchogue” that appears in the 11/18/1877 edition of the Patchogue Advance he is listed as selling pine wood for ships from a business on Ocean Ave. in Patchogue.
Andrew Jackson Smith, builds the first dock in Water Island in 1881. This time this dock is 600 feet long. On 12-8-1880 the Brookhaven Town Board had approved a nine year at one dollar a year lease.
In 1882 he commissioned the construction of a new building that was shipped across the Great South Bay and when opened it was first called the Water Island Pavilion. The new building displaced the Water Island Pavilion previously operating out of the Water Island beach home of John Ferguson.
By 1883 this same building was rebranded as the first Water Island Hotel. In 1888 the building burned down under suspicious circumstances.
By building the first permanent dock in Water Island and the first commercial building in Water Island he stands as one of the most pivotal figures in the early history of Water Island. He was a pioneer builder of Water Island’s business infrastructure opening it to tourism on a large scale.
By at least 1890 he had acquired land in Water Island selling a lot of Water Island property to E.O. Ryder at that time proprietor of the White House the second hotel in Water Island that had opened in 1886.
At the time of his death his obituary, as reported in the 1/13/1913 edition of the Suffolk County News, informed readers that Andrew Smith had left his entire fortune of a then substantial amount of 15,000 dollars to the poor of Patchogue. Relatives told the paper than in the last years of his life Smith had been visiting the poor of Patchogue and providing cash grants to help persons in need by doing such things as for example paying their rent.
John Ferguson was a coal miner as a young man before emigrating to American. Once in his new land he left the confines of a mine for the open air of the sea for the rest of his life.
A long-term Patchogue resident, he was a bay and oysterman on the Great South Bay. He used a home-based structure as the first Water Island Pavilion with that name, to replace the burned down Water Island House. He served as proprietor of the Water Island Pavilion for two years.
He eventually became the proprietor of a pavilion in Watch Hill first in 1882, then again in 1884 for many years thereafter. He is an unrecognized if not the actual founder of Watch Hill along with his wife Elizabeth.
In a “Directory of Patchogue” published in the Patchogue Advance on 11/17/1877 John Ferguson’s name appears twice.
He is listed as “oyster dealer” with a business on Main St in Patchogue.
He is also listed as one of two Bay Constables.
In the 6/14/1879 edition of the Patchogue Advance he is mentioned as being in a “chumming” business with Lewis Homan “near Fire Island”. Definition of chumming: “is the practice of luring various animals, usually fish such as sharks, by throwing "chum" into the water. Chum is bait consisting of fish parts, bone and blood, which attract fish, particularly sharks.”
In the 7/7/1886 edition of the Suffolk Democrat a “Shore Inspector Fergueson” is identified as acting in concert with deputies under his direction to arrest violators of the state garbage dumping law in New York and Brooklyn bay waters. The law had as one of its purposes to keep oyster grounds clean. His jurisdiction also included the Great South Bay.
Like her husband John also an immigrant to America from Ireland.
There are few women in this survey, in fact there is only one and it's Elizabeth. There is a very illustrative news account of her cooking skills that is included here as it does provide a word picture of her. For fans of clam chowder, a staple at just about every Fire Island resort, there’s a great description of the process and the real deal of Fire Island chowder seasoned with sand, smoke, seaweed, and sand. “Mrs. John” at the kettle on the beach.
But another news accounts show her standing side by side with her husband otherwise running first the Water Island Pavilion and later the Watch Hill Pavilion. The Watch Hill pavilion is the first known business in Watch Hill. Its exact tenure remains undocumented but its end may have coincided with her death in 1899. Along with her husband she is a generally lost historical founder of early Watch Hill and Water Island.
On 7-5-1882 a reporter from the Patchogue Advance publishes “Patchogue as a Summer Resort”. His article also includes visits to nearby resorts including to Watch Hill specifically the Watch Hill Pavilion. The reporter makes note that John Ferguson and his wife are now the proprietors of a new pavilion (two years prior to his account John and his wife Elizabeth were in Water Island). He describes Elizabeth “up to her eyes in business”. She’s a good cook but she is also a good hand not just in a kitchen but at running a business too.
Their relationship both personal and business involved seems much like several other similar but generally rare examples of husband-and-wife administration of Fire Island hotels. Their working relationship resembles the successful ones modeled by Felix and Phoebe Dominy of the Dominy House and Archer and Elizabeth Perkinson of the Cherry Grove hotel fame and Stewart and Sara Perkinson later managers and owners of the Cherry Grove hotel.
Archer Perkinson, father of Stewart Perkinson, long term oysterman, proprietor of the Water Island Pavilion in 1882, and first proprietor of the Water Island hotel in 1883. Then proprietor of the Cherry Grove House in 1884 and later the Cherry Grove hotel. Along with wife Elizabeth and his son Frank he counts as one of the principal founders of Cherry Grove. Long time Patchogue resident, and civil war veteran.
An extensive biographical survey of Archer Perkinson can be found at this link:
Daniel Thurber, Patchogue resident, oysterman, civil war veteran, follows Archer Perkinson after 1883 as among the first proprietors of the Water Island Pavilion. He is the proprietor of the Water Island Pavilion when the building burned down under suspicious circumstances in 1888. After the fire he locates a pavilion building in Patchogue, buys it, and floats it across the bay and opens it as the now Thurber hotel before the 1888 season ends. In 1889 he opens the Atlantic House in Water Island a new building that he has commissioned for construction in Water Island near the ocean surf.
He is an able captain often reported ferrying passengers to the Water Island Pavilion from docks in Patchogue and Sayville.
On 6/14/1879 the Patchogue Advance in its Patchogue section reports that he is the yacht captain of the “D.S.S. Sammis”. It’s owner of the same name is the owner of the Surf hotel on western Fire Island the largest hotel on Fire Island in that year up until the early 1890s.
He continued to serve as proprietor of that business until before the turn of the century he leaves Water Island, and becomes the proprietor of the Central hotel in Patchogue. During the last years of his life, he returns to Fire Island to become proprietor of a business in Ocean Beach. He dies unexpectedly due to an infection when he steps on a rusty nail on his boat. The subsequent infection defies medical treatment cutting short his life.
Edward Osborne Ryder is the last founder listed and in some ways that is appropriate. He was one of the last to become part of the wave of founders and it seems he outlasted all those before him. As per his obituary in the LI Advance his tenure as a hotel owner lasted “about 35 years”. It began with the beginning years of the White House in 1886. Ryder was at that time 22 years old.
The 35-year tenure claim from the newspaper isn’t without qualification. Our own research has found a history for E.O. Ryder as the proprietor of the Laurel hotel in Patchogue in 1915. Even so, cutting off a few years of that 35-year claim still make him the longest serving business proprietor of his era. John Ferguson, Archie Perkinson, Daniel Thurber, other proprietors of the time in Water Island all either by 1915 deceased or in retirement.
This newspaper article is provided for a review. In 1897 Ryder is running for elected office and his platform and his picture appear in this account. It provides some back ground information about him. And as well, in his platform points, you can see the issues of the day and his connection to bay men issues which he strongly identifies holding himself out to be one too.
During its glory days as a tourist resort Water Island attracted at a minimum thousands of visitors during any season for at least a decade or more if not longer. Why did they come?
One part of that answer can be found in the railroad tracks that finally reached Sayville and Patchogue in 1869. That became a route for New York city visitors.
Once in either Sayville or Patchogue over time quick and cheap ferry service developed. It’s not a long ferry ride to Water Island and once there due to the dimensions of Water Island not a hike to the hotels right at the dock, or to the ocean surf beyond.
Locals had preceded the New York city flow. In the age of sail a great many people had boats of all sizes and they visited on a day trip basis, or free boated overnight, even before the hotels arrived to fish, picnic, and to swim. Moonlight sails to Water Island quite common too and a practical adaptation to the lack of stay over rooms particularly in the late 1870s.
As the Water Island buzz became louder over time between these two sources there were more than enough people who wanted to visit. As well, just as in these times, people wanted some place to go that was beautiful, summery and had music, dance, and drink.
Although it sounds more like a phrase out of the 1960s dance events were often described by newspapers editors as having a chance to “dance the light fantastic”. For some years you could have your photo taken by a professional photographer a Mr. Anderson and arranging afterwards for a copy of those memories. There was also a rifle range again for some years.
The hotels served all that up for people to partake in, or just to eat and enjoy the weather and ambiance of the crowded venues and a chance to meet people.
So just as in these times Water Island was a place of escape. On the mainland in particular drinking was frowned upon as the temperance movement was building steam. Out of sight on Fire Island more of a chance to be free from those and other social restrictions of what must be remembered was a more socially repressed time. For example, bathing was almost fully clad particularly for women and it was standard policy to have changing rooms on the beach so that a person could change from summer wear to swim wear and back again.
They came because they could have fun and they did.
There aren’t a lot of news accounts of events at Water Island to be found through research. There are lots of brief reports of the dates of events like a picnic visit, or a moonlight sail but there isn’t much in depth reporting otherwise. What people wore, what they danced to, the music they listened to can’t be found in those brief news reports.
But out of a most unlikely source we have reconstructed out of a story of some errant children a bit of the flavor of Water Island and its times.
On a June afternoon in 1894 three young boys, Oscar, Willie, and George Baker, the oldest age 12 slip out of the Patchogue home of their grandparents and set sail for Water Island on a small skiff. Except they told no one about their little adventure. The grandparents eventually discover the grand children have set sail and as night arrives and they are nowhere to be found alarms are set off. Life saving crews on nearby Fire Island are contacted to find them as the now crazed family fear they have drowned.
It's not until the next day that they are found miles to the west in Islip. Upon discovery the boys told their relieved family members that they had stayed overnight in Water Island in a barn.
What’s not in the newspaper article that can now be deduced is that these boys were heading Water Island to see the sights. They could have never been lost unless they wanted to as on a summer Sunday in Water Island businesses would have been open and hundreds of visitors were about.
They were there to see the sights of adult life in full summer bloom. It’s the sights and sounds of Water Island on a summer day. It’s the swirl of crowds, the noise of many voices at its dinner tables and bars, the boom of the surf, the sounds of music and dance underneath the sun and later the moon.
But just where does that “barn” come into this? It turns out that there was a barn in Water Island at the Thurber hotel but it was not a farmer’s barn. It was the music and dance venue of the hotel probably in full swing the night of their adventure. Those kids must have got an eyeful of late-night club life Fire Island style 1890s.
A description of that barn can be found in another tale of Water Island dating from two years earlier. It turns out that some people took advantage of the ferry ride to Water Island and later the hotel to perform as free-lance vocalists and instrumentalists and it was a welcome addition to the ambiance of beach life. It was club life in the 1890s.
On an early July date in 1892 the Bason family journeys to Water Island to have its own adventure. They sing on the boat, play instruments, carry on in the pavilion of the Thurber hotel and wind up doing the same at the dance venue of the hotel it’s barn. That looks to be the very same barn the Baker boys will later sleep on the night of their runaway hi-jinks children’s adventure two years later.
On Monday morning the “lost boys”, ignore everyone who might be in Water Island in the morning as if there was no one there, then board their skiff and instead of heading back to Patchogue instead sail ten miles west and then triangulate their ship across the bay to Islip where they turn themselves around 6 p.m. in the afternoon. They are at last scooped up by family members.
The article ends with the children reporting that they “enjoyed their trip very much”. No word from the adults about what they thought.
These are the original newspaper accounts for reference:
In the end a re-ordering of the early history of Water Island has been written. It’s not holy writ. There is more research to be done. There was a small history written by another person way before us that we could never find and we are still looking for it. There is still more “lost” history to be discovered.
In the meantime, feedback of whatever kind: new facts, supportive comments, or challenging inquiries are welcome. Doesn’t matter what it is even if it’s contradictory or questioning. The goal is to find good history. It’s not always a perfect quest. But the idea is always to keep looking for it.
Everyone’s help to get there is welcome.
And because the content for this narrative appears on line it is a living document. There is plenty of flexibility to correct for any errors, or add new content that may change views presented in this original publication. It’s all good if that happens.
Any issues with broken links or any other matter relating this history of any kind particularly offers of new facts please use the contact link below.
One acknowledgement that must be made is to Wendy Bennett who is a librarian at the Blue Point-Bay port Library. Throwing out a big net I had contacted her for information about hotels on Fire Island off Blue Point. It was her diligent research that in one fell swoop solved two mysteries about Water Island. It was her newspaper research that found two articles that I had not that pinpointed those two fires in Water Island one occurring in 1878 and the other in 1888.
That information was critical to know. It provided the framework for organizing this history in a reliable way. Instead of rumor and hearsay there were solid facts to pursue and that helped immeasurably in helping to shape the reliability of factual reporting to come in the form of this narrative.
And this must be said too. Without the work of earlier historians this history could not have been written. From their steps in the right direction, and sometimes their missteps, a path forward was found to write this history. It’s been my great resource to have all that they did to lean on. And I have had a powerful resource they did not: the internet. I am convinced had any of those previous historians had the powerful research tool that the internet is that their work, like mine, would have benefited in terms of finding reliable facts.
This history belongs to trilogy of short histories. They share the same period of early Fire Island more or less.
One is about the early history of Cherry Grove.
The second is about the Old House, John Brewster Smith and John Davenport Jett.
There are points where they overlap each other so for those interested in Cherry Grove’s early history there is more to be found in those other histories and similarly that applies to those interested in Water Island too.
Water Island today is not an island. Nor does it appear to appear to have any bodies of open water within its present boundaries. So how did the present place name of Water Island originate?
This is not an easy question to answer. In research for this history only one source has been found with a guess hazarded to explain that place name.
In the 1992 winter edition of the Long Island Forum there is an article about Water Island titled: “Water Island, a Long Island Paradise, Near and Far” written by Thomas Allen Stock. On the subject of the meaning of Water Island’s place name origin Stock reported as follows.
“Some long-time residents think its name may have derived from the location of a fresh water pond in the area in the last century. The pond can no longer be found, a possible victim of development, hurricanes or both”.
Before assessing the credibility of that observation it’s worth while to see if an examination of the term place name itself might provide some tools to find the origins of Water Island’s place name.
These observations about its elements as a place name are identified.
It fits the category of place names assigned to geographic areas.
It fits the category of “lost reason” place names that is it was meant to convey a natural feature or features that can no longer be identified.
It fits the category of a place name meant to signify a significant resource in this case water.
It’s not a Native American term but reflects terms in the English language used as descriptive language that early English colonial explorers of Fire Island would have used. In other words, the danger of meanings lost in translation is minimal.
If the place name is to be taken literally and is an accurate reflection of a “lost use” place name is there any basis to believe that is true at all?
The answer is: maybe but the facts that are present are quite pliable. They are as follows.
Today, except for the cut recently formed at the Old Inlet by superstorm Sandy, for many decades Fire Island has been one contiguous piece of land. It’s a barrier sand bar actually but all of one piece. But that is not how Fire Island looked like in its past.
In the book “Fire Island, Present and Future by Robert F. Sayre (2013) he discusses the past physical appearance of Fire Island. He does that in two ways. Reproduced in the book is a copy of the William Fadden map of Fire Island (1779). It shows Fire Island divided into seven islands by inlets present at that time.
Sayre himself then identifies 12 inlets in the history of Fire Island. Interestingly of these 12, ten of them including Old Inlet are to the east of Water Island. His list does not apparently take into account all of the inlets west of Old Inlet mapped by Fadden.
The import of that is that it creates the possibility that prior to 1779 Water Island was one of those seven islands that are now united making up today’s Fire Island. That would be an island east of the Old Inlet and west of one of the unaccounted-for inlets in the Fadden map.
That small island within a constellation of smaller islands would have come to an end at least by time the Old Inlet filled-in in 1823 or even sooner depending when the presently unnamed inlet to the west might have been filled post 1779 but before 1823.
It’s not definite but there is some basis to think it was possible that for some period of time Water Island was in fact an island however brief a period of time that might have been. For purposes of a naming, it only would have had to be in that state when first spied by early colonists.
A time window does however appear possible for that if the above circumstances were actual and not a matter of conjecture to allow that Water Island could have been a small island one of the seven pictured in the Fadden map of 1779.
If that provides some basis to justify the Island part of the place name Water Island what facts might exist to explain the Water component of its place name?
It’s here that the Stock suggestion comes back into play. Sayre in his book (p.15) allows that on Fire Island there were two sources of water: marshes and “occasional ponds”. Ruling out marshes as probably more salt water than fresh that leaves a large pond as a possible valuable geographical feature worth a place name. Place names after all were meant in more practical days to convey information besides directional clues. Think of the place name Cherry Grove for example. It tells you what to expect in that area.
So where is it now? As Stock keenly observes its traces certainly could have been erased by any number of environmental factors and think about the Hurricane of 1938 as one of them.
However, there is a small shred of evidence that there indeed might have been at least the remnants of a pond in the late 1800s in Water Island.
This the trace that bears considering.
In February 1897 a storm hit Water Island. It created a lot of damage and there were newspaper reports about it. On 2-12-1897 an article in the Suffolk County News appeared that surveyed damage to two buildings the Thurber and Ryder hotels. It then reports: “The high seas have already swept through the little valley between the two houses which is spanned by a foot bridge. This little hollow has been so enlarged that there is already some talk about a new inlet being opened to the beach”.
A little “hollow” big enough that it needed a bridge to walk across it does sound like that at one time it might have been the remnant basin of a pond in the past now dried up or even still catching rain water accounting for the need for a foot bridge to cross over it.
Granted all this is speculative. There are however credible inferences that can be drawn from the facts as they are known at this time.
In the past, the past of the 1700s, a small inland plus a natural pond, an oasis of fresh water in an otherwise harsh wilderness, equals though the elements that could have warranted the place name of Water Island in the eyes of those who first took its measure.