One hundred years ago, on September 9, 1916, a clerk with flawless penmanship recorded in a leather-bound poll book the names of 10 incorporators — seven men and three women, most of them of significant social standing — who brought into being New York State’s smallest municipality, the Village of Dering Harbor.
A month later, the four men in attendance at the first official village meeting, voted themselves into office and began sorting out how to govern an area where homes were dependent for water, gas, sewer and other services upon a massive resort hotel that had been destroyed in a spectacular fire a few years earlier.
The Manhanset House Hotel, built in 1874 on the bluff just east of Locust Point, was enormous even by 19th century standards. Over 700 feet long, it had rooms for 500 guests spread out over two buildings, one four stories high, the other five, joined by a dance hall pavilion. Weeks before it was to open for the 1910 summer season, it was struck by lightning and burned to ashes.
It was the resort’s second major fire, and there was little enthusiasm among investors for rebuilding, according to the Reverend Stewart H. Herman in his definitive 1976 book on Dering Harbor’s history, “The Smallest Village.” What remained was a group of homes (some classic Victorian gingerbread cottages, others substantial mansions), a clubhouse and golf course beset by problems associated with their reliance on the vanished resort. Among the complaints, Reverend Herman wrote, were “irksome limitations laid upon the cottages” including having access to services only during the summer season.
Taking minutes of that first village meeting in her perfect script was Village Clerk Elsie Percy, now the only woman involved.
The three women who had voted for incorporation (by right as property owners) were not permitted to vote on municipal matters. Another year would pass before women won the right to vote in New York and it would be four years before the 19th Amendment granted women suffrage in federal elections.
Tarrant Putnam, a prominent New York attorney and treasurer of the New York Yacht Club (NYYC), became president (an office later changed to mayor). Charles Lane Poor, a celebrated professor of “celestial mechanics” at Columbia University, who served on the NYYC’s membership committee, became treasurer and tax collector. Elected as trustees were Adolph Schwarzmann, a co-founder of the satirical magazine “Puck,” and William P. Pickhardt, son of a wealthy importer of dyes, who according to the Social Register was a member of the U.S. Navy assigned to the U.S.S. New York under the command of his older brother.
The trustees’ first goal was to protect their own properties, and those of another 19 families, by resolving ownership of and obtaining control over the former hotel facilities. These were held by two corporations. One was the Manhanset Country Club, which owned a “casino” — a private clubhouse and public guest house — that a group of local investors had built on the hotel site.
Though it had a long-term lease on a popular 18-hole golf course — roughly in the area now occupied by Gardiner’s Bay Country Club — the club struggled to make ends meet, according to Reverend Herman. The other company was the Island Realty Corporation, established after the fire by concerned property owners to manage consolidation of the resort’s assets.
‘Site of splendid reputation’
An immediate goal of the village founders was to prevent the construction of a new hotel. An ad run in Hotel Monthly just days before the incorporation vote offered investors “Your Chance to Re-establish Summer Hotel on a site of Splendid Reputation,” and listed among the site’s amenities “complete water works, electric light and gas plant, laundry, garage, ice-house and help quarters” as well as the adjacent “casino” with “dining rooms, card rooms, large dancing hall, locker rooms … electric lighting, tennis courts, bowling green and bathing facilities.
The founders were also concerned with keeping small a village faced with the construction of potentially hundreds of summer bungalows on lots that were vestiges of its earliest development schemes.
In the 1870s, the 200-acre Locust Point tract was purchased by a small group of investors from Eben N. Horsford, then owner of Sylvester Manor, for $50,000, or $878,000 in 2016 dollars. That company quickly evolved into Shelter Island Park, which envisioned “a large summer hotel whose construction would spawn, so to speak, innumerable sea-shore cottages,” Reverend Herman wrote.
A map dated 1892 currently on display in Dering Harbor’s Village Hall shows a hotel surrounded by 1,300 tiny cottage lots fanning out along broad boulevards with names that evoked the Native American past of the natural bluff-top lookout.
Lots at Shelter Island Park, which over time morphed into Manhanset Manor, traded like baseball cards in transactions listed in area newspapers. The company built its massive hotel and a few rental cottages, and some early investors put up rustic, seasonal houses that did not have kitchens. Residents were expected to take their meals and focus their social lives at the hotel, Reverend Herman wrote. Only later did investors combine multiple adjacent lots and erect large private homes.
Tracing the convoluted ownership of the old lots and the resort’s numerous roadways was a problem that still bedevils the village. A current lawsuit by three residents over ownership of small strips of land abutting their properties is rooted in the confusion of these early development schemes.
Today, the view from North Ferry boats makes plain the enormous success of the incorporators in achieving their goals. The village has remained small, comprising just 36 residences. For an initial cash investment of $5,000 (plus the issuance of bonds to cover the operations of the water, electric and sewage systems), the founders secured the future of the Village, which now has assessed valuation of $137.6 million.
A world away
At the time of incorporation, the world didn’t take much notice.
War raged in Europe, where the Battle of Verdun was becoming the longest — 10 months — and deadliest conflict in modern history. Here at home, a devastating polio epidemic the summer of 1916 killed 2,400 children and paralyzed another 8,400 in New York State alone.
Just days before the incorporation vote, The New York Times reported that fear over wartime access to markets saw Great Britain send a record 846 boxes of gold worth $2.5 million to a Wall Street assay office, overwhelming the capacity of staff to count and store it all. That week, a massive dust storm blew into New York from New Jersey, breaking plate glass windows and spreading panic, and on the U.S. Senate floor, there were nearly “fisticuffs” in a partisan battle over a corruption bill.
But the community hadn’t always gone unnoticed. In the heyday of steamship and railway travel, when grand hotels drew visitors to the state’s coastlines and mountains, the Manhanset House stood out for its size, amenities and star-studded guest list. Businessmen such as J.P. Morgan, celebrities including Broadway cowboy Will Rogers and wealthy families whose names dotted the Social Register, summered there in one of the 500 rooms, aboard their yachts anchored in the harbor, or in one of the cottages. Newspapers in Brooklyn and Manhattan listed the names of visitors in long columns of miniscule type and ran gossipy items about the “gay doings at Shelter Island.”
Even after the hotel was damaged by fire in 1896, faithful battalions of visitors continued to summer there. Like its counterpart, the Prospect Hotel in the Heights, the Manhanset expanded to accommodate growing crowds. It had its own steamship pier and direct ferry service to Greenport. The New York Yacht Club even took up residence, building a station at the end of a pier. Just before the 1910 fire, the hotel had added modern ice-making equipment.
Plus ça change
Much has changed over the past 100 years. The Casino disbanded and its two building became private homes. The fairways that allowed golfers to begin and end their games at the casino doors withdrew to the edge of the village and a new clubhouse opened at Gardiner’s Bay Country Club. The Village sold off unwanted utility properties, service alleys and the verges of roadways that had been planned as wide boulevards but had been paved as the narrow lanes present today. And it quickly got out of the sewer business, demanding in the 1920s that homeowners install private septic systems.
But much remains the same. Professor Poor, who galvanized support for the incorporation and later served as mayor, lived during his many years of service in the white colonial house on Locust Point that he built in 1915. The house later was home to mayor Ian G. M. Brownlie and today belongs to Mayor Timothy Hogue.
Reverend Herman wrote in a passage in 1974 that is still true today; the Village “conducts its own affairs in a colonial-style hall flanked by a 60-foot flagpole. The duly elected mayor, clerk and Board of Trustees meet for about three hours once a month, on a Saturday morning unless otherwise arranged.
“The affairs themselves encompass such municipal business as an independent water supply system, trash collection and general maintenance of roads and grounds, plus a dash of other matters pertaining to the welfare and improvement of a predominantly summertime residency.”
“The Smallest Village: A history of Dering Harbor, Shelter Island, New York from 1874 to 1974” by Stewart H. Herman is available in print or as an e-book from amazon.com, or for loan at the Shelter Island Library. The Shelter Island Historical Society has many artifacts and papers documenting the history of the village. Village Clerk, Laura Hildreth, provided the Reporter access to original documents including the poll book, which is still in use in village elections.
Smallest population: 3
The 1920 U.S. Census recorded that Dering Harbor had the smallest population of any district with just three residents. The 2010 Census recorded 11 residents, the fewest in a New York municipality.
Fewest in-person voters: 0
No voter showed up in 1999, though nine sent in absentee ballots. Typically, 8 to 20 voters participate; this year 60 voters, or 80% of those registered, cast ballots.
Deepest Roots: Esther Hunt
In 1913, Ms. Hunt’s grandfather, Samuel Hird, built the house at 6 Shore Road; she lives in a modern house next door. The Hunts sold about 30 undeveloped acres for preservation purposes to the village, town and county along Julia Dodd Creek.
Stalwart voter: Marian M. Brownlie
Widow of long-time mayor Ian G. M. Brownlie and mother of deputy mayor Heather E. G. Brownlie, Mrs. Brownlie has not missed an election since her first vote in 1969.
Long-serving mayor: Timothy Hogue
Elected trustee in 1987 and mayor in 1992, he is serving his 13th consecutive two-year term as mayor.
Hotel remnant: Manhanset Chapel
Moved in 1924 to its current spot in the Center, the chapel was built in 1890 to serve guests of the Manhanset Hotel.
Centennial celebration: Party and plaque
The village threw itself a 100th birthday party on August 6 for residents and guests. Mayor Hogue said a centennial plaque will be unveiled at the 100th anniversary of the first trustees meeting in early November.