Tales From The Turnpike: Well-traveled byway is also something of a history mystery

Posted on 22 January 2009

It’s a stretch of roadway that many people drive every day with nary a thought as to what has gone before. But in addition to glimpses of ponds, woodlands, neighborhoods and the commercial fixtures of modern day life, those willing to slow down and open their eyes may just notice subtle pieces of history emerging all along the Bridgehampton/Sag Harbor Turnpike.

As stretches of road go, it’s certainly one that has long intrigued Stacy Dermont. 

“I live in Sag Harbor and I’ve always been strangely fascinated by the Turnpike,” admits Dermont, program director at the Bridgehampton Historical Society. “One time, my husband [Daniel Koontz] and I were driving down the road and I said, ‘It’s so straight, it must be a new road.’ But he said, ‘No, it’s so straight — it must be an old road.’”

The logic behind Koontz’s thinking is that old roads are straight because they were built before small plots of land were snapped up by individual buyers. It’s newer roads, he reasoned, that meander and curve because they have to — in order to avoid the interests of a myriad of private property owners.

Curiosity about the Turnpike drove Dermont to dig into the road’s past and on Monday, January 26, a new exhibition, “Bridgehampton’s Historic Turnpike” opens in the society’s Corwith House. Co-curated by the BHHS photo archivist, Julie Greene, the exhibit looks back at the history of this utilitarian stretch of roadway — which runs 4.5 miles from the center of Bridgehampton to Sag Harbor — through photographs, paintings, official documents and artifacts.

As it’s name implies, the Turnpike actually was a toll road —with a gate and toll house — built in 1834 across the street from the present day Sag Harbor Recycling Center. It opened for business on March 29, 1837 and operated through 1905, when it was decommissioned and the gate removed. The toll house stood another four years, until it burned in 1909. 

While the idea of a toll house seems quaint by today’s standards, the Turnpike was created purely for commercial purposes. Prior to the 18th century, Dermont notes that Bridgehampton farmers used Merchant’s Path to get their produce and livestock to port in Northwest Harbor. But by the early 1800s, trade had shifted to Sag Harbor, and that’s where Bridgehampton farmers needed to take their products. In the years before federally funded and maintained highways, farmers relied on well-maintained private toll roads for getting wagons, animals and goods to market.

Originally called the Cart Path to Great Meadows (a.k.a. Sag Harbor) the road was renamed the Sag Harbor and Bull’s Head Turnpike when it became a toll road. Bull’s Head has long been the name of the neighborhood near the intersection of Montauk Highway and the Turnpike.

“When the gentleman started this toll road, he had to apply to New York State as we understand,” explains Dermont. “It was a legislative charter.”

‘This was a roadway from 1700 — a cart path with two ruts — a nasty thing,” says Dermont. “The road was improved using a six foot wide sand scraper and two yokes of oxen. 

Dermont notes that investors paid $25 per share for a stake in the road. 

“It was a group of Sag Harbor businessmen,” says Dermont. “It wasn’t about making money on the road, but enabling trade to come to your business. It was typical of New England toll roads that they didn’t turn a profit — but this one made money — until the railroad came in.”

The arrival of the railroad, indeed, spelled eventual doom for the Turnpike, which was one of three toll roads leading to Sag Harbor. The others were at Sag Harbor’s border with East Hampton on Route 114, which operated from 1844 to 1905, and the Penny Bridge from North Haven to Sag Harbor, in operation from 1834 to about 1868. 

Tantalizing pieces of ephemera related to the Turnpike are included in this historical society show. In addition to postcards, the curators have turned up the fee schedule for passing through the toll gate (prices started at 8¢ for a wagon or cart drawn by two horses and went up from there), an original oil painting of the toll house and gate by Bruce Crain, which is on loan from the Terry Wallace Gallery, and a tiny engraved silver spoon that commemorates the toll house. The spoon was created by the Alvin Manufacturing Company of Sag Harbor and is part of the collection of historian Dorothy Zaykowski. Dermont surmises the spoon was sold as a souvenir, not unlike the Sag Harbor merchandise visitors find today at the Variety Store.

 “I’m satisfied I have a nice selection given the space,” adds Dermont. “But there are so many unanswered questions. It’s a history mystery and I’m looking forward to finding out more.”

Also along the turnpike was a brickyard that operated north of Scuttlehole Road from 1891 through the 1920s. It produced bricks used in the construction of Pierson High School, the Fahy’s Watchcase Factory extension and the Sag Harbor Train Depot, to name a few. The brickworks began life in 1891 as the Sag Harbor Brick Company. In 1902, it was purchased by the Long Island and Fisher’s Island Brick Company and after that point, bricks from the factory had the name “Griffing” imprinted on them — the name of the brickyard’s cofounder, Arthur C. Griffing.

“He owned a house right near where the brickworks sat,” explains Tony Garro, a history buff, Southampton Trails Preservations Society member and avid “turner of bricks” who loves to flip them over in search of a maker’s mark whenever he comes across them in his travels. 

In conjunction with the exhibition, Garro will lead a Southampton Trails Preservation Society sponsored walk along the Turnpike on February 21 and is particularly eager to talk about the brick factory, which has been described as an open air structure with a roof held up by beams and an oven made of bricks. Dermont notes the brickworks was capable of firing 400,000 bricks at a time.

“That whole area — Clay Pit Road, Brickiln Road — has large clay deposits nearby,” says Garro. “It’s an educated guess that’s why they put the brick works there. We think we found some remnants across the way — very large excavations — that couldn’t be anything other than clay pits.’

Garro and Dermont also think that the brick workers, many of whom were Italian immigrants, were housed in close vicinity to the brick factory.

“Some maps show structures in the area,” said Dermont. “When we went to the site, in addition to pots and dishes, in the refuse was a whiskey bottle.”

“But we don’t know when that was put there,” cautioned Garro. “It could have been fairly recent.”

While they have found some physical evidence of the factory’s existence, what is missing, however, are official documents or written material describing the brickworks.

“There is an amazing lack of information about the Turnpike or the brick factory,” says Garro. “I find it very strange that we’ve found no paperwork. We spent three or four hours in the John Jermain Memorial Library, went through a great deal of material. We could find almost no reference to the factory.”

“It’s just like you don’t write a letter about how to dial a phone,” says Dermont, who hypothesizes why so little written details can be found about the Turnpike’s history.

Despite the lack of written records, the roadway was a vibrant place and home not only to immigrants who worked at the brick factory, but migrant workers as well who toiled in Bridgehampton’s fields. 

 “There was a lot of small workman housing along the Turnpike in the 20th century,” says Dermont. “Some came to work in households, clubs and summer resorts. There is also this black population along the Turnpike too. Some families, we know when they got here. Many arrived as migrant workers and many stayed. I think it’s miraculous they could do that given racism and economics.”

 “It is somewhat odd there isn’t more information,” says Dermont. “We’re planning in 2010 to have an exhibit about Ocean Road. In 2012, we hope to combine that and the Turnpike show and expand the theme. It’s ongoing and we’re begging for artifacts. I’m sure somewhere someone has a shoebox full of permits, time sheets or letterhead.”

“Bridgehampton’s Historic Turnpike” opens with a members’ reception on Friday, January 23 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Corwith House, 2368 Montauk Highway, Bridgehampton. The public can see the show weekdays from January 26 to March 6. Tony Garro’s “Turnpike Hike” is at 10 a.m. on Saturday, February 21. Hikers should meet on the Turnpike at the end of Scuttlehole Road. For details call 537-1088.

Top: Postcard of the Old Toll Gate, Bridgehampton Turnpike looking north toward Sag Harbor

Above: The Rates of Toll for using the Sag Harbor & Bulls Head Turnpike


 

Be Sociable, Share!

This post was written by:

- who has written 625 posts on The Sag Harbor Express.


Contact the author

One Response to “Tales From The Turnpike: Well-traveled byway is also something of a history mystery”

  1. SOUNDS INTERESTING. THERES A LOT OF COOL STUFF ON LI THAT MOST PPL DON’T KNOW.
    HOW WOULD SOMEONE GET THERE FROM SUNRISE HWY?


Leave a Reply

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off-topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Terms of Service