A train pulls up to Sag Harbor’s freight depot. Photo courtesy Sag Harbor Historical Society.
By Stephen J. Kotz
Save for the Garden Depot on Spring Street, which was long ago moved from its original location, there is nary a sign in the village that Sag Harbor was once the eastern terminus of the Long Island Rail Road on the South Fork, with regular passenger and freight service and serving as an important link to steamboat service to the North Fork and Montauk.
But, in fact, the railroad arrived in Sag Harbor in 1870—a full 25 years before it pushed on to East Hampton—and it played a major role in revitalizing a village whose economy had been left in tatters by the end of the whaling era.
The Sag Harbor Historical Society’s new summer exhibit, “The LIRR in Sag Harbor 1870-1939,” aims to give modern day residents and visitors a glimpse, through photographs, old timers’ memories, newspaper reports, and the occasional artifact, of what it was like when steam locomotives pulling passenger cars chugged into a beautiful brick depot donated by—who else?—Mrs. Russell Sage.
The show, on display at the society’s Annie Cooper Boyd House on Main Street, will officially open this weekend, after the historical society holds its annual meeting at the museum this Saturday, May 31, at 3 p.m. At the members-only event, Bryan Boyhan, the publisher emeritus and consultant of The Sag Harbor Express, will introduce the exhibit with a reading of an account of the railroad’s arrival that was first published in The Express 144 years ago.
“It was a drunken blast, as far as I can tell,” said Jean Held, a member of the society’s exhibit committee, who was largely responsible for curating this year’s display, “although they did not describe it in such plain English.” Instead, she said, merrymakers, official and otherwise, were described as so happy about the railroad’s arrival “that they were unable to stand on their own two feet.”
In designing the exhibit, Ms. Held focused on several themes, including why railroad service, which had been extended to Greenport in 1844, was so badly needed. For one, in winter, the bay was often frozen solid—for 90 straight days in 1868, for instance—leaving Sag Harbor cut off from the rest of the world. Mail delivery was also intermittent, and the travelers on the Bridgehampton Turnpike were even from time to time set upon by armed robbers.
Eventually, Southampton Town and Sag Harbor Village agreed to ante up the money to buy the right-of-way needed to bring the train north from Bridgehampton.
Progress was watched with anticipation, with The Express reporting on November 11, 1869, “Now that work has commenced on the road in our midst, we can realize more forcibly that we are to have a railroad. Looking out of the rear windows of our office we can see some 50 men busily at work shoveling on the meadow, throwing up an entrenchment equal to the fortifications in front of a besieged city.”
Although the arrival of the railroad on June 11, 1870, was greeted with great fanfare, cracks in the relationship between Sag Harbor and the LIRR soon appeared when the line’s president, Oliver Charlick, insisted that all freight to and from the village run on the railroad, and if not, that the railroad be paid a fee anyway. When the village balked, Mr. Charlick reneged on a promise to build a beautiful depot. Instead a small shed was built at the end of the line until Mrs. Russell Sage had one built in 1909.
Ms. Held said in designing the exhibit that she wanted to include entries on some locals who refused to allow the LIRR to push them around. One was Betsy Josey, who refused to sell her boarding house near what would become the depot until she got her price. Rumor has it that when a party representing the railroad approached her place she appeared in an upstairs window, threatening to douse them with scalding water. She eventually got her price, $1,350, and her home was moved to Cross Street, off Division Street.
Although not everyone enjoyed cordial ties with the LIRR, its arrival did help revive Sag Harbor’s struggling economy. The presence of the railroad, for instance, helped convince Joseph Fahys to move his watchcase factory from New Jersey to Sag Harbor in 1881. Within a year after opening, it employed 350 workers. Other businesses, including William Eatons Printers and Engravers, which opened a small factory on Jermain Avenue, followed.
Hotels also cropped up, joining The American Hotel, which was already a fixture here, to serve a growing clientele of tourists.
To reach Sag Harbor, the railroad veered north at Lumber Lane in Bridgehampton, crossing the Bridgehampton Turnpike between Hampton Court and the Huntington Crossway. Today, a portion of the rail bed is a trail in the Long Pond Greenbelt. The line emerged from the woods near the parking area on the west side of the park, and hugged the shoreline of Sag Harbor Cove before making its entrance into the village down the future Long Island Avenue.
In its heyday, there was a siding to Round Pond, a popular source of ice in the winter, and another to a brickyard off Clay Pit Road. But when the line was extended to East Hampton and all the way to Montauk, ridership began to fall off, as passengers no longer had a need to transfer to a steamboat in Sag Harbor to complete their journey.
In 1927, the railroad replaced regular service with single-car trolley type trains, known variously as “Doodlebugs” or the “Sag Harbor Scoot.” They remained in service until 1939 when the LIRR successfully petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon the branch.
In the intervening years, the tracks were torn up, although the occasional spike is still found along the greenbelt trail. Wetlands that were filled in along the tracks in Mashashimuet Park are now ballfields. There is no trace of a small station that once stood on the west side of the Bridgehampton Turnpike just south of Brick Kiln Road. Even the depot built with Mrs. Sage’s largesse and described as one of the loveliest on all of Long Island, could not ward off the march of time. Converted into the home of Dipple Fuel, it too succumbed to the wrecking ball in 1965 to be replaced by what is now the Capital One Bank drive-through next to the post office.
“The LIRR in Sag Harbor 1870-1939” will open at the Sag Harbor Historical Society’s Annie Cooper Boyd House on Main Street, Sag Harbor, there will be a preview open to the public, with an introduction from Bryan Boyhan of the Sag Harbor Express, on Saturday, May 31 at 3 p.m.