Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Saddle Rock Turns 100

2011 marks the Centennial of the Village of Saddle Rock, the first village established on the Great Neck peninsula.
Louise & Roswell Eldridge founded the Village of Saddle Rock in January of 1911The Eldridge estate, in its entirety, made up the new village of Saddle Rock.  At the time, the new village had 77 residents.  All of them had lived on the Eldridge estate, and were either somehow related to the Eldridges, or worked for them.  The Eldridge mansion was called Redcote; it sat on a hill overlooking Long Island Sound, not far from the Saddle Rock Grist Mill.

"Redcote," the home of Louise and Roswell Eldridge, in Saddle Rock (no longer in existence).

Roswell was the first mayor of Saddle Rock, but Louise succeeded him when he died in 1927.  Louise was the first female mayor in the State of New York.  Given her previous experience with all things municipal (she was a founding member of many local entities, including the Great Neck Library, the Great Neck Society for Social and Educational Advancement, and the Great Neck Park District), Louise probably had little trouble serving and leading the new village.
Louise had inherited land and family money, and continued to make wise investments during her lifetime.  Roswell had made much of his fortune from the reorganization of The Hoboken Ferry Company.  Several Great Neck contemporaries of Roswell's had also gotten wealthy investing in shipping and ferrying lines.  Roswell also invested heavily on Wall Street.  Before he died he was a millionaire, living a life of leisure as a gentleman farmer and breeder of his beloved Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.
Raising Cavalier King Charles Spaniels was one of Roswell Eldridge's true passions in life . . .
. . . riding his prized horses around Saddle Rock was another.
Stock certificate for 18 shares of The Hoboken Ferry Company, owned and signed by Roswell Eldridge, dated June 16, 1897.
This 1933 Chevrolet "woodie" was probably once the official vehicle of Saddle Rock and the Eldridges.  It was purchased by a Long Island collector in 2009.  "Saddle Rock - Great Neck" was painted in gold leaf on the driver's side door.  The owner sent us this photo, hoping that we might have further information about the van.
Louise Skidmore Udall Eldridge, the Grande Dame of Great Neck, onetime mayor, and owner, of Saddle Rock.
The oldest image of the Saddle Rock Grist Mill that the Great Neck Library owns is on this postcard.
The note written on the back of this postcard is signed "L. U. S.," which is probably either Louise Udall Skidmore, or her mother, Louisa Udall Skidmore.
Cool  Saddle  Rock  Facts
Most of the streets in Saddle Rock are named after famous American and British poets.
The Saddle Rock Grist Mill is the oldest known structure in the Great Neck area.  It dates back to the late 1600's.
For more information on Saddle Rock, visit the
History Page from the Village of Saddle Rock Website

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Did Fanny Brice Ever Really Live in Great Neck?

Over the years, claims have been made that many famous people lived in Great Neck.  At the library, we give claims that can be substantiated credence, but if we cannot find hard evidence to support a contention, we tend to qualify it by saying "Maybe," or "Yes, a lot of people say that, but no one seems to know for sure."
Fanny Brice: a gifted comedienne, for sure, but did she ever live in Great Neck?
We often hear that Fanny Brice was one of the famous actors who lived in Great Neck, back when our community was a “place to be” for actors, Vaudevillians, producers, and writers of note. Though it’s always hard to prove a negative, it would seem that Ms. Brice (nee Fania Borach) never really lived in Great Neck.

A biography in the Library’s collection, Fanny Brice: The Original Funny Girl, by Herbert G. Goldman, lists many residences for Brice, but not one of them is in Great Neck.  Nor does The Fabulous Fanny, by Norman Katkov mention Great Neck.  The 1920 census locates Ms. Brice in Manhattan.

Fanny was married three times – briefly, to a barber named Frank White, to Nicky Arnstein (a.k.a. Julius Arndstein and Jules Arnold), and to Billy Rose.  During their marriage, Arnstein spent time in Leavenworth prison where Fanny visited him frequently.  After Nicky Arnstein and Fanny Brice divorced in 1927, Nicky married one Isabelle Matlack.  That marriage, in Quebec, was recorded in the New York Times on January 7, 1930.  This announcement listed the bride as the daughter of J. C. Matlack of Beverly Road in Great Neck.  The obituary for Isabelle Matlack’s mother, also in the New York Times, lists her residence as 4 Beverly Road.  An essay about Kensington in the files of our local history collection mentions that Arnstein lived briefly on Beverly Road.  Could this Arnstein-Matlack connection, tenuous as it is, be the basis of the idea that Fanny Brice lived in Great Neck?
Do you have any evidence that Fanny Brice lived in Great Neck? If so, we’d sure like to know about it.
Postcard of the Bel Air, CA residence of Fanny Brice

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Seawanhaka Saga Continues

The Local History Collection recently acquired this circa 1870's postcard handout depicting the steamship Seawanhaka and advertising its schedule.  This item was purchased with money from the Risha Rosner Memorial Fund*, which is made up of contributions donated in recognition of Risha Rosner, a dedicated, longtime Great Neck librarian and local history enthusiast who passed away in March of 2010.

Artist's rendering of the steamship Seawanhaka off Sands' Point.  Note that the maker of this card was Donaldson Brothers of Five Points, New York.  Five Points was a notoriously overcrowded and crime-ridden downtown Manhattan neighborhood.

The Seawanhaka was one of many steamships that shuttled commuters and daytrippers to and from Manhattan, Whitestone, Great Neck, Sand's Point, Glen Cove, Sea Cliff, Glenwood, and Roslyn.  In the days before highways, affordable autos, and commuter railroads like the LIRR,  steamships were a major way for people to travel longer distances.  Recreational grounds like Oriental Grove in Great Neck became popular steamship destinations for weekend travelers looking to escape the city for a day of relaxation, nature, sport, and picnicking.  The waterways of New York City and its surrounding areas were full of steamships, which were full of passengers and cargo.  These waterways became increasingly dangerous, as more and more steamships and other boats competed for limited shipping lanes and rights of way.  Many serious steamship catastrophes, and many more small accidents and near misses, occurred in and around the waters of New York City.  Among these was the Seawanhaka Disaster of June 28, 1880.  These incidents were caused by the aforementioned shipping conditions, lax regulation, corruption, poorly enforced or nonexistent safety rules, improper ship design, use, and upkeep, and the dangerous, often negligent conditions on some ships.

If this schedule was accurate, then the
Seawanhaka was a very fast ship indeed

The Seawanhaka Disaster and Great Neck
       In the late afternoon of June 28, 1880, the steamship Seawanhaka was making its regular trip up the East River from its last Manhattan boarding dock to Long Island, with many commuters aboard.  As the ship sailed into the narrows between Hell Gate and Little Hell Gate, her boiler caught fire.  Flames quickly spread to the ship’s other decks.  With no docks in sight, and heavy boat traffic on both sides, Captain Charles P. Smith piloted his ship to the wetland shore of Randall’s Island.  He ran the Seawanhaka aground in a spot called the sunken meadow.  Half the ship sat on marshland; the other half faced the waters of the East River.  Captain Smith stayed with his ship until he blacked out.  He had been badly burned on the face and hands while steering his ship to the best landing site available.
       Those fleeing the Seawanhaka were forced to choose between a blazing, sinking ship, swampy marshland, and inhospitable waters - many could not swim.  Over forty people perished in the Seawanhaka fire, drowned fleeing the ship, or died from injuries suffered in the disaster, including several Great Neck residents.
       The Seawanhaka Disaster, as it came to be known, had a profound effect on Great Neck.  Some of the Great Neck residents who died in the Seawanhaka Disaster were prominent citizens - businessmen who owned homes and/or businesses in both New York City and Great Neck.  Abram P. Skidmore was a particularly beloved and admired Great Neck resident who died in the disaster.  Other Great Neck residents who died in the disaster include Hilard R. Hulburd, Mordecai Manuel Noah Smith, James H. Skidmore, and Montague Smith.  Still other Great Neck residents, including F. K. Edwards, were rescued after the burning ship ran aground.
       Outraged at the increasing frequency of deadly steamship accidents, of which the Seawanhaka had only been the latest, public and government outcry soon resulted in investigations and prosecutions.  Some practical changes in the oversight of New York’s shipping industry were made.  W. R. Grace, former mayor of New York City, and perhaps Great Neck's most eminent resident, was on the Seawanhaka when it went down.  He knew some of the passengers who died in the disaster.  Grace tried to make certain that those who perished in the Seawanhaka Disaster did not die in vain.  He attempted to ensure that proper investigations were being made, and that suggested changes in shipping regulations were being adopted.
       In Great Neck, townspeople mourned their fellow residents who had perished.  They also praised and memorialized the captain of the ship, helping to collect a large sum of money to present to him, for his bravery, and to help defray the costs of his treatment, recovery, and loss of income.

Illustration from the July 17, 1880 Harper's Weekly, dramatically depicting scenes from the Seawanhaka tragedy.  Before photojournalism became practical and widespread, illustrators often drew stirring images to accompany the news stories of the day.  The Great Neck Library Local History Collection owns a copy of this issue of Harper's Weekly, which also includes an editorial and news article on the Seawanhaka Disaster.

* If you would like to contribute to the Risha Rosner Memorial Fund, please call the Great Neck Library Reference Department at 516-466-8055, ext. 218.  Contributions to this fund are spent on adding items to the library's Local History Collection, and preserving, conserving and providing better access to the collection.