Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Life At Travers Island in the 1890s

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There was a time when "stages" rolled up and down Shore Road ferrying visitors to the New York Athletic Club summer clubhouse on Travers Island. Members marveled at the speed of the Velocipeds (bicycles) that raced on the island. They sat on the piazza of the shingle-style clubhouse and listened to the Melodeons (organ-like instruments) and the cries of the beasts caged in the "Menagerie" on nearby Glen Island. They listened to frogs lying in the reeds and, in the evenings, watched vaudeville performed on a little wooden stage built on a rocky outcropping near the clubhouse.

Times, of course, were different then. There is a lovely article published in the July 1895 issue of Scribner's Magazine that attempts to capture "Life at the Athletic Clubs". A substantial portion of the article is devoted to life at Travers Island in the 1890s. Today's Blog posting transcribes that portion of the content of the article that describes life at Travers Island.

"Travers Island is the best known of these country athletic fields. It is one of the rocky, wooded, dromedary-backed formations that are characteristic of the north shore of the Long Island Sound. It was originally an island by the courtesy of the high tide, but a roadway has joined it hard and fast to the shore as a peninsula. It is shoreward of picturesque Glen Island, and between it and Glen Island, and stretching farther away under the shore of Hunters Island, is a straight-away course of nearly two miles of as good rowing water as a sweep could dip. On one knoll of the Island sits the clubhouse, facing the outlet into the Sound, which focusing between Glen Island and the heavily wooded eastern shore of Hunters Island, holds a view of the farther water and the distant shore of Long Island as if one were looking through the lens of a camera. It is the delight of a summer’s evening to dine upon the clubhouse piazzas and catch the drifting picture of distant yachts and coasters and snowy Sound steamers. Somewhat farther toward the mainland is a larger knoll, left in its natural state and covered with trees, save where some tennis courts are laid out. Beyond the trees are the boathouse and the yachting quarters. Between the two knolls lies a level bit of turf as smooth and soft and rich as if it were a cloak of Lincoln green thrown upon the earth, and about it runs the dark border of a cinder track.From the club-house and from the grassy slopes reaching down to the track, a view of the field is given as if one were looking down upon the arena of a natural coliseum; and as one glances at the surrounding hills that give a sense of seclusion to the place and help to concentrate the view upon the field itself, one could scarcely keep from thinking, that if the athletic sports of Greece were to be revived, if the somewhat grandiloquent French project to re-establish the ancient athletic games with the world as a new Greece should succeed, no more harmonious Olympia could be found.

But unfortunately, the palmy days of track athletics have gone by. The last annual championships of the Amateur Athletic Union were held on these very grounds, and although they were given under the auspices of the most powerful of all the athletic clubs, and although they represented the competition of the whole of the United States, they were attended by only a very meagre audience. The fact is that the American appetite for competition is no longer satisfied with the comparatively mild contests of the track events. And then again, the athletic clubs themselves have helped to destroy the interest in the ordinary field sports. For many years they made the giving of athletic games the whole purpose of their existence, and finding them popular, they multiplied them to replenish their treasuries. They pursued the idea that the winning of prizes by men wearing their club colors meant prosperity. They invented a system of athletic memberships, that signified anything that they desired it to mean, from free initiations, remitted dues, gratuitous board and lodging, to a business situation or cold cash, and they offered valuable prizes that could quite readily be converted into money. They raised their trainers from the position of rubbers and servants of the club to the position of athletic managers, and imposed upon them the duty of having a sufficient number of speedy legs to run and jump and a sufficient number of muscular backs to throw weights for their clubs, irrespective of any social requirements of the owners of those backs or legs.

The consequences most inevitable were that the athletes of the clubs became hired performers, and they were often kept like a pack of hounds and taken around by the athletic manager to run in one game after another; that the athletic managers, who were mostly illiterate and purely of the professional class, absorbed in themselves practically all of the competitive athletics of the clubs and forced their personalities on the clubs that engaged them; that the Amateur Athletic Union was compelled to make an annual round up of all its members, to brand a goodly number of the ostensible amateurs as professionals; and finally, that the tone of track athletics became so cheap and so common that the better portion of the club membership held aloof from it. But whatever may be the present status of track athletics, if you haven’t had too much of them, they are vastly interesting. It is fine to see a quartette of hurdlers “set” for the finals, and to watch them break over the low hurdles like the fast curling wave of a fresh-water lake, that tosses itself rapidly along and rushes up the beach as it breaks. It is fine to watch the flat sprinters dart intohigh movement at the crack of the pistol and fly like leaves before a furious wind, holding together like a living thing, until a dark, swarthy, sun-burned figure, that has caught your eye from the freedom of his movement, glides out ahead of the rest, every bit of him running, not a false motion anywhere, and you feel that you have seen one of theperfections of physical attributes. And it is fine to follow the full, strong stride of the half-mile and mile runners, whose legs rise like pistons and whose prototypes must surely have suggested to the ancients the idea of the winged feet of Mercury, so lightly do they touch the ground. Perhaps the most exciting of all the track events are the bicycle races, for it is astonishing to behold the speed of those meagre skeletons of steel that seem almost like the bones of the wind. Indeed, at the present time ordinary athletic games will not draw a crowd large enough to pay expenses unless bicycling is madean important part of them. It is interesting in connection with this to pick up the newspaper account of the very first games given by theNew York Athletic Club, in 1868, at the Empire City Rink, the first games given by any athletic club in this country, for it calls to mind how marvellous [sic] has been the development of the wheel sincethat time.

The reporters in those days possessed none of the easy familiarity with sporting matters which the craft possesses to-day, and the particular scribe who wrote this story set down with considerable naïveté what quite filled his eyes.

“At this juncture,” runs the article, "the velocipede race, which the programme announced as the closing feature of the exercise, took place. It proved nothing more, nor was it intended to be more, than an exhibition of the speed to be gained by these wonderful engines of locomotion. The carriage consists of but two wheels placed one before the other with a treadle apparatus to spin them on. Without speaking a word about the velocity with which one can cover ground while riding this machine, the wonder is how one can maintain a balance on it at all. Yet this seems to be no part of the difficulty in navigating. On the contrary, every effort of the rider seems bent on driving at a breakneck speed. The case and celebrity with which this new method of propulsion was turned around the corners of the building was amazing, and its performance was in the highest degree satisfactory."

When one recalls the "bone-shakers" of that period -- as the velocipedes of that day were called -- buggy wheels with treadles on the leader -- and thinks of the contemporary Safety, beating the mile record of the fastest running horse, one can well smile at the ingenuous wonder of the reporter at the primitive road scorcher he was describing.

Despite the present eclipse of track athletes they certainly will not die out of the clubs, for they form the basis for all efforts for physical excellence. And if but the chief Athletic Associations should resolutely abolish the giving of prizes of value and the offering of pecuniary inducements to contestants, the track might rationally be expected to fill a larger place in the life of the clubs. It would become more interesting to the rank and file of the membership, who, under the present condition of affairs would only be duffers if they ventured upon it, and it might reasonably be expected to become an implement of sport and exercise instead of simply a traditional weapon of inter-club competition.

But leaving Track Athletics, I want to set down a few things about Travers Island and the life there. The best thing about it is the opportunity that it offers for exercise: a track to run on, a turf to play ball on, courts to play tennis on, the water to row and sail on, the afternoons on the "course" or out on the Sound, the swim, the dinner on the piazza afterward, the pleasant afterglow of clean exercise, a pipe with "the Arcadia" mixture to give you a sense of life (for that is the secret of fire) and to enable you to construct a soothing melody from the singing of the frogs in the reeds when the tide is out.

That these pleasures are appreciated by the members is best illustrated by the fact, that all of the available rooms in the club-house are rented for the whole summer, and that the transient rooms are almost continuously in demand, and sometimes utterly inadequate to accommodate the men who would occupy them.

Travers Island is by no means a country club such as the Westchester, or the Meadow Brook, or the Essex County, where the members patronize the pouter forms of sport and stiffen up their enjoyment of the country with a good bit of style and society. Travers Island is much too democratic. It is laid out primarily for athletics, and everything in it and around it is for use. They haven’t left any artistic bushes or clumps of sumach-trees where you can look out of bay windows at them, or put up a wall about anything and let ivy grow on it. You do not want to go to Travers Island with the idea that you can take a volume of poems out of the library and calmly enjoy the restfulness of a summer's day there. If you sit down on the piazza you will hear the hysterically speedy melodeons from Glen Island, or the cries of the beasts in the menagerie. Or, perhaps, a member with some business friends from the West in thedry goods line, will be sitting at a table near you with cocktails and small whitenapkins, and they will be telling stories that are like the atmosphere of the smoking compartment in a Pullman; and they will all laugh so suddenly and inartistically that you will have to take up your peace of mind and carry it off with you. You cannot go into the house, for the small reading-room is next to the billiard-room, and there are sure to be men with brown derby hats and cigars playing billiards there witha proficiency that argues anything but a serious youth; and the sight of a multitude of sporting papers with their head-lines exposed will drive you thence. In the hallway there is a hearth, and over it the inscription: “Where friends meet hearts warm ;“ but a log fire underneath is no part of the life of the club and there are no easy chairs about. There is cordiality enough, though. In no place do you see more men slap each other on the back, and laugh and call each other by their first names. But it is a bit noisy. The stages wheel up and leave a crowd that come in as if they were going to do something. The club servants are raw, not a shade obsequious, and seem to think that they are in a hotel. If you wander out toward the boat-house you will find everybody in an energy over something. Men with strong backs and brown arms diving off the spring-board, and doing turns that would be a credit to a circus; or a school of swimmers plunging along with the overhand side - stroke that makes them look like some sort of a wheel-fish with a porpoise movement; or perhaps an eight are walking on their toes down the gangway carrying a shell; or if there is a bit of wind, the cat-boats are hoisting their sails. You are supposed to be there for the purpose of exercise, and unless you go in for it, you will be apt to leave with a feeling of having been out of sympathy with your surroundings.

There is no lack of entertainment provided at Travers Island. The season sets in with the spring regattas, a form of sport that has been held on in the club with very much the same persistency as Track Athletics. Then come Ladies' days when the Island is taken possession of by a host of Omphales. And family parties come from the surrounding country in rockaways on the invitation of members.

In the early days of the New York Athletic Club it was the custom to send out notices to the members to bring ladies with them to the club games, "in order that athletics might be made as respectable as they were in England." Perhaps nothing illustrates the change of sentiment in regard to athletic clubs better, than this continual public endorsement of the present New York Athletic Club by the present reigning half of humanity.

One of the most interesting features of the summer life is the Vaudevilles given on a stage built out on the rocky slope in front of the club-house. And very popular are these variety shows, out in the open air under the starlight, or with a big yellow moon shining up the inlet and with the accompaniment of summer night sounds in the air. A general sense of comfort and tobacco smoke pervades the audience, and many of the men who are detained in town on business are here. It is not exactly so polite an exhibition as a lawn performance of "As You Like It," but it is vastly more interesting. In the be-vaudevilled town of New York it would be impossible that such an alert audience should not be quite even with the very latest thing on the boards, and they are not there half so much for the show as they are for the fun in it. They are sure to recognize all the popular songs, and they appropriate the choruses with great effect, and take the cigars and pipes from their mouths to give them a judicious rendering.

They consider the member of the entertainment committee who introduces the performers as fair prey, and as he escorts before the footlights a beautiful lady in tights with a long purple captivator with red lining, who shortly will sing a song in a peacocky voice as an apology for her being there, he receives a most embarrassing storm of congratulations, and the audience lets itself loose to enjoy its own humor. It's a bit common, perhaps, but it's good fun, and it is unique.
Again, perhaps the club celebrates its birthday with a clam-bake at which all the queer timber in the membership turns up, and lean men whom nobody knows are on hand and devour great quantities of clams. And as a clam-bake with beer in pitchers is a sort of basic happiness (technically known as an "Al-a-ba-zam"), voices begin to sing that have plainly no right to sing, and by the time the green corn appears, the tables are beginning to look half-seas over, a large body of men are persuading themselves that they are enjoying themselves, and one man is attempting to make a speech and is being pulled down whenever he gets up. These are times when anyone who loves quiet had better take to the woods. As the middle of night settles down, and the spirits who own the night are again making themselves felt to the listening ear, the last speech is only reiterating the first speech, that the New York Athletic is devoted to pure amateur athletics; and the stages that go up the country lane roll away with the joyous refrain, so popular at Travers Island to express the feeling of having spent a pleasant evening, floating back from them,

How dry I am, how dry I am,
Nobody knows how dry I am."

Source: Edwards, Duncan, Life At The Athletic Clubs, 18(1) Scribner's Magazine pp. 4-24 (Charles Scribner's Sons; July 1895) (these materials are transcribed from pp. 8-15).

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