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.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Old Hunter House Burns to the Ground in an Arson Incident on Travers Island on April 4, 1889

On April 4, 1889, a tragic fire burned a lovely old home on Travers Island known as the "Old Hunter House". Named after John Hunter of Hunter's Island who had remodeled and improved it, the main portion of the structure actually had been built in 1812 by Temple Emmett, a member of the Emmett Family that long resided in the area.

An interesting article about the fire and the firemen's response included a brief history of the house appeared in the April 5, 1889 issue of the New-York Tribune. The text of that article appears immediately below.




When Thomas Toby, the New-York Athletic Club's superintendent at Travers Island, who occupied apartments in the old Hunter house, opened the back door to go out at 5 o'clock yesterday morning he was literally slapped in the face by a sheet of flame that burst through the open door, impelled by the strong northeast wind. Mr. Toby was so surprised that for some time afterward he was unaware that his eyebrows, lashes and beard had been singed away as cleanly as if removed with a razor. Mr. Toby summoned the dozen or more laborers employed to put the grounds in readiness for the spring meeting of the club, and set them at work removing the contents of the building. Everything was saved from the basement and first floor, including kitchen, dining-room and reception-room furniture, but by the time this was accomplished, almost the entire exterior of the house was on fire, and the men had to run for their lives.

The fire was seen at New-Rochelle and three engines were sent to the scene. The firemen, finding there was not enough water to save the house, turned their attention to saving the giant oak on the lawn, whose wide-spreading branches stretched out over the house with a downward swoop, wonderfully suggestive of the idea that the tree was protecting the old homestead. The firemen knew that the club men loved the noble old tree and they succeeded in saving it, but the house burned down. The loss on the house and its contents is about $14,000, which is fully covered by insurance.

Captain W. G. Schuyler, vice-president of the club, went to the island yesterday, returning to the club-house, No. 104 West Fifty-fifth-st., last evening. The new club-house, which will be ready for occupancy in May, he said, was not damaged, being some 600 feet from the burned building. President Cox said that personally he was glad the house had gone instead of the oak. Many a good story was told, many a fragrant Havana burned to ashes and many a refreshing liquid quaffed underneath the shadowing branches of the old tree last summer, and there was happiness last night that the pride of the island still stood. President Cox said that the fire was probably incendiary, as it had originated on the outside of the building, in the rear, where there was nothing that could in any way start a blaze. A year ago a large stable in the rear of the Potter house, adjoining the new club house, was burned in a similar way. There is no clew [sic] to the supposed incendiary, and the members of the club know of no reason why arson should be adopted by any one as a measure of vengeance.

The old house was built in 1812, and various additoins [sic] had been made at intervals since then. The original portion of the structure contained a wide, old-fashioned hall. On the first floor was an antique fireplace, big enough to roast an ox in, over which as an inscription, 'Well befall hearth and hall.' The house was built by Temple Emmett, a descendant of Robert Emmett, the Irish patriot, and the island was for a long time known as Emmett Island. It was sold to Richard Sheffield, a boat builder, who in turn disposed of it to John Hunter, Mr. Hunter building two new wings and modernized the structure. Arthur Hunter, the amateur steeplechase and cross-country rider, and his wife, occupied the house in the summer of 1887, after which the island was sold to the New-York Athletic Club."

Source: A House Lost and a Tree Saved, New-York Tribune, Apr. 5, 1889, p. 2, col. 4.

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