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.

Monday, June 16, 2014

1892 Images of Travers Island NYAC with an Important Description of the Clubhouse and Facilities

In 1892, Munsey's Magazine published an extensive description of the New York Athletic Club facilities on Travers Island and included many images including rare imagesof "the Hall" of the main clubhouse and the old Potter house that stood nearby.  Less than a decade later, the main clubhouse was destroyed by a tragic fire.

I have written on many occasions about Travers Island and the New York Athletic Club facilities located on that island.  For a few of the many examples, with links to the articles, see the citation list at the end of today's posting.

Today's posting to the Historic Pelham blog transcribes the entire article from Munsey's Magazine and includes many of the images that appeared in the article. 


By Owen Hackett.

ENERVATING luxury follows wealth apace, and we, who have grown suddenly rich, would seem to be in danger, if the moralizers of history are to be believed.  But as yet our wealth, so new, seems to tend rather toward our development than our enfeeblement -- a reflection peculiarly applicable to a vital trend of the time.

While England has long been regarded as an 'athletic' nation, it is only within the past decade that we could have merited the epithet; but the remarkable extension of the taste for manly exercises within that period fully justifies its application now, and, helped by our widely diffused wealth and stimulated by our own national propensity to excel, we have been impelled toward a development of the athletic idea hitherto unequaled. 

It has encroached upon the field of general clubdom, not only in New York, where, it is true, it has made its most complete appropriation; but in several of the larger cities, and in [Text continues after image below.]


[Page 389 / Page 390]

many of the suburban or rural colonies of the better classes, the athletic cult has erected to itself a domiciliary as well as a social edifice.

This excursion beyond its true [image of Bartow S. Weeks, President of the New York Athletic Club omitted] scope has paradoxically promoted the very thing it might have been prophesied to weaken.  It has set the stamp of fashion on manly sports, and their luxurious environments have advertised them and rendered attractive pursuits which, alone, would have appeared to many unalloyed labor.  It has also furnished the means of extening the range of physical exercise within a single organization to a degree of universality that insures the pleasing of every taste. 

The largest expansion of the athletic fad (if, indeed, that term be just) has been attained by the New York Athletic Club, which has also the more venerable honor of being the first native organization on record in its department. 

Not content with being the first to build for itself an opulent metropolitan clubhouse, it transferred its athletic field, with its adjuncts, beyond the city limits, and there erected a spacious summer home amid the charms of land and water scenery, where reinvigoration is wafted with every pure breeze. 

This is the far famed Travers Island, a modification of the fashionable country club.  It has proved immensely popular by reason of its manifold allurements, and has its appropriate uses for various tastes and various seasons.  In winter the clubhouse proper is closed, but riders and shooting parties can find welcome entertainment by prearrangement at the small dwelling house which stands beside the other as a useful dependency, and is known as the Potter house, from its former residents of that name. 

Travers Island, united by a causeway to the strip of mainland also owned by the club, comprises a tract of thirty acres on the shore of Westchester County, about half a mile from the station of Pelham Manor.

Unnamed on the maps of Long Island Sound, it was originally called Sheffield Island, and lies just north of Hunter's Island.  Besides the Potter house, a Hunter mansion was formerly located here, and this the club occupied as its general house at first, but not before many thousands of dollars had been spent in the reduction of some of the island's hills and the leveling of an ample field space around which as many as six [Text continues after image below] 

[Page 390 / Page 391]

thousand people have been gathered on the occasion of the club games. 

Shortly after the property was purchased, in 1887, the Hunter house was burned to the ground.  The present elaborate clubhouse was speedily built, and the formal opening took place in 1888.  Since then the most careful improvements and the addition of the most perfect athletic facilities have served only to suggest greater needs.

A proposal has long been under advisement to fill in a wide waste of tidal land, comprising several acres, which will form a needed baseball and football field and further unite the island to a natural hillside ampitheater on the mainland for the accomodation of spectators. 

The present field, occupying what is largely made ground between the shore hills and the island proper, is bounded by the running path of five laps to the mile, with a hundred yards' straightaway along its westerly side.  It required an expenditure of twenty thousand dollars to bring this to perfection, and it is claimed to be the fastest track in the country both for foot and wheel.  Certainly to the practiced eye its appearance justifies the claim.  Hard, elastic, fine grained, smooth, rolled, and drained at short intervals beyond the suspicion of a single 'soft' spot, it is positively tempting to the active and fleet of foot.

Vantage poins for spectators are to be found on the side of the northern ridge of the island, on the top of which the tennis courts have been leveled; in the open stretches bordering the field, and on the inner side of the elevation capped by the clubhouse.

The house is an ample three story building of wood, of that nonde- [Text continues after image below]

[Page 391 / Page 392]

script style of architecture which finds refuge in the title of 'country house.'  Features of its exterior are a tall stone chimney, its bulging circular tower and its generous verandah. 

the hall is the gem of the house, with its warm redwood finish and its cool sweep of air from front to back, where the blue waters and the green woods offer vying prospects; with its great brick fireplace filled with the sacred ashes of springtime fires and crowned by Siddons Mowbray's panel in the entablature 'The Month of Roses' ; and, most conspicuous of all, its central, semi-classic bronze figure of a victorious runner, which a wag has entitled 'Claiming a Foul.'


[Page 392 / Page 393]

Offices, dining, billiard and committee rooms are on this floor, and all above is devoted to cozy sleeping rooms and that greatest luxury of the athlete, the shower baths.

Screened from the view of the clubhouse by the north hill is the capacious boathouse, filled with every species of hand craft, from the lumbering eight oared 'Travers' to the daintiest paper shell or birch bark canoe, and supplemented by a forest of spoonblade oars.

The rowing course, which disappears at low tide, is a straight mile of water, sheltered by the outlying islands, with its finish abreast of the clubhouse.  Just beside the boathouse a yachting station is in course of construction, where club owners and visitors  from the yacht clubs of the Sound find a safe anchorage.

These are the island's chief features.  The really remarkable points of the establishment are such minute details as the appointments and service at the clubhouse, the care and advanced perfection of the athletic facilities, and the methods of organized training pursued with individuals and teams, second only to the 'athletic' colleges for devotion to the banners of the association. 

But to non athletic memebers -- and there are very many such among the membership of twenty five hundred -- the leading attraction must be the convenient, complete and delightful change from the heat and fatigue of labor in a summer city to the al fresco luxury of the true countryside.

It is delicious to sit beneath the roof of the tower piazza an hour after ruling the last line of the balance sheet, and, with whatever extraneous refreshments you please at one's elbow, to follow with the eye the western beams that glint on breezy waters -- to follow them over and beyond the archipelago of soft green islands and across the Sound, to watch the golden sails that seem hardly to move, yet come and go mysteriously, and to stray from land to sky, where the dark hills of Long Island, miles away, surmount a narrow ribbon of pearly sand.

Not twenty rods away from the clubhouse steps is the southernmost of the chain of islands joined by enterprising capital under the general title of Glen Island.  'Little Germany,' is directly opposite the boat [image of Eugene J. Gianini, Captain of the New York Athletic Club omitted] house and its absurd imitations of plaster and wood ribbed peasant houses are not without their pleasing effect in the landscape.  The crowds, too, that subdivide themselves over these various islands on summer days add a pleasant life to the prospect, thanks to the consciousness of complete separation.

Out between the open spaces of this fringe of young verdure one can see the great tower of David's Island, from which the evening bugle call comes, subdued to melody. Many who are now middle aged members have danced innumerable mazy waltzes in former years where, a mile above, the time honored Neptune House used to overlook New Rochelle Bay and exclusive Davenport's Neck.  And City Island still offers its tempting clam bakes, a short sail around the extremity of Hunter's Island toward the south. 

Few, perhaps, give thought to the historic ground through which they pass to reach this favored spot.  It is the domain of 'Lord John Pell,' son [sic] of that 'gentleman of the bed chamber to King Charles I' who bought from the Indians the great tract hereabouts which they had previously sold to the Dutch.

It was the seat, also, of the emigres Huguenots, who purchased and founded here their New Rochelle, and it is further sacred to liberty of conscience from the near by haven which the English lord of the manor [sic] permitted controversial Ann Hutchinson to find, after her expulsion from Boston, only to meet a terrible death at the hands of the persecuted Indians.  Hard by, too, are the scenes of a puerile naval engagement, a patriotic piracy of the Yankees, a British landing and various sharp skirmishes of Revolutionary times.

Almost at the portals of Travers Island stands the half century old Christ Church, founded by the Rev. Robert Bolton, about 1838.  He has the honorable distinction of being a pioneer of the Episcopal Church in the county, as well as a very minute and churchly historian of the neighborhood.  It was his daughter, Miss Nanette, who built up the once famous school for girls at Bolton Priory.  The Priory still stands on its commanding hill just off the road from station to club, and is now inhabited by the descendants of the [Text continues after images below]


[Page 394 / Page 395]

[Image of New York Athletic Club Water Polo Team Omitted.]

[Page 395 / Page 396]


Knickerbocker family of Van Cortlandt, but one of the many names still peopling these shores which can be traced back quite two centuries to their respective Dutch, English or French settler origin.

This luxurious development of athleticism attained by the New York Athletic Club would hardly receive full justice if not contrasted with the exceeding small beginnings which it fathered.  The history of athletics in America is virtually that of the Mercury Foot.

Four or five young men of muscle, of whom William B. Curtis and Henry E. Buermeyer still remain conspicuous, were devotedly attached to all kinds of athletic exercises in the early Sixties, when Caledonian clubs, composed of foreigners, were the only semblance of organized sport.  This company of American amateurs were in the habit of meet- [Text continues below image]


[Page 396 / Page 397]

ing weekly at Mr. Curtis's residence, a site now occupied by Macy's universal mart.  It speaks significantly for that gentleman's attachment to physical cultivation that the back parlor as such had no sacredness as opposed to athletics, for that apartment was fitted up as a gymnasium.

[Image of William B. Curtis, Founder of the New York Athletic Club, omitted]

On Saturday afternoons, in the fine seasons, they resorted to the 'Red House' at the head of Harlem Lane, where they could add running and jumping to the usual indoor weight lifting.  They attained such prominence in feats of strength that the back parlor aforesaid was a Mecca of pilgramage, even from other States, for divers [sic] strong men in search of further conquest; and the original four or five, seldom if ever vanquished, gained a wide reputation. 

So deeply were they imbued with admiration for these classic pastimes that they were moved to issue a call in 1868 to all who were interested in 'promoting and fostering' an interest in manly sports, and, after some disappointment and much devoted work, they succeeded in forming the New York Athletic Club, which gave the country's first general athletic games for native amateurs. 

The club, unlike most firstlings of an order, has been the reverse of conservative.  It has been a pioneer  throughout all its history, the leader in reforms and in progress.  It has suffered its reverses, and it was at the period of its lowest ebb of life, in 1883, when the late celebrated William R. Travers was fortunately elected president.  To him is due not only the rejuvenation of the club, but also the credit of being the founder of the modern athletic association.  He secured the interest of bankers, brokers, business and professional men -- people of real substance -- and with their support athletics entered the field of general clubdom. 

The city house, built in 1884, was considered a marvel of its kind, until the fierce rivalry of the oft victorious Manhattan Athletic Club impelled the latter to enter the same field and erect its palatial establishment.

Its predecessor of the Winged Foot long writhed under this overshadowing until forced to begin the present active preparations to build an urban home at Sixth Avenue and Fifty Ninth Street, which, it is promised, will have few peers in all the club world.

Be it as costly or superb as it may, it will hardly deserve the admiration that attaches to its humbler but more truly sensible idea of the healthful, restful home at Travers Island."

Source:  Hackett, Owen, THE ISLAND HOME OF ATHLETICS, Munsey's Magazine, Vol. VII, No. 10, pp. 389-97(Jul. 1892).  

*          *          *          *          *

I previously have written about the New York Athletic Club facilities on Travers Island. Below is a linked listing of such writings.

Thu., Jan. 23, 2014:  Another Account of the Devastating Fire that Destroyed the Travers Island Clubhouse of New York Athletic Club in 1901

Fri., Sep. 4, 2009:  1901 Newspaper Article About Fire That Burned New York Athletic Club Clubhouse on Travers Island.

Thu., Apr. 28, 2005:  Ladies' Day on Travers Island in the 19th Century.

Thu., May 26, 2005:  The New York Athletic Club's Opening of the 'New Summer Home' on Travers Island in 1889.

Tue., Jun. 21, 2005:  Life at Travers Island in the 1890s.

Thu., Aug. 11, 2005:  How Dry I Am:  Pelham Goes Dry in the 1890s and Travers Island Is At the Center of a Storm.

Wed., Dec. 21, 2005:  An Early Sketch of the First Clubhouse of the New York Athletic Club on Travers Island in Pelham.

Thu., Jul. 19, 2007:  Members of the New York Athletic Club Were Duped Into Believing the Club Created a Small Nine-Hole Golf Course in Pelham Manor in 1897.

Fri., Jul. 20, 2007:  Account of Early Baseball in Pelham:  Pelham vs. the New York Athletic Club on Travers Island in 1897.

Wed., Nov. 21, 2007:  Baseball on Travers Island During the Summer of 1897.

Thu., Nov. 22, 2007:  August 1896 Description of Cycle Route to Travers Island in Pelham Manor.

Fri., Nov. 23, 2007:  The Festivities of the Huckleberry Indians of the New York Athletic Club Off the Shore of Pelham Manor on July 12, 1896.

Mon., Nov. 26, 2007:  Box Score of a Baseball Game Played on Travers Island in Pelham Manor in July 1896.

Thu., Feb. 7, 2008:  Village Elections in Pelham in 1900 - New York Athletic Club Members Campaign Against the Prohibition Ticket in Pelham Manor.

Mon., Jan. 19, 2009:  Photograph of Members of the New York Athletic Club Shooting Traps on Travers Island in 1911.

Tue., Feb. 17, 2009:  The New York Athletic Club Opens Its New Clubhouse on Travers Island in Pelham in 1888.

Wed., Feb. 18, 2009:  The New York Athletic Club Opens Its New Travers Island Boathouse in 1888.

Thu., Feb. 19, 2009:  The Old Hunter House Burns to the Ground in an Arson Incident on Travers Island on April 4, 1889.

Wed., Mar. 4, 2009:  "Ladies' Day" on Travers Island in Pelham Manor in 1894.

Tue., Mar. 24, 2009:  1897 Photograph of Visitors Streaming to Athletic Outing on Travers Island in Pelham Manor.

Wed., Oct. 28, 2009:  Article About the June 10, 1888 Opening of Travers Island Facility of the New York Athletic Club.

Tue., Aug. 18, 2009:  New York Athletic Club Board of Governors Decided to Mortgage Travers Island in 1895.

Mon., Apr. 12, 2010:  New York Athletic Club Stage Coach Accident Leads to Death of Pelham Manor Man.

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