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, January 24, 2017

What Was Travers Island Like in 1888 Before the New York Athletic Club Built its First Clubhouse?

Travers Island has been known by many, many names.  It has been known as Hog Island, Hogg Island, Sheffield Island, Mills Island, Emmet Island, Emmett Island, Sedgemere and, finally, Travers Island.  

In the 1880s, the New York Athletic Club leased country grounds for outdoor activities in Mott Haven, now part of the Bronx.  During that time, William R. Travers, who served as President of the club beginning in 1883 until the time of his death in 1886, pushed the club to purchase a suitable second home in the country for the club.  With the lease for the Mott Haven grounds expiring, in 1886, the New York Athletic Club formed a special committee to find a site for the club's second home.  The committee settled on an idyllic and beautiful island off the shore of Pelham Manor that was, at the time, attached to the mainland only by a simple, narrow causeway.  At the time, the island was most frequently referred to locally as "Mills Island," "Emmet's Island," and as "Sedgemere."  

1884 Advertisement Offering the Two Principal Cottages on
"Mills Island" (Today's Travers Island) For Rent.  Source:
TO RENT -- MILLS ISLAND, The Evening Post [NY, NY],
May 5, 1884, p. 2, col. 9.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

As the work of the New York Athletic Club's Historian for Travers Island, Mark Gaffney, has shown, no one named Mills nor Emmet ever owned the island.  Rather, people of those names leased the two principal structures on the island for a number of years.  It seems that after John Hunter acquired the island in 1836, the Hunter family began leasing it while living on (and near) Hunter's Island.  There was a cottage on the island that was located on land now covered by a portion of the clubhouse that stands on today's Travers Island.  That home was leased to Robert Edgar, then to William S. Hoyt, and to Edward T. Potter, a well-known architect and musical composer.  The cottage thus became known as the Potter House.  

In about 1867, William Jenkins Emmet (a collateral descendant of famed Irish Patriot Robert Emmet), bought the home that still stands at 145 Shore Road overlooking a portion of Travers Island.  Emmet also leased the Potter House and maintained that lease during the 1860s and 1870s.  Members of the Emmet family referred to the island as "Sedgemere."  Others began referring to it as Emmet Island and Emmet's Island.  

"THE POTTER HOUSE." Source: Hackett, Owen, THE
ISLAND HOME OF ATHLETICS, Munsey's Magazine, Vol. VII,
No. 10, p. 392 (Jul. 1892). NOTE: Click on Image to Enlarge.

"ORIGINAL WELL-BEFALL HALL." in the Potter House.  Source:
Magazine, Vol. VII, No. 10, p. 393 (Jul. 1892). NOTE: Click on
Image to Enlarge.

At the time of his death, John Hunter bequeathed to his widowed daughter, Mary Mills, a life estate to the island (hence Mills Island).  After the death of Mills in the 1870s, and the expirations of the last remaining leases to any property interests on the island in the early 1880s, the Hunter family was ready to sell the island although -- as the real estate advertisement set forth above shows -- the family made occasional efforts to lease the two cottages on the island. 

The N.Y.A.C. Special Committee appointed to find a suitable second home for the club finally settled on Sedgemere Island.  Members of the club voted in 1887 to acquire the island.  The club completed its purchase of the island on January 13, 1888 for $58,500 and, initially, toyed with the idea of using the name "Sedgemere Island" for the site.  With the recent death of club President William R. Travers, however, the club decided to name the island in his honor.

What was it like on Travers Island in the first few months of 1888, before the Club built its first clubhouse?  In addition to the Potter House pictured above, there was a second cottage known as the Hunter House.  The Hunter House was named after John Hunter who remodeled the structure, reportedly built in the early 19th century, after he first bought the island in 1836.  On April 4, 1889, a tragic fire burned the lovely Old Hunter House. The New York Athletic Club was still developing Travers Island at the time and the old home had been converted into apartments. Among those living there was Thomas Toby, the island superintendent who oversaw laborers working on the island.  I have written about that fire before.  See:

Fri., Nov. 18, 2016:  Photographs of the Old Hunter House on Travers Island Before it Burned in 1889.  

Wed., Nov. 16, 2016: More on the 1889 Fire that Destroyed the Hunter House on Travers Island

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

"'HUNTER HOUSE.' Travers Island Club House in 1888."
Source: HUNTER HOUSE, The Winged Foot, Jul. 1913, p. 9,
cols. 1-2. NOTE: Click on Image to Enlarge.

An informative article published in the May 6, 1888 issue of the New York Herald paints an entertaining and informative picture of what Travers Island was like in the first few months it was owned by the New York Athletic Club.  Clearly lively and chaotic was construction underway with men using horses as beasts of burden to transform the contours of the land and shape it to suit the club's needs.  A one-fifth mile track was under construction.  

By early May, a baseball field had been constructed.  According to the article:

"There is also a ball ground like a saucer.  Two of its sides are surrounded with trees and big rocks, affording an elevation -- in the shade, too -- that will make a delightful coign of vantage for the spectators at a game."

YORK ATHLETIC CLUB, The Daily Graphic [New York, NY],
Jun. 8, 1889, cols. 1-5. NOTE: Click on Image to Enlarge.

The club also quickly built tennis courts on the elevated hillside overlooking the baseball field.  The New York Herald article mentioned plans to light the tennis courts with electric lights.   

In these early months, as the club shaped the contours of the new grounds and prepared the landscape on which to begin building its new clubhouse after the summer recreation season ended, there still were beautiful vestiges of the lovely estates that once had been cultivated as homes on the island.  Gravel walkways crossed the grounds.  Beautiful flowers throughout the island included wild violets, lovely roses, and snowdrops.  Spectacular Box Hedges (Bruxus), considered "relics of Colonial days" when formal gardens may have dotted the grounds, could be found in many spots.  There were many examples of the "Bluebottle Flower," also known as the Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), a lovely flower native to Europe.  Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens), an aromatic evergreen creeping vine, added beauty to the island as well.  

In short, in the first three months of 1888, Travers Island was changing from a quaint, beautiful, and idyllic island setting to an lovely country club setting for outdoor -- and indoor -- athletics.  As one might expect, in those early cold weeks of the year, the island was lively with the activity of laborers preparing the grounds for summer athletes who would use the two cottages during training and athletics until the new clubhouse could be completed and opened the following year.

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Below is the text of the New York Herald article referenced in today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog.  The text is followed by a citation and link to its source.


Around a beautiful promontory in Westchester county flow the waters of the Sound.  From the shores of Pelham, about ten miles out from New York, the scene it presents is one of the liveliest; men and horses busily engaged in ripping up the vivid turf and laying bare and raw, like the surgeon's scalpel on the arm of a giant, the under strata of clay.  Rocks and trees appear to have been rent and uprooted, and yet withal out of the chaos there are cropping signs of a wonderful improvement.  At present the place is known as Emmet Island.  In a few weeks it will be rechristened Travers Island, in commemoration of the late William R. Travers, and thenceforth it shall be the country home of the New York Athletic Club.

A town house for all time and a rural seat for the summer is what this renowned athletic organization proposes to boast just as soon as the workmen have completed their task of renovation at the lovely spot the men of muscle have selected up amid the fields and forests and warring waters of the annexed district, Ex-Commissioner of Education Eugene H. ('Pop') Pomeroy is chairman of the Island Committee having the alterations in charge -- a committee composed of Jennings S. Cox, A. T. Sullivan, Otto Ruhl, R. W. Rathborn and W. G. Schuyler.  Away back in the numeral days, when the century and the country were alike in their infancy, the island was known as Hogg Island; then it became 'to all men by these presents' Sheffield Island, after Captain Sheffield, a shipbuilder; and next, when Mary Mills obtained it, the gallant trees and stones and lands assumed her name.  Thomas Addison Emmet acquired the ground and lived upon it for twenty years on a lease from old John Hunter, and hence came the title under which the island has, in latter years, braved the storms and smiles of all kinds of weather, and from which the New York Athletic Club has claimed it at a purchase price of $60,000.


There are two houses already on the island, containing respectively eighteen and twenty rooms, and holding the proud record of having been the residence of Mr. Hunter and Mr. E. C. Potter.  With the wild violets that hold up their lips to the dew, lining the gravel walks; the tiny petaled snowdrops, lining the hedges of box, relics of Colonial days, the almost extinct bluebottle flower and the vines of trailing arbutus, these old manor mansions will be restored and preserved and held for occupancy until time claims their dust.  In one of them is a big chimney that once the forge of a smithy around which, 'tis said, the house was erected, and by craning the neck into the fireplace and turning the eyes upward can be seen the azure dome of heaven.  'Well befall hearth and hall,' the motto on the fireplace at the Queen's home at Balmoral, is plainly inscribed on the chimney pieces, and in perpetuation of the antiquity Mr. Pomeroy, with a poetic spirit that is refreshing, has given the house the name 'Well Befall.'  Wherever it is possible the natural beauty of the island will be maintained in bowlder, shrub and grove.


'What we aim to get,' said Mr. Pomeroy, as he picked up a wild rose bush and looked at it, with a regretful glance at the ploughshare nearby, 'is a real, genuine country home.  In a few years there will be no track available in New York, as the land must become too valuable for such a use.  Now we shall be possessed of a permanent ground, opposite the new Pelham Park, where we can enjoy ourselves for all time unmolested by trade or commerce.  Travers Island is only one hour and ten minutes from the City Hall in New York and it will be easily accessible by cars or boats, coach, horseback or yacht or scull.  It is proposed to spend $100,000 in improvements.  House and field will be lighted by electricity, so that, if desirable, a game of tennis may be played at night.  No, we will not make our own electricity; it will be obtained, with the water, from New Rochelle.

'Do you intend to build a new club house?' was asked as Mr. Ruhl came along with Sinclair Myers, who held bouquets of white and yellow blossoms in their clay-covered hands.

'Yes, but we don't think it wise to begin until late in the season, so as not to break up the summer sport.  These workmen are excavating a track one-fifth of a mile long at a cost of $15,000.  There is also a ball ground like a saucer.  Two of its sides are surrounded with trees and big rocks, affording an elevation -- in the shade, too -- that will make a delightful coign of vantage for the spectators at a game.  There is  new tennis court on top of that hill -- an exquisite spot in a grove of trees, something like the ring at the bottom of a bowl.  The Hunter House is to be at the head of the race track, as you see, and in front of it those trees there are the handsomest white oaks in New York State.'


Going up to the New Rochelle end of the island Mr. Pomeroy impersonated the tempter.  And well he might in such surroundings.  Forty feet above high water were seven acres of the loveliest and most luxurious verdure studded with diamond sparkling rocks, whence could be obtained an unobstructed view into the misty distances of the upper Sound.

'We are going to have a band of music play for us all summer,' said Mr. Pomeroy, with a humorous twinkle.

'What!' exclaimed Harvey Kennedy, the 'Byronic Apollo' of the club.

'Yes.  Don't you hear it?  The David's Island band.'

Mr. Pomeroy was decorated like unto poor old King Lear by the young men he had fooled, but they love him so that he could not object.  There were sounds of a bugle; sounds, broken by the space between, like the peevish crying of a child.

'A rowing course, good in all weather, will be laid out around this end of the island,' resumed Mr. Pomeroy.  'At high tide it will be two miles straight ahead.  A boat house is to be erected in the cove, on dry land, supported on piers.  It will be just 100 feet square, with five compartments for shells, &c., and two stories high, and contain six hundred lockers, each provided with a combination lock.  A shop for boat building and repairs is to be included.  In front of the boat house there will be a float, 100 by 25 feet, and at the very lowest tide the water at its edge is sixteen feet deep.'

'What style of architecture?'

'Square style.'


The new club house will stand on the Pelham end of the island on a rocky prominence, also forty feet above the water level.  It will be T shaped and cut up into bowling alleys, billiard rooms and sleeping rooms in the T wing, which will be 60 by 30 feet, and in the main house, 60 by 80 feet, there will be a cafe, 30 by 60 feet, running straight through the house; a reception room, an office, committee and reading rooms, hat rooms, a barroom, kitchen and dormitories and sleeping rooms.  Eighteen sleeping rooms in the T wing and seventy-two in the main house will be provided for members, exclusive of  the dormitories for servants and athletes.  A dressing house for athletes will be built at the race track, which, by the way, will be commanded by the windows of the club building so that, as 'Pop' says, 'I can sit in my own room, furnished with antique furniture, sip a lemonade, see the boys on the track, the girls on the lawn and the ships and steamers on the sea.  What more does a fellow want?'  A dock is to be erected for the accommodation of excursion steamers; stages will connect with the trains on the Harlem branch of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, and boats will ferry back and forth to and from Glen Island.  Every provision for fishing, yachting and rowing has been made already, and as soon as the weather becomes warm, or after the first of June, when the place is usually opened, the ground will abound with swings and hammocks.


The New York Athletic Club is perhaps one of the biggest institutions of the kind in the world, and financially it is unequalled.  It has 2,000 regular members, 200 life members, 300 non-resident members and 700 men on the waiting list, with applications for admission at an average rate of two per day.  The officers are:  -- President, A. V. Golcouria; Vice President, Jennings S. Cox; Treasurer, Henry A. Rogers; Secretary, Otto Ruhl, and Chairman House Committee, Eugene H. Pomeroy.

Cottages are to be built for members in the near future on the main land of the property acquired."

Source:  THE ATHLETES' SUMMER HOME -- "TRAVERS' ISLAND" TO RING WITH THE SHOUTS OF MEN OF MUSCLE, New York Herald, May 6, 1888, No. 18885, p. 10, cols. 4-5.  

"Club House, Travers Island."
Athletic Club" [Program], Jun. 13, 1891 (NY, NY:
New York Athletic Club, 1891).
NOTE: Click on Image to Enlarge.

"Boat Houses, Travers Island."
Club" [Program], Jun. 13, 1891 (NY, NY: New York
Athletic Club, 1891). NOTE: Click on Image to Enlarge.

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

Wed., Jan. 18, 2017:  A History of Trap Shooting in Pelham, Including Amateur National Championships.  

Fri., Nov. 18, 2016:  Photographs of the Old Hunter House on Travers Island Before it Burned in 1889.

Wed., Nov. 16, 2016:  More on the 1889 Fire that Destroyed the Hunter House on Travers Island.

Tue., Sep. 13, 2016:  Notable 1903 and 1904 Cross-Country Championships Were Run on a Course Between Travers Island and Pelham Manor Station.

Wed., Aug. 03, 2016:  1891 Images of the Old New York Athletic Club Facilities on Travers Island.

Fri., Dec. 04, 2015:  Early Celebrations of the Huckleberry Indians of the New York Athletic Club.

Mon., Nov. 30, 2015:  Another Detailed Account of the 1901 Fire that Destroyed the Clubhouse of the New York Athletic Club on Travers Island.

Wed., Jan. 28, 2015:  Pelham Manor Resident Pushed for Removal of the Causeway from Shore Road to Hunter's Island in 1902.

Tue., Dec. 23, 2014:  The Original Summer Clubhouse of the New York Athletic Club in 1889, Shortly After it Was Built.

Mon., Dec. 22, 2014:  Rare 1889 Photograph of Baseball Players Playing on Pelham Field.

Mon., Jun. 16, 2014:  1892 Images of Travers Island NYAC with an Important Description of the Clubhouse and Facilities.

Fri., May 16, 2014:  The Diving Platform on Travers Island for Members of the New York Athletic Club.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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.

Wed., Dec. 27, 2006:  Photograph of Grounds of New York Athletic Club Facility on Travers Island Published in 1904.

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

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

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

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

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

Archive of the Historic Pelham Web Site.

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