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Chris Ryon

This past weekend, Port Jeff residents got a glimpse of a historical schooner in the harbor. Photo by David Luces

With her twin, slanted masts, the 120-foot schooner Amistad, a replica of a famed 19th century ship, rose from Port Jefferson Harbor like a ghost of history the weekend of July 19.

It’s a ghost that has haunted Port Jeff in the past, as local historians and sailing enthusiasts try to bring a tall ship into harbor.

“This harbor was filled with schooners back in the 1800s. We would love to bring those masts back [to Port Jefferson],” said Chris Ryon, Port Jefferson village historian. “We found out they [Amistad] were in Greenport and they were like ‘Can we stop by?’ and we said sure.”

Ryon and other schooner enthusiasts have been trying to bring a tall ship back to Port Jeff Harbor for quite some time. Together they set up the Port Jeff Tall Ship Committee, a subset of the Port Jefferson Harbor Education & Arts Conservancy as well as creating the Port Jeff Maritime Facebook page in an effort to advertise for interested tall ships.

The Amistad at the village dock July 19. Photo by David Luces

One of those interested tall ships was the Amistad, which briefly made an appearance this past weekend at the village dock. The ship is a re-creation of the famed African slave ship where Mende captives from Sierra Leone rebelled against their captors and took control of the ship in 1839. Unable to navigate back to Africa, the ship was towed into port in New London Harbor, Connecticut. The captives were faced with execution or slavery, but their case for freedom was supported by many throughout the state. The U.S. Circuit and District courts ruled in the Mende’s favor, and the Mende would eventually gain their freedom with a final decision by the U.S. Supreme Court supporting the lower court’s decision in 1841. Georgette Grier-Key, Long Island history initiative director at Nassau Community College, had the chance to tour the Amistad, where she also showed the ship’s crew historical memorabilia from that time. She said tall ships are something the greater Port Jeff community could really benefit from.

“It would be great to have that history there, they [schooners] are so beautiful to see in the harbor,” she said. “The Amistad has a great legacy and it is critically important to tell the story. I really hope they can get a ship there.”

The crew of the Amistad was impressed with what Port Jeff had to offer.

“This is a beautiful waterfront. There’s no question in my mind that you guys need an attraction vessel. This town needs it,” said Chris Stirling, captain of the Amistad.

During the summer, the Amistad goes from port to port providing dockside programs where they show patrons the ship and tell them the history behind the vessel. In the evening, the New Haven-based ship does a sunset sail where they take people out on the water to watch the sunset.

Ryon said they’re continuing the quest to get tall ships in the harbor and the Amistad could potentially be one of those ships.

“The owner is up in Connecticut — we have been talking. She seems very interested,” the village historian said.

Stirling said when traditional boats come into port it is an attraction.

“Everybody gets jazzed; they love it,” he said.

The captain of the Amistad said he thinks a boat like theirs can come to Port Jeff and do stuff periodically but mentioned the need for the village to have a flagship vessel.

This past weekend, Port Jeff residents got a glimpse of a historical schooner in the harbor. Photo by David Luces

Back in March, the village had announced negotiations with the Halie & Matthew, a 118-foot-long schooner originally set to dock in Port Jefferson Harbor. But village officials said negotiations fell through when the schooner company, Maine Windjammers Inc., wanted to work the vessel partly as a restaurant, operating outside the normal hours of the pier.

“When the Halie and Matthew deal fell through, we said ‘Let’s not sit here with an egg on our face and let’s try to get someone in here,’” Ryon said.

Ryon said they have been reaching out to the schooner community for a while now and have made it known they are interested in getting a ship in the harbor and are offering a free dock.

“We’re working on it; there are no promises on anything,” he said. “It’s fine on our side. It’s a big boat, that’s the issue — it’s really up to them.”

The village historian mentioned that ideally a ship around 70 feet would be a good size for the dock. Ryon said it may be a little tight for the Amistad to maneuver as it is a 120-foot ship and the water is a little shallower.

There are plans to use committee member Jason Rose’s own still-to-be-reconstructed schooner, Elizabeth, as a placeholder at
the dock.

Rose said he hopes to be able to take the Elizabeth out in the water in the next couple of weeks.

“It would be great to have another schooner join the Elizabeth here,” he said.

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The Schooner Elizabeth will be used as a placeholder at the village dock. Photo from Jason Rose

Port Jefferson residents continue to look toward the harbor expecting to see masts of a tall ship high above the surrounding buildings, but they may have to wait for a while longer.

The Amistad will make a brief appearance in Port Jefferson Harbor July 18. Photo by Chris Ryon

Back in March, the village had announced negotiations with The Halie & Matthew, a 118-foot-long schooner originally set to dock in Port Jefferson Harbor. It was the result of months of work by the Port Jefferson Harbor Education & Arts Conservancy and local maritime enthusiasts, but village officials said negotiations fell through when the schooner company, Maine Windjammers Inc., wanted to work the vessel partly as a restaurant, operating outside the normal hours of the pier.

“We’re like, nope, absolutely not,” said Mayor Margot Garant at a July 15 village meeting. ”The pier closes at dusk … The tone and tenor of that agreement changed so drastically that it just fell apart.”

Village Attorney Brian Egan confirmed the scope of the operation the schooner company desired was inconsistent with what the village originally intended, that the ship would be used for tours and as a promotional platform for the village. Port Jefferson would have given the boat exclusive access to one side of the pier near Jeanne Garant Harborfront Park for four years.

However, the search for tall ships in the harbor is far from over, at least according to Port Jefferson village historian Chris Ryon. 

Ryon and other enthusiasts had set up the Port Jefferson Tall Ship Committee, a subset of the conservancy, to bring a tall ship to the harbor. Ryon said he was unfazed by the setback, saying they already have other plans in the works. The village historian and other committee members set up the Port Jeff Maritime Facebook page to advertise for additional tall ships, from which he said they have received several offers.

“We’re opening up the dock for free to schooners and are saying ‘come on down,”
he said.

These plans include using fellow committee member Jason Rose’s own still-to-be-reconstructed schooner, Elizabeth, as a placeholder at the dock site.

“[Rose] is a very altruistic person,” Ryon said. “He really wants that schooner to be a part of Port Jeff.”

The Amistad will make a brief appearance in Port Jefferson Harbor July 18. Photo by Chris Ryon

Ryon, who attended the July 15 meeting, said there were two ships they were looking at, one being the Amistad, a re-creation of the famed African slave ship where slaves rebelled against their captors in 1839. Famously, the slaves would eventually gain their freedom in court after being brought into New London Harbor in Connecticut. The ship will dock for a brief time Thursday, July 18, while the ship’s crew takes measurements of the dock.

Another ship, the schooner SoundWaters, has also been in talks with Ryon, Rose and the tall ship committee about docking in the harbor for a yet undetermined space of time.

In anticipation of the Hallie & Matthew, the village hooked up the dock to be used by the schooner with electricity, but whichever ship next moors there would be able to use it.

The dock in question currently only contains the Stony Brook University-owned Seawolf, which resides on the dock’s west edge. There is currently no other boat residing on the east edge.

Ryon added the Port Jefferson Yacht Club has made its own dock available should the village wish to house two tall ships at the same time. The club’s dock is actually deeper than the village-owned dock, the village historian said. The yacht club’s dock is 11 feet deep at dead low waters, while the village-owned dock is 5½ feet deep at dead low closest to the shore.

The owners of a historic mansion in Poquott, above, are doing their best to prevent land developers from purchasing it. Photo from Chris Ryon

The owners of a historic mansion in Poquott are hoping history won’t be lost when they sell the home which their family has maintained for more than 70 years.

Located on Van Brunt Manor Road, the mansion, which was built in 1893 and is part of the Benner-Foos-Ceparano Estate, was added to both the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places in August 2016 along with a neighboring farmhouse built in 1895 on Osprey Lane. The first homes in Poquott to be added to the registries, they are surrounded by houses constructed in the mid-to-late 20th century.

Rosemarie Sabatelli, who owns the mansion along with her sisters Felicia and Christina, said it has been difficult to find a buyer. In addition to interested parties offering less than the nearly $4 million asking price, Sabatelli said another factor is the family doesn’t want to sell the mansion to a land developer who may tear down the home, which is structurally sound. Most recently, she said she was wary of a potential buyer who wasn’t concerned with securing a house inspection, which led her to believe he was a developer who had no intent in keeping the home intact.

Chris Ryon, village historian for both Poquott and Port Jefferson, said while the mansion is on the registries for historic places, the recognition only protects it from various types of federal construction such as a new roadway, but not developers.

“It was my grandmother’s dream house so I feel like it’s ours,” Sabatelli said. “My mission is to make sure her legacy and the house go on.”

Ryon said local historians as well as representatives from the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities have come to look at the mansion.

A photo from the early 1900s of the Poquott mansion when it was used as a summer home. Photo from Port Jefferson Village archive

“We want as many eyes on it as we can,” he said. “We want people to know that this house is here and it’s significant.”

When the mansion was built in 1893, Charles Benner, a New York City lawyer, was searching for a summer retreat where he could spend his days fishing and yachting, according to Ryon. It was a time when Long Island was less hectic than the bustling city. Two years later the farmhouse was constructed where the Benner family’s servants lived.

The historian said the house is architecturally significant as Charles Alonzo Rich and Hugh Lamb designed it. The duo were known for their work with President Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill in Cove Neck near Oyster Bay as well as many of the buildings at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

A shingle-style structure with asymmetrical elements such as end gables, the mansion features a bowed footprint that overlooks Port Jefferson Harbor.

“I haven’t found anything with that shape to it,” Ryon said. “So it’s unique.”

A banker by the name of Ferguson Foos bought the property in 1909 and maintained ownership until 1944 when Sabatelli’s grandparents, Joseph and Rose Ceparano, bought it. She said the life of her grandmother, who was a seamstress, was a rags-to-riches tale.

After hearing stories about America, Rose married so as to be able to emigrate from Italy to the United States in 1928, since she would not be able to come here as a single woman. When the marriage failed, she married her second husband, Joseph. Soon after they bought the Benner home, Rose opened the original Schooner Restaurant in Port Jefferson, the eatery known for being a converted sailing vessel, and owned it for a few years.

Sabatelli and her sisters would visit from Flushing, Queens in the summers and play and run around the three floors of the mansion as well as the 18 acres of land. She said coming to her grandmother’s home in the 1970s was like being in a sanctuary. In 1980 after her father’s death, Sabatelli, along with her sisters and mother Mary moved in with her grandmother, who died in 1989.

The mansion remained in the family after Rose’s death, and Mary became known in the area as a philanthropist, humanitarian and businesswoman, who organized many events at the home including fundraisers for John T. Mather Memorial Hospital and the Suffolk County Police Emerald Society Pipe Band.

Sabatelli and Ryon said they think the mansion represents a time when the affluent would vacation on Long Island, and it’s important to save the reminder of a simpler time. They believe that many feel the same way.

“We love looking back at the past,” Ryon said. “Once it’s gone, that’s it. It was the past, and you just erased a piece of it. Part of it is that we can’t get it back, and people love houses like that. It takes them back in time. A time that they remember or time they would like to remember.”

Chris Ryon photo from Naomi Solo

By Naomi Solo

Chris Ryon has officially been appointed Village Historian for the Incorporated Village of Port Jefferson. Chris brings to this position a very interesting historical story. His parents were introduced to one another by Rob Sisler who was the village’s first historian. At the time Chris’ father had been teaching in Port Jefferson High School along with Rob. Chris’ mother Theora Newcomb was a personal family friend. Theora’s father and his brother Spurge owned the very well known Newcomb Brothers Automobile dealership located where the present ferry dock is.

Back in the 1980s I was fortunate to interview Andrew Newcomb, Chris’ grandfather. I was doing research on the building of the schooner Palestine. I got some of my earliest history lessons of the village from him.

Chris’ interest in our local history comes naturally to him because he was raised in a family where history was the conversation during dinner. Chris has for several years been the historian for the Village of Poquott. His appointment to this additional position comes at a time when he has just retired from a career in teaching and is excited about the possibilities of expanding and enriching the Archive of Port Jefferson Village.

To that purpose he cordially invites any residents in the area to stop by the Archive room in the Port Jefferson Village Center on Saturdays or Mondays from 9 a.m. to noon and share stories and/or photos with him.  He fully realizes that the enrichment of the Archive room necessitates villagers’ participation and he is eager to talk to many of you.    

Chris succeeds Ken Brady who held the position and was largely responsible for the development and rich holdings that the Archive room now possesses. Ken welcomed one and all from Port Jeff and surrounding communities to drop in and visit to share old photos and to chat. Chris wants to follow that same pattern.  Preceding Ken Brady in that position was Rob Sisler, and it was Rob’s idea that the Village Center have a Mezzanine/Gallery. Because of this we are able to have continuing art and historical exhibits. It is through Rob’s efforts that two of our historic buildings were moved and restored and have become the Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce office and the Zinna house at West Broadway.

  In chatting with Chris, he said that history exists in the rich memories of the families living in and around the village. For the 150th anniversary of Cedar Hill Cemetery Chris worked on the photo exhibit. Recently my husband has passed away and when I go up to Cedar Hill I see so many of the local family names. I learned most of their histories  from Ken and Chris.

A historian’s job goes beyond simple knowledge and is enriched by the contributions including stories and photos that provide a more complete picture. The job of a historian is to be the gatherer of information where people can come and share their stories.

Those wishing to speak with Chris are welcome to call 631-802-2165 and/or email him at [email protected].