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History

The Lusitania is docked in Liverpool sometime before 1912. Photo from the Michael Poirier Collection

Nancy Dorney will spend several hours at Pier A in New York City on May 7 honoring relatives she never met.

A retired shop owner from Stony Brook, Dorney will join officials from Great Britain, Ireland, Germany and other countries to pay tribute to those who took a journey that ended abruptly and in many cases tragically exactly 100 years earlier when a German submarine torpedoed and sank the British ship Lusitania off the coast of Ireland as it was heading for Liverpool.

Among the 1,198 killed that afternoon were 128 Americans, which included 39-year-old pianist Charles Harwood Knight and his 42-year-old sister Elaine. The Knights were Dorney’s great-great-uncle and aunt and, for a time, were also her grandmother Millicent Lawrence’s guardians. After the sinking, which took 18 minutes, the Knights, who were traveling in first class, were never found.

The Knights “disappeared off the face of the Earth because they decided to take the ship that day,” Dorney said.

The sinking of the Lusitania, like the loss of the Titanic three years earlier, raised questions about what actions could have prevented the death of so many at sea. It also triggered active discussion about what role the United States could or should play in World War I.

The German government had warned of an aggressive campaign to sink ships around the British Isles that they believed were carrying munitions and reinforcements for the war. Some thought the Lusitania, which, at 24 knots, was the fastest cruise ship active at the time, could avoid becoming a target. The ship, however, had shut down one of its boilers to keep down costs, bringing its top speed to 21 knots, said Michael Poirier, co-author of the book “Into the Danger Zone: Sea Crossings of the First World War.” In the waters where the Germans had been patrolling, the ship was only going 18 knots, said Poirier.

The Lusitania “was handicapped by not speeding through the danger zone,” Poirier said. There are so many “what ifs,” he added.

In the aftermath of the sinking, opinions in the United States were sharply divided over the proper course of action. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who had run for president three times and was an outspoken member of the Democratic Party, urged the country to steer clear of involvement.

Bryan thought the sinking didn’t immediately require farm boys from the middle of the country to risk being “killed for the rights of wealthy Americans to travel through war zones,” said Michael Barnhart, a distinguished teaching professor in the History Department at Stony Brook.

Even if America didn’t enter the war, Bryan didn’t want the sinking to become “a line in the sand,” where, if the Germans cross that line in the future, America “paints itself into a corner and has no option but to go to war,” Barnhart continued.

Teddy Roosevelt personified the other side of this argument, urging the United States to come to the aid of the British. Roosevelt viewed the sinking of the Lusitania “as an example of barbarism,” Barnhart said.

Political cartoonists at the time described the Germans in terms similar to the way people view ISIS now, Barnhart said.

Sensing that the country wasn’t eager to become involved in war, President Woodrow Wilson demanded that “Germans give the citizens of neutral nations a chance to get away in lifeboats before the ship on which they had been sailing was sunk by a German submarine,” explained Richard Striner, a professor of history at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. The Germans told Wilson the British had deck guns on their passenger ships that the British could use if the submarines surfaced. Wilson, Striner continued, suggested the British get rid of these guns but, not surprisingly, the British refused.

Ultimately, however, Wilson did what Bryan feared, indicating that future attacks would bring the country closer to war. In protest of the president’s posturing, Bryan resigned. In 1917, the Germans “realized that turning the U-boats loose would bring the U.S. into the war,” Barnhart said, but, they resumed their attacks anyway amid a shift in political winds in Germany. The United States joined the war on April 6, 1917.

As for Dorney, she has delved deeper into the lives of distant relatives who were important for her grandmother. Charles Knight, who people called by his middle name Harwood, was an accomplished pianist and, as Dorney described, a bit of a character. He forgot the organ music he was supposed to bring to a family funeral and played a somber version of a ragtime song from 1896, called “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”

The last anyone heard from the Knights was when they sent a note to Dorney’s grandmother that contained a list of first-class passengers aboard the Lusitania, with names including Alfred Vanderbilt and Charles Frohman. A theater producer, Frohman helped develop such stars as Ethel Barrymore and John Drew, relatives of current actress Drew Barrymore.

As the former owner of Pride’s Crossing, a housewares and furniture store in Stony Brook, Dorney said she has an appreciation for what she’s learned about the Lusitania. The woodwork on board was “beautifully made and included interior design and artwork that were magnificently done.”

Dorney and those attending the wreath-laying ceremony in New York will heed the words Poirier said are so often connected with the sinking of the Lusitania: “Lest we forget.”

Work will add parking spots, greenery near historic area

The parking lot east of Mariners Way will get a makeover. File photo by Elana Glowatz

Village officials have lined up a construction company to redo the parking lot behind the Fifth Season restaurant, recently dubbed the Baker’s Alley lot, as part of a larger project that aims to restore a downtown historical area.

The Port Jefferson Village Board of Trustees hired East Moriches-based Rosemar Construction, the lower of two bidders on the work, at its meeting on Monday night. At the municipal lot by Mariners Way, the work includes repaving and striping, putting in a pedestrian walkway and adding landscaping.

In addition to the parking field east of Mariners Way, the lot includes 14 spaces in a strip on the road’s western side.

Restriping will make room for seven to eight more parking spots, Mayor Margot Garant said at the meeting.

It will also eliminate a dead end in the middle of the parking lot, improving access for public works employees when they remove snow from the village’s lots in the winter.

East Coast-based engineering firm VHB — the group that put together the construction drawings and plans for redoing the metered parking lot based on designs by Port Jefferson’s Campani and Schwarting Architects — still has to review Rosemar’s bid, which came in close to $350,000 and will be funded by village parking meter revenue.

“I’m told that this is quite a good price,” Trustee Larry LaPointe said. “VHB expected it to come in significantly higher.”

Officials are now calling the area the Baker’s Alley parking lot, making it the namesake of a nearby path the village is working to restore. Baker’s Alley was, in turn, named as a nod to Port Jefferson’s so-called bakery wars that took place there in the early 1900s, in which William West’s New England Bakery famously competed with another local shop. The feud fully erupted in 1916, when both owners changed the establishments’ names to Port Jefferson Bakery.

The now-overgrown and often overlooked dirt path starts at East Main Street, heads down to the parking lot and turns north toward East Broadway. Village officials are looking to turn the alley into a brick walkway, with classic lighting and native plants along the way. After turning north, it would run along a short stone wall as it passes between the parking lot and adjacent businesses, then connect with the small Founders Park at East Broadway.

The village has not yet received bids on the alley portion of the project, LaPointe said, but officials want to get moving on the parking lot work.

“We need to get started as quickly as possible so we don’t interfere any more than necessary with the use of that lot in the high season.”

The Order of the Ancient and Honorable Huntington Militia held “Muster Day” on May 3, reenacting the day Huntington learned of the first battles of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord in 1775. Actors in the historical re-enactment demonstrated trades and daily life skills from the colonial era on the grounds of the Arsenal, a restored historical house museum located near the corner of Main Street and Park Avenue.

The Huntington Historical Society hosted its annual Sheep to Shawl Festival on May 3, giving locals a fun and fascinating look at colonial life. It featured real sheep-shearing and had demonstrators in colonial costume sharing their knowledge and assisting visitors in carding, spinning, knitting and weaving. There was also live music and colonial-era games. Children experienced different aspects of colonial life, including the process of how sheep wool goes from the animals to fabric — from sheep to shawl.

The Noah Hallock house dates back to the early 1700s. File photo

By Julianne Cuba

After being closed for the winter, tours have resumed at the Noah Hallock Homestead in Rocky Point, on Hallock Landing Road.

The Rocky Point Historical Society acquired the property two years ago. Noah Hallock built the homestead in 1721 and eight generations of his descendants lived in the house until 1964, said Natalie Aurucci-Stiefel, president of the historical society.

Noah and his wife, Bethia, had three sons: Noah II, Josiah and William. All three sons were born in the house their father built and served in the military as Patriots during the Revolutionary War.

The elder Noah, who died in 1773 at age 77, was buried beside his wife, who died in 1766, in the family’s cemetery, located on a hill behind the homestead. Bethia’s grave is the oldest in the Hallock family cemetery.

In 1964, another local family purchased the home, and lived there for almost 50 years.

Today, the homestead operates as a showcase and a museum of Rocky Point’s history. The tours, which are offered at 172 Hallock Landing Road on Saturdays from April through December, 1 to 3 p.m., showcase 15 rooms with information from the 1700s through the 20th century. One of the rooms focuses on radio history, Aurucci-Stiefel said.

The famed RCA Corporation, headed by David Sarnoff and based in New York City, had a radio transmitting station in the hamlet.

“We’re proud to feature Rocky Point’s history in this house,” Aurucci-Stiefel said. “Each room features original artifacts and photograph collections.”

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Robert Reuter shares photos of historic homes

Beverly Swift Tyler House, 114 Main St., Setauket, built 1881. Photo from Beverly Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

“A historic district is an area containing buildings, structures or places which have a special character and ambiance based on historical value … of such significance to warrant its conservation, preservation and protection,” according to the Town of Brookhaven’s definition.

The town’s historic districts in the Three Village area was the subject of a talk on the evening of April 23 by Robert Reuter sponsored by the Three Village Community Trust. Reuter — a member of the town’s historic district advisory committee, president of the Frank Melville Memorial Foundation and vice president of the community trust — showed pictures of some of the most interesting homes, buildings and businesses in the historic districts and how many owners in the historic districts have benefited from the consultation and advice provided by members of the advisory committee.

This was one opportunity for residents to learn about the five historic districts in the Three Village area and the structures and environment of some of the most beautiful and significant areas of our community. A number of members of the advisory committee were on hand to provide additional information and examples of the many success stories locally.

The real beauty and significance of the historic districts is not just in the buildings themselves, nor their architecture but in the stories of the people who have lived in these homes over the past three centuries or so.

In 2002, Ward Melville senior Stacy Braverman wrote about a house in the Old Setauket Historic District: “From a very early age, I have loved 114 Main St., albeit from a distance. It has a perfect location — close to the park, post office, library and village green. Its distinctive color and stained glass windows make it unusual, but it still fits in perfectly with the area.”

In researching the house, Braverman found out the house was built for my grandfather. She also discovered that one owner was the first woman and the first Catholic elected to the Setauket School Board of Education.

In an interview, Braverman said she discovered that one of the most recent owners painted the house blue because a “helpful” neighbor told him that all houses in Setauket had to be white with black shutters at that point in time.

This is just one of many stories surrounding the people, architecture, setting and history of the homes and structures in the town’s five Three Village historic districts, which are located at Stony Brook, Old Setauket, East Setauket, Bethel Christian Avenue Laurel Hill and Dyers Neck.

With the town having 15 historic districts all told, it means that the Three Village area has one-third of the designations.

The community trust’s spring lecture series, “Keeping a Sense of Place in the Three Villages,” will continue with a Thursday, May 28, talk, “The Marion Lake Story: Defeating the Mighty Phragmites” and will conclude on Thursday, June 25, with a look at “Patriots Hollow State Forest.” All programs are 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Setauket Neighborhood House.

For more information, see the website at www.threevillagecommunitytrust.org/programs.

Details of the town’s historic districts, guidelines and other documents are available at the Town of Brookhaven website www. brookhaven.org/committees/historicdistrictadvisory.aspx.

Books, booklets and pamphlets on the homes and environment of the Three Village area as well as walking tour guides are available from the Three Village Historical Society, 93 North Country Road, Setauket. The society office and gift shop is open Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sunday 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Beverly Tyler is the Three Village Historical Society historian.

Washington, D.C., trip ties pieces of nation’s past to North Shore, including famed Culper Spy Ring

A panda enjoys bamboo at the National Zoo. Photo from Beverly Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

What do spy codes, a Setauket officer’s saber, cherry blossoms, pandas and a postal museum have in common?

This past weekend my family, including eight grandchildren, traveled to Washington, D.C. to visit our nation’s capital together and discover new things. The trip began with a visit to the National Cryptologic Museum about 30 minutes north of Washington.

Here, the story of the secret world of intelligence is detailed with interactive displays and cipher technology from the 16th century to today. One section details the activity of spies during the Revolutionary War, especially General Washington’s Culper Spy Ring, and allows visitors, especially children, to “Create Your Own Secret Cipher,” “Hidden Message,” “Invisible Ink Secrets” and “Make a Secret Code with a Dictionary.”

There is also a “CrypoKids Challenge,” with messages to decode throughout the museum. There is, of course, much more to see here, including captured German and Japanese code machines.

Cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. Photo from Beverly Tyler
Cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. Photo from Beverly Tyler

The recently renovated Smithsonian National History Museum along the National Mall includes the exhibit “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.”

Covering the period from the French and Indian War to the present, “exploring ways in which wars have been defining episodes in American history,” the exhibit includes a stunning array of artifacts, including a dragoon saber belonging to our own Major Benjamin Tallmadge, General Washington’s chief of intelligence and son of the Setauket Presbyterian Church minister.

A late spring provided an April 11 blooming for the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin at the Jefferson Memorial. More than one million people attended the cherry blossom festival in Washington, D.C., however we all went to the National Zoo to watch the pandas play and eat bamboo. A great choice considering the crowds and we did get wonderful pictures of the blossoms the day before.

We spent one morning at the National Postal Museum across the street from Union Station. This may be the best museum in D.C.; it is definitely the most interactive Smithsonian museum.

Visitors can sort mail in a postal train car, ride in a postal truck, select routes to deliver mail across the country and follow a new mail route from New York City to Boston in the 17th century, which became the Boston Post Road decades later. Other activities include letters written home during the many wars and conflicts of the past three centuries and the opportunity to follow these letters as they travel from place to place.

In one simulation of a post office, people come up to the postal window and interact with the clerk. One young girl came up to the window and asked that the Christmas list she was carrying be sent to Santa at the South Pole.

The clerk responded that Santa was actually at the North Pole. The young girl said, “Oh, that’s all right, this is my brother’s list.”

There are many other wonderful stories in the postal museum, including poignant letters written home during the Civil War. There are also real stories about mail fraud, letter bombs and how the security system of the United States Post Office Department dealt with crime.

And not to ignore the Hollywood approach, there are stories about all the movies made about every postal subject from the Pony Express to prohibition.

All in all, it was an experience for visitors of all ages.

In four days, we also visited the Natural History Museum, the Air and Space Museum, and walked around the Washington monument and Lincoln Memorial. All the Smithsonian museums belong to all Americans and admission is free.

Beverly Tyler is the Three Village Historical Society historian.

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Vance Locke’s 1655 scene, showing the purchase of all the land from “Stony Brook to ye Wading River,” includes some of the trade items that were actually delivered one month later.

by Beverly C. Tyler

April 14 will be the 360th anniversary of the establishment of the town of Brookhaven at Setauket.
From 1 to 6 p.m., the public is invited to view the Vance Locke murals in the Woodhull Auditorium of the Setauket School, Main Street, Setauket. Costumed historians will be available to detail many of the features of the murals. This is the only day of the year that the murals are open to public view.

“In this project, where historical background was so important, a great amount of research had to be done by Vance Locke, so much that the actual painting took up only one-fifth of the time spent on the murals,”  local historian William B. Minuse said in 1974.

In 1951, artist Vance Locke painted the series of murals in the Setauket School auditorium to commemorate the opening of the school and the founding of the town. The murals represent the history of the early days of Setauket and Brookhaven. The murals, completed in 1952, were a gift to the community by Ward and Dorothy Melville.

The murals begin with “Setalcott Native American Village” circa 1600. The next mural in time depicts the “Purchase of Land of the Setalcotts” by the agents for the English settlers in 1655. Five mural scenes picture important industries in Brookhaven, including “Colonial Farming,” the “Grist Mill,” the “Blacksmith,” “Shipbuilding” and “Cutting Ice.”

These murals depict the time periods from 1700 to 1900. The remaining five murals represent the Revolutionary War period on Long Island from 1776 to 1780.

Painted more than 60 years ago, Vance Locke’s wonderful murals, now completely restored to their original color and brightness, offer a realistic, visual look back at the history of our community and town.

Beverly Tyler is the Three Village Historical Society historian.

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Residents living in the Three Village community celebrate this Christian Avenue home as historic and charming. Photo by Phil Corso

Christian Avenue’s Sleight House is the newest historic landmark in Brookhaven Town.

The Town Board approved the late 19th-century home’s designation on March 26 after a public hearing on the matter.

The Civic Association of the Setaukets and Stony Brook and the Three Village Community Trust supported the decision.

“This circa 1880 home is a fine example of the architecture of the time and exemplifies the simple charm that attracts many of our Three Villages community,” civic President Shawn Nuzzo said in his letter to the board.

According to Brookhaven Town Historian Barbara Russell, the home belonged to Charles Sleight, a North Carolina native and carpenter. The home remains occupied today.

“It’s just wonderful that the homeowners are so proud of this house,” Russell said.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum has received a grant of $135,000 from The Robert D. L. Gardiner Foundation to support the restoration of the museum’s extensive marine collection, the largest privately assembled collection of sea specimens from the pre-atomic era.

William Vanderbilt (1878-1944) created his Marine Museum, which he called The Hall of Fishes, in 1922. He stocked it with marine specimens collected during voyages to the Galapagos Islands and opened it to the public for a few hours a week. He added to the collection after his circumnavigations of the globe in 1928-29 and 1930-31.

Jennifer Attonito, executive director of the foundation, said, “The Vanderbilt Museum is a Long Island gem and a major anchor of local history. We are proud to help preserve this valuable collection to benefit museum visitors and to help raise awareness of Long Island’s heritage.”

The Gardiner Foundation, established in 1987 in Hampton Bays, supports the study of Long Island history, with an emphasis on Suffolk County. The foundation was inspired by Robert David Lion Gardiner’s personal passion for New York history.

Stephanie Gress, the Vanderbilt’s director of curatorial affairs, said, “The Gardiner Foundation grant will help us to restore and preserve many rare specimens in our Marine Museum that have long needed critical attention. Our marine collection is the foundation for several key Vanderbilt education programs that serve Long Island schools.”

The Vanderbilt marine collection of 13,190 specimens is housed in the Marine Museum, Habitat and Memorial Wing. Of these, she said, 919 are invertebrates in fluid (displayed in “lots” — from two to many in a single display container); 719 dry fish specimens; 1,746 wet fish specimens in lots and 9,806 dry marine invertebrates (shells and corals). Dry specimens are exhibited on the first floor of the Marine Museum, wet specimens on the second floor.

The two largest marine specimens are a 32-foot whale shark — caught in 1935 and restored in 2008 with a federal Save America’s Treasures grant — and an imposing manta ray, caught in 1916 and restored many years ago, with a 16.5-foot wingspan. William K. Vanderbilt II called it the “Sea Devil.”

Gress said cartilaginous fish, such as sharks and rays, which have spines of cartilage instead of bone, are the most difficult to preserve. Another problem is the age of the collection — many of Vanderbilt’s earliest specimens are nearly 100 years old. When preservation fluid (ethanol and distilled water) in specimen containers degrades the wax seals, comes in contact with air and evaporates, specimens can decompose, she said.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Rd., Centerport. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.