Sunday, April 30, 2017

How East Hampton Became a Resort Destination

How did East Hampton become the raucous destination of nightlife, drinking, vacations and revelry?

It's a story of Fire and Water.  The speakers this evening (April 3, 2017) that follow me will reminisce about East Hampton’s Bars, Taverns, Inns and Resorts. I'd like to set the stage how it all came about.

What greeted settlers of Chatham in the late 1730s was predominantly hilly and rocky terrain.  Some of these adventurous folks found sufficiently arable land to support farming.  Most of those receiving proprietor rights as Middletown land owners, found minimal farming opportunities which probably explains why lots had been surveyed and parceled out by 1721 didn’t begin settlement in significant numbers until after 1737,  long after many of the original owners sold their property without ever venturing east across the great river.

Most of the historical record on settlement centers on people beginning to occupy the land, construct homes, and petition the General Assembly for the establishment of Congregational Church parishes.  What really advanced settlement was not the land, but rather water, and then fire.

Knowles Landing rested on the banks of the Connecticut River in the village of Middle Haddam.  It didn't go unnoticed to those first residents, beginning around 1720, of the value of the river for commerce and trade or how good farm land was at a premium.  From its shipyards starting in the latter 1700s, nearly 200 schooners, brigs, sloops and lesser vessels were built and launched including the famous clipper ships.

But inland, to the east, was Pocotopaug Pond, the beautiful crystal clear body of water from which a stream flows southwesterly through our current village center. My great-grandfather, always referred to Pocotopaug as a pond, probably because in his youth its high water mark was 15 or 20 feet from the current shore and it didn't have water lapping the sea walls until after construction of the first dam in 1903.  That dam, constructed by the Pocotopaugh Water Power Company, was a consortium of 5 mill owners including Bevin Bros., Gong Bell, Summit Tread, Starr Bros. and N.N. Hill Mfg.  Those industrialists desired a way to more efficiently harness water to power machinery in their factories and that happened through a series of 7 or 8 mill ponds, remnants of which remain.  Ironically, it was the dam that fostered the tourism and resort industry, including where we meet this evening.

The earliest entrepreneurs had a similar use for the water exiting Pocotopaug.  At a site where the American Distilling driveway is located on the channel of Pocotopaug Stream, Giles Hall and his partner Jabez Hamlin, influential Middletown land owners and members of the General Assembly, acquired the lots directly south of the outlet and in 1740 built an Iron Works, forge and smelting factory with a great hammer driven by water power to form the ingots.  Although no local source of iron ore, our Iron Works processed and refined pig iron mined in Salisbury CT and as far away as West Point.  We had one of the few forges not located directly at the raw material source, but it flourished and ultimately spawned our infamous bell industry.  Its great mechanically driven hammer was able to pound and shape the iron, much of which was used in the shipbuilding industry.
The fire that stoked the forge of the iron works came from another industry - charcoal - produced from nearby abundant hardwood forests. 

East Hampton became a metal working center and likely was the attraction to one William Barton in 1808 when he settled here and began making bells.  Barton with his father, had been instrumental in the development of interchangeable rifle parts during the American Revolution.  In the early 1800s Barton turned his talents to the casting of sleigh bells.  The uniqueness of his process was a single piece casting with a clapper cast inside - a process devised with wet sand - and one that did not require welding two halves of the bell together.  Instrumental to the founding of the bell industry was the iron forge which developed into the use of other metals, especially brass, a good metal, clean and bright, well suited for clear-toned bells that emerged from East Hampton's charcoal fired furnaces.  Advances came when Abner Bevin brought John Hodge from Scotland, who introduced the Hodge Furnace which could take slag and sweepings of the foundry and separate dirt and impurities from the mass efficiently and cost effectively yielding a pure metal, well suited for bell making.  From William Barton, over 37 bell companies formed producing at count in the early 1940s of over 57 million bells.
Beginning just after construction of the dam in the early 20th century, inns and resorts began springing up around our Lake. 

The beautiful setting, pristine water and access to town via rail made this a vacation destination for city dwellers. In its heyday,  from the early 1920s through the 1950s, East Hampton annually had over 1,200 visitors (increasing the town by a third) staying at inns and resorts such as the Lake View House, Clearwater Lodge, Pocotopaug Lodge, Terramaugus House, Edgemere, Oakwood, Hathaway, Hillside Inn, Ivy Inn, and the Candlelight Inn.  The intentional damming of the Lake for the downstream plants thus presented unforeseen economic opportunities that spurred a great new industry.

Our resorts demise came as other areas of the country developed - the Catskills, Jersey shore, Cape Cod and the South.  As ease of transportation and personal wealth increased, the ability to vacation, especially in warmer climates during winter, supplanted resorts like ours who could not afford to invest in upgrades.

So what finally happened here?  Where are those taverns, inns and resorts?  Look closely as several of those structures still survive.  Unfortunately "fire" became a recurring event.  A series of arsons in the mid-1960s saw Lakeview House, Carriers Casino and the Bowling Alley all go up in flames.  Others such as the Pocotopaug Lodge and Hathaway transformed to meet changing times.  And others still, such as Edgemere and Clearwater Lodge, because of their prime locations, were demolished; replaced with condominiums or other businesses.

Friends that is a much abbreviated history of East Hampton that led to the resort and entertainment venues, but leads into the many stories and memories the next few speakers - Ron Christopher, Nikki O'Neill, Monsignor Ryan and Kate Morris -  will reminisce about this evening.

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