"The Matter of Proceedings to Acquire Land on Fishers Island"
by Pierce Rafferty
On July 17, 1896, Lieut. Col. William Ludlow, Corps of Engineers, was ordered by Brig. Gen. W.P. Craighill, Chief of Engineers, "to transfer to Capt. Smith S. Leach, Corps of Engineers, the charge of the preparation of plans for works of defense of the eastern entrance to Long Island Sound, together with all records, maps, and papers pertaining thereto." Subsequent instructions stressed that "it is particularly desired that the most necessary sites be procured at the earliest practicable date."
On August 15, 1896, Capt. Smith S. Leach was directed to make recommendations as to possible sites in the region suitable for fortification. Furthermore, he was to list the owners of the sites, the improvements (buildings, windmills, fences, etc.) for which owners would need compensation, and the lowest prices at which each owner would sell. A key part of his charge was to state whether he considered the prices reasonable. In effect, Capt. Leach, supervising engineer, became the government's land-purchasing agent for the Long Island Sound region. At this stage, he could not have fathomed how difficult and frustrating his crash course in real estate negotiation would become.
He turned his attention first to the relatively desolate islands of Great Gull and Plum, two desired fortification sites located just off the western tip of Fishers Island. On August 23, 1896, he sent a letter to the postmaster in Greenport, Long Island, inquiring about real estate agents handling property on Great Gull and Plum. The apologetic postal official responded: "I fail to learn that there are such real estate agents who handle the above property." How Capt. Leach determined the true owner of Great Gull is not known. However, we can presume that he was simultaneously chagrined and relieved to discover that the Island had been solely owned by the U.S. government for the previous ninety-three years, having been purchased in 1803 for use as a lighthouse reservation. (Little Gull had been acquired as the lighthouse site, Great Gull as the keeper's "plantation.") Moving with uncharacteristic alacrity, the War Department quickly convinced the Treasury Department to transfer Great Gull Island to its control for defensive purposes, the Treasury Department "reserving the privilege of placing and maintaining thereon any aids to navigation which it may be necessary to establish in the future..."
By late September 1896, construction of fortifications was set to begin on Great Gull.
With Plum Island's owner(s) still a mystery, Capt. Leach turned his focus to Fishers, where at least he knew the identity of its principal owners: the brothers Edmund M. and Walton Ferguson. On August 24, 1896, Capt. Leach sent a letter of inquiry to Fishers Island, addressed to the Messrs. Ferguson, who were in residence at their summer homes. The original letter is lost, but summaries and responses show that he requested ownership and price information on three tracts of land, all on the western tip of the Island. The Ferguson brothers responded on September 3, stating: "The subject matter has our attention, an answer to which we hope to submit during the coming week."
This inquiry from the government was almost certainly not unexpected. The Fergusons were aware that land on the western tip of the Island had been leased for military training since the mid-1880s, a practice that had continued after they purchased the lion's share of Fishers Island in 1889. An article published in New London's newspaper, The Day, on July 4, 1888, indicates that the government was negotiating to acquire the training area, then owned by the Fox family. A brochure, published by the Fergusons circa 1892, featured possible on-island fortification sites, and virtually advertised their military worthiness: "The attention of Congress has been directed toward the subject [coastal defense] and the folly of leaving New York and Connecticut unguarded when so easily might Fishers Island be turned into the Gibraltar of the Sound by a series of forts erected on this and adjacent islands, is becoming more and more apparent every day."
Before Capt. Leach had a chance to receive the Fergusons' reply with their asking price, he was once again instructed to give his own assessment of the land's cost. On September 19, 1896, he submitted an estimate of $150,000 for the Fishers Island site. (No record has been found documenting how he arrived at this figure.)
The Fergusons' detailed reply is printed below in full. They split the land into the three tracts for which Capt. Leach requested information. Each of the larger tracts contained the area of the previous one, i.e. Tract Number 2 contained 1 and 2; Tract Number 3 contained 1, 2 and 3.
Fishers Island, N.Y. Sept. 30th, 1896
To Capt. S.S. Leach, United States Engineer's Office, New London, Conn.
Dear Sir: We have to reply to your favor [letter] of the 24th August and should state that the actual area of the various tracts is estimated and not obtained by actual survey.
TRACT NO. ONE
a. Answer to question a. Approximate area about 19 acres. Owned by the U.S. Government, 8 acres. [Ed. note: This land at the extreme tip of Race Point had been owned by the U.S. Government since 1871 as part of the Race Rock Lighthouse Reservation.]
b. Owned by us, 11 acres (and also about three acres under water).
c. There are no other proprietors.
d. There are no improvements.
e. Lowest cash price $1,000 per acre.
TRACT NO. TWO
a. Approximate area about 233 acres. Owned by the U.S. Govt., 8 510 acres.
b. Owned by us, about 224 acres (and also 35 acres under water).
c. Owned by Miss Theodora Gordon of Newburgh, N.Y., 1 acre.
d. There are two houses, one large barn with sheds, and a carriage and wagon house, in all valued at $9,000.
e. Our price is $1,000 per acre and $9,000 for the improvements.
TRACT NO. THREE
a. Approximate area, about 317 12 acres.
Owned by the United States, 8 510 acres.
b. Owned by us, 255 acres (and 51 acres land under water).
c. The other proprietors are: Miss Theodora Gordon, 1 acre; George H. Bartlett, Bethlehem, Pa., 10 12 acres,
(and 10 acres under water).
Mrs. M.B. Hoppes, Bethlehem, Pa., 13 34 acres.
d. Two windmills with their well, value $750, in addition to $9,000 improvements mentioned with tract two.
e. Our price is $1,000 per acre and $9,750 for improvements.
Some years since, the land underwater for a distance of about 200 feet from shore was purchased from the State of New York. Should the United States Government purchase any of the above Tracts, deeds will be given for the land underwater in front thereof without further consideration.
As the descriptions left considerable leeway, our engineer could not be positive of the actual areas until the lines were definitely settled.
Yours very truly, E.M. & W. Ferguson
Capt. Leach's curt response, dated October 2, 1896, dispensed with the formalities. He challenged their acreage figures (the listed acreage for Tract No. 3 didn't add up) and, assuming a clerical error, asked for clarification. The Messrs. Ferguson immediately responded that the discrepancy in acreage arose from the inclusion of "land under water" which they had purchased from the State of New York. A slightly exasperated Capt. Leach, not the least interested in building forts underwater, wrote back on October 6: "you will notice that tracts Nos. 1 and 2 check almost exactly, if the land under water be not included, while tract No. 3 does not check whether the land under water is included or not. I will thank you for an exact statement of the number of acres for which you expect a payment of $1,000 per acre." Buyer's agent and seller were not exactly bonding.
On October 21, 1896, the Messrs. Ferguson, after meeting with Capt. Leach
in New London, submitted an amended proposal that corrected the math error
and removed the figures for underwater land from the main listing of acreage.
However, when the dust (mud) had settled, the
bottom line remained unchanged: $1,000 per acre, no matter how large a tract was purchased.
Why the hostility? Didn't the Fergusons want to sell? Why were the hackles up on both sides? The Ferguson brothers may have anticipated (and certainly encouraged) the government's strong desire for their site, but they also had good reason to be wary of their mighty suitor. Hovering in the background, undeclared at first but quite present, was the power of the United States to seize lands by condemnation. The government knew from the outset it was going to get the land by either normal sale or through the courts. (Hence Capt. Leach could be as brusque as he wanted.) The eventual ownership of the land by the government was never questioned by either side. The great unknown was the price. If the government did not receive what it considered a reasonable price, it had the power to petition the courts for a decree of condemnation. If granted, a court-appointed board of commissioners would then determine the fair price for the seized land. The Fergusons, having invested heavily in both the purchase and development of Fishers Island, wanted it clear from the outset that they expected significant returns for their land. The unintended result of their lofty asking price was to virtually end the government's interest in negotiation and push all parties towards the crapshoot called condemnation.
On October 29, 1896, Capt. Leach submitted a report to his superiors, in which he considered the three tracts on Fishers. He recommended the purchase of Tract Number 2 (which included Tract Number 1) containing 225 acres: 224 owned by Messrs. E.M. and W. Ferguson and one acre by Miss Theodora Gordon. [Ed. note: Later surveys indicated that the Ferguson's portion of Tract Number 2 was actually 215 acres.] Although the original of this report is missing from the files at the National Archives, it is known from summaries that Capt. Leach listed the Ferguson's land price and the cost of acquiring improvements. He also specified that the one house on Miss Gordon's property could probably be acquired for $3,000 or $4,000. Believing these prices unreasonably high, Capt. Leach recommended the condemnation of the property, but thought that even by this method of acquisition the cost would not be less than his $150,000 estimate.
After some debate on reservation size, Col. John M. Wilson, Division Engineer, endorsed Capt. Leach's report and seconded his thoughts on the future importance of the Fishers Island site: "Capt. Leach has very properly taken the broad view that the garrison for the defense of the eastern entrance of Long Island Sound will naturally be quartered on Fishers Island and his recommendation covers the purchase of sufficient land for batteries, quarters, storehouses, drill grounds, target ranges, etc."
For the next month, Capt. Leach's recommendation worked its way up the chain of command. On November 25, 1896, Brig. Gen. W.P. Craighill, Chief of Engineers, submitted the matter to Secretary of War Daniel S. Lamont for his consideration. Brig. Gen. Craighill endorsed Leach's recommendation for the purchase of tract No. 2 at a cost not to exceed $150,000. He argued that Tract Number 1 was too small for the proposed batteries, and had no suitable docking site for boats (an understatement given the tides at Race Point.) He considered Tract Number 3, containing approximately 288 12 acres, larger than necessary and potentially costly, for it included extensive improvements. The Chief of Engineers stated about the preferred site:
Tract No. 2 contains approximately 233 acres of which about 8 acres are now owned by the United States. While this area is somewhat in excess of the strict requirements of the Engineer Department for construction purposes, there are other considerations which would justify the purchase of a larger area. One of these is the fact that the southern portion of this tract is low and in part will be swept by fire of the proposed batteries, which would render its acquisition by the United States necessary. The easterly line of Tract No. 2 extends to a natural ravine well adapted for defense against landing parties. Sufficient room will be afforded also for the garrison required to care for the armaments not only on Fishers Island itself, but also on the adjacent sites which will in be in most cases too restricted to accommodate a garrison.
While awaiting the Secretary of War's reaction to his proposal, Capt. Leach finally established contact with the man who owned all of Plum Island, except for one acre at its western extremity that was already owned by the United States and occupied by a lighthouse. His name was Abram S. Hewitt, a former Mayor of New York City and a prominent iron merchant in that city. Mr. Hewitt offered to sell the whole property for $50,000, and thought a fair price for the eastern portion of the Island (the section the government wanted) was $25,000. Within one month, the government had approved a deal at the asking price for the eastern half of Plum Island (roughly 150 acres). The cost per acre was calculated to be $167. Construction of fortifications, under Capt. Leach's supervision, began almost immediately.
There is no doubt that the ease of the Plum Island purchase further stiffened the government's resolve not to negotiate for the Fishers Island site. In retrospect, the linkage between the two areas seems hardly fair; Plum Island was not in any active (or proposed) state of development. Fishers Island, on the other hand, was in the midst of extensive development with construction of homes and hotels proceeding and planned throughout its western end. Capt. Leach and his superiors were not inclined to make such fine distinctions. They saw undeveloped land that looked remarkably similar to that acquired on Plum, even if magnificent cottages were just over the hill on Fishers. They weren't in the resort business. Their mission was to acquire the land as cheaply and expeditiously as possible, and to build the necessary fortifications with all due haste.
On December 18, 1896, Secretary of War Lamont issued two directives relating to fortifications in Long Island Sound. In the first, he approved the purchase of the eastern half of Plum Island for $25,000. In the second, he addressed the Chief of Engineers' endorsement of Capt. Leach's plan for the Fishers Island site: "After careful examination I am satisfied that this land cannot be procured for the sum mentioned, by direct negotiations between the Department and the owners. I am also satisfied that both the price that will probably be demanded and that which is suggested in the preceding endorsement [$150,000] are higher than the government should pay. I therefore direct that the necessary steps be taken to institute condemnation proceedings." On the following day, Capt. Leach was instructed to carry out this directive and to furnish the District Attorney all information and assistance that he might need.
The case that eventually became known as "The Matter of Proceedings to Acquire Land on Fishers Island" fell under the jurisdiction of the District Court of the United States for the Eastern District of New York, Brooklyn, County of Kings. Attorney James L. Bennett was assigned to prosecute the case for the Government.
Throughout December 1896 and January 1897, Capt. Leach, at the direction of District Attorney Bennett, proceeded to gather evidence regarding the value of land on Fishers Island. In a letter dated January 25, 1897, he wrote to Col. Peter S. Michie, Professor of Philosophy at the Military Academy (West Point), whom he knew was familiar with Fishers Island. Capt. Leach asked for help in locating "real estate agents or experts...residents of, or frequent visitors to the Island, who interest themselves in the value of properties and are somewhat familiar with leading summer resorts of this section." Col. Michie's response, dated January 26, 1897, sheds some light on land values and real estate transactions on Fishers Island near the turn of the century:
I have been going to the Island for 19 years and knew that some day you Engineer fellows would see its availability for the eastern defense of New York. As far as I know the Fergusons paid $250,000 for that part of the Island which had not been sold by the Fox's to other persons. The lots have been sold at all prices - a two acre lot that I wanted (which had a little $250 house on it) sold last year for $3,000. That was near the church. Mrs. Hoffert holds her 8 acres with three cottages on them for $25,000. I am offered a lot of about an acre near Isabella Beach for $1,000. Before Ferguson bought, one could get a lot for any price depending on the whim of the then owner - some valuable ones sold for $50, others at $500. I should say that desirable lots are worth from $1,500 to $2,000 per acre in the vicinity of the settled portion and from $750 to $1000 at distances of a mile or more from that locality. There is but a limited amount of building sites in the entire acreage, and were it not the bad name the Island received a few years ago, owing to a few cases of typhoid fever, property would I believe now be much higher. I do not know of a place where the air is as delightful, the bathing so clean and fine, and sleep so delicious during the hot summer as at the Island. It's nearness to N.Y. is one of its valuable characteristics.
This was not the portrait of overvalued swampland that Capt. Leach was seeking. However, he dutifully forwarded this letter to the District Attorney. Capt. Leach believed that the opinions of Col. Michie were entitled to great weight, but left the decision as to whether the Colonel should appear as a witness up to the District Attorney. The records indicate that Capt. Leach did manage to secure promises of testimony from some presumably less exuberant real estate appraisers: Daniel Latham, President of the Mariner's Saving Bank of New London, and Cyrus G. Beckwith, a State Senator and leading merchant in the New London area.
On February 26, 1897, Capt. Leach received the following letter from Abram S. Hewitt, former New York City mayor and soon to be ex-owner of the Plum Island fortification site:
My Dear Sir: You will remember that by the request of the Secretary of War, I called upon Mr. Walton Ferguson in reference to the price of land desired by the Government upon Fishers Island. I reported that he seemed to be fixed in his determination to get one thousand dollars per acre and I supposed that his decision was final. Yesterday however he called upon me and stated that he had been expecting an offer from the Government for the land, and felt somewhat surprised that condemnation proceedings were to be undertaken, in view of the fact that no such offer had been made to him. I deem it proper to give you this information because while I do not know how much the Government will be willing to pay for his land, I am convinced that he is prepared to take a smaller price than that originally named. I make this communication to you rather than to the Secretary of War, because his term of office will expire on the 4th prox., and I happen to know that he is absent from Washington at this time...
Very truly yours, Abram S. Hewitt
Capt. Leach immediately reported this new information to his superiors, but further complicated matters by lowering his estimate of the value of the site. After a careful examination of the "lay of the land," he stated that he found "70 acres desirable for cottage sites, for which $1,000 per acre might be fairly allowed, and that the remaining 164 acres were worth little more than the Plum Island site (which cost $167 per acre)." He felt that $175 per acre was a fair price for the less desirable acreage. By the time he had factored in the cost of purchasing the improvements and Miss Gordon's one acre at her stated price, his new grand total was close to $110,000. This downward revision virtually guaranteed a collision in the courts.
Throughout March, attempts were made by William M. Hoes, a Ferguson lawyer, to put the two sides together. On March 2, 1897, Attorney Hoes sent the following letter to a newly-promoted Major Leach:
Dear Sir: As you have taken such a kindly interest in the Fishers Island matter, I would like you to know, informally, the situation. Mr. Walton Ferguson and I concluded that it would be well for him to go to Washington to interview the Secretary of War, and we had that understanding when he left me on the cars at Stamford, on Saturday evening. Yesterday morning I received a telephone message from him that he was housed at his home in Stamford, with a sore throat, but I was able to talk with him and got his views. I also had a telephone communication with his brother, Mr. E.M. Ferguson, at Pittsburgh, he is also under doctor's care, and they both desired me, if possible, to have an interview with the Secretary of War at Washington. I saw Mr. James L. Bennett, U.S. District Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, here yesterday morning, and he kindly dictated a dispatch to the Secretary of War, as follows "Owners of Fishers Island desire interview to avoid condemnation proceedings. Will you see them tomorrow, answer 5 Beekman Street, New York." No reply was received to that telegram yesterday, and none up to date, consequently I did not go to Washington. In fact, I thought it was a forlorn hope to endeavor to have any interview with the outgoing Secretary of War at such a late date...As you know my clients are desirous that the proceeding should not be necessary, and that the government should be able to get title to the property at as early a date as possible, if some satisfactory terms can be arranged, and I know that you on your part desire to facilitate the early closing of this matter. As soon as some of these invalids become convalescent, I will try and take up consideration of this matter, meanwhile, for a few days, I think Mr. Bennett will hold the proceedings in abeyance...
Attorney Hoes added a postscript to the letter stating that U.S. District Attorney Bennett had just received a reply to their telegram. It read: "By direction of the Secretary of War, Gen. Wilson, Chief of Engineers will see owners of Fishers Island, concerning their property. Telegraph when they may be expected." Attorney Hoes forwarded this message to his clients, and hoped for a meeting at an early date.
Rather than coordinating the much-desired meeting, the Chief of Engineers sent a letter, dated March 10, 1897, to Attorney Hoes requesting that the owners state specifically the lowest price they would take for the property, adding "that if such a price was deemed by the Secretary of War to be reasonable, the condemnation proceeding could be stopped and the land could be purchased in the usual manner." A legal memorandum, prepared for the condemnation hearings, states that there was no known reply received by the government to this request for a new (and lower) price. By May 1897, both sides seemed resigned to settling the matter in court. A letter to Major Leach, dated May 8, 1897, reveals the frustrations of Attorney Hoes:
Dear Sir: In reply to a letter addressed to me by Hon. James L. Bennett, U.S. District Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, asking me to advise him what progress my clients were making in negotiations for title to Fishers Island property, I have replied that so far as I can see no substantial progress has been made to that end. As you are aware, I have been desirous, and so have my clients, of obviating the delay of condemnation proceedings, and although my clients made an effort to have an interview with Maj. Gen. Wilson, the Chief of Engineers, in Washington, he was absent at the time they were there and nothing has been done, and I have therefore notified Mr. Bennett that while we regret the delay attendant upon legal proceedings, we are not inclined to make any further suggestion; so I presume the Government will proceed...I see no course left open now...
Both sides had apprehensions about the other's intentions. From the government's perspective, the Ferguson brothers had made no effort to modify their unreasonable price. The Fergusons and their lawyer, long kept in the dark about the government's indifference to negotiation, had assumed that a counter offer would be made. These illusions were now shaken (if not shattered) by the government's demonstrated indifference to negotiation. All concerned prepared themselves for the impending battle in court.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1897, District Attorney Bennett bombarded Major Leach with requests for maps and detailed descriptions of the proposed site. He wanted to ensure that legal technicalities would not intrude on a favorable ruling from the Condemnation Board. The two sides mostly kept their distance, but did cooperate on issues involving the boundary lines. An especially knotty problem was where the lines would intersect South Beach. Given the scarcity of beach front throughout the west end of the Island, the Fergusons and their lawyer drew a line in the sand, dug in their heels, and protected the bathing area and pre-existing bath houses at the eastern end of South Beach from military encroachment. (This issue would not disappear. It featured prominently in later government attempts to expand the Fort's property across what is now the Hay Harbor golf course.)
For the government, there was also the vexing question of what to do about Miss Gordon and her "one acre plus house," priced respectively at $1,400 and $5,400. In a letter dated May 27, 1897, Col. G.L. Gillespie, Division Engineer, informed the Chief of Engineers that the acquisition of the Gordon lot should be deferred until after the condemnation hearing. In his opinion, it made strategic sense to wait for the board-determined price for the better Ferguson "up-land", and then offer Miss Gordon that same figure. Negotiations for her house and improvements would follow. He finished his letter with a prophetic bit of advice that was totally ignored by his superiors: "In general, it is better to negotiate than condemn, for the reason that Commissioners of Condemnation always consider the seizure of land under protest an act of tyranny and appraise damages accordingly." Miss Gordon's property was left in the condemnation package.
In June 1897, District Attorney Bennett informed Major Leach that the petition for condemnation was ready, but he lacked a figure for the specific value the government put upon the property. He suggested $50,000, but added that as a matter of conscience he wanted to put it somewhere near their idea of the value of the property. (In the final petition, he chose $60,000 as the government's figure.) He further stated that Mr. Hoes, the Fergusons' lawyer, had visited his office and informed him that no objection would be offered to the petition and that they would join with the government in an early trial.
After months of pre-trial activity, on August 5, 1897, James L. Bennett filed the Government's petition in the "Matter of Proceedings to Acquire Land on Fishers Island. The United States of America, Plaintiff, against Edmund Ferguson, Walton Ferguson and Theodora Gordon, Defendants." The opening paragraph, designed to make mere mortals tremble, stated:
The plaintiff, the United States of America, is a Sovereign Government, in and for the United States of America, and as such has the power and capacity of a corporation to take and hold real estate and to acquire the same by proceedings of condemnation and otherwise. The plaintiff is engaged in the business of governing and defending the United States. The names and places of residence of the principal officers of the plaintiff, are, William McKinley, President, and - as towards this matter and business - Russell A. Alger, Secretary of War and Joseph McKenna, Attorney General, all residing at Washington in the District of Columbia...
The petition further stated that the land on Fishers Island was required by the plaintiff for "...the erection and maintenance of fortification, and particularly for Gun and Mortar Batteries, for the purpose of defending the United States of America, and particularly the Harbor of New York and Long Island Sound and the towns and cities lying thereon and adjacent thereto." It alleged that the plaintiff had been unable to agree with the three owners of the land "for the reason that a sum is demanded for such land and premises in excess of the fair value of same...The value of said land and premises is sixty thousand dollars." The petition affirmed the plaintiff's right to acquire the lands by condemnation; cited the Secretary of War's authorization of the proceedings and his directive that the defendants be prosecuted; and, finally, emphasized that the government was operating in good faith, and fully intended to complete the work for which the land was being seized.
On August 17, 1897, the defendants' lawyers all presented documents stating their position as authorized attorney for each of their clients: Attorney William M. Hoes for Walton Ferguson, Attorney De Lancey Nicoll for Edmund M. Ferguson, and Attorney J. Noble Hayes for Theodora Gordon. (Mr. De Lancey Nicoll, a former District Attorney in New York, was one of that city's most prominent and celebrated attorneys.) All three lawyers presented papers answering the government's petition, admitting to some allegations regarding ownership of the land and denying others, most notably the fair value of the land and premises to be seized. Each attorney stated that his client alleged the true value of the land to be $250,000.
District Court Judge Asa W. Tenney accepted the government's petition and the lawyer's responses, agreed that the condemnation was necessary for the public good, and consequently ordered a Decree of Condemnation. The court appointed and named three disinterested and competent freeholders as Commissioners to ascertain the compensation to be made to the defendants: Lemuel E. Quigg, of New York City; John A. Taylor, from the City of Brooklyn; and Henry F. Cook, residing at Sag Harbor, Long Island. "IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the first meeting of such Commissioners shall be held at the office of the United States District Attorney, in the Post Office Building, corner of Washington and Johnson streets, in the City of Brooklyn, on the 24th day of August, 1897, at 11 o'clock in the forenoon..."
Unfortunately for those concerned with Fishers Island history, no record has been found documenting the voluminous testimony given at the hearings. Some details, however, are known. A listing of hearing dates reveals that the Commissioners met approximately forty times over a period of almost nine months, the last meeting having been held on June 17, 1898. They traveled to Fishers Island to view the premises or take testimony on three occasions: September 3 and 4, and December 24, 1897. Invoices reveal that 1135 pages of testimony and arguments were stenographically taken and transcribed by a gentleman named Dr. Messier Kindle. (The stenographer's bill, plus expenses came to $1,178.90. His round-trip railroad fare from New York City to New London was $5.50; three days lodging at an unspecified hotel on Fishers Island cost $7.50; the "bus" to the hotel cost 50 cents; and the round-trip ferry from New London to Fishers cost $1.)
It is also known that during the spring of 1898, the Spanish-American War intruded on the leisurely pace of the proceedings. There was great fear and apprehension in the region during mid-May 1898 that a Spanish fleet would raid Long Island Sound. During this period the Fergusons came under pressure to bring the matter to a speedy conclusion. The following letter from Major Leach to Brig. Gen. John M. Wilson, Chief of Engineers, dated May 28, 1898, both clarifies the Fergusons' desire to help and places a great deal of the blame on everyone's favorite scapegoat, lawyers:
General: I have the honor to advise you that I received a call this morning from Mr. E.M. Ferguson, one of the proprietors of Fishers Island, who came evidently in much trepidation, to show me a copy which had been sent him of a letter written by the Chief of Engineers to the Secretary of War, urging greater expedition in the proceedings for condemnation of the site on Fishers Island. Mr. Ferguson came to propose on the part of the owners that the United States should enter upon the property at once and begin its work, offering to give any guarantee required that no action for trespass should be entered, no objection made and no remuneration demanded. I read to Mr. Ferguson a copy of Public Resolution No. 18, approved April 11, 1898, and explained to him that it applies in plain terms to temporary batteries only, and could not, in my opinion, be extended to include a permanent work of an approved system such as is to be constructed on Fishers Island.
In my opinion the proprietors of this land have not wittingly delayed these proceedings. Their attorneys have introduced an enormous mass of evidence, much of it superfluous and not a little irrelevant, and as must be the case in any such proceeding, the lawyers themselves, and not the clients, must be held responsible for any delay resulting from such conditions. The particular cause of delay has been the infrequency and brevity of the sittings of the Commissioners... The sittings have been held at the office of [Commissioner] Taylor in the Trinity Building, No. 111 Broadway.
Ordinarily the session has been called for Friday of each week. In the earlier period of the proceedings the meetings were called for 11 A.M. Latterly the meetings have been called for 10:30 A.M. In all cases of which I have any knowledge adjournment has been taken at 1 P.M., and very frequently by reason of the non-arrival of a quorum of the Commission, or of some of the leading counsel, or of some of the witnesses, proceedings have not actually been begun until some time past the nominal hour of meeting. Most of the testimony has been taken before a quorum of two members, and several sessions have failed altogether by the absence of a quorum. Mr. Ferguson informs me that the oral arguments of counsel were set down for a hearing yesterday, but that by reason of sickness one member of the Commission was absent, and counsel on both sides agreed that it would not be proper to submit their arguments except before a full Commission; hence nothing was done yesterday.
This information is submitted partly because I believe that it should be in the possession of the Chief of Engineers for a complete understanding of the subject, and partly because Mr. Ferguson's personal concern in the matter, as exhibited to me in our interview, was so great that I readily acceded to the request which he made that I present my views on the subject to the Chief of Engineers.
Very respectfully, Your obedient servant, Major Smith S. Leach
On June 24, 1898, the three Commissioners issued their long-awaited report which listed "the compensation which ought justly to be made to the various defendants in this proceeding..." The awards were as follows: "To the defendant Edmund M. Ferguson, Eighty-three thousand and Five hundred dollars. To the defendant Walton Ferguson, Eighty-three thousand and Five hundred dollars. To the defendant Theodora Gordon, Six thousand dollars..."
It was a stunning victory for the defendants and a correspondingly bitter defeat for District Attorney James L. Bennett, due to retire after the hearings. The following article from The Day, dated August 5, 1898, reveals much of the District Attorney's attitude:
FISHERS ISLAND AWARD STANDS
Attorney General Orders Objection Withdrawn
The last official act of United States Attorney Bennett yesterday morning before his successor, George H. Pettit, was sworn in at Brooklyn was his withdrawal of his objections to the confirmation of the report of the commission appointed to condemn 216 acres of land on Fishers Island, in Long Island Sound, and for which an award of $176,000 was made.
The proceeding took place in the private chambers of Judge Thomas, in the Federal Building, and was witnessed by several men who accompanied Mr. Pettit. Mr. Bennett stated that by direction of Attorney General John W. Griggs he was compelled to withdraw all opposition on the part of the government to the report and award. He read a letter received from Attorney General Griggs, in which the letter said that it was impossible for the government to get justice in such cases; that the experience of the government in the Fishers Island case was not a happy one; that the money to pay the award was ready to be paid over; that the property was urgently needed, and further proceedings would cause vexatious delays. When he read the letter Mr. Bennett said:
"Judge, may I be permitted to say 'Damn' in your presence?"
Judge Thomas smiled and said, "Well, we might have to close the door."
"Then," continued Mr. Bennett, "I want to say that this is a damned outrage. I cannot refrain from using so strong a characterization of this award, as it is, in my opinion, so vastly excessive of the true worth of the land to be taken that comparison is useless. If it were even four times the value of the land, under the circumstances, I would not object. But when 5,000 acres of land cost but $250,000 at the height of its supposed value and prosperity, it is beyond reason to patiently submit to the government's having to pay $176,000 for but 216 acres, forty of which is swamp land on which even the owners themselves place no value. Under directions from the United States attorney general I withdraw all objections on behalf of the government to this confirmation of the report, but I cannot refrain from expressing my sorrow in having to do so...."
Despite the bitterness of the District Attorney, the Fergusons and Major Leach had amicable relations in the years that followed the land acquisition. There was every reason for the new neighbors to cooperate. Living side by side on a small island, they quickly discovered areas of mutual benefit. The Fishers Island Telephone Company, owned by the Fergusons, linked the military reservation to the outside world. Sand from Little Hay Harbor, as Hay Harbor was then known, was used extensively in the building of the Fort.
Perhaps the most vital resource provided by the Fergusons was water. After years of fruitless attempts to secure an adequate supply from wells on military property, the government attempted to buy Barlow Pond. Although the Fergusons weren't interested in selling, they stated that they were investigating the water supply with the expectation of "putting in a water system sufficient to supply our own needs on the western portion of the Island as well as supplying Fort Wright..." By 1905, the government was ready to strike a deal. A Quartermaster report stated:
This company [Fishers Island Water Company] has expended between forty and fifty thousand dollars in establishing this plant [Barlow Pond pumping station] for the use of the village, which in summer contains about three thousand inhabitants, but is practically deserted in winter. This water has been analyzed by the Surgeon General, U.S. Army, and pronounced suitable in every way.
A contract was signed on March 1, 1905, and soon thereafter fresh water flowed into a 60,0000 gallon water tank near the Press Barn at the eastern entrance of Fort Wright.
For those concerned with dates and anniversaries, the "Satisfaction of Judgment" (the transfer of the checks) occurred for Miss Theodora Gordon on August 5, 1898; for Mr. Walton Ferguson on September 3, 1898; and for Mr. Edmund M. Ferguson on September 5, 1898. According to a 1916 Government Printing Office booklet entitled The United States Military Reservations, National Cemeteries and Military Parks - Title Jurisdiction, Etc.: "The title to land acquired in 1898 rests on a decree of the district court for the eastern district of New York, filed and entered on August 8, 1898, and is also evidenced by the following deeds: (A) Deed from Walton Ferguson and wife, dated September 1, 1898...(B) Deed from Theodora Gordon, dated September 3, 1898...(C) Deed from Edmund M. Ferguson and wife, dated September 5, 1898..." By the latter date the military was in full possession of land for fortification purposes on Fishers Island.
Further Expansions of the Military Reservation
In April of 1902, a combination of tactical and safety considerations caused the Board of Engineers to recommend the purchase of additional land for military purposes on Fishers Island. The expansion was first and foremost to "redistribute and increase the armament," but also to remove inflammable garrison buildings from their close proximity to batteries. "Their size and conspicuousness render the possibility of their being struck in action and set on fire as almost a certainty, and such an accident, owing to heat and smoke, might very well paralyze the whole defense."
In the fall of 1902, the first site to be considered by Major Charles F. Powell, Major Leach's successor, was a 127-acre tract on the East Point of the Island, including the old Winthrop farm and its pastures. The Fergusons were reluctant to sell because the farm furnished dairy products for the guests of their hotels, and "the East End property contains the choice building sites of the island, and has been withheld from the market." All that aside, they fully understood the government's power in such matters, and were willing to sell "that portion lying east of the first stone wall east of the east South Beach" at the same rate per acre as they had received in 1898 from the condemnation board, (calculated by Major Powell to be $773.15 per acre). They also stated that they would sell with or without access across their intervening land. If the government chose to reach the site by sea, there were navigable waters that allowed such access. As for a land route, the Ferguson brothers proposed that if the government agreed to build and maintain a "good stone road" between the two reservations, they were willing to give the military the land necessary for such a project. The right of way for the stone road could be up to fifty feet in width and would stretch "from the east end of the present country road" for four miles to the proposed military site on East Point.
While this proposal was being considered, Major Powell also inquired in December 1902 about Prospect Hill (Mount Prospect), the site behind and above what is now the third tee of the Hay Harbor golf course. (The strategic value of Mount Prospect had been confirmed during the 1902 maneuvers. Initial plans called for the mounting of two 60-inch searchlights at this location.) At first the Corps of Engineers considered joining the two locations by acquiring a large section of the intervening land, already in use as a "golf ground." Generations of Hay Harbor golfers should thank the Major for suggesting that a narrower right-of-way would suffice. He felt that access to Mount Prospect was possible from the public road, and understood that the owners were anxious to retain access to South Beach and the use of the golf grounds to the north. The right-of-way was needed for a railroad to be used primarily for moving building sand from the pit on Mount Prospect to the main reservation at Fort Wright and for running electrical conduits between the sites. (The bunkers that cross in front of the 7th tee and 8th green are part of the railroad system that was eventually constructed.) In Major Powell's proposal, the public road leading to South Beach was to be left open, guaranteeing access to the bathing area on the eastern section of South Beach.
Brig. Gen. W.F. Randolph, Chief of Artillery, took issue with excluding any portion of South Beach from the military reservation, "as it might be the means of introducing a very objectionable element into the garrison. An arrangement could be made by which the reputable residents of the island might retain their present privileges and the land in question be under the control of the military authorities." Luckily, his rather paranoid opinion of beach-goers didn't prevail.
In January 1903, Major Powell approached the Ferguson brothers again, this time with a proposal to purchase the entire eastern point of Fishers (all land east of the eastern portion of East Harbor), a tract of some 245 acres which included Wicopasset Island. The Fergusons responded that they were willing to sell, if they could retain the land long enough to bring in the hay crop the following summer. Their reluctance to part with the property was spelled out: "We recognize the fact that the government has a right to take [the land], but we would rather that the necessity should not arise, as we prefer to develop this land under our own supervision..." Major Powell believed the land could be purchased for approximately $167,000. After some confusion about the size of the parcel and the cost of the "improvements" (the Winthrop farm, barn, ice house, turkey pens, windmill, etc.), it became clear that the Fergusons were willing to sell the 245 acres for approximately $190,000. Although both sides came close to concluding a deal in early 1903, other sites on Fishers Island drew the attention of military strategists away from East Point.
During February 1903, the Board of Engineers debated the respective merits
of purchasing three sites: the East Point tract, the site on Mount
Prospect, and an area that encompassed 78 acres of the peninsula between Hay Harbor and Silver Eel Cove. This latter tract included most of grounds and the main building of the Mononotto Inn (owned by Mrs. M.B. Hoppes), the grounds and residence of the late Robert P. Linderman (owned at the time by Mrs. Robert Linderman; currently by the Wilmerdings), land owned by Robert H. Sayre, and additional Ferguson property.
On March 27, 1903, the Board of Engineers recommended the purchase of 135 additional acres, including large sections of the Hay Harbor peninsula, the right-of-way strip joining the main reservation to Mount Prospect, and the Mount Prospect tract itself. The Secretary of War authorized a sum of $150,000 to acquire the properties. Surprisingly, the Eastern Point site, including the Winthrop farm and pastures, was not part of this initial proposal. A possible explanation is that the military felt no pressure to quickly purchase land where no development was planned. In Major Powell's words: "There is nothing doing at East Point, and I judge the cost of the tract there would not be more next year or the year after."
The Major proceeded to negotiate for the parcels, even though he immediately reported to his superiors that the authorized figure of $150,000 wasn't close to the value of the properties on the Hay Harbor peninsula. He estimated that $400,000 was a more realistic appraisal of the improvements, including the Mononotto Inn, and the imposing Robert Linderman mansion (featured prominently in the movie, "The World According to Garp"). Major Powell's inquiries threw Mrs. Hoppes, the owner of the Mononotto Inn, into a panic. Her lawyer indicated that she was "fretting under the suspense relative to the matter." Guests were already booking in for the 1904 season, a new dock was under construction, steam heat was planned for the inn. How could she run her business under threat of seizure? She asked for $300,000, but her lawyer warned: "if delay ensues, or a controversy, she will ask for more, and include other damages arising from uncertainty."
On August 15, 1903, Mr. Garrett B. Linderman, operating as "attorney in fact" for his sister-in-law, Mrs. Robert Linderman, asked for $250,000 for her mansion and land, but also warned of higher figures if a contest ensued. The Ferguson brothers weighed in with a price of $100,000 for their property on the west side of the Hay Harbor peninsula. Faced with the prospect of a multi-front battle in condemnation court, the government reassessed their defensive needs. By October 1903, Major Powell had abandoned any efforts to obtain Mrs. Linderman's lands and property. The Mononotto Inn also eluded the threat of condemnation.
Documentation pertaining to the subsequent negotiations couldn't be located. Various guides to US military posts, however, indicate that four years later, in 1908, the government obtained 63.3 acres of upland and 6.62 acres of pond (including the eastern half of Silver Eel) from Walton Ferguson and his wife, and from Walton Ferguson as trustee for the estate of Edmund Ferguson; and, from the estate of John Nevin Sayre, 4.20 acres. This land expanded the military reservation eastward across Silver Eel Cove and northward along the western edge of the Hay Harbor peninsula, skirting the Mononotto and Robert Linderman property. The Ferguson acreage included 34.84 acres on and around Mount Prospect, and a narrow right-of-way across the golf course that linked the new tract with the main reservation. In 1909, after a condemnation hearing, two additional tracts were obtained from George Bartlett, respectively measuring 1.07 acres, and 5.54 acres.
From 1909 to 1917 the reservation remained constant in size: 268.6 acres in the main reservation, plus 36.13 acres at the Mount Prospect site, and .98 acres in the right-of-way. On April 6, 1918, 18.37 acres on North Hill were purchased by deed from Walton Ferguson, bringing the total land to approximately 325 acres. During World War I, the military made plans to transfer four 5-inch guns from Fort Mansfield, Napatree Point, RI, to the site. In all likelihood they were installed, but no documentation has been located. During World War II, two 3-inch guns were transferred to North Hill from Battery Hackleman, Portsmouth, NH, to cover the waters of Fishers Island Sound. The North Hill battery, now on the Guest's property, is referred to as Battery (New) Hackleman.
The final expansion of the military reservation occurred during World War II. The government purchased an additional 94.42 acres at Wilderness Point in 1943, bringing the overall size of the military's land on Fishers Island to approximately 419 acres. Emplacements for two modern 6-inch guns were built at this site. By 1944, the threat to the region had diminished and the guns were never mounted on their carriages. Similarly, two emplacements for 16-inch guns were built here, but the guns remained in storage for the duration of the war.
Two other parcels of land were leased by the military during the war. Hill 90 (also known as Hill Watch) was leased beginning in 1942 at the east end of Fishers Island. Four fire-control stations and a fire-control radar were constructed at that site. Land was also leased on East Point, near the Simmons Castle. This location, the site of Anti Motor Torpedo Battery No. 6, was intended for two fixed and two mobile 90mm guns. It has not been confirmed that the fixed guns were ever mounted or the emplacements built.
By 1949, the Fort had been placed in caretaking status, inactive, but still in Army hands. In early 1950, the Public Building Services screened Fort Wright for its usefulness and decided "there is no further need for the property." Subsequently, the Department of the Army transferred 297.23 acres to the General Services Administration (GSA), exempting various parcels, including Wilderness Point, Mount Prospect (which the Navy had been using since 1949), and tracts of land near Silver Eel Cove. In 1956, 3.82 acres and 12 buildings were transferred to the Department of Health Education and Welfare for use by the Fishers Island school.
On August 15, 1958, at 2:30 pm, at a jam-packed auction held in the theater, the GSA sold 56 acres and 94 buildings for $350,000 to the Race Point Corporation. This private syndicate led by Grant Simmons, president and William C. Ridgeway, Jr., vice-president and treasurer, was comprised of approximately thirty Island residents who banded together to ensure that this vital section of the Island wasn't purchased by outside speculators. The Day reported that "There were two other bidders in the auction... Robert Bodie of Boston, Mass., associated with car rental firms, bid up to $325,000 and stopped. He told persons on the island he intended to use the property for a motel and cottages for middle income families. Ben R. Bodne, President of the Algonquin Hotel Corp. in New York City, bid up to $200,000 and stopped. He reportedly planned a motel and cottages also." The Day's article, dated August 16, 1958, continued:
All of the property south of the main road [Whistler Avenue] will be transferred to the Town of Southold of which Fishers Island is a part. The town will also be granted docking facilities used by the Fishers Island Ferry District...The Navy has retained a pier and several houses and cottages, as well as other property associated with the Fort, but not on the reservation. Principal use of the Navy property is in connection with the Navy Underwater Sound Laboratory [Mount Prospect]. The Coast Guard, which moved its Fishers Island Station from East Harbor to Silver Eel Pond on the reservation several years ago, has retained a considerable amount of land, piers and buildings for its own use, mostly in the waterfront sector.
The transition from military to civilian use of the extensive Fort properties was remarkably smooth, a process aided immeasurably by the timely intervention of the Race Point Corporation. Many temporary and some 'permanent' Fort structures were razed, but dozens of others have taken on new occupants and varied uses in the civilian world. In the mid-1960s, the houses on Officers Row were sold by the Race Point Corporation for $2,500 each and are today almost all private homes. Teachers now reside in quarters constructed for coast artillery lieutenants. Fort Wright's bowling alley remains a vital recreational center for Islanders. On the Parade Grounds, where soldiers once marched and bugles blared, the shrieks are now from kids playing soccer and T-ball. An antique store and Laundromat occupy the commissary building. A landscape company has set up shop in Mosquito Hollow next to the mortar pits. Silver Eel Cove and Elizabeth Field are so much a part of Island life that many are unaware of their military origins. One hundred years after its inception, and almost fifty years since it was shuttered, Fort H.G. Wright has successfully and seamlessly blended into the Island's social fabric.
Notes on sources:
For legal papers relating to the condemnation hearing:
National Archives Records Administration (NARA) - Northeast Region (New York City); in Record Group (RG) 21, Records of U.S. District Courts; sub-group: U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York; file name: "The Matter of the Proceedings to Acquire Land on Fishers Island; The United States of America vs. Edmund M. Ferguson, Walton Ferguson, and Theodora Gordon (Law B 456-457)."
For correspondence relating to land acquisition prior to 1907:
NARA-Northeast Region (Waltham, Massachusetts); in RG 77, Army Corps of Engineers; Office of the Chief of Engineers, New London District Office, Series 659, 661 and 668 of the Fortification Files.
For documents relating to the sale of Fort H.G. Wright property:
NARA-Northeast Region (New York City); in RG 270, Records of the
War Assets Administration, Real Property Disposal Files.