Images of America Highlights Sag Harbor History

An original whale for the first Whaler’s Festival in 1963. Its mighty jaw opened and closed. Jake King, Gwen Ebeling-Koning Waddington and Tracy Freidah Kohnken climbed into the blow hole. (Barry and Waddington)

The challenge of putting together a local history book about a region that’s already received a lot of attention includes making sure it’s got something new to say or show, and presenting the account in such a way that what’s historical is also appreciated as historic. That means that “local” – a word from Latin, meaning place – exhibits wider significance as part of the cultural history of the nation. “Images of America: Sag Harbor” qualifies.

As Sag Harbor Historical Society trustee Tucker Burns Roth’s slim volume illustrates, Sag Harbor can lay claim to a number of achievements: being the whaling capital of the country; receiving a Congressional designation as a shipping hub and national Port of Entry; early on having gas lights on Main Street; starting a hometown newspaper (The Sag Harbor Express)  that presciently archived events; incorporating over 300 years different classes and ethnicities into a greater community; having many homes, grand and modest, placed on the National Register; and probably being able to boast the largest per capita number of bars and barber shops in one village (this last, an inference, not a statement from the book).

Tucker Burns Roth’s book, “Images of America: Sag Harbor”

The Sag Harbor Historical Society, established in 1985, is located in the old 18th century Annie Cooper Boyd House on Main Street. Its Cape Cod Colonial exterior shelters a wealth of historical goodies inside, not least of which are the paintings by Annie Cooper Boyd, the daughter of one of Sag Harbor’s most successful early entrepreneurs.

Arcadia Publishing, whose history series celebrates “neighborhoods, towns, and cities across the country” (with over 14,000 titles covering all 50 states), was a felicitous connection for Ms. Roth, a writer, editor and designer. With a mission to “reconnect people to their community” often by way of “little known stories and insights” and sometimes “forgotten aspects of American life,” Arcadia has given Ms. Roth’s captioned vintage-photo book handsome presence. Sag Harbor Historical Society Trustee, and photographer, Jean Held says, “this is a remarkable” publication because it’s the first exclusively to document Sag Harbor history and architecture by way of photos, drawings and paintings, many as old as pre-Revolutionary times and some as recent as the `60s and `70s.

As Ms. Roth writes in the book’s opening, all-embracing sentence: “Early Sag Harbor was home to Native Americans, daring whalers, heroic soldiers and seamen, and a diverse and resilient citizenry.” Resilient, for sure. Few places, as the photos show, have sustained so many devastating fires (a whole chapter is given over to fires and fire fighters), starting with those set by the British. Factor in, of course, the destruction and trauma of the Hurricane of 1938. The village reclaimed heritage, however, by building a-new, relocating damaged constructs, and reinventing itself as a factory town, with the decline of the whaling industry.

Main Street, c.1924, had been paved two years earlier. The Wellworth 5,10 & 25 Store, Ideal and Elite Theater are pictured north to south. (Jack Youngs)

Though some scenes and portraits in the book may be familiar to locals, the overall goal was, and is, to encourage readers new and old to stroll village streets and byways  to visit those who have lent or donated images, and, as Ms. Roth says, “to prompt residents to stop by SHHS and contribute scrapbook memorabilia.”

“Tucker was tenacious in seeking out material,” says Ms. Held. “Everyone over the years has had a wish list of pictures, but Tucker got them.” Of course, Ms. Held has her favorites, including one of the Sag Harbor Water Works (on page 11), “one the best pictures I’ve ever seen of this [1889] brick house” that supplied running water from spring-fed Long Pond to sections of the village.

The cover photo — six figures perched on the bow of the schooner Kumalong, features Leisure Time, a theme of one of the book’s nine chapters, but it is the first inside image that captures the spirit of the book: Main Street on the threshold of an industrial boom, after whaling proved unprofitable in the 1850s because of overfishing, the arrival of petroleum, and the lure of California gold.

Firemen’s Tournament 1888. Bleachers were erected on Main St. and 8,000-10,000 people arrived by steamer, barge and train and processed through village streets. (SHHS)

Ms. Roth generously credits local organizations, families, institutions, libraries and individuals who opened up their family albums, among them her colleague and historical society co-president Jack Youngs, whose family has been involved in developing so much of Sag Harbor, including The American Hotel. African and Native American families active in whaling and related trades are also featured as central to the village’s growth and renewal.

Many readers, Ms. Roth feels, will delight in putting a face to names they know only as street signs. It should  be noted that the landscape images are impressive, remarkably well composed, and vivid reminders of how effective black and white photography can be and how much drawing and painting captured and informed history.

Ms. Roth also stresses, however, the timeliness of the monograph — its publication coming when “the village struggles to strike a balance between the changes that have come with growth and the preservation of the historical character of the village.” Be vigilant, she urges local residents, but, along with tourists, enjoy what’s here. Wegwagonuck, as the Algonquin called Sag Harbor — the place at the end of the hill — is a place at the center of American history.