A Place Called Prospect
When Chase retired from the lighthouse in 1836, he returned to Shelter Island with big plans. He seized the moment to create his “City of Sobrie,” as in “sobriety,” as Ralph Duvall called it in his 1932 History of Shelter Island.A snippet in the Suffolk Times in the 1920s helped to send us on this chase. There was a reference to a place on the Island where the streets were once named after the first five presidents. Our instincts were to follow the trail of Chase’s “City of Sobrie.” At the Suffolk County seat in Riverhead, we looked for deeds out of Frederick Chase. We found a lot of them between 1836 and 1838. From the deeds we drew a map of Frederick Chase’s “Place called Prospect, near Dering’s Harbor on Shelter Island,” as it was referred to in every deed. (See A Place Called Prospect, Illustration 1.)
The blocks were described in “rods.” A rod is 16 1/2 feet. The roads were 3 rods, or approximately, 50 feet wide. The blocks were each about a half acre. Each block was divided into four lots, each about 1/8th of an acre. A little city of small plots.
The map, assembled from the deeds, shows Washington Street about nine or ten rods from the Bay to the north. Nine rods south is Adams Street, then at nine rod intervals there are Jefferson, Madison and Monroe streets. The north-south roads are Cedar to the west, then at nine rod intervals are Fair, Eagle, and Corban streets. (Corban means dedication to God.) The map also shows the names of people who purchased lots from Squire Chase between 1836 and 1838.
Albert Chase was his son, and Rebecca Beebe, Emeline Skillman, and Lydia Boardman were his daughters.
The first non-family member to purchase lots was Ezekiel E. D. Skinner of Greenport on May 9, 1836. On June 29, Nathan Tuthill and Pease M. Case, both of Shelter Island and former mariners, purchased two lots.
Others who purchased lots were Israel Fanning and Nathaniel Wiggins, Salem G. Prince, William S. Beebe, and Justus E. Horton, all carpenters from Greenport, Israel Young and Benjamin W. Young, both of Franklinville (now Mt. Laurel), J. Hubbard Reeve a farmer from Greenport, Joshua Payne a carpenter from Greenport, and Joseph Penny also of Greenport.
There was a wharf where the North Ferry terminal is today. His son-in-law, Joseph H. Skillman, opened a general store near the wharf at the corner of Cedar and Washington streets. Skillman went bankrupt in 1840 and his assets included one share in the wharf.
Earlier, in 1828, the Town had laid out a road from the South Ferry to “Boisseau’s Ferry” at what is now known as Jenning’s Point. It pretty much followed the same course as Ferry Road follows today from South Ferry to Wood’s Corner (Route114 and West Neck Road), then continued west to the beach, along the shore and then to the point. The 1828 Town of Shelter Island Board Minutes describe the route taken and compensation to land owners.
In 1837, the Town dedicated its second road, from the “City” -- as the area around present-day West Neck and Menantic and West Neck and West Neck was then called -- north to the intersection of “Monroe and Eagle” streets.
This new road ran through the lands of Esther Sarah Dering, Brinson. B. Wiggins, and Frederick Chase. The purpose of the road was to assist residents of the Island to reach Squire Chase’s wharf.
The dedication in the Town minutes carefully describe the miles between each property boundary, and driving north along New York Avenue today, you can actually mark those boundaries. The northern end of the road, at Monroe and Eagle streets, was at a Place called Prospect.
Times were changing: In 1838, Greenport was incorporated. The railroad came to the North Fork in 1844. In 1853, Jonathan Preston began regular ferry service from Shelter Island to Greenport, not from Squire Chase’s wharf, but from his own property on Dering Harbor where the Town dock is today on Bridge Street, the road from that area south to Wood’s Corner having been laid out in 1852.
The U. S. Coastal Survey Map of 1855 is an invaluable resource. It shows Chase’s land as a meadow -- not woods and not cultivated. Griffing’s peninsula is the same. Look at Big Ram -- also meadow. We know that the Tuthills grazed sheep there for generations. (See 1855 U.S. Coastal Survey Map, Illustration 2)
David Allen, curator of the Map Collection at the Library at SUNY, Stony Brook, told us that the 1855 U.S. Coastal Survey was a very intensive project. Soundings were taken at sea and on the ground surveyors made note of everything known, particularly the names of places, locations of buildings, and vegetation.
There were only two roads on the Island:
1.) the 1828 road from South Ferry to Boisseau’s Ferry, actually, from the foot of the hill along the shore to Jenning’s Point. However, Boisseau’s ferry was no longer running; by the late 1830s Islanders were using Chase’s wharf and by the early 1850s the dock at Preston’s ferry in Dering Harbor. The wharf at the Prospect is represented on the map.
2.) the road from the “City” to the intersection of Eagle and Monroe and on to the wharf.
The actual fields under cultivation are represented. Every inch that could be cultivated seems to have been.
There are few woods. Most are in Mashomack, along South Ferry Road and on Little Ram. These are lowlands, not useful for cultivation.
The black squares represent buildings. Interestingly, only a few of Squire Chase’s buyers had built houses. The village seems not to have been viable. The general store is shown, however, and a few other houses dot the landscape: the Chase homestead, Sylvester Manor, the Case house in the “City,” Moses Griffing’s house are some of them.
The 1845 New York State Census confirms what the map tells us. On the Island there were 2,512 sheep, 680 of which were under one year old. Also in 1845, there were 5,144 pounds of wool harvested. Acreage under cultivation included oats, 145; Rye, 35.5; Corn, 105.5; Wheat, 85; Potatoes, 34; Turnips, 10; Buck Wheat, 13; Beans, 4; and, Barley 27.5.
On June 30, 1853 Chase purchased the farm directly south of his homestead farm from the Albert B. Wiggins’ estate, and on May 12, 1856 he purchased 212 acres of the Esther Sarah Dering farm, which she owned outright from the partition of West Neck Farm in 1806, north and south of the “City” road. He obviously made good money with his crops and could afford to buy the land to the south when he was in his 70s.
Frederick Chase died on January 7, 1857 at the age of 73 years, 11 months. He was buried in the Presbyterian Church cemetery. He died without a will, but an inventory of his estate is on file in the Suffolk County Surrogate Court. The inventory listed 35 sheep and 122 pounds of wool. There is also an inventory of his real estate in an 1869 County Court action. The Chase plot includes a memorial to his parents.
On his tombstone is his own poem:
Few and short have been the moments of my threescore and ten;
But a cloud, a breath, a vapour, Is the longest life of men.
Countless years are now before me, Length of ages without end;
Happy years with Thee my Saviour, Thee my earliest, latest Friend.
But there is still the mystery of what permitted him to go off to Little Gull Island for ten years to tend the lighthouse when he had fathered nine children in the last 18 years and had a farm to run? Three sources of information solve the mystery. The 1855 U.S. Coastal Survey map tells us that three areas of the Island were meadows, and his was one of them. In 1845, there were 2,512 sheep on the Island, and 5,144 pounds of wool were harvested. And, even at age 73 -- which was an old man in 1857, he still had 35 sheep and 122 pounds of wool in his inventory.
His crops were not cultivated -- which would have required his strength, energy and time -- but were sheep and wool. His children could tend the flock, and his attention was only required in the Spring at shearing time. The crop of wool had a long shelf life. He raised sheep.