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By Paul Hicks

In 1614, five years after Henry Hudson sailed up the river that bears his name, a Dutch navigator, Adriaen Block (for whom Block Island is named), became the first European known to have sailed the length of Long Island Sound.

After embarking from Manhattan Island into the East River, Block managed to navigate the treacherous currents where the river meets the Sound. Called Hellegat by the Dutch (meaning bright or clear entrance), the place name became anglicized as Hellgate (or Hell’s Gate), signifying the difficult and sometimes perilous passage.

Soon after entering the Sound, Block’s ship, the Onrust (Dutch for “Restless”), passed through a series of rocky reefs, which in colonial times became known as the “Devil’s Stepping Stones.” On one of those reefs near City Island still stands the Stepping Stones Lighthouse, built in 1877.

According to legend, the local Siwanoy people chased the devil out of their tribal area in present-day Westchester onto what is now City Island. The devil picked up huge boulders lying there and tossed them into Long Island Sound, using them as stepping stones to make his escape on to Long Island. Many ships have since been lost trying unsuccessfully to maneuver around these and other rocky reefs in the Sound.  

Both the Indian legend about the devil and the dangers faced by mariners on Long Island Sound have been given as explanations of why some colonial era maps called the Sound “The Devil’s Belt.” One German map translated the name as “Der Teufels Belt.” The name might also have had some association with Hell’s Gate.

There are so many shipwrecks lying under Long Island Sound and waters elsewhere in the New York City area that they are collectively called “Wreck Valley” by scuba divers. One of those divers, Dan Berg, has a website that includes charts, guidebooks, and other information about the “history, legend, condition, aquatic life, and pertinent dive information on over 140 shipwrecks” (www.aquaexplorers.com/shipwrecks_NY_NJ.htm).

The most notable shipwreck in local waters occurred on March 31, 1886 when a sidewheel steamer, <The Capitol City>, ran onto the rocks in a dense fog either off Rye Beach or off Parsonage Point (accounts differ). The captain of the 259-foot vessel, which ran between Hartford and New York, was navigating with a compass at the time and thought they were well clear of the shore. Fortunately, the boats were lowered rapidly, and the twelve passengers as well as the crew reached land safely.

Only three months later, The New York Times reported: “The 15-ton passenger and freight steamboat <Ruggles>, bound from Derby, Connecticut to New York, struck the same rocky part of the Sound near Rye Beach yesterday where the steamer <Capitol City> went down last March. The accident is ascribed to a variation of the compass.” The <Ruggles>, however, did not end up on the shipwreck charts along with the <Capitol City>.

In the waters off Playland lie the remains of the <Benjamin F. Packard>, a square-rigged sailing ship. Built in 1883 and nearly 250 feet long, she was originally designed to transport cargo between the Atlantic and Pacific by way of Cape Horn. Her last voyage took her from Puget Sound to New York, hauling lumber in the 1920s.

In 1930, the <Packard> found a second life as an attraction at Playland. Down in her hold were exhibits of ship models and various curios from her voyages to the South Seas. On pleasant evenings a dance band played on her main deck, which was fitted out as a restaurant. During a violent hurricane that swept the Eastern seaboard in 1938, the <Packard> was torn from her mooring, suffered severe damage, and had to be scuttled. When the tide is low, you may be able to see the remains of the substantial hull near the Edith Read Wildlife Sanctuary.

Next time you look out over Long Island Sound from the water or the shore, remember that it is teeming not just with wildlife but also with history and legends. Also, if you discover the location of <Capitol City’s> remains or the real explanation for why Long Island Sound is sometimes called the Devil’s Belt, please let me know.

 

By Paul Hicks

Livingston Platt served as mayor of the Village of Rye for twelve years before he became the City of Rye’s first mayor in 1942. Although he was a leader of the Republican Party in state and national politics, as mayor he took pride in being an independent and in making non-partisan appointments. 

When Platt resigned as mayor in 1943 to become head of the Westchester County Republican Committee, an editorial in The Rye Chronicle stated: 

“The one thing of which this community is most proud is the fact that party politics has never been considered in the choice of its public officials. Ever since Rye became an incorporated village, we have been holding Citizens Caucus meetings where the voters get together, Democrats and Republicans alike, and nominate their candidates for office. It is one of our most  cherished traditions…Rye is dominatingly Republican in county, state and  national elections, yet the Republicans who  live in Rye are independent enough in thought and action to fully realize that partisan politics have  no  place in a friendly, neighborly community of 10,000  inhabitants.”

Platt’s two successors as mayor — Julian Beatty and Grenville Sewell —were nominated by the Citizens Caucus, but in 1949, Karl T. Frederick ran successfully for mayor as a Republican. The Rye Chronicle acknowledged that non-partisan politics had ended by noting in an editorial that, “While defeated by decisive margins, the Democratic candidates can find substantial consolation in the fact that the margin of victory compiled by the Republicans was far less than in previous years.”

Throughout the 1950s, Rye was governed by Republicans, led by Mayors Joseph Hannan and Robert Hughes, although Hannan also had Democratic endorsements. In 1959, Rye voters had to decide whether to amend the City Charter to adopt a City Manager/Council form of government. A Rye Chronicle editorial counseled: “The City Manager Plan, so ardently supported by the Democrats should be entirely disassociated from the vote for party candidates.”

Former Mayor Livingston Platt told The Chronicle: “Rye does not need a city manager any more than it needs a paid mayor…It will cost the city a lot of money…Also, in many communities where a city manager has been employed, it has proven most unsuccessful…I cannot see why [the mayor] should be ‘kicked upstairs’ to chairman of the board…With the City Manager doing all of the work, we can expect to see the council meetings held monthly instead of every two weeks.” The City Manager Plan was adopted, and Platt’s predictions proved to be wrong.

Although the Republican candidate, Clay Johnson, won the contest for mayor in 1961, his Democratic opponent, John Carey, made a strong showing in winning 44 percent of the total vote. In a notable bi-partisan move by Mayor Johnson and his fellow Republicans, John Carey and Thomas Butler, both Democrats, were appointed to two of three vacancies on the City Council in 1963.   Carey was quoted as saying, “Democrats do not want control of the City Council, but…forty-five percent of the voters need representation.”

By 1967, Rye was rife with partisan politics. A Democratic advertisement read: “The City Council is no longer a one-party, one-voice administration, smug and complacent. The Democratic Councilmen have questioned, challenged, and probed...Responsive government has taken on new meaning in Rye the last four years. Two-party government has worked, and the need is greater than ever to keep an open mind and an open heart at City Hall.”

By Paul Hicks

In the seventy-five years since Rye became a city there have been sixteen mayors. Some of the earlier mayors are still remembered, such as Livingston Platt (for gaining the city charter) and Edmund Grainger (for defeating the bridge). Others have long been forgotten by most of the community, including Karl T. Frederick, who served as mayor from 1948 to 1950. A multifaceted man, he was an Olympic gold medalist, a prominent conservationist, and a respected head of the NRA who favored gun controls.

The Frederick family finally settled in the Finger Lakes area, where Karl Karl Telford Frederick was born in 1881 in Chateaugay, a town in upstate New York on the Canadian border. His father, a Presbyterian minister, moved the family frequently to various communities in the region, and, in the process, Karl developed a lasting love of the Adirondacks.

After completing high school at the age of 16, he enrolled at Princeton University, his father’s alma mater, but family financial problems required him to cover the tuition costs by tutoring. He won the premier senior prize at graduation and was also awarded a fellowship for graduate study in Economics and Politics. Graduating from Princeton in 1903, Frederick spent a year at its graduate school, financing his studies by teaching at Lawrenceville School.