By Marilyn Weigold
It’s hard to imagine the emergence of tourism as a major component of the East End’s economy without the 19th century artists who put the area on the map. Yet, the canvas and paint box toting visitors of the 1800s were not solely responsible for this development. In was, after all, one thing to paint a pretty picture of a rural landscape and quite another for people to enjoy the real thing. For that good transportation was needed. To a certain extent, even before the artists made the East End famous, there was a decent system of waterborne transport. Sailing vessels and steamboats linked the East End with New York City and New England and on Peconic Bay commercial boats plied between the North and South Forks on a regular basis. As early as 1823 there was weekly service between Sag Harbor and Southold. In the 1830s vessels named Eclipse, Dread, Cinderella and, believe it or not, Electricity linked opposite sides of the bay.
In the mid-nineteenth century, as tourism became a factor in the economy of the bay area, the steamer Statesman, plying between Sag Harbor and Greenport, advertised family excursions and a fare of $2.25 between Brooklyn and Sag Harbor. No, the jaunty little steamboat was not venturing out of the Peconic Bay estuary and traveling nearly a hundred miles to the other end of Long Island! Rather, the Statesman was meeting the train at Greenport and transporting vacationers across the bay. The train was, of course, theLong Island Rail Road which had reached Greenport in 1844.
By the 1870s, having absorbed shorter lines running along the South Shore and up to Sag Harbor, the railroad’s Montauk Division offered direct service to Hampton Bays, Southampton, Water Mill, Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor. One traveler was very pleased with the new timetable which took effect in June 1879 and it wasn’t only the addition of more trains that impressed him. He was delighted with the friendly conductors who ensured the comfort and safety of passengers.
More than a century later some East Enders who make frequent trips from New Yorkto the Hamptonsfelt the same way about their favorite drivers on the Hampton Jitney, the Hampton Express, the Hampton Ambassador, and the Hampton Luxury Liner. For decades the Sunrise Express offered similar service between the North Forkand New York City. When Sunrisewas acquired by the Hampton Jitney in 2006, Dan’s Papers dubbed the North Fork “a Hamptons in training.” Residents of the North Fork shuddered and hoped Dan’s was wrong but the influx of new people over the course of the next few years proved otherwise.
Although welcomed by many, the opening of a Bookhampton bookstore in the heart of Mattituck in 2012 was viewed by some as further evidence of the changes occurring on theNorth Fork. In spite of or, in some instances, because of these changes, people seeking second homes flocked to theNorth Forkattracted by its beauty, relative affordability and proximity toNew York City. Getting there might not be half the fun on a Friday night in summer but even the detested Long Island Expressway is more bearable thanks to the opening of an HOV lane in the 1990s. One hundred years earlier the extension of the railroad toEast Hampton, Amagansett and Montauk had accomplished something similar in terms of speed and comfort for vacation bound travelers.
For some tourists, however, getting here by boat rather than by rail was part of the vacation experience. It was slower but in the days before air conditioned railway cars, a journey by sea was preferable to endless hours on a hot train. Following the Civil War people headed for Sag Harboror the North Forkhad the option of traveling on the Artisan with Captain George C. Gibbs. His fledgling steamship enterprise was financed by capital from Greenport and Sag Harbor businessmen. No sooner had Gibbs embarked upon his new venture, a group of mostly Greenport men financed a rival company which began running the Edward Everett.
Yet another player entered the competition in the early 1870s when the Atlantic Mail Steamship Company, which ran vessels between New Yorkand Bermuda, began offering service to the East End. The source of funding for the new operation may have been the Long Island Rail Roadwhich was understandably eager to run the home-grown East Endsteamboat lines out of business. The bankruptcy of Atlantic Mail during the panic of 1873 was followed by the creation of the Montauk and New York Steamboat Company with George Gibbs as Captain of the W.W. Coit. The Long Island Rail Road soon began running a steamer to the East End in a futile attempt to drive the new company out of business. Changing its name to the Montauk Steamboat Company, in the 1880s and 1890s, the railroad’s competitor launched a trio of luxurious vessels: the Montauk, which featured outside staterooms, the ShelterIslandand the Shinnecock, which had a dining saloon thatcould accommodate a hundred people.