A Walk through History

By Paul Hicks

In his invaluable history of Rye (published in 1871), Charles W. Baird preserved important information about the community’s past while often evoking the atmosphere of those simpler times, as in this lovely description:

<“The visitor on his way to our beach may notice at the turn of the road above Milton, the little burying-ground by Blind Brook; not as differing from other country grave-yards in its aspect of seclusion and neglect, but for the quiet beauty of the scene in which it lies. Just here the outlet of the stream, whose meanderings have proceeded through the low meadowlands, becomes visible toward the south, and the waters of the Sound appear beyond the higher banks that skirt the creek. It is a spot well chosen for its suggestions of rest and hereafter.”>

Baird was describing what is now generally known as the Milton Cemetery, which is diagonally across Milton Road from the Knapp House. The land was long part of the property of Timothy Knapp, who acquired it in 1667 and built the house at the corner of Rye Beach Avenue. Both the Knapp House, which is thought to be the oldest surviving residence in Westchester County, and the Milton Cemetery are on the National Register of Historic Places.

As you walk through the burial ground toward Blind Brook, you can find headstones that date back to the 1720s. Many bear the family names of some of the earliest settlers, including Brown, Disbrow, Halsted, Haviland, and Purdy. More members of the Purdy clan are buried in a separate cemetery on the other side of Blind Brook.

To get there, cross the footbridge that was given in 1950 to the City of Rye by John M. Morehead, former village trustee and Mayor, who also donated the funds for the Rye City Hall. As Mayor Joseph Hannan noted in his year-end message to the City Council in 1950, “This bridge is not only beautiful in design, but is also very practical in that it provides easy access to one of our recreation areas for those people living north of Oakland Beach Avenue.”

At the western side of the bridge walk right to the Purdy family burying ground. The inscription on a plaque at the entrance to the ground reads:Pre-Revolutionary place of interment of one of Rye's early families. This tract of land was purchased by Joseph Purdy from John Budd in 1685.” According to Baird, “This is probably one of the oldest places of interment in Rye. It contains many antique memorials of past generations; but the imperfect records of their names have been worn away by time, and none prior to the present century are now legible.” Nearly 150 years later, it appears to a visitor that nothing has changed.

The two cemeteries and the bridge are all the property of Rye and deserve to be properly protected and maintained. The railings on the bridge are rusting and are badly in need of attention. A mostly dead tree at the eastern end of the bridge should be cut down. Fortunately, the Rye Landmarks Advisory Committee has asked the City to grant landmark designation to the cemetery.

In all seasons of the year, there are fascinating things to see. As you cross the footbridge over the tidal brook, low tide may bring egrets, herons, and other wading birds to feed along the banks. Red-wing blackbirds nest in the reeds, while kingfishers fly along the course as they have done for hundreds of years. Last winter, a pair of long-eared owls roosted in the trees near the Purdy cemetery. This is a very special place.

By Paul Hicks

<“A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.”> — Reif Larsen

A new exhibit is opening Saturday, June 10 at the Square House Museum, entitled “Mapping the History of Rye,” and the public is invited to a reception that afternoon from 5 to 7. As one of the exhibit’s curators, together with Jennifer Plick and Sheri Jordan of the Rye Historical Society, I hope these historic maps of Rye and environs will be viewed by a wide audience throughout the summer. It should have special appeal for adults and children who are captivated by maps.

The exhibit begins with a map entitled “West Chester under the Mohegan Indians”, dated 1609 (the year that Henry Hudson sailed up the river that bears his name). If you look closely at the map, you will see an island in what is Long Island Sound that is identified as “Minniwies or Menusing.” These were Native American names for what is now Manursing Island, the place where the settlers of Rye established their first community, which they named Hastings.

On the mainland there is a stream labeled “Mockquams”, which the Rye colonists named Blind Brook. It separates “Poningoe” (the Milton Point peninsula) from “Apaqwamis” (one of the Native American names for what is now Rye Neck). In bolder letters is the word SIWANOYS, identifying the Native American group that some (but not all) historians believe inhabited the area encompassing Rye.

An introduction to the exhibit provides a useful timeline of key historic events, including Rye’s numerous border changes. The Town of Rye became a part of the Colony of Connecticut in 1665, but in 1685 Rye appeared on an English map, which accurately showed that it was then part of the Province of New York to which it had been moved by royal act in 1683. Later maps in the exhibit show Rye back in Connecticut and finally in New York. Rye residents had much in common with parts of Europe, like Gedansk/Danzig that went from Poland to Russia and back to Poland over the centuries.

Written descriptions of the lands that were exchanged between Connecticut and New York in settling these “border wars” are hard to understand, but it becomes much clearer when looking at the maps. In the last negotiation, New York got a narrow quadrangle running up to the Massachusetts border and, in return, Connecticut got a “panhandle” (not quite as large as the Florida or Texas ones).

Another map, which shows the military plans and operations of the British army during the Revolutionary War, is focused on the battle of White Plains in 1776, when that area was still part of the Town of Rye. Seeing General Washington’s encampments shown in blue and those of General Howe in Red, the conflict becomes as immediate to the viewer as if it were recorded live on today’s media.

Other maps in the collection, some of which are reproductions and some from the Society’s collection, illustrate the evolution of Rye from a settlement on Manursing Island to an unincorporated hamlet to an incorporated village (1904) within the Town of Rye to an independent city (1942).

To me, reading that Rye was settled in 1660 is certainly impressive, but to see that its importance warranted it being shown on a rare and significant map as early as 1685 is even more so. It proves once again that a picture is worth a thousand words.

A Bit of Local History

Rye’s Public Beaches

By Paul Hicks

Credit our civic leaders for creating and preserving our beaches and shore-front park.

In the process of curating the new exhibit at the Square House, “Mapping the History of Rye”, I was curious to discover why both Oakland Beach and Rye Beach are part of Rye Town Park and which is which. Fortunately, the background is provided in a fascinating book about Rye by Paul Rheingold, which is part of the Postcard History Series and is available at Arcade Books.

According to Rheingold, the two adjacent beach areas were originally owned and operated separately. They are now continuous without any boundary. Rye Beach lies at the north end of Rye Town Park, where it is separated from Playland Beach by a metal fence that juts out into Long Island Sound.

There are also four maps at the end of the Rheingold book that show changes in that part of Rye’s shore area between 1895 and 1930. The name of Oakland Beach apparently came from an inn named the Oakland Grove House, built by Augustus Halsted, a large landowner who also rented out numerous bungalows in the summer.

In 1905, the Port Chester Journal described the opening of the two beach areas on May 30: “Rye Beach, the acknowledged playground of the people of Westchester County will be run on a larger scale than ever before…the stage and most of the theater have been roofed over so that 1,600 people can witness a performance at one time…There will be dancing in the pavilion three evenings per week for which the ladies orchestra will provide the music…The Rye Beach Hotel and the Rye Beach Inn will be open for business.”

“Over at Oakland Beach, the same bustle and excitement is seen…One hundred bathing houses are nearing completion…the beach will be lighted by arc lights for nighttime bathing and there will be a diving float.”

As reported by Reingold, “Major change of Rye’s waterfront came in 1909 with the construction of the Oakland Pavilion and Rye Town Park on the site of the Augustus Halsted bungalows...” As time passed, a major development appeared in the southernmost end of Oakland Beach…

In 1928, J.P. Munger opened his ‘Million Dollar Bath and Pool,’ which was finally torn down in 1968. Eventually, the property became the site of the Water’s Edge condominium community.

Also in 1928, Playland Park opened on a 280-acre site acquired by Westchester County, which replaced old hotels, restaurants, and earlier amusement parks. Tons of sand were dredged and brought in to create the Playland beach where rocks had previously lined the shore.

It was announced recently that the Playland Pool, which has been in operation for nearly ninety years, would be renovated in a $9.6 million plan agreed to by Westchester County lawmakers. Legislator Catherine Parker, (D-Rye), emphasized that removing the pool would have had a negative impact on lower-income residents who lack other swimming options in the summer.

Great credit is due to the many civic leaders who, over more than a century, have helped to create and preserve Rye Town Park and the beautiful public beaches with the unbroken views of Long Island Sound beyond. Next time you wake early, take a walk from the entrance to the park at Dearborn Avenue out to the end of the Playland Pier and back. If you time it right, you can stop for breakfast or a coffee at the Ocean Grille, whose sign says it is open at 8 a.m

By Paul Hicks

Rye residents contended with rival claims to the territory they acquired more than once.

The concept of “manifest destiny” was first promoted as an American doctrine in the nineteenth century, but the pursuit of territorial expansion had been an important goal for pioneers in the New World since the1600s.

When the original settlers of Rye purchased a large tract of Native American land in 1660, they established their original community on Manursing Island. Soon after, their numbers grew and they expanded onto the mainland, occupying land along both sides of Blind Brook.

In 1662, they acquired additional land from Native Americans further to the west. However, when they failed to settle or cultivate those holdings for more than three decades, the royal governor approved the competing title claim of a group from Long Island in what became known as “Harrison’s Purchase.

It was not the only time the Rye residents had to contend with rival claims to the territory they had acquired. As reported in the history of Rye by Charles W. Baird: “The tract of land known to the natives as Quaroppas, and called by our settlers ‘The White Plains,’ was purchased by them from the Indians in the year 1683.”

But the title held by the inhabitants of Rye was challenged by John Richbell of Mamaroneck, who had a claim dating to 1662, which was acknowledged by both Dutch and English authorities. According to Baird, Richbell complained to the governor that he was “wholly obstructed and hindered by Rye men…and he cannot therefore dispose of these lands…”

The dispute remained unsettled for many years, but after Richbell’s death, his estate’s lands (including all of White Plains) were sold to Caleb Heathcote, who had recently become Lord of the Manor of Scarsdale. The title issues became further complicated when Heathcote died a few years later and his heirs did not press a claim on behalf of his estate. Finally, in 1721 the settlers from Rye obtained a royal patent for the whole tract of 4,435 acres, making it part of the town of Rye.

In 1758, White Plains became the seat of Westchester County, and the unincorporated village remained part of the town of Rye until 1788, when the town of White Plains was created.In the original courthouse at White Plains, the members of the Fourth Provincial Congress of New York assembled on July 9, 1776, where they received a copy of the Declaration of Independence sent to them by the Continental Congress, then sitting in Philadelphia.  

The delegates from New York to the Continental Congress had not been able to vote for the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, because they had not yet received authority from the Colony’s prior Provincial Congress. After review by a committee chaired by John Jay, the new Provincial Congress approved the document and sent instructions to New York’s delegates in Philadelphia to sign the Declaration.

In front of the courthouse on July 11, 1776, Judge John Thomas of Purchase unfurled the Declaration of Independence from the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and read it aloud to a large crowd. A painting by George Albert Harker depicts the historic scene with Judge Thomas flanked by John Jay and other prominent New York patriots. At his side is a drummer boy and near him is the color bearer of the local company of militiamen.

It is clear from the evidence, despite all the twists and turns, that White Plains, which became the “Birthplace of New York State,” grew out of the expansionist zeal of settlers from Rye.


By Paul Hicks

The new film featuring Wonder Woman (aka Diana, Princess of the Amazons) has sparked widespread interest in the legendary comic book character, while breaking box office records. A.O. Scott of The New York Times wrote that it “briskly shakes off blockbuster branding imperatives and allows itself to be something relatively rare in the modern superhero cosmos. It feels like ... what’s the word I’m looking for? A movie. A pretty good one, too.”

If you are wondering how Wonder Woman is connected to the history of Rye, it is through a book entitled “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” by Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore. The publisher called it “a riveting work of historical detection revealing that the origin of Wonder Woman, one of the world’s most iconic superheroes, hides within it a fascinating family story.” Much of that family story took place in Rye between 1935 and 1947.

One reviewer wrote, “‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman’ relates a tale so improbable, so juicy, it’ll have you saying, ‘Merciful Minerva!’ It turns out that decades of rumors were true: The red-white-and-blue heroine, conceived during World War II, had a decidedly bohemian progenitor,” whose name was William Moulton Marston.

Marston was educated at Harvard, receiving his B.A. in 1915, an LL.B. in 1918, and a Ph.D. in Psychology in 1921. While pursuing his advanced degrees, he married Elizabeth Holloway, a graduate of Mount Holyoke, who also earned a law degree at Boston University Law School in 1918.

While teaching psychology courses at Tufts in 1925, the married Marston fell in love with one of his students, Olive Byrne, a niece of Margaret Sanger, who opened the first birth control clinic in the country. Within a few years after her graduation from Tufts, Olive became Marston’s live-in mistress in a <ménage à trois.>

According to Lepore, Elizabeth Holloway Marston consented to the arrangement so she could pursue a career and still have children. Olive agreed to raise Elizabeth’s two children as well as the two she had with Marston. Elizabeth named her daughter Olive, and Olive’s two sons were adopted by Marston and Elizabeth.

In 1935, the whole family moved to a large wooden house in Rye, on a lot covered with old cherry trees and surrounded by 48 acres of farmland, which was a substantial purchase in the middle of the Great Depression. To the outside world, Olive was known as “Mrs. William Richard,” and she listed herself in a Tufts reunion book as living at 81 Oakland Beach Avenue and as member of the Woman’s Club of Rye and the Coveleigh Club.

The comic heroine Wonder Woman, as conceived by Marston, first appeared in 1942, and therefore deserves to be considered as “born” in Rye. As reported by Jill LeporeOlive has been credited by some as being Marston's inspiration for his iconic character, but others say that the model was his careerist wife Elizabeth.

William Marston died in 1947 from cancer, but Olive and Elizabeth continued to live in Rye until the early 1950s. Whether or not you see the movie or read the book, the back story of Wonder Woman confirms that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

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” (

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.

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