Friday, 25 November 2011 00:00
Wheeling, or bicycling, was huge in the 1880s. “Wheelmen” clubs were forming everywhere. Success Pond was a favorite excursion destination, and not just because of the beautiful views of the sun reflecting off of still, mirrored sheet of water. The pond was situated in between the macademized (hardened) Flushing-North Hempstead Turnpike and the planked Jamaica-Jericho Turnpike. It was also the point where stagecoach lines met, and the smaller roads in the immediate vicinity were kept in pretty good shape.
For many years, the Kings County Wheelmen held their annual July picnic at the pond. Every year, 50 or more cyclists left the clubhouse in Brooklyn at 9 a.m. and had time for several hours of swimming, boating, fishing and an early afternoon lunch in one of the adjacent groves, and they were home before dark. Bicyclists and the businesses that benefited from them formed the backbone of the Good Roads Association, which successfully pressed Long Island towns to harden and improve many scores of twisting, mottled and muddied roads and paths. Prosperous North Hempstead was frequently said to have the best-maintained roads on Long Island, and, as The New York Times real estate section would explain, “Roads are the first consideration to the man who owns or is planning to own a country home that can be measured in acres and not by city lots.”
Another sporting activity that got a lot of attention was coaching. Not stage coaching for transportation purposes, but luxury coaching through the countryside. The Coaching Club was an exclusive youngish gentlemen’s club. Once a year, hunting horns were blown and their special coach, The Pioneer, started up Fifth Avenue to Central Park and then to the Astoria ferry as its passengers, with apple blossoms in the regulation buttonholes of their club coats, waved to onlookers. Along the way, they were met by a group leaving from Tarrytown in their coach, The Tantivy, and they made their way along a carefully, timed, carefully planned and carefully choreographed route out to some Long Island destination. Within a few years, there were lots of coaches holding over a hundred people, all expected to yell, “Tally-Ho” when the coachmen blew the horns.
Each year, the carriages stopped at Success Pond to change the horses. Many of the Hotel Brunswick’s vegetables came from nearby farms and the concierge there would arrange for a special farmer’s market for the members to choose some fruit for the trip. The schedule was published in advance, and the horns blew so that locals knew it was time to come out and see the Pioneer and the other coaches, and to wave. And then, horns and Tally-ho!, they were off for a special luncheon at the Garden City Hotel and then to their ultimate destination in the countryside. The entire event usually lasted for three days, and was so popular that they created a Coaching Club for Newport, since everyone spent part of the year there.
For a while, they usually went out to August Belmont, Jr’s stud farm at Babylon. Starting in 1883, the most frequent destination was the place so many of them wanted to see: Idle Hour, the brand new “country seat” of William K. Vanderbilt. One of the first of Long Island’s manoral estates, it was impressive even to the men named Roosevelt, Havemeyer, Jay, Schermerhorn and the others in the Coaching Club. A 60-room mansion built on a property larger than Central Park along the Connetquot River, Idle Hour quickly became a key destination for gala balls, fox hunting weekends and whatever else was going on when you weren’t in Newport. For years, Idle Hour was a place to be.
Until 1899, when William gave his son, William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., the use of the estate for his honeymoon.
And somehow, during the honeymoon, it all burned down.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org