By Bradley Harris, Smithtown Historian
(This history of St. James was originally published by the Smithtown News on October 1, 1988 for St. James Day. I asked that the Smithtown News reprint this short history for this year’s St. James Day. I have rewritten some of the original narrative and I have added to the more recent history of St. James. I have also added many photographs that are contained in the files of the Smithtown Historical Society. I have done this in memory of my good friend Norman O’Berry who helped me write this history and who loved St. James and spent his lifetime exploring its history.)
The hamlet of St. James in the Town of Smithtown was historically known as Head of the Harbor until 1853. In that year, Episcopalians living in the area organized a parish and incorporated a religious society known as the St. James Church of Smithtown.
In the following year, a church building was constructed on North Country Road and was formally dedicated as the St. James Episcopal Church. The name of St. James seems to have become associated with the community, because soon after this first church was erected, the Federal Government opened its first post office in the area and named the postal district St. James.
The St. James Episcopal Church, built in 1854, on a two acre plot of land donated by Joel L.G. Smith. It is believed that the church was named to honor James Clinch who was a major benefactor in raising the $2,584 dollars it cost to build the church.
When the Federal Government opened the post office on June 9, 1856, it did so in Richard Smith’s General Store which was located at the intersection of Moriches Road and Harbor Hill Road. The St. James Post Office became a reality and this locality in Smithtown has been known as St. James ever since.
The St. James General Store was owned by Richard Smith in 1856 when the federal government opened the post office. Besides being a store, Post Office, and community center, taxes were also collected here.
In 1854, when the St. James Episcopal Church was built, there were only a few homes to be found along North Country Road. The only concentration of dwellings was to the east, in the hamlet of Mills Pond, where homes were to be found along North Country Road and Mills Pond Road. South of North Country Road, in the area that would become the present commercial center of St. James near the railroad station, there were only a few isolated homes. Lake Avenue (then known as Gallagher’s Lane) and Moriches Road were little more than rutted cow trails heading south through thickly wooded, uninhabited wilderness. At the intersection of Moriches Road and Lake Avenue, there was a large watering hole where roving cattle quenched their thirst.The hamlet of St. James as it existed in 1854 was to be found north of North Country Road where some thirty houses were concentrated, most of them along Moriches Road, Three Sisters Road and Harbor Hill Road. The center of the village and its tiny population lay situated among the rolling hills that are found in this area. The school house, with about 100 scholars in attendance by 1873, was located in the hollow on Three Sisters Road. The business district was along Moriches Road and consisted of three general stores (one of which housed the post office), an inn, and a blacksmith and wheelwright shop.
The St. James Schoolhouse on North Country Road. This schoolhouse was the third one to be built in St. James and served the community from 1907 until 1938.
Much of the history of St. James in this period centered around what is now the St. James General Store on Moriches Road. Here the residents could purchase yard goods, kitchen wares, medicine, shoes, horse medicine, tobacco, groceries, hardware, candy and practically anything else they needed. Since it also served as the post office, it became a central meeting place where town folk would gather to wait for the mail. Everett Smith, the owner, often had to take mail out to women who came on horseback and did not want to dismount. This became too much for him so he posted a sign that read: “People on Horseback must enter the Store for Mail.” Much to his surprise, a woman entered the store one day, on horseback, to receive her mail. Besides being a store, post office, community center and hitching post, taxes were collected here.
The St. James Post Office when it was located on the corner of Moriches Road and Harbor Hill Road. The Post Office was in this building in 1913 when it was decided to relocate the Post Office to a new building on Lake Avenue near the railroad station.
There were other stores on Moriches Road, but they have all been taken down or converted into private dwellings. One store belonged to Henry Smith who was appointed postmaster in 1870. Henry Smith’s store was located at the intersection of Three Sisters Road and Moriches Road. Henry met an untimely end. He was being annoyed by robbers, so he rigged up a shotgun aimed at the door with a string from the door to the trigger. He locked up one night and went home, but absent-mindedly he went back to get something. When he opened the door, he was killed by the shot. His widow, Mrs. Harriet Smith was then appointed Postmaster and she ran the Post Office and general store following her husband’s death.
Another store was operated by John Keenan in the house on the southeast corner of Harbor Hill Road and Moriches Road. This store was later owned by a man named Vetter who ran a furrier shop there and employed local women to make fur garments. The house was later owned by Obadiah Smith. A blacksmith and wheelwright shop was owned and operated by William Monahan from his property on east side of Moriches Road which stretched from North Country Road to Harbor Hill Road.
Monahan’s Blacksmith and Wheelwright Shop
On the southeast corner of North Country Road and Moriches Road was the local hotel known as the St. James Hotel. This building was standing not so long ago and was then known as The Gold Coast Too, but it was subsequently lost in a fire. All that remains of the old hotel is the triangle of land where it once stood.
The St. James Hotel when it was known as The Gold Coast Too.
Most of the people of St. James were farmers, although some made their living cutting cordwood and hauling it down to the dock at the end of Cordwood Path. Others made a living harvesting shellfish, particularly scallops, soft clams and oysters, which were taken from St. James Harbor and shipped by sloop and schooner to New York City. Many men made a living as captains and sailors on these vessels. They took the cargoes of shellfish and cordwood into New York City, and returned loaded down with horse manure for the farmer’s fields. So lived the people of St. James in the 1860’s. The tranquility of the little country village was shattered with the coming of the railroad in 1872.
The residents of St. James had lobbied long and hard for the Long Island Rail Road to extend its North Shore line from Northport into Smithtown. But the LIRR staunchly refused to consider their request. They finally got their wish when the taxpayers of Smithtown agreed to pay for the cost of the extension of the railroad through Smithtown and authorized the town to borrow the money through the sale of bonds. By 1872 the railroad reached St. James. Initially there was no railroad station at St. James, but the residents of St. James pooled their resources and talents and constructed a station of their own.
The St. James Railroad Station built in 1873 by Calvin L’Hommedieu. The $750 needed to construct the station was raised by private contributions and the land was given by Edmund T. Smith and Milton G. Smith.
Having a railroad in St. James changed the community in a number of ways. It made it much more convenient and faster for farmers to get their goods and produce to New York City markets. It made it possible for businessmen to make a daily commute from New York City to St. James. To further promote ridership, the railroad actively encouraged tourism. Tourists came to stay in St. James to enjoy the fresh country air and the passing of the seasons. As St. James grew in popularity as a summer resort, the demand for summer rentals and cottages led to the increase in property values. This brought real-estate speculators to the beautiful, rolling countryside of St. James and this led many landowners to sell off sections of their land for residential development. By the turn-of-the-century, the population of St. James had risen to about 400 permanent residents.
To the north of the village of St. James, on the land that surrounded St. James Harbor and St. James Neck, many old farmhouses were purchased by wealthy individuals and then converted into magnificent homesteads. This part of St. James began to be transformed into an area of large estates with the surrounding acreage remaining under cultivation.
Stanford White’s Box Hill with its many gables and “pebble-dash” finish.
One of the first individuals to do this was the famous architect Stanford White. Shortly after he married Bessie Smith, the youngest of the five daughters of Judge John Lawrence Smith, Stanford White purchased the Carman Farm on Moriches Road in St. James. The farm was remodeled on three separate occasions – in the 1880s, 1890s, and at the turn of the century – as Stanford White modified the house to suit his taste. The house known as Box Hill, stands today as a unique example of an old farmhouse that was converted into a summer residence and a country estate.
One of Bessie Smith’s sisters, Ella, also came to live in St. James in a remodeled farmhouse. Ella married Devereux Emmet, a famous golf-course architect, and they acquired the house on Harbor Road, on the east side of St. James Harbor, which had been built by Adam Smith, a son of the Patentee. The east wing of this house is thought to predate 1688. Stanford White modified this house for his sister-in-law by adding a west wing and a porch that practically doubled the size of the house, and converted the house into an elegant country estate. This estate, known as Sherrowogue, is still intact and may be seen from Harbor Road.
Sherrowogue on Harbor Road showing the addition that Stanford White made to the house for his sister-in-law. This view of the house is from St. James Harbor.
Bessie’s other sisters established homes in St. James. Each of them had inherited wealth and married wealthy and influential men. Each one purchased a large tract of land and built a new mansion. Cornelia Stewart Smith married Prescott Hall Butler. They purchased a tract of land north of Stanford White’s residence and built an impressive mansion that overlooked St. James Harbor. Louise Nicoll Smith married Frank Sayre Osborne and they established a residence opposite the present day Nissequogue Country Club. Kate Annette Smith married Reverend Joseph Bloomfield Wetherill in 1879 and moved away from Smithtown.
When her husband died in 1886, she returned to be with her sisters in St. James. She acquired a tract of land that adjoined Stanford White’s estate on the east side. In 1892, Mr. White began construction of a house for his sister-in-law. High on a hill overlooking St. James Harbor, he oversaw the construction of a magnificent, octagonal house of fieldstone and glass. This house is a classic example of Stanford White’s work and is representative of the “Gold Coast” estates that were built in this time period around St. James Harbor.
Wetherill’s house designed by Stanford White. The house is actually built in the shape of a Maltese Cross.
The presence of these large estates offered employment opportunities to many residents in the St. James area and brought in new people. The workmen who moved into St. James in the last quarter of the 19th century found quarters on the estates where they were employed or had new homes constructed along North Country Road to the west of the St. James Episcopal Church. Many of these homes can still be seen along North Country Road in this area.
The St. James area also began to attract the great and the not-so-near great actors of the day. St. James became an actor’s haven. Why this happened is not known, but one story has it that “a group of actors once traveled to this area from New York City on their bicycles.” Since the trip had taken most of the day, and they were “too tired for the return trip, and having liked what they saw, they decided to stay for a while.” For whatever reason, St. James “became a popular retreat for show business folk during their leisure time. The show business greats of the turn-of-the-century came to St. James during their holidays” and many purchased homes in the area. These included such famous names as John, Lionel, and Ethel Barrymore, the Bartons, the Colliers, the La Rues, the Garricks, the Sykes, the Hoppers and many others including the prize-fighter, Gentleman Jim Corbett.
Tony Farrell’s Shore Inn, built around 1901, was located on the west side of Harbor Road just to the north of Thompson’s Landing. Built on a bluff overlooking St. James Harbor, the hotel had a dock that extended into the Harbor. The tavern that was also on this property was a favorite rendezvous for the actor’s colony.
By the summer of 1903, some one hundred actors were making a pilgrimage to St. James to spend a few months of relaxation in the sunlight. In St. James the actors and actresses gathered to enjoy the delights of the “wooded gulch on the north shore.” Here they enjoyed fishing, boating, swimming, clambakes, dancing, baseball games and the company of their fellow actors. Often these actors and actresses gathered in Liberty Hall, the original St. James schoolhouse that Willie Collier purchased as a clubhouse for the actor’s Bohemian Club. Here they gathered to enjoy each other’s company, to while away the hours, to recount the day’s achievements to an appreciative and rowdy crowd, and to plot their next adventure. They were a boisterous, fun-loving group who loved their summers in St. James.
Willie Collier’s house on the corner of Harbor Hill Road and Three Sisters Road in St. James. Liberty Hall, the original St. James schoolhouse is just across Three Sisters Road from this house.
The lure of St. James for the great reached its zenith when Supreme Court Justice William J. Gaynor of Brooklyn purchased the estate known as Deepwells. This fine old house was recognized as one of the landmarks of St. James when Justice Gaynor bought the house in 1905. Deepwells at that time was largely an unimproved farm and he developed it into a fine estate. He extended the ell at the back of the house and increased the stock of farm animals. Pigs were his passion and he kept 39 “porkers.” In 1910, Justice Gaynor was nominated and elected Mayor of New York City on the Democratic ticket. He had run as a staunch advocate of good government and had won on a reform ticket. The fact that the Mayor of New York City had a country home in St. James placed the tiny community on the map and drew more people to the area. Throughout his term of office, which lasted until his death in 1913, Mayor Gaynor made Deepwells his “Summer City Hall” and used to delight in taking unsuspecting reporters from the city on a tour of his pig barn.
Deepwells, Mayor Gaynor’s home in St. James. Built in 1847 for Joel Louis Griffing Smith by the master builder George Curtis who also built the Smithtown Presbyterian Church. The name of the house comes from the hand-dug, brick-lined wells that are 125’ deep.
With so much interest in St. James, real-estate speculators again became active in the area as estate and farm owners began offering sections of their land for residential development. The land to the south of North Country Road was now developed. On the part of Lake Avenue between North Country Road and the LIRR tracks, several large homes were built. One of them was a large two-story home that stood on the site of the present St. James Elementary School. This house was constructed for Father Ducey who had a parish in New York City and spent his summers in St. James. In 1937, this house was torn down to be replaced by the present school. To the north of Father Ducey’s residence another large house was built in 1903. The owner was E.F.Wells, station master of the LIRR. This house still stands just to the north of the St. James Elementary School.
Father Ducey’s residence on Lake Avenue when it was a dirt road lined with newly planted trees. The St. James Elementary School occupies this site today.
The land on the south side of the Long Island Rail Road tracks was also being developed. This area, known derisively as “Boomertown” by the old-time residents of St. James, was being promoted by the House and Home Company in conjunction with the LIRR. Houses were sold at $300, $400, and $500 on lots that were laid on in a grid pattern. Streets and Avenues were systematically drawn, and one could purchase a home in St. James Heights or St. James Park. The first house erected in Boomertown was built by Mr. Erland in 1898 in the area of Gaynor Park, near the railroad tracks. Others followed rapidly. It is said that lots were marketed to immigrants as they came off the boats at Ellis Island. This might account for the presence of so many Germans, Norwegians and Swedes in St. James.
The St. James Methodist Church built in 1898 after fire destroyed the original church.
As more people moved into “Boomertown,” the center of the community shifted. More people began living on the south side of the railroad tracks, and the St. James business district moved south as well. In 1901, a feed store was built by Joseph Amey on Railroad Avenue just to the east of Lake Avenue. The use of the railroad made delivery of feed and coal easier. In 1905, a hotel was erected on the corner of Lake Avenue and Railroad Avenue, and it was first known as the Nissequogue Hotel. People from New York City would take the train to St. James and stay there for their vacation. The hotel had the latest conveniences, gas lighting and indoor plumbing. Mayor Gaynor stayed at the hotel when he came to St. James in the winter. Those who vacationed at the hotel in summer months would be transported in carriages to swim at the beaches in St. James Harbor. Long Beach and Short Beach were seldom used, but a Mr. Morrisey had a team of mules and would drive those who wished to swim in the Sound to Long Beach and Little Africa. Mr. Morrissey would drive along Shore Road as it wound its way along the west side of St. James Harbor out to the Sound beaches. In the fall and winter, hunters came out to St. James and stayed in the Nissequogue Hotel. They hunted in the wooded areas to the southeast of the village where they shot quail, rabbit, and deer or they ventured out into duck blinds and punts from which they shot ducks and geese.
The Nissequogue Hotel, built in 1905, stood on the corner of Lake Avenue and Railroad Avenue.
In 1908 as the business district near the railroad tracks continued to expand, the “flat iron” building was erected by Joseph Amey across from the St. James railroad station. At one time, this building housed a one-lane bowling alley.
Joseph Amey’s “flat iron” building with the Nissequogue Hotel on the opposite side of Lake Avenue. The photographer was looking to the south.
With the growth of the business district and the increase in the number of houses south of the railroad tracks, interest grew in organizing a fire department to provide a measure of protection for the residents of St. James. According to T. Edward Ellis, the Eagle Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 was organized in 1908. In 1907, as a young man of 20, Ed Ellis first came to St. James with his aunt and uncle to help them build a house on Jefferson Avenue. At that time there weren’t many residents in St. James and when the townsfolk began to talk about organizing a fire company, they approached the young men in the area about joining the company. Ed Ellis joined with 14 other German and Scandinavian men in chartering a volunteer fire company called the Eagle Hook and Ladder Company No. 1. A fund-raising drive was then undertaken to raise money to purchase fire equipment and build a firehouse. The drive met with limited success but it enabled the fire company to purchase a hook and ladder firewagon from the Smithtown Fire Department and to begin construction of a firehouse on Woodlawn Avenue.
On July 2, 1910, in a grand ceremony, William J. Gaynor, Mayor of New York City, presided over the laying of the cornerstone for the new firehouse. Using volunteer labor and the money they had raised, the firemen completed building their firehouse by 1913. But construction of this substantial building would not have been possible without the financial backing of two of the volunteer firemen, William Weber and Joseph Eschenbeck. William Weber, who owned the general store on Woodlawn Avenue and Joseph Eschenbeck who owned and operated the Lake Avenue Hotel (later became the Mt. Pleasant Inn), actually paid for the cost of construction of the firehouse. The firehouse was located on Joseph Eschenbeck’s property. It was the Eagle Hook and Ladder Company firehouse, but the building actually belonged to Weber and Eschenbeck. And these two men rented out the firehouse as a community hall.
The firehouse that was constructed in 1913 was a large open building. (This firehouse is actually still standing on Woodlawn Avenue and is now the Church of the Assembly of God.) It was designed to serve as a hall and had a hardwood floor and the interior was paneled in wood. The building was designed with a large stage at one end and had a curtain that rolled down. The hall was frequently used for dances. Music was usually supplied by a violinist, pianist, and a drummer. The hall was unheated but people warmed up by dancing. Ed Ellis remembered that an annual masquerade dance was held here and that the actors colony in St. James made use of the hall for threatrical performances during the summer months. In fact, it was the rental of the hall for a dance that led to the demise of the Eagle Hook and Ladder Company.
The Eagle Hook and Ladder Company struggled along for 14 years until interest in having a fire company in St. James had reached such a low level that the company collapsed because of a lack of financial support. Their hand-drawn equipment was old and obsolete, yet they could not raise money to buy newer, more efficient equipment.
The company had a motorized pumper that had been donated to the fire company after World War I, but the truck stayed in the firehouse, neglected and unused. On December 31, 1921, a New Year’s Eve dance was held in the Eagle Hook and Ladder Company firehouse. The fire truck was parked alongside the building so the hall could be used. The fire truck was left here overnight and the next morning it was found to be frozen solid in the mud and the engine block had seized up as well. This was the condition of the Eagle Hook and Ladder Company equipment when tragedy struck in St. James.
(“News of Long Ago,” Smithtown News, June 16, June 23, June 30 and July 14, 1983.)
In the middle of the night, on Monday, January 2, 1922, a barn owned by Sam Yochowitz caught fire. By 2:15 a.m., when Barbara Herrmann witnessed the barn burning, the flames had engulfed the entire barn and the fire had spread to the adjacent grocery owned by the Ryans. (These buildings stood on the property that is today occupied by King Kullen in the heart of the business district.) The Ryans were “awakened by a man pounding on the store.” Tom, Helen, and their 5-week-old baby Jimmie got out just as the “roof fell in.” The roaring blaze was fanned by a northwest wind and “the burning pieces of wood were blown across the fields to Woodlawn Avenue.” Had the wind shifted, Mrs. Herrmann’s house would have been in trouble since her home was only 100 feet from the barn. As it was, one neighboring house did catch fire as the roof started burning. The house was saved by the timely arrival of the Stony Brook and Smithtown Fire Departments who extinguished the fire. (My thanks to Barbara Herrman for her letter to me of June 20, 1983 about the St. James’ fire of January 2, 1922, from which this information was taken.)
It was this fire and the fear that it struck in every homeowner’s heart, that forced the people of St. James to realize that they needed a full-fledged fire department of their own. “A committee of local citizens, headed by Charles S. Butler and Judge Henry Weismann, started a drive to raise money for equipment for a new fire department.” With the money raised by this effort, “a model T Ford Pumper was purchased at a cost of $1,500.” Charles Butler donated property he owned on North Country Road (the site of the present firehouse) and the pumper was stored here in a metal garage. “With its shiny new pumper and metal building, the department was launched and received its charter on March 8, 1922.” John O’Berry became the first chief of the department. (“A Salute to the St. James Fire Department,” a journal published by the St. James Methodist Church on the occasion of the ninth annual Auction and Fair, Saturday, August 29, 1964.)
In 1923, a new firehouse was constructed so that the fire department would have a more permanent place to house its equipment. Charles Butler “donated the engine room floor, which in the present building consists of the three eastern bays” and the “second floor of the building was built by the volunteers themselves.” This firehouse has continued to serve the fire department to the present day. (“A Salute to the St. James Fire Department,” op. cit.)
One of the first movie theaters in St. James opened up on Second Street just behind the building where North Country Family Physicians are located (487 Lake Avenue). Marion Deutzman, who grew up in St. James, remembered seeing silent movies in this theater in the late 1920’s and recalled that “all during the movie someone played the piano to match the action on the screen.” She also remembered that on Saturday nights, the owners of the theater would sponsor special events such as a “pie eating contest. Anyone could enter this contest and most of the time they had gooey pies, mostly huckleberry. My brother and his friends were always in this contest, and most of the time either my brother or his best friend would win – but you should have seen the mess afterwards!” (“Memories of St. James” by Marion Deutzman, unpublished manuscript in the Long Island Room of the Smithtown Library.) When talkies came along, a new theater was built across the street where Hailey’s Garden Tea Shoppe can be found today.
The St. James Theater interior showing the stage and cast for a show that was presented. The building is now Hailey’s Garden Tea Shoppe.
On August 18, 1913, the St. James Post Office was relocated. It was moved from its location near the St. James General Store on Moriches Road to a new site on Lake Avenue near the railroad station. It was first housed in the building that is today the Dress Shop and then it was moved to the south side of the building that used to house Noftsinger’s Hardware Store and now is home to several antiques shops. Here it became the hub of the surrounding St. James community. Mail was delivered by the LIRR twice a day. Marion Deutzman remembered that in the 1930’s “there were two mail trains a day –one in the morning and one just after six at night. The post office had a big wagon and someone would meet the train to pick up the bags of mail off the mail-car. It would be pushed to the Post Office, which at the time was on Lake Avenue almost directly across from the St. James School. When the mail arrived at the P.O. the service window was closed down. Everyone would come about that time to wait for their mail to be sorted into the boxes (there was no home delivery at this time). It was just a thing that everyone accepted and liked to do. It was a meeting place. After the mail was all sorted – they would open the service window and you knew that was it. The two post masters I remember at this time were John Maybee and after him was Tim Sullivan.” (“Memories of St. James” by Marion Deutzman, unpublished manuscript on file in the Long Island Room of the Smithtown Library.)
St. James Post Office.
Moving the Post Office followed the trend of the business community to move nearer to the railroad station. This move heralded the shift in location of the population of the town and gave a clear signal to the “Old Guard” in St. James that the “Boomers” were now in the majority and would soon be controlling the political seats of power. Not long after this the incorporated villages of Nissequogue and Head of the Harbor were created. The large estate owners of St. James who lived along the Nissequogue River and the western shore of St. James Harbor banded together in 1926 and formed the incorporated Village of Nissequogue. In 1928, the large property owners who lived to the north and east of the village of St. James followed suit and established the incorporated Village of Head of the Harbor. These villages were created so the residents could govern their own zoning and prevent the extension of commercial areas into their villages thereby preserving the integrity and charm of the land surrounding St. James Harbor. The “Old Guard” of St. James was not about to let the “Boomers” tell them what they could or could not do with their property. So the community of St. James was split into three separate areas and this division has persisted to this day.
Aerial view of St. James taken some time in the 1930’s. Lake Avenue runs across the photograph and intersects with Fourth Street near the building that is today Dowling’s Garage.The rest of the story of the hamlet of St. James is one which is still being written. St. James has had continued expansion of population and housing to the south of the railroad tracks. The business center of St. James has remained concentrated along Lake Avenue but has spread to the south as far as Woodlawn Avenue. The available open-land has almost been swallowed up by residential housing and farming as a way of life has practically disappeared. By sharp contrast, the incorporated villages of Nissequogue and Head of the Harbor have carefully controlled their expansion and growth through restrictive zoning and careful planning. As a result, there is still open land available in these villages and some residents are still engaged in farming. But the rising cost of living, the pressure of taxes, and the attractive real estate deals for selling their land, has led many large property owners to sell or subdivide their land for housing. Open land is at a premium everywhere in St. James and soon it will no longer be available. The St. James that is emerging is far different from the little country village it was one hundred years ago.
"There's always something to see in a big city, but sometimes, we want a slower pace. Thankfully, we have St. James, an incredible small town. Whether you want a great bite to eat, charming local stores and beautiful natural surroundings, you'll find it all in this beautiful town with a big heart!"
"Charming, friendly, historical, and so much more, St. James on Long Island’s North Shore is one of my favorite places - ever!"
"I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon in St. James and didn’t want to leave. Just go visit- that’s all I can say."