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Town of Riverhead

 
Historian

New Landmarks Preservation Commission


Purpose: Compile detailed historical information regarding the town through research and interviews. Provide information to local media, organizations, institutions and residents on historic aspects of the town and its citizens.

Riverhead History

Southold’s first residents were Native Americans who arrived here about 10,000 years ago. They settled in this area because of its location in a well-watered flood plain. The site provided many food resources - fish, deer and others animals.
    The History of Long Island by Nathaniel S. Prime published in 1845, reads in part: “A settlement was commenced here as early as 1690 by John Griffin and others who erected a grist-mill on the mouth of River….” He goes on to note that a court house and jail were erected in Riverhead in 1725.

When Riverhead gained its separation from the Town of Southold in 1792, residents cited the reason for the separation as the inconvenience in attending town meetings. Southold at that time included Shelter Island and all the land along the north shore of Long Island from Oysterponds (Orient Point) to Wading River.

The Town of Riverhead was formed from a large portion of what was known as the "Aquebogue Division" of Southold. From 1661 to 1792, all the land between Mattituck and Wading River (that now includes Laurel, Jamesport, Northville, Aquebogue, Roanoke, Riverhead, Calverton, and Baiting Hollow) was described as "Aquebogue".

At the time of separation, the two largest villages in the town were at Wading River and Lower or Old Aquebogue, now known as Jamesport.

Men were elected to positions such as Supervisor, constable or assessor or fence viewer. A fence viewer was responsible for reminding farmers to mend their fence to keep their pigs, cows and sheep within their borders. The neighbor lady didn’t particularly enjoy having her flowers and vegetables swallowed up by her neighbor’s loose animals.

Overseers of the Poor made sure indigent members of the community were well cared for and fed. The Overseers of Roads assessed the number of days each person was to work on the road. Many such documents in the Town Historian’s office show the names and number of days worked.

By the early 1800s, Riverhead saw the passing of their Revolutionary War soldier due to their age. These men are buried in many of the town’s early cemeteries. The almost forgotten War of 1812, found Riverhead farmers on the Sound cliffs confronting the British in the Long Island Sound, not once but twice.

The Civil War found the town answering President Lincoln’s call for men and money. Nine of Riverhead’s sons died in battle and more died later from wounds they received in battle. Among those buried in National Cemeteries along the Atlantic coast are three Riverheaders who are buried in the National Cemetery in Beauford, South Carolina – a long way from home in those days. Eight soldiers were prisons of war and 31 were wounded but lived. Some soldiers returned to Riverhead while others chose to live in other parts of the country. David Chippie, a Corporal in the 29th Connecticut Infantry, was a black soldier in F Company. Mr. Chippie lived in Riverhead with his mother and both are buried in the Riverhead Cemetery.

Many, many residents of the town donated funds towards the war effort. The Town Historian has many Civil War era documents in her files.

As additional people made Riverhead and its hamlets their home, the need for more and different types of businesses were needed. The shoemaker made dainty shoes for my lady and work boots for the farmer. The blacksmith was busy with shoeing horses and repairing carriages.

The carriage makers were grouped together along Bridge Street, today known as Peconic Avenue. The grocer ordered goods that came from points west of Riverhead or from Connecticut by the railroad which came to Riverhead in 1844 and boats, which docked in Wading River, on Indian Island, or in Jamesport. Farmers sold their vegetables to the grocer who in turn, sold the vegetables, and both were happy to earn money.

The oldest continuous business in the town is the monument business started in 1842, by George Hill. He was succeeded by Frank H. Hill and W.E. Gerard. Mr. Hill bought out Mr. Gerard and was joined by his brother, Fred S. Hill, to share in the business. Frank and Fred Hill were local undertakers. George H. Moore purchased the business and renamed it Peconic Monument Works. Currently, Hollis Warner is the owner of this long-lived business. Hundreds of cemetery gravestones were carved by these craftsmen.

During the early years of the town, the farmland was passed down from generation to generation. Several farms are still family-owned today – Wells, Talmage, and Reeve are just a few of the names.

Countless hotels, inns and, today, what is called B & Bs, came into existence mostly in South Jamesport and Riverhead. In South Jamesport ladies and families came to stay for a week or for the summer at places called the Great Peconic Bay House or the Miamogue House. In Riverhead attorneys came to town to try cases before the Supreme Court. Popular places to stay near the court house were the Griffin [no ‘g’] House on Griffing Avenue and the Long Island House on Main Street.

Before and after the turn of the century the town flourished again. 

Edna Yeager in her booklet, Peconic River Mills, stated Riverhead was the first community outside of New York City to have electricity. She believed the old gristmill in the western part of Riverhead village first made electricity via waterpower.

The Perkins Light Company was the first in 1890 to provide electric current to the village of Riverhead, and was formed for the express purpose of providing electric streetlights. An undated article pointed out there were 12 streetlights operating from dark until midnight. Later the number of streetlights was increased to 20 operated under a “moon-lite night” clause, meaning no streetlights on moonlit nights.

An 1893 appeal wanted bids for a street lighting district with specifications for lights to burn 27 days a month. Presumably, there was a full or nearly full moon the remainder of the month.

J. Henry Perkins sought permission to string electric wires on all streets and in public places within Riverhead plus other surrounding locations. Work for putting up the wires for street lighting neared completion in 1894.

Everything was going well for the production of electricity when hundreds of eels made themselves to home in Hallett’s electric light plant’s water wheel generating lights between sunset and midnight.

Riverhead Town records reflect that Town Clerk John H. Hagen was working late one evening. When the electric lights were turned off at midnight.  Mr. Hagen lit a kerosene lamp that exploded in his hands! Keeping his presence of mind he quickly closed the safe door thus saving many of the official town records. Following this accident in 1909, the town board authorized the town clerk to advertise for lighting the Riverhead Light District with 90 lights from sunset to sunup.

The Post Office, called Suffolk, was opened in the early 1700s. Along the way the named changed from Suffolk to River Head and then to Riverhead.

Communication with the outside world and family members was all important to the residents of the town.

The telegraph was first used in 1844. Te-leg-raphers used Morse code sending dots and dashes with lightning speed. In Riverhead, Fred Wagner established the village’s telegraph office in 1881, in a Main Street barbershop. During the 1950s Camille Tuthill Stivers worked at the Western Union office on West Main Street. People said Mrs. Stivers could type so fast she could stay ahead of a 50 mile-per-hour gale.

As early as May 1895, arrangements were being made for telephone lines. The Baiting Hollow and Roanoke Telephone Co. came into existence around 1900, when it was formed by some Baiting Hollow farmers for their own convenience. The telephone wires encompassed three and a half miles along Sound Avenue and south along Roanoke Avenue.

Bringing running water into the house was a huge convenience – water whenever you wanted it!

In 1875, Charles Hallett broke ground for his water works on Griffing Avenue. He proposed to carry the water from his pond through underground pipes. The Griffing water tower, built of wood and painted to look like brick, was begun in 1892. The Perkins brothers also owned and operated a water works company.

Names were gathered on a 1913 petition submitted to the town board asking for the establishment of a municipal water district. The Riverhead Fire Department hooked up hoses to the fire hydrants to test the water mains at the end of July 1915; all mains were found to be satisfactory. The new municipal water company officially took over August 1915.

 

The Riverhead Improvement Society sought a town committee to examine a proposal to organize a Stock Sewage Company. It was the same year, 1936, during Supervisor Milton Burns’ administration, the sewers became a reality. It was also the reason Mr. Burns lost his re-election bid. The voting public said the sewers cost too much. Little did the voters of that time realize that Milton Burns’ sewer was far ahead of its time and today, we are mighty grateful to have it. Riverhead town purchased land on Riverside Drive for $5,000 for the purpose of erecting a sewer plant.

During World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Riverhead did its best to support the war effort. Many of its sons were sent to places they had never heard of or seen on a map. Some came home; some were buried near the ground they were defending in Europe or in the Pacific or Asia. Others found their resting place at the bottom of the ocean.

Private First Class Garfield Langhorn was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his selfless act of heroism saving his fellow soldiers’ lives. A statue in his honor is on the grounds of the Riverhead Town Hall.

We shall remember them all.

The Town Parks. In 1923, the Town accepted a gift from Cora Reeve Barnes for 14 acres on Long Island Sound - this gift is known as Howell M. Reeve Memorial Park. Over the years, the town accessed more parks including Grangebel Park  and Stozky Memorial Park.

Historic firsts. Syrena Stackpole, in 1931, was the first woman elected to the Town Board; Charles Crump was the first African-American elected to town government as an Assessors.

Zoning discussions began at a Town Board meeting in September 1928, although zoning didn't become a reality until June, 1959.

Growth of the town’s population created a need for more ordinances and local laws covering such matters as marinas, housing, junkyards, building construction, carnivals, housing developments, advertising, agriculture districts, taverns, site plans and swimming pools.

Different departments regulate and enforce our ordinances and laws.

Prior to 1975 the Town Board included a Supervisor, two councilpersons and two justices. Since that time, the two justices were replaced with two additional councilpersons, with the justices only adjudicating legal matters.

Today, the annual general town meeting has been replaced with bi-monthly meetings which are held on the first and third Tuesdays.

Town officials are voted upon in the odd-numbered years, on Election Day instead of at the once-a-year April town meeting.

            We could talk about the fire departments, roads, cemeteries, transportation, clubs and organizations, mills, and schools among other topics, but we will save those for another time.   

    Contact Us
    Georgette L. Case

    Historian

    Phone (631) 369-9717