Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Ride From Heckscher State Park to Idle Hour

On Friday, April 23, 2010, we took advantage of a beautiful sunny day to celebrate our 10th anniversary by going for a bike ride.  We opted for an out-and-back route on Long Island.  We biked from Heckscher State Park, at the end of the Southern State and Heckscher Parkways in East Islip, to the old artist colony of Idle Hour in Oakdale.


Although it gets more than a million visitors a year, you?d never know it from the sparse crowd we saw.  The vast parking fields were virtually empty, with just a few joggers, walkers, and bikers taking advantage of the day.  We even got to park for free, because they aren?t charging admission this early in the season.

How did Heckscher State Park come to be?  Everyone knows that it's a Robert Moses park, but there is more to the story.

Between 1683 and 1697, William Nicholl "purchased" about 50,000 acres (today's Town of Islip) from the Sectacogue Indians.  Nicholl built a homestead near the water in what is now Heckscher State Park.  Nicholl died in 1722, and his land passed through the hands of various relatives, many of them also named William Nicholl.  By the time that the seventh, and last, William Nicholl died, the available land had shrunk to the approximate size of today's park.

By the late 1800s, the land had passed to George C. Taylor.  Taylor assembled a 1500-acre tract, including the former William Nicholl manorhouse.  In 1886 Taylor built a large ornate home plus about 30 other out-buildings.  He stocked the estate with deer, birds, and other animals.  Taylor lived in the house with his common-law wife and daughter, who apparently ended up eloping with her bicycle instructor.  Taylor and his wife were reputedly heavy drinkers and recluses, and both died in 1908.

We?ve seen several references to James Neal Plum, and how he was also an owner of the estate, but haven't been able to find out much about him.  He is apparently *not* related to Plum Island in any way.  We don't even know if he owned the estate before or after George Taylor.  The one tidbit that we do know about Plum is that he was hauled into court in 1888 on charges that he squandered the money that his late wife had left to their two daughters.  An article from the NY Times describes Plum as "a well-known club man."  We surmise that Plum may have owned the estate before Taylor, simply because Plum's late wife was wealthy and Plum was apparently reduced to spending his daughters' inheritance by 1888.


August Hecksher was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1848 and emigrated to the U.S. in 1867.  He and his cousin made their money in zinc mining.  Hechscher later became a philanthropist in New York City and Long Island, creating playgrounds in Manhattan, and Heckscher Park and the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, Long Island.

In 1923, Governor Al Smith invented the job of president of the Long Island State Park Commission for Robert Moses.  One of Moses' first projects was to acquire the Taylor estate, so that it could be made into a park.  The rich local residents were concerned that the riff raff would ruin their private enclaves, and tried to block the park.  But Al Smith, who identified more with the riff raff than with the rich, authorized the deal.  August Heckscher was asked to provide the money to purchase the Taylor estate, which he did.  The nearby landowners sued to try and stop the purchase, and appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, but to no avail.  The case dragged on for four years, until 1929, but in the end the state prevailed and Heckscher's $260,000 gift was used to purchase the land.

Heckscher State Park, named after its benefactor, opened in 1930, with access from Montauk Highway via the Heckscher Spur.  It wasn't until 1959 that construction finally began on today's access road, the Heckscher State Parkway.

We started our bike ride from Parking Field 7 and joined the bike path there.  The bike path is great -- wide, well marked, and well-paved.  We rode past two large but completely deserted picnic areas; the patterns of trees, tables, and dappled light make for an interesting view.

The bike path crosses several park roads.  Interestingly, the cars have stop signs and the bikes can sail through the intersections.

After leaving Heckscher, the bike route crosses the Heckscher State Parkway, follows River Road east, then follows Great River Road north.  En route, we saw some trees that had fallen during last month's storm.  One oozed sap.

We met up with Montauk Highway just west of the merge.


Alicia is from East Patchogue, and when we first met Kristin was intrigued by her regular references to "the four corners of Patchogue" and "the Oakdale merge" or simply "the merge"  -- what is so freaking unusual about a four corner intersection or two roads merging???  We?ll save Patchogue's famous four corners for another time, but here is the story on the merge.

Montauk Highway is the original through road from New York City to Montauk, at the eastern tip of the south fork of Long Island.  It was designated as a through route as early as the mid-1920s.  To skirt Nicholls Bay (the Connetquot River flows into Nicholls Bay), Montauk Highway cuts northeast, crosses the Connetquot River, and then goes southeast again following the shoreline.  When Sunrise Highway was extended to Great River in about 1940, it ended by merging with Montauk Highway just before the river.  Later, in the early 1950s when Sunrise Highway was extended to East Patchogue, the merge stayed due to the proximity of Nicholls Bay and the Connetquot State Park Preserve.

The original merge of the two roads had them truly merging into a single road, with full-access junctions at either end of the merge.  The two roads split and went their separate ways on both ends of the merge section.  It was not a fun drive or bike through the merge, but was rather dangerous, plus it held up through traffic.

In 1999, the roads were reconfigured to be two separate (albeit in close parallel) roads.  So, although the two literally come together, they no longer merge.  There is still a tiny remnant of old Montauk Highway, pre-merge, just south of today's Montauk Highway and west of the Connetquot River.

Today, biking through the merge (at least on the Montauk Highway part) is a breeze.  There are nice wide shoulders the whole way, although the overpass over the Long Island Railroad tracks at the east end of the merge provides something that is unusual in Long Island biking -- a hill.

In Oakdale, east of the bridge, Montauk Highway and South Country Road are the same.  We peeled off on Idle Hour Boulevard to get down to Dowling College and Idle Hour.


William Kissam Vanderbilt (grandson of the Commodore) bought 862 acres of land in Oakdale starting in about 1876.  He was attracted by the hunting and fishing in the area, plus many of his friends were also building in the area.  He named the estate Idle Hour.

In addition to his mansion, numerous out-buildings were constructed over the ensuing years.  About 16 acres were devoted to a farm complex, complete with water tower and barns for stock, poultry, and other animals.  The poultry house was 385 feet long and housed pheasants, peacocks, chickens, and eagles.

William K. Vanderbilt died in 1920, and in the following years the estate was split up and sold off.  The portion surrounding Vanderbilt's mansion became a branch of Adelphi University in 1963.  In 1968, Robert W. Dowling provided the money to make the college independent and it took his name.  In 1974, a fire devastated the mansion, originally built in 1900.  It was reconstructed, but without many of the original lavish details.

We picnicked near the old mansion, on the steps leading down to Nicholls Bay and a small boat dock.  From there we could see the Bayard Cutting Arboretum across the bay, and glimpse the passing LIRR trains through the trees.


In 1926, the Vanderbilts sold a portion of their estate to Lucy Thompson, a New York City artist.  She turned the farm into a living and studio space for other artists.  Some of the structures, former bird coops, are no more than seven feet tall.  The insides of the buildings were made into homes, but the outsides were maintained, giving them an almost fairy-tale-like feeling

Regular art shows were held, and artists continued to live there into the 1990s.  Today, the colony has been converted into individual homes selling at $500,000 and up.

We rode through the Idle Hour area, gawking at the coops-now-homes.  Unfortunately, the small scale of the buildings doesn't come through in the photos.

After our loops through Idle Hour, we trekked back through the merge


We stopped and looked at the little fishing area in West Brook Pond that lies west of the merge nestled in between Sunrise and Montauk Highways.

On our ride back down Great River Road, we pulled into one of the little parks with river access and a fishing pier.  We found and sat on THE BEST BENCH IN THE WORLD!  It was newly built (in 2009) by Curtis Businski for an Eagle Scout project.  It has a beautiful view of the Connetquot River and is extremely comfortable.  We were enthralled.  There are nice picnic tables there too.

Back on River Road, we passed the Great River Fire Department and enjoyed ringing their old fashioned fire bell, made in the shape of a large red ring.  Kristin, who grew up in an area with only professional full-time fire fighters, thought it was a modern art sculpture.  Alicia had to explain that this is how fire fighters were called prior to today's sirens.  Kristin rang the bell, using the hammer that is hinged into a pivot in the frame that holds the bell.  But we skedaddled before any fire fighters appeared.

Back in Heckscher State Par, we decided to follow the bike path to its start, near the Heckscher camp ground.  We kept riding as the bike path followed the park's loop road, and then followed the bike path as it skirted the campground.  To our surprise, the bike path cuts through the fenced perimeter of Heckscher State Park to the intersection of Timberpoint Road and Woodhollow Road.  This would have been a nice shortcut back into the park from our ride.

The campground is pleasant with lots of trees, although not much privacy.  Kristin camped here about 20 years ago and remembers it being nice.  The Suffolk Greenbelt trails passes near here, so we may come back for some sort of camping-hike-bike weekend during the summer.

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