By Shoshanna McCollum
In a secluded corner of this island frequented by only a privileged handful, is a bit of Fire Island lore that involves one of our greatest American presidents, and a hotel that once was. Question is, did any of it ever really happen?
Most of the mainstream Fire Island history books, as well as many of the popular websites out there will make a casual reference to how President Roosevelt was a repeat visitor of an establishment called the White House Hotel, located in the area we know as Water Island. This reference will never get into much detail about these visits, and use couched terms like “said to have frequented” and “purportedly.” This is a picture painted in very broad strokes.
Let’s look at the facts:
President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) is the 26th President of the United States. His term ran between the years of 1901 to 1909. His likeness is one of four American presidents immortalized on the face of Mt. Rushmore. While the National Park Service marks the year of 1916 as its birth date, Roosevelt is largely credited with being the “father” of the NPS in many ways. Considered one of the first conservationist presidents, he set aside more federal land, national parks, and nature preserves than all of the preceding U.S. Presidents combined. His homestead of Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay – itself now a national landmark under the auspices of the NPS, gives Long Island direct claim to this larger than life figure. He was a war hero, prolific author, and winner of a Nobel Prize: A Renaissance man.
Water Island is not an island. This confuses many new, and sometimes not so new Fire Islanders. Water Island is a community between Fire Island Pines and Davis Park. Unlike the western communities where a boundary line is all that separates one community from the next in many cases, it is a long, long walk to get from one community to the next on the eastern side. Still, a handful of Water Island residents come to check out the Davis Park Arts & Crafts show on Labor Day each summer. Its isolation made it a hot spot for rumrunners back in the prohibition days.
The White House Hotel was once one of the gems of Fire Island. Built by Patchogue resident Edward Ryder in 1890, it was a rustically elegant structure that became a favored destination for the socially elite of Blue Point and Bayport. The aging structure was still in operation during the prohibition era. Then taken over by a man named William Hauck, the serving of alcohol and gambling took place openly, with minimal fear of law enforcement interference. The repeal of prohibition brought an end to the White House, which soon went into foreclosure. A piece of the White House Hotel is said to stand in Ocean Beach today, most likely barged over after being won at auction.
It would be so nice if a guest register was around somewhere that bore Roosevelt’s signature to confirm his presence at the White House Hotel, or even a picture from a photo album firmly putting him and his family at that location, sadly neither presently exist.
When we contacted the administrators at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site to research this story, they were delighted to hear from us. They had never heard about this White House Hotel, or that Theodore Roosevelt had visited there, but they were clearly intrigued by the idea. So we exchanged some notes. According to Museum Technician Elizabeth DeMaria, newspaper clips confirmed that Roosevelt had been in Patchogue in November of 1899 as part of a gubernatorial whistle-stop tour, and had gone on fishing trips in the Great South Bay in 1901 and 1903.
In historical research there is a term known as apocryphal legend. It is something we want to be true, sounds like it should be true, but there is little evidence to substantiate the story.
What a romantic vision it is to think of this great president standing on our beaches, contemplating important policy that would shape our nation. If there was a photo certainly his wife Edith, daughters Alice and Ethel, as well as a certain favorite orphan niece by the name of Eleanor that perhaps was invited to join them on holiday, are dressed in summery white.
However, history is a funny thing. Sometimes anecdotal evidence is all we have. Fire Island is a place of many legends that include pirates, wreckers, and Native American tribes. None of them signed their name on hotel registers. One has to take a leap of faith.
Just because there is no hard evidence, it does not mean it did not happen; it only means the evidence to prove it has net been found yet. Now that the good people of Sagamore Hill are aware of this folklore, perhaps that photo of the Roosevelt women in white dresses will surface. Then again maybe it will be one of Ted’s many cousins in that photo, because history is a funny thing.
In the end it may not matter if Theodore Roosevelt visited the White House Hotel or not. His legacy gave us the National Park Service, celebrating its centennial that we know today. Without the National Park Service there would be no catalyst to create a national seashore that saved Fire Island from overdevelopment 51 years ago. So even if President Roosevelt never set his foot on Fire Island sand, he left his imprint.
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