The Three Village Area After the Turn of the Century

Long Island History

Ray Larsen

Sheltered from the forces of heavy industry, rapid urban growth, and massive immigration affecting nearby metropolitan New York and the nation as a whole, Stony Brook, the Setaukets, and Old Field appeared little different in 1910 than they had thirty-five years earlier. Throughout this period, the total population of the Three Village area remained constant, at about 2,100. Each of the distinct, but closely related, unincorporated villages retained its own shops, churches, school, and individual character; none had a population greater than 800 or 900.

Agriculture, shipping, and shipbuilding, while slowly declining, remained important economic activities to the region, as did grist and lumber milling in Stony Brook and rubber manufacturing in East Setauket. Roads were unpaved, often rutted and muddy; vehicles were horse-drawn. The closest town of any size was Port Jefferson, several miles to the east, with a population not much greater than that of the entire Three Village area. Although resembling many others areas on Long Island’s north shore, the Three Villages, even by Suffolk County standards, appeared rather quiet and small.

Yet, as constant as it outwardly seemed, the area was actually undergoing modest but significant changes. In 1898, for instance, Stony Brook consolidated its two local school districts into a single Union Free School, thus bringing together what had in effect been two distinct sub villages or hamlets. As a result of a disastrous fire, on the night of January 1, 1909, which completely destroyed the Bayles lumber and planing mill, Stony Brook created its own fire company.

Most impressive of all, however, was the long-term effect of the 1873 opening of the Smithtown to Port jeffersn branch of the Long Island Railroad, with depots in Stony Brook and SEtauket. Growing numbers of touris and summer vacationers from Manhattan, Queens Brooklyn and New Jersey began to come to the Three Village-Port Jefferson area. By 1890 the summer resort industry had become a major factor in the region’s economy. Similarly, as Long Island’s northshore “gold coast” moved eastward, wealthy New Yorkers discovered and began to settle old Field and Belle Terre. It was in the summer of 1900 that Frank Melville first brought his family to Stony Brook and Old Field.

The Stony Brook Association best symbolizes the changes effected during this period. Founded in 1907 by Dr. John F. Carson, pastor of the Central Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, the Association was organized for the purpose of establishing a religious and educational summer resort in Stony Brook for city residents. The central feature of the Association was the “Summer Assembly,” a Bible Conference or Chautauqua, for which a large auditorium (now part of the Stony Brook School) was constructed opposite the Stony Brook railroad station in 1910. The topics discussed in the first conference held in the new auditorium included: “The Increased Cost of Living,” “Child Labor,” “The Relations of Employers and Laborers,” and “The Social Problems of New York.” The assemblies brought hundreds of summer visitors from Brooklyn and New York City to the Three Village area, and the Stony Brook Association became an important feature of the local landscape. Not only did it erect an auditorium, but it also secured large tracts of real estate on which it constructed, between 1908 and 1910, cottages and other buildings for Association members. In the early 1920’s the current Stony Brook School developed as an outgrowth of the Assembly.

The first decades of the twentieth century were a period of transition for the Three Villages. Closer contacts with the growing metropolis of Greater New York City were developing. At the same time, the area’s economy became increasingly dependent on its summer visitors.

Major changes in the landscape and population occurred in the years and decades that followed. In the 1920’s some of the area’s summer visitors began to make their permanent homes here. In 1941, the extensive rehabilitation sponsored by Ward Melville greatly transformed downtown Stony Brook. But it was the massive suburban building boom of the late 1950’s and 1960’s, epitomized by the beginning of construction in 1962 of the new State University campus, that substantially altered the face of the Three Villages, as it did much of Suffolk County.