A Brief History of Fishers Island Since European Discovery
Discovered by Dutch fur trader Adriaen Block in 1614, Fishers Island was first settled in the 1640s by John Winthrop, Jr., the son of the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The younger Winthrop saw the Island’s promise as an offshore livestock plantation and sanctuary. Fishers Island was passed down as an intact estate within the Winthrop family for six more generations while being utilized primarily for raising cattle and sheep for dairy and stock farming purposes. In 1863, the last of the Winthrop owners fell on hard times and sold the undivided property to Robert R. Fox, a successful manufacturer and merchant of cotton duck based in New York City. Mr. Fox retired to the Island as a “gentleman farmer” and set out to restore the largely abandoned farms to their former grandeur. He kept the entire island as an undivided estate with no population besides family members, household servants, farm laborers and farm managers.
After the unexpected death of Mr. Fox in 1871, his widow and the executors of his estate began the process of turning Fishers Island into a seaside resort. The first land lots since Winthrop settlement were sold to individuals beginning in 1876. By the early 1880s, a small town center had formed, a fishing community was thriving, and a tourist hotel had been built at the western end of the island. Soon large steamers were bringing hundreds of excursionists to Fishers Island for a day filled with clambakes, sports activity, dancing and drinking. This brief tourist period came to a screeching halt in 1889 when Edmund & Walton Ferguson, two successful businessmen and bankers, purchased 9/10ths of Fishers Island from the Fox heirs for the sum of $250,000. They received the entire island in return excepting 101 lots that had already been sold to individuals.
The two brothers bought out and shut down the tourist hotel and proceeded to develop the island as a family-based resort with new cottages and new hotels that catered primarily to affluent seasonal visitors. The Ferguson brothers financed a navigation company, a water works, and an electric power plant as part of an overall plan to create an infrastructure worthy of a first class resort.
By the 1910s, the Island’s three hotels, two owned by the Fergusons and one by a competitor, could accommodate more than 500 guests a night if associated cottages were included.
In the mid-1920s, Henry L. and Alfred L. Ferguson, representing the second generation of Ferguson owners, turned their attention to the eastern two-thirds of the island, land that had been utilized almost exclusively for farming and sporting purposes before that date. They hired Frederic Law Olmsted, Jr., the son of the legendary designer of Central Park, to draw up a plan for a private residential development covering the eastern-most 1,800 acres of the approximately 3,000 acre island. As part of the development, they hired noted golf course architect Seth Raynor to design an 18-hole golf course within the boundaries of the gated community. The new Fishers Island Club opened its grand clubhouse and its golf course on July 1, 1926. However, the Crash of 1929 dramatically slowed down development and today there still only approximately 200 metered residences within the private eastern two-thirds of Fishers Island and close to 400 on the more fully developed western one-third of the Island that is public.
Fort H.G. Wright, a U.S. Army coast defense facility, was established at the Island’s western tip in 1900 and remained active through World War II. It was put on inactive status in 1949 and most of the property was sold at auction in 1958.