For the first time in over sixty years, the lights on the Nathan Hale Memorial on Main Street in Huntington village are lit. Lights were an original feature of the memorial, but they have not worked since at least 1954.
How the lights came to be restored is a story that starts in June 2013 when I posted an article about the Nathan Hale memorials in Huntington. The article focused mostly on the famous Nathan Hale Rock and only briefly mentioned the memorial on Main Street in front of the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Building. One reader took me to task for not giving the monument on Main Street its due:
I’m not sure you do full justice to the memorial by calling it “a marble shaft” … yes that is what it is today but in its early days this Nathan Hale Memorial functioned as a PUBLIC DRINKING FOUNTAIN.
Of course, the reader is correct, the monument was originally a fountain (he could have also chastised me for writing the shaft is marble–it is, in fact, granite).
In his comment, the reader cites the 1919 edition of Automobile Blue Book (“Standard Road Guide of America”), which mentions “a public drinking fountain on a marble shaft” (I wasn’t the only one who had trouble correctly identifying rocks) as one of the things to see when driving to Huntington. The reader continues:
I have seen photos of the memorial from a little over a decade after it was erected (c.1905) that refer to it as the “Nathan Hale Memorial Drinking Fountain” but the photos do not give a clear enough detail of the memorial to see much about the fountain at the bottom. It does seem that the water basin that once caught the drinking water has been long ago removed. I assume it had a hand pump and was a well water drinking fountain originally but cannot make out a hand pump on the photos from the angles they were taken. (Photos from the 1940s/1950s, or about that time, appear to no longer show the water basin at the bottom).
* * *
Does anyone know any more about this memorial … like, for instance, when the drinking fountain was removed … and if there has ever been an attempt, over the years, to return it to its original function as a public drinking fountain (with maybe modern running water piped to it but activated by an ‘old fashioned style hand pump’ and a replica of the water basin ‘returned’ to the base … to keep it in the original flavor of the 1894 monument.
Here, as they say, is the rest of the story.
Soon after the statue of Nathan Hale was unveiled by the Sons of the American Revolution in City Hall Park in Manhattan on Evacuation Day (November 25), 1893, an effort was made to create a monument to the spy in Huntington, where he began (and maybe ended) his spying mission. Famed architect Stanford White of McKim, Meade and White submitted the design and pledged $400 for the project. The total cost of the memorial was estimated to be $1,900. An association was formed to raise the remaining funds. In April 1894, the association printed a brochure announcing the project and listing 52 Huntington residents who had pledged to donate to the project. Pledges ranged from 50 cents to 100 dollars and totaled $813.50. It was proposed that the balance should be donated by “the rest of Long Island and the sympathizers with the fate of Nathan Hale wherever they may be found.”
Whoever and wherever they were, the memorial was unveiled at a well attended public celebration on July 4, 1894. The Long-Islander provided a full description of the 15-foot high monument:
The base is six feet square and of rough hewn stone. It is hewed for a public drinking fountain and has two basins. The one on the street side is a watering trough for horses or cattle and the one on the inside is for the people. The water will flow into the street basin from the mouth of a dolphin and into the other smaller basin from the mouth of a lion. Above the basin reaches a cylindrical polished granite column and on that rests a large rough-hewn ball. On the front of the basins are engraved the simple words:
NATHAN HALE MEMORIAL
The memorial conveys the impression of dignity and simple beauty.
The shaft also held two lamps on either side. It is unclear whether they were gas lit or electric.
Town Supervisor George Tileston accepted the monument “on behalf of the citizens of Huntington.”
“We accept it as a perpetual trust, engaging with you [the committee that commissioned it] that it shall be a continued inspiration to us and all those who shall come after us.”
After speeches and the unveiling of the flag draped memorial, the crowd assembled at the carriage factory on Wall Street for dinner.
Not all were so enamored of the monument. Writing to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle two months after the dedication, “Burdock” reports that the people of Huntington “are generally exercised over” the new memorial. His description differs from the one given by the local newspaper. Burdock reports that the monument “consists of a lamp-post, with two lamps, a spout for water from the post, and a drinking trough for horses, combined.” He seemed most upset with the inscription: “To commemorate the capture of Nathan Hale by the British on the shores of Huntington bay in 1776.” To Burdock, the inscription sounded like a Tory boast about the capture of the failed spy.
Burdock predicted the monument “would always be an annoyance and source of mortification to the people of the town as a whole, and probably is now to those who made such an almost unpardonable mistake, not only in the design, but in the inscription, which are in keeping with each other.”
There is no evidence of a hand pump in the photographs and the early descriptions of the monument refer to water pipes. It would appear that the water was supplied by the Huntington Water Works Company. But the supply was inconsistent at best. A mention in the May 26, 1905 edition of The County Review, reports that “Huntington has a dry fountain. . . . It is a curious sort of fountain for there is no water to be obtained there and the affair is an ornament only.”
Five year later, a Huntington resident wrote to The Long-Islander to complain about the condition of the monument. The writer admires the monument, “the very interesting, and most artistic, double lantern, and drinking fountain.” However, he questioned who has the responsibility for maintaining these monuments: “We notice the lanterns are falling to pieces owing to the lack of proper paint. The glasses are broken, and the general immediate surroundings are in need of attention. * * * The lanterns would seem less pathetic if they might be put to their proper use, that is have lights in them, if only for a part of the evening.”
The writer also notes that the librarian (the library was then located in the nearby Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Building) placed a cup at the fountain on several occasions so that people could use the fountain as intended.
Two years later, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Sons of the American Revolution both took up the matter of the condition of the monument. By this time, not only were the lamps in poor condition, but the marble tablet with the inscription had fallen from its place and was broken.
The DAR address the matter first at its meeting in the afternoon of Monday, November 11, 1912. The DAR appointed Mrs. John F. Wood to confer with the SAR about the matter. That evening the SAR met and discussed the matter. Conveniently they appointed John F. Wood (and Douglass Conklin) to confer with the DAR ladies. The plan they decided on was “to replace the broken tablet with one of bronze, fix up the lamps, fountain, etc.” The Huntington Light and Power Company offered to attend to the lamps and keep them lighted. After the repairs were done, it was agreed “to turn the whole thing over to the town.” It seems to have been forgotten that the Town accepted the monument “as a perpetual trust” in 1894 and was probably the entity that should have been making the needed repairs.
I have not found a report of when the work was completed. But the next summer, the fountain was still dry. Even though, as one letter writer observed, the reservoir on High Street was known to overflow. “The poor struggling Water Company can’t even let a little of this ‘waste’ flow into the Nathan Hale Memorial Fountain, so at least the horses and dogs can quench their thirst during the hot summer months.”
At some point, the water trough was removed. With the advent of the automobile, there weren’t as many horses around needing a drink (one local historian said that in later years the water trough was used more for cleaning out radiators than for quenching a horse’s thirst, but that account may be apocryphal). The trough also took up a parking space–a valuable commodity even then. The date the trough was removed has not been found. A photograph of the monument sans trough includes cars from the late 1920s.
In 1954, the State undertook a project to reconstruct Route 25A, Main Street, from Cold Spring Harbor to Fort Salonga. In Huntington village, the project required that the monument be moved from its original location. At first the State was going to move the monument back from the street and slightly to the east, but eventually moved it to the west instead. The construction plans for the project detail the memorial, but with the light fixtures hanging down rather than up, and indicates the “assumed location of light service,” i.e. the location of the electric lines supplying power to the light fixtures.
The comment quoted above led not only to further research (and this post), but also led me to ask the Town’s Department of General Services to see whether the lights could be turned on. Recent work by Brian Breyersdorf, an electrician in the Town’s Department of General Services, revealed that wiring had been run through the monument and left coiled up buried in the ground next to the base of the monument. The lights have not worked because they were never plugged in after the monument was moved in 1954! Mr. Breyersdorf installed a junction box to connect the wire in the memorial to new wire from a nearby light pole. And now the memorial has regained at least part of its original embellishments. On December 22, 2015, the lights, now with L.E.D. bulbs, shone brightly for the first time since the monument was moved. It is doubtful the water trough will ever be re-established.
There has been one other change to the monument that is not as obvious as missing water troughs and non-functioning lights. The original marble tablet and the bronze replacement from 1912-13 asserted that Nathan Hale was captured on “the shores of Huntington bay.” Today, the bronze plaque says he was captured “on the shores of Long Island.” It is unclear when this change was made. The controversy about Hale’s place of capture, however, is an old one.
As early as the 1890s, historians questioned the assertion that Hale had been captured in Huntington. But those naysayers didn’t deter Huntingtonians from dedicating two memorials. A book published by Henry Johnston in 1901 and revised in 1914 also questions Huntington as the place of Hale’s arrest. The issue seems to have been forgotten or ignored until 1933 when the Huntington Historical Society revisited the issue. In the first three months of that year, Mrs. Warren P. Kortright, Mrs. George P. Kuzmier, and Mrs. George Taylor presented papers on the life of Nathan Hale. A small book of their research was published in April. The historical society did not offer a definite opinion on where Hale had been captured, but did question the veracity of the sources traditionally cited in support of a Huntington capture.
Town Historian Romanah Sammis then took up the issue, urging the Town Board to correct the mistakes of the past. As is usually the case in these situations, the party arguing for a change from the accepted story has the burden of proof. A committee appointed by the Town Board found that Mrs. Sammis had not met the burden of proof required to overturn long accepted story that Hale had been captured in Huntington.
More recent scholarship continues to doubt the Huntington version. For example the recently published Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, by Alexander Rose asserts that Hale was captured closer to Manhattan. Another, less scholarly book, The Life and Death of America’s First Spy: Nathan Hale, by M. Williams Phelps argues that Hale was indeed captured in Huntington. Interestingly, both books rely on a recently discovered manuscript donated to the Library of Congress in 2000. The manuscript is an account of the Revolution written during the war by Consider Tiffany, a Connecticut merchant and Tory. Tiffany describes Hale’s capture by Major Robert Rogers. British naval records indicate that Rogers went ashore at Sands Point just three days before Hale was captured. It is, therefore, most likely that Hale was captured by Rogers closer to Flushing then to Huntington.
The truth of the matter may never be known with certainty. Perhaps for that reason, someone decided to hedge things by changing the wording on the bronze tablet from “on the shores of Huntington bay” to “on the shores of Long Island.” While I have found nothing in the files to indicate when or who made the change, it must be noted that the bronze tablet with the revised wording includes two medallions cast during the Bicentennial. The moving force behind those medallions? None other than former Town Historian Rufus Langhans. Historian Richard Welch confirms that Mr. Langhans told him that he had the wording changed.