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Sunday, April 12, 2020

How to Save an Island

By Emma M. Sedore

Copyright ©2020 all rights reserved by the author
photos used are permission of the author

View on the Susquehanna (above Owego). By W. H. Bartlett, 
5 x 7 engraving by C. Cousen, 1839
It is not uncommon for people to save historic buildings, but almost thirty years ago, a group of concerned citizens went a step further and saved an island; all 112 acres of it, along with its incredible history.

Hiawatha Island is the largest island in the NYS portion of the beautiful Susquehanna River, approximately three miles east of the village of Owego and twenty miles west of Binghamton.

First known as Big Island in the nineteenth century, it was a favorite subject of such painters as Thomas Doughty, William Henry Bartlett, Thomas Chambers, and Currier and Ives. Its rich history includes births, deaths, marriages, and almost everything in-between.

A poster used to entice tourists to the island.
Its earliest years began with Native Americans using it on a seasonal basis for farming, hunting, and fishing. It was mentioned in the journals of explorers as early as 1615 and land surveyors in the mid-eighteenth century. The island saw the armies of Generals Sullivan and Clinton swoop past in a deluge of rain during the Revolutionary War in August of 1779.

One of its most flamboyant periods began in1873 when a local group of businessmen dreamed up an idea to make it into a destination for tourists. They first built a steamboat right on the riverbank in the village of Owego to take them up and around the island, and everybody loved it. That led to building a four-story hotel, a dance hall, a bowling alley, and gravel walks that led to manicured picnic areas. Groups of people came from all over, including the very first reunion of the 109th Civil War volunteers. It was so popular that according to the old hotel ledger at the Tioga County Historical Society Museum, in Owego, thousands of tourists visited there from twenty-six states and nine foreign countries by 1884. In fact, the NYS Legislature passed a law on April 18, 1876, to allow the Susquehanna River to be dredged between Owego and Binghamton to allow the new 120-foot steamboat, Lyman Truman, to travel back and forth.

John D. Rockefeller talked about his boyhood connection with Hiawatha Island in his biography by Allan Nevins. The Kilmer brothers of Swamp Root Medicine fame, in Binghamton, became the owners in 1887 for more than a dozen years. Their plans included enlarging the hotel and installing medicinal fountains that they said would cure just about anything that ailed anybody. Still, when new business opportunities opened for them back in Binghamton, they called it quits and moved on. Its flamboyant days were definitely over.

The 20th century saw new owners. The first was a woman who always dreamed of using it as a summer home, without the noise of tourists. In the early twenties, it was purchased with plans to make it into a bible camp. That worked for a while, but it wasn’t long before the next owner came along. He owned the largest hotel in the village of Owego, and his plan was to use it to grow most of the food for the dining room. Because it was during the Great Depression, caretakers worked long, hard hours for just a dollar a day. They oversaw the gardens, the creamery, and caring for the animals. During this period, two babies were born on the island and sad to say, five drownings occurred, including the owner himself.
Hiawatha House, ca. 1890
Shortly after, a local doctor with seven children purchased it. When he died unexpectedly, the next owner came along with big dreams of making the island into a tourist attraction, wax museum and all; but because his plans fell through, he fought a long legal battle over it and lost it to an owner who put the island up for auction. In a way, this final chapter is reminiscent of the island’s flamboyant years.

News spreads quickly in a small village, and when several local businessmen heard that Hiawatha Island would be put up for auction, they made a huge decision to save it, especially because it was rumored that a land developer wanted it and knowing its history, that was unthinkable!

Their first plan of action was to raise enough money to go to the auction and bid on it, which was just a few weeks away. They contacted every person, organization, and business to raise the money, and when the day arrived on August 20, 1988 they had collected $42,000. That seemed enough until the opening bid started at $50,000! Not to be deterred, they allowed the group’s spokesperson to keep bidding, figuring they could get the rest of the money later. Bidding went on all afternoon until the land developer jumped his bid to $350,000. At this point, the group figured that if he wanted it badly enough, let’s make him pay for it; so they went ahead and bid $351,000 thinking the developer would say $352,000, but the gavel came slamming down with the auctioneer saying in a loud voice, “SOLD!” They were speechless, remembering that there was a ten percent auctioneer’s fee that brought the total cost to $386,100, and the total had to be paid up by October. It was all over the news. The television stations and newspapers mentioned it almost daily. Everybody was talking about Hiawatha Island.

A separate fund-raising committee called the Hiawatha Purchase Committee was formed, and frantic efforts were made to sell certificates for a square foot of the island at $10 each, which sold like hotcakes. Auctions, jamborees, and more were held, and fortunately, Paul Noel Stookey, of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame, came to Owego and gave a benefit performance at the middle school. Needless to say, it was a sellout. Private individuals made generous loans, and more importantly, over a dozen people actually mortgaged their homes and businesses. By October, enough money was finally raised, and they even had a $15,000 check leftover!

That was the good part. The not so good part was that after the owner and the auctioneer were paid, the ad hoc fund-raising committee had to start all over again to pay back the good people who mortgaged their homes and businesses and gave generous loans.

Grants were successfully written and received from the J. M. Kaplan Fund, Norcross Wildlife Foundation, the local Mildred Faulkner Truman Foundation, and others. The local IBM plant was more than generous with matching funds by its many employees, donating thousands of dollars. The Purchase Committee never had a dull moment. They gave regular “breakfasts on the island,” which were extremely popular and profitable. They sponsored everything from garage sales, raffles, tee shirts, and everything they could think of. At the island for two days, an innovative dance company delighted and amazed visitors to fiddle music with their rendition of the island's history while flitting through the bushes and even hanging from the branches of trees.

Significant awards that boosted their morale included the NYS Outdoor Education Association, with the “Environmental Impact Award in recognition towards the improvement of environmental problems through research, conservation and/or political action. One of the more unusual awards was the Giraffe Award, by the Giraffe Project of the state of Washington. The key requirement to earn it was that we had to have the audacity to “Stick one’s neck out.”

After five years, the loans were finally paid in full. On a sunny autumn-scented day, October 23, 1993, a happy, upbeat crowd shuffled through piles of colorful leaves to the ceremony site on the island. They cheered when the deed was handed over to the Fred L. Waterman Conservation Education Center in Apalachin, N.Y. with the condition that the water-bound property is forever protected.

Waterman would use it for educational classes on Native American civilizations, conservation, and wildlife and is open and free for everyone to enjoy. As an added safeguard for

Hiawatha Island, a permanent easement, was made to the Finger Lakes Land Trust, which will make sure that no bridge or other permanent crossing would be built to the island.

It was once referred to as the “Island of Charisma,” and it seemed fitting because two of the volunteers fell in love and were married on the island May 15, 1993, the date chosen to correspond with the first wedding held there eighty years before.

Last but best of all, through respect for each other’s integrity and commitment, camaraderie developed among the group that still binds them today.

About the author: Emma M. Sedore has been the Tioga County Historian since 2001 and the Town of Owego Historian since 1987. As a result of her book, Hiawatha Island, Jewel of the Susquehanna, she was awarded the DAR History Medal, and a copy was placed in the DAR National Library in Washington, DC.


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