Most Star readers from “north of the bridge,” as they say, are likely to have a general idea about why Fireplace Road in Springs is so named. If asked, your average Bonacker or transplant is apt to answer something about how the road led to the beach where in years past people would light a fire to signal to Gardiner’s Island. That, too, is more or less all I knew until last week when I went to my office bookcase to do a little fact-checking.
Not much of the way into Sarah Diodoti Gardiner’s “Early Memories of Gardiner’s Island,” which was published in 1947, I found what I was looking for. Amid her reminiscences about the island, she wrote that the name Fire Place “originated in the custom of members of the family using a smoke signal to call the island boat when they were returning home unexpectedly.”
When smoke from a pile of smoldering seaweed (eel grass, I would guess) was seen over the distance of about three miles, a horn would be sounded to call the island’s laborers in from the fields to man the whale boat.
Once, Miss Gardiner wrote, a peddler, learning of the custom and eager to ply his wares at the manor house, collected some seaweed and lit his own fire on the beach. “After some delay a boat hove in sight.” The island men, though unhappy to see just an itinerant goods-seller on the beach, nevertheless agreed to take him back with them.
Great Uncle John Gardiner, she wrote, waiting on the shore and concerned that the boat might carry bad news of his family in New York, was so disgusted when his men told him of their unwanted passenger that he turned his horse without a word and rode away.
In those days it was not unusual for the bay between the island and Fireplace to freeze over, putting a stop to the boat’s passage back and forth. In “Memories,” Miss Gardiner recalled a story that her mother, eager for news of her family in the city, traveled from the island in a sleigh drawn by its laborers, with two men going some distance ahead to test the ice with axes.
The party made it nearly without incident. It was only at the Springs side that the ice was thin, and the sleigh tipped. The only casualty was a basket of eggs, however, which was fished out of the water with the aid of a crab net.
One wonders if we will ever see the bay freeze like that again.