Sagg Bridge: State Study Declares Old Bridge Doesn’t Exist, But It Gets Sold Anyway

Bridge across Sagg Pond in 1903
Bridge across Sagg Pond in 1903, Photo: Courtesy Bridgehampton Museum

On November 22, the Sagg Bridge was sold. They held a short ceremony on the center of it to mark the occasion. Before the sale, the bridge belonged to the Town of Southampton. After the sale, the bridge now belongs to the Village of Sagaponack. If there were flags at the entrances to each side of the bridge, which there were not, the flags of Southampton Town—which has a pilgrim looking out at you from the Town seal—would be taken down. The Village of Sagaponack Flag, which has a big baked potato hovering over a plowed potato field, would now be fluttering in the breeze.

The reason for the sale was complicated. Before 2005, the entire bridge was owned by Southampton Town. But that year, a new village was formed within Southampton Town called Sagaponack Village. That kind of thing happens when the people inside a part of a township decide they want to manage their affairs up close and personal rather than in a township that stretches out for 40 miles as Southampton does.

In creating the Village, new metes and bounds had to be decided upon. For the Village’s new western boundary, the dotted line went right up the center of Sagg Pond where the bridge is. That meant that the dotted line crossed the bridge down the middle. And that was not working out. On the Southampton half, the head of the highway department came up with this plan to create a new bridge that would be wider and safer. On the Sagaponack side, they wanted the old bridge, which is a historic bridge, only repaired. So nothing got done. Thus the sale.

In fact, only the western half of the bridge was being sold. That’s because the western side before the sale was in Southampton. No money changed hands when the sale went through. But Sagaponack did agree to reimburse Southampton $80,000 for an engineering study that was done in preparation of making a new bridge there. Sagaponack will probably put it in the round file. After not going along with Southampton’s plan to knock it down and put up a new one, it seemed the right thing to do.

Interestingly, during the time the community was discussing either tearing down the old to build a new or just fixing the old, a stunning report was issued by the State of New York declaring that the bridge, which gave Bridgehampton its name in 1683, had not existed until 1932. It is an amazing story.

When Southampton had made the plans to rebuild the bridge by tearing it down and making a new bridge, it applied to the State and the Federal governments to fund the majority of the cost. This is often done. You get more funding if the bridge is historic. So when the Town asked about the funding, the State of New York decided to hire historians to learn of its historic nature. Who got hired were two experts named Daria Merwin and Mark S. Tweedle of the Institute for Long Island Archaelogy at Stony Brook University. They must never have talked to anybody, because they said no bridge existed on the site until 1932. As for Bridgehampton, they wrote that hamlet—which was founded in 1668—had not been founded until about 1870. So this bridge could not have been what the community was named after. They only found a bridge built in 1932. Nothing before. As a result of this finding, which was submitted in 2014 as a 15-page report, the State declined to provide extra funding for the bridgework. So that was that.

Briggs Cunningham is airborne on the Sag Pond Bridge in a Ferrari in 1953
Briggs Cunningham is airborne on the Sag Pond Bridge in a Ferrari in 1953, Photo: Daniel Rubin

Here’s the actual history of the bridge. After I tell it to you, I will explain how these “experts” missed it.

The bridge existed when the settlers got here in 1639. It consisted of a log bridge wide enough for a person or a horse to walk across single file. The settlers followed a dirt path to it on both sides. And they called the path Bridge Lane.

That bridge wasn’t good enough for the settlers, though. The settlers had built a church on the eastern shore of the bridge. But for those on the western side who came by horse carriage, the bridge wasn’t wide enough and so it was a very long trip around the north end of the pond to get to the church. And so, they hired local wheelwright Ezekial Sandford to build a wider bridge. Here was the deal. He would be leased 15 acres on the western shore where he could build a wheelwright shop. (Wheelwrights fixed wagons.) Then, when he completed the bridge, he would be given the acreage outright. He got the bridge done in 1672. And it stood for nearly a hundred years. Then it kind of fell down.

There was no attempt to repair this bridge after about 1750, and the reason was that the church got moved. It was now further to the north, near the headwaters of the pond. So people didn’t need to get across further down.

Around 1870, a newcomer from “up-island” came to town. (He was from Speonk). There was now a train between New York City and Bridgehampton, so rich folks from the city were here in the summertime. The man was Silas Tuthill. An enterprising fellow, he decided he would pay to have a new bridge built where they old falling down one was, and he would charge people a fee to cross it, thus making it into a business. It was completed in 1872, but Tuthill couldn’t get people to pay to cross it. They told him it connected to public roads, and it crossed a public pond. They crossed it without paying. And eventually, Tuthill gave up. Within three years, it was no longer good enough to use. Not a very good bridge.

In 1888, a referendum was held by the Town to pay to build a new bridge. It failed by a vote of 123 to 116. In 1894, a new referendum was put to the voters, and that failed by 400 to 136.

Nevertheless, there is mention in newspapers published in 1900 that Southampton Town did build themselves a new bridge there.

Finally, there came the fourth bridge, which is the one that is there now. It was built in 1923 of reinforced concrete abutments and a paved roadway above. It was just wide enough for two cars to pass. And on one side there was, and is, a walkway from which people can drop fishing lines and pull up their dinner.

Now, I would like to let you know how these expert historians missed that there was a bridge there. What they did was find four old maps. As it happened, these four maps—from 1797, 1838, 1858 and 1873—were made when there was no bridge across there. We were “between bridges,” so to speak. The experts never looked any further. They produced this long report. And I suspect they were paid. Their report does say there was a crossing of the pond near the headwaters. And it is this crossing on Sagaponack Road, which is so modest you go right by it today without realizing there is a crossing there, that these experts say was the bridge after which Bridgehampton was named.

Stamp. Application rejected.

Here’s the history of the Sagg Bridge in more recent times.

Around 1975, the Town of Southampton got funding from the federal government to tear down the 1923 bridge and replace it with a four-lane bridge big and strong enough for tanks to cross it in the event of a military invasion. This was the requirement the feds insisted upon. Otherwise there was no funding.

That year, hundreds of people held protest meetings and carried signs at rallies demanding that the old bridge be simply repaired rather than replaced. Everyone loved the old bridge. And they still do.

I recall one rally that was held at the Beebe Windmill on Ocean Avenue in Bridgehampton. There was entertainment for the crowd. And one of the performers was me. I was there with a backup crew of musicians, and we named ourselves Dan Rattiner and His Rocky Mountain Boys. We played two songs. I sing very off-key. Everybody just chattered away while we played. It was quite embarrassing, the only time I’ve ever performed in public as a musician. Others played. I recall Jan and Jim were there, for those who remember them. And the artist Robert Dash had made an oil painting of the old bridge. It got auctioned off.

And in the end, we won. Southampton backed down. No tanks would appear on any future Sagg Bridge. In 1980, Southampton Town closed Sagg Bridge to vehicular traffic because it was deemed by engineers too rickety to bear auto traffic. Repair people were hired. At that time, Dan’s Papers was holding a 10K running race called the Potatohampton Minithon every year. And it went across Sagg Bridge.

I had not thought there would be a problem with this. We were pedestrians, not vehicles. But the Town Police, a half-hour before the race, announced we could not run across the bridge.

We held a meeting with town officials. And a compromise was reached. The fear was “lock step,” as in hordes of people running along as if marching in a parade. This was two miles into the race. There was no “lock step.” The field was all spread out. The agreement was that we would be allowed to have our runners cross the bridge, but only if we had somebody at the east end where the runners would arrive at the bridge to see to it there was no lockstep and that there was no visible shaking of the bridge.

I thought this ridiculous, but this is what they wanted. We raised money that year for Stony Brook Hospital, and there were volunteers on the race site. I found a man who was a professor at the medical school there who was a psychiatrist. And he volunteered to do that job. We had a psychiatrist watching to make sure the bridge did not shake.

And that brings us up to date, and the present situation where Sagaponack is taking the whole bridge over. The bridge was repaired in 1980. It needs repairs again. The repairs will be done and the old historic bridge crossing will continue along announcing its rural roots for generations to come. I think.

Read more of Dan Rattiner’s stories here.

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