Dan Rattiner's Stories

Walker: The Real Story of Montaukett Stephen Talkhouse

One of the great, legendary figures on the eastern end of Long Island was Stephen Talkhouse, a Montaukett man who lived between 1821 and 1879. He served as a soldier during the Civil War, and was buried with the honors befitting a veteran in a burial ground off East Lake Drive in Montauk, a lone grave, bordered by a fence of rocks. The remains of his house are also nearby, all within the bounds of Montauk County Park.

There is a photograph taken of him when he was in his prime. He carries a walking stick and he stares out at the camera intensely. This photograph serves as a larger-than-life-size backdrop on an interior wall of The Stephen Talkhouse, a well known music venue in Amagansett that bears his name today.

Stephen Talkhouse was famous for his long, legendary walks. Every day—you could count on this—he’d walk back and forth 24 miles each way between Montauk, East Hampton and Sag Harbor, often carrying letters or messages from one person to another and their replies back. Stone markers along the way would identify where he would stop at a certain time in the day. Today, parts of the Paumanok Path follow the routes he took.

He came up in my thoughts last night when I was using my cell phone to see what ought to be the best route to take to get from the Plaza in downtown Montauk to Long Wharf, Sag Harbor. The route and time, quite by accident, at first came up not for driving, but for walking. It would take 6 hours and 53 minutes. Yes, Stephen Talkhouse could do this round trip. He must have walked fast. It probably took him 10 hours for a round trip. One suspects he enjoyed it. And indeed, that’s how he earned a living.

I then began to wonder just how long it took for other people, not known for their great walks, to get around the South Fork in those days. Today we can make
that trip in a car in about 40 minutes. Back then, before the railroad, before automobiles, there was horseback.

When someone in Sag Harbor, for example, contemplated the time it would take to get to Montauk, for example, they considered horses and buggies, stage coaches and riding a horse. In some ways, as I looked into this, going from Sag Harbor to Montauk back then was akin to going from the Hamptons to New York City today.

Sag Harbor to Montauk, a distance of 24 miles, could be done in about an hour and five minutes on a fast horse going at full gallop. Of course, no horse is going to gallop all that way. He’d gallop a while, then walk, then cantor or trot. There would be hills to climb and ponds to wade across. This mode of transportation for that distance at a full gallop might be akin today to taking a helicopter from East Hampton Airport to the 33rd Street platform on the East River in Manhattan. It would be the expensive, fastest way to get from here to there.

I might note here that the Pony Express riders, way back then, out west, would charge along at a full gallop on a horse for 10 miles through the deserts and plains of the western states. Then the rider would hop off—it would take about 20 minutes—and a new rider with a fresh horse would carry the mail another 10 miles, while the first rider would go back the way he came, on a different fresh horse, carrying the mail to his starting point that morning.

Advertisements in the newspapers for Pony Express riders noted the applicant had to be under the age 18, thin and wiry, not afraid of danger—Indians, bandits, terrain, foul weather—orphans preferred. (According to Wikipedia.)

Getting back to how a person on the East End might think in those days, if he were a fit rider and had a good horse, he would allow an hour and a half for a trip of 20 miles, stopping occasionally along the way. Thus could a young Montauk cowboy court a farmer’s daughter in Sag Harbor.

As for other means, there was the horse and buggy, which might take two and a half hours, or a stagecoach that might take three hours. That was about it for getting from here to there.

By the way, New York City was pretty much out of the question back in Steven Talkhouse’s day. If you did want to go, though, you’d probably take a schooner or cargo ship out of Hampton Bays. Manhattan would be 10 hours away—think a trip to Hawaii—but it might be fairly pleasant if the weather was good.

So where did Talkhouse fit into all this?

Undoubtedly, the fastest way to get a piece of mail from Sag Harbor to Montauk, other than horseback, would be aboard a coach pulled by a team of horses. A coach, as I said, could do the 24 miles in maybe three hours. There’d be a fee if you were a passenger, delivering a letter or a package or crate.

Talkhouse, the letter carrier, would take seven hours and be cheaper. Furthermore, he could talk to someone he was delivering to and return with a reply the same day. He provided a viable competition to the horse and buggy or stagecoach.

All this came to an end, of course, when the railroad came out to the East End of Long Island. This was in 1871 in Southampton and 1890 through to Montauk. Cars and trucks came into regular use around 1915. Of course, horses were used for certain jobs for quite some time after that. I remember seeing some horses on the road when I was a little boy in the 1940s.

Interestingly, when I moved out here in the 1950s as a teenager, I sometimes came across local people who had never been to New York City. Like their parents and grandparents before them, their whole world was the eastern end of Long Island from birth to death.

Why bother with New York?

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