Swan Lake Historical Pavillion located on Briscoe Road just past the Swan Lake Store.
Inside the Swan Lake Historical Pavillion, numerous artifacts and photos tell the history of Swan Lake.
Click on vintage photos and postcards from Swan Lake's heyday, below
THE SWAN IN SWAN LAKE
By: John Conway
It was formed by damming up the Mongaup River to provide water for a large tannery operating near there in the 1840s, and it is perhaps most famous for yielding the body of a victim of a mob hit in 1937.
It is Swan Lake, and as hard as it may be to believe, its name has nothing at all to do with the ballet of the same name or the notoriously beautiful long-necked water birds.
The community, as opposed to the body of water, was originally named Stevensville, in honor of the Stevens brothers, who established a tannery there. James Eldridge Quinlan tells us in his History of Sullivan County that on January 24, 1848, "a meeting of those living near the tannery was held, at which Hiram Sandford the oldest inhabitant, presided, and was requested to propose a name. He suggested Stevensville, which was unanimously approved."
The tannery burned in 1856, but was soon rebuilt, and by 1870 the community on the west branch of the Mongaup River had become "a thriving village" comprising a Methodist church, a school, a hotel, two stores, a blacksmith shop, and a wagon shop in addition to the tannery, and had a population of about 125.
The body of water about which the community was constructed, which had appeared on some early maps as Snake Lake, was expanded to over 600 acres by the damming of the Mongaup, and soon became known as Stevensville Pond. It was owned in its entirety by Daniel Stevens.
After the demise of the tanning industry in this area, Stevensville became a favorite destination of summer tourists, and continued to thrive, despite not being located on the O&W Railroad line. A number of well-known hotels and boarding houses were located there, and were heavily patronized despite being served only by stage coach from the Liberty or Liberty Falls (Ferndale) stations. The stage, which also served White Lake, would pass over the pond on a crudely built causeway.
In April of 1895, Morris Stevens of New York City, a descendant of the Stevens brothers who had built the tannery, and the owner of large tracts of land at Stevensville, traded that land to Alden S. Swan, a prominent Brooklyn businessman, in partial payment for an apartment house he had purchased of Swan.
Swan, born in Hancock, Massachusetts on December 30, 1838, had come to New York at the age of 15 to attend the City College. Upon graduating, he had entered into business in the leather district, where he no doubt made the acquaintance of tanners from Sullivan County. He subsequently made his fortune in the oil business, and was, by 1900, also the president of the Rubber Goods Manufacturing Company, a $24,000,000 corporation. He was active in civic and political affairs in Brooklyn, and was a director of the Market and Fulton National Bank, as well as other financial institutions, and was instrumental in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Swan was an avid boater, who as a young man had held the single-scull amateur championship for nine consecutive years, and was the founder of the prestigious Great South Bay Yacht Club of Brooklyn. The prospect of owning a lake obviously appealed to him, and he began adding to his holdings, eventually owning a significant portion of the property around the lake, including the Swan Lake Mills, Rock Spring Lodge, Horseshoe Lake Farm, and Swan’s Casino, as well as the lake itself. By 1900 or so, Stevensville Pond had become popularly known as Swan Lake, and was most noted for the large quantities of pickerel fishermen took from it.
Alden S. Swan died on February 23, 1917; he was 79. In 1927, the post office at Stevensville, was officially renamed Swan Lake in his memory.
When his wife, Mary Althea Swan, passed away in December of 1921, her estate sold a significant portion of the Sullivan County property to Henry W. Siegel of Ferndale and Jacob Kretchmer of Woodridge.
In To the Mountains By Rail, Manville B. Wakefield writes that the local press at the time noted that the property had "great possibilities for development, having a large number of ideal sites for hotels and bungalows." Siegel and Kretchmer took full advantage of those possibilities, constructing the Stevensville and Commodore Hotels side by side on the shore of the lake. With their construction, and the subsequent emergence of the Swan Lake Hotel, the community was poised to enter Sullivan County’s Golden Age.
The lake itself became the center of media attention on July 31, 1937, when, at the peak of the summer tourist season, a body was discovered floating on the surface of the water. The dead man was soon identified as Walter Sage, a Brooklyn mobster who was running the slot machine operations at various Catskill hotels for organized crime. Sage’s murder was the subject of two spectacular trials in Sullivan County Court, and finally resulted, in 1944, in the conviction of local ne’er do well, Jack Drucker.
The hamlet is enjoying a renaissance of sorts of late, and shows signs of emerging from a decades’ long slumber. It is one of several interesting communities to be visited by the 13th Annual Architectural/Historical Bus Trip scheduled for April 26th. To reserve a seat on this year’s tour, call the Liberty Museum at 845-292-2394.
John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and an adjunct professor at SUNY-Sullivan. He lives in Barryville and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.