At first glance, the quaint hamlet of Stony Brook might seem an unlikely place to house the country’s finest collection of horse-drawn carriages. But at the Long Island Museum, known as LIM to locals, visitors will find nearly 100 painstakingly restored vehicles harking back to a bygone era when carriages were a way of life. In fact, though Long Island boasts more than 100 museums, LIM is its only designated Smithsonian affiliate, a credential achieved in large part through the quality of the carriage collection.
It all started back in 1939, when Ward Melville cofounded the Suffolk Museum in a nearby location. Melville and his wife, Dorothy Bigelow Melville, shared a passion for carriages and spent their lives collecting notable examples from Long Island’s Gold Coast era. They brought the vehicles into the museum’s collection in the early 1950s, prompting a move to larger quarters on the site of an old mill. The museum (formally titled the Long Island Museum of American Art, History, and Carriages) purchased a number of historic buildings in the area and moved them to the grounds, creating a nine-acre cultural center that—in keeping with Melville’s vision—evoked a quaint New England village.
Set amid landscaped gardens, the Carriage Museum has about 25,000 square feet of exhibit space, including a Streets of New York gallery where carriages are displayed against a backdrop of late 19th-century cityscapes. Among the Carriage Museum’s gems is the Chariot D’Orsay, built in 1880 in Paris for William K. Vanderbilt I, a Long Islander who was at one time the wealthiest man in America. “Willy K. II built Long Is- land’s Vanderbilt Motor Parkway; the son loved cars, and his dad loved carriages,” explains Joshua Ruff, director of collections and interpretation at LIM. The restored vermillion vehicle has a plush interior, original lamps, original cut glass, and silver-plated hardware; it seats two passengers in addition to the driver upfront. “When you think of luxury carriages, this is what you picture,” Ruff says.
You’ll also find two coaches and a sleigh that came from a Munich palace, and a stateside collection that includes the Wells Fargo & Company Overland Express (circa 1868), which carried passengers across the Overland Trail during America’s westward expansion.
“Before mainstream adoption of the automobile, carriages were how people did everything, but now it’s a lost culture. These carriages have been preserved here so people can learn about it and understand it,” explains Ruff, who has been with the museum for 21 years.
Every carriage has a story, according to Ruff. Take, for example, the Circular Front Coupe driven in Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession in New York City or the T.J. Coolidge Steam Pumper that was made in New Hampshire for the New Orleans Fire Department. It was quickly returned to the maker because—at nearly 10 feet tall and more than 9,000 pounds—it was too unwieldy to negotiate the narrow, crowded streets of the Big Easy. One of the crown jewels of the collection is the Tally-Ho, which helped promote the concept of pleasure coaching in the late 1800s, when it ran a regular route carrying passengers from a Manhattan hotel to the then-popular recreation area of Pelham, with millionaire owner DeLancey Astor Kane at the reins.
“The Tally-Ho was a touchstone. There was much written about it, and it was widely copied,” Ruff says. “But people forgot all about it when cars came around.”
There are a lot of transportation museums but only a handful of carriage museums, Ruff notes. “Over the years, this could have become a museum that featured different types of transportation vehicles, but the decision was made to focus on carriages—to keep adding to our strength,” he says.
Though it is the largest and most notable, the Carriage Museum is just one of three exhibition halls that make up the Long Island Museum. The property also includes the Art Museum as well as the Visitor Center/History Museum. Each has about 3,000 square feet of display space, where rotating exhibits are chosen for both their history and their connection to Long Island and its culture. In total, 35,000 visitors come through the doors of LIM each year, from curious locals to history buffs to schoolchildren, 12,000 of whom participate annually in the museum’s educational programs.
—By Bernadette Starzee
All Photos: Brian Kutler