The following is condensed from what appears to be a personal letter from Lawrence J. Dober to Earl F. Dodge, reprinted by Dodge in the June, 1997 National Statesman. Dober describes himself as “Vice President of the Westerleigh Improvement Society.”
In the last decade of the 19th Century, there were many emerging social and economic issues which, in combination, gave impetus to the development of the community known today as Westerleigh.
Many citizens of that era expressed grave concerns over the manners and morals of their neighbors. This was loudly proclaimed through the temperance movement. Elimination of the “Demon Rum,” they said, promised an end to such widespread social ills as poverty, crime, insanity, divorce, and the general disintegration of the American family. It had strong evangelical overtones. Many of the movement’s disciples strengthened their convictions and called for absolute prohibition of alcohol in any form.
In 1888, the newly formed National Prohibition Camp Ground Association took title to 25 acres of land on Staten Island, a short ferry-ride from New York City, land that would become known as National Prohibition Park. The new community would feature religious and temperance meetings, educational lectures, and wholesome entertainment staged Chautauqua-style beneath a large tent. Visitors would be able to camp and picnic in a nearby grove. There would be a plentiful supply of spring water – the drink of choice! The Association aimed to attract alcohol-abstaining, pious families.
The land was divided into lots for use either as camp sites or as building lots. In the deeds to the lots, it was specified that no liquor would be permitted. The ban also included fences, stables, factories, dance halls, assembly rooms, billiard parlors, and bowling alleys. Many of the streets memorialized the names of important temperance leaders: Wardwell, Fisk, St. John, Waters, Demorest, Dow, Bidwell, and Wooley, to name a few.
In its first season, the Park drew 60,000 visitors. They came in droves to be entertained and informed, to see and hear famous speakers and luminaries. Settlers also arrived and, as the resident population increased, the Park management acquired more territory.
The management also erected two permanent buildings, where meals could be had and transient guests accommodated. An auditorium, seating 4000 and named “University
Temple,” was opened in 1891. It was one of the largest structures of its kind in the country. A school, the Westerleigh Collegiate Institute, opened in 1895. A huge fieldstone fountain was constructed near the auditorium. Shaped like an overturned whiskey glass, it dispensed the approved beverage of Prohibition Park – drinking water.
After a few years, attendance at Chautauqua events began to decline, and the Park management focused more on real estate sales. Also, the Institute building was destroyed by fire on February 13, 1903, and on April 28th following the University Temple also burned to the ground. Neither structure was re-built.
Prohibition Park evolved into a community quite different from the Chautauqua village its founders had intended. The closely spaced cottages in a natural setting around a small lake formed an attractive residential community, and this appealed to many of the residents more than did the Prohibition movement which had motivated the founders. Eventually, the name of the community was changed to Westerleigh.
By 1940, the area had been built out virtually to its residential capacity. It remains today a neighborhood with small-town pride and community spirit amid the sprawling urbanization of Staten Island. Casual visitors can see and feel that it is different from other places. Its buildings are smaller, its streets are quieter, and its sidewalks are less crowded than are those in other parts of Staten Island. Prohibition Park/Westerleigh has maintained a unique identity over 10 decades, and its residents have a great awareness of the links that so closely bind the social concerns of the present with those of a century or more ago.