By Peter Rae
In 1907 Meredith Nicholson, a popular author, poet and later on diplomat from Indiana, published a novel about some Confederate army officers who refused to recognize that the North had won the Civil War and retreated to a hideout in rural western Virginia. The book proved popular, rising to #3 on the best-seller list. The name of the hideout, and the title of the book, was The Port of Missing Men.
It’s not known whether Henry B. Anderson, a New Yorker who annually summered with his family in Ridgefield, Connecticut at that time, had read Nicholson’s novel. Anderson was a prominent New York City attorney whose clients included the Vanderbilt and Mills families, both of which had homes in Dutchess County. The Andersons were one of a number of wealthy city families who built summer homes in the rural western Connecticut town of Ridgefield in the 1870s, ‘80s and ‘90s.
Although they were only summer residents, the Anderson family contributed much to the community. After a fire consumed most of the buildings in downtown Ridgefield in 1895, Henry Anderson, along with some other summer residents, led the way in the town’s rebirth. He organized and built the town’s first water system, the Ridgefield Water Supply Company. He also set up the town’s first sewage system and electric supply company.
With the town well on the road to recovery, Anderson turned to more personal pursuits.
Apparently interested in the welfare of the upper class, he and business associate Ogden Mills quietly bought up properties in Ridgefield and in the adjacent town of North Salem, New York, about 1800 acres in all.
His original intention, it is said, was to establish an exclusive summer community for wealthy New York families. But before development actually began, plans changed. Anderson instead built a restaurant and lodge where his wealthy colleagues could hunt, fish and dine in comfort – unencumbered by their wives and families.
Had Anderson read Meredith Nicholson’s best-seller? Maybe. He named the lodge Ye Port of Missing Men.
A Retreat for the Wealthy
Henry Anderson’s restaurant and lodge opened in 1907 in North Salem, just across the state line from Ridgefield. As depicted on a postcard of the day, it was quite rustic in appearance and sat on a hill overlooking fields and farmlands. According to local historian Jack Sanders, author of several books about Ridgefield’s history, it was said that on a clear day you could see the mountains west of the Hudson River, more than twenty miles away.
Getting to the farm was no easy trick. While the automobile was quickly becoming popular among the middle and upper classes (indeed, Anderson was one of the first presidents of the Automobile Club of America), there simply were no roads leading to Anderson’s retreat. They had to be built.
As it happened, when Anderson was overseeing the construction of Ridgefield’s water company and other projects, he had brought in skilled Italian immigrants to do the work, and many had stayed on. They were soon hired for the new project, building more than ten miles of roads so solidly that, more than 100 years later, the rock-based roadbeds still stand out.
One such road was and is named Old Sib Road. It ran from near the center of Ridgefield northwest for about four miles to the state line, and from there a short distance to the restaurant itself. The Ridgefield portion of Old Sib is used today for car traffic, while the New York part is a hiking trail.
The Port of Missing Men was apparently a success. Operating as a public restaurant for its first two years, its guest book, which has been preserved by the Ridgefield Historical Society, contains more than 20,000 signatures. Later on the restaurant was turned into a private club, and similar records are not available. It has been suggested that during this time, while leaving wives and families at home, members may have been able to bring girlfriends.
In the 1920s, Prohibition was the rule of the day, and many now referred to the club as “Anderson’s Tea House.” Despite the ban on alcoholic beverages, liquor could still be had at the Port of Missing Men. A decade later, Prohibition was over but the Depression had replaced it. The Port of Missing Men closed forever in the mid-1930s.
The Builders Who Came and Stayed
Despite its closing, its memories lingered on. Many of the Italian immigrants who had been brought in to build its roads and buildings stayed on in various operational capacities. One was Nazzereno Gasperini, who came from Italy in 1905 to help build roads and soon became a road crew foreman. After the restaurant was opened, he stayed on in various capacities.
On April 4, 1911, while living in North Salem, Nazzereno’s wife gave birth to a daughter who they named Mary. In 1922, the family moved to Ridgefield and two years later moved into a house on East Ridge. Ninety-one years later, Mary still lives in this house; she recently celebrated her 104th birthday there.
In an interview published in the Ridgefield Press, Mary recounted some of the highlights of her life. At age 14 she drove a car, noting that in addition to driving it you had to crank it. As a young woman, she worked as a waitress at the Port of Missing Men. She visited Italy in 1930, met and married a young man named Primo Paterniani, and brought him back to the U.S. Over the years the Paternianis raised three daughters and had six grandchildren and thirteen great-grandchildren.
Her parents stayed in Ridgefield as well. Nazzereno became a co-proprietor of a market and butcher shop, Brunetti and Gasperini, on Main Street until his retirement in 1955. The shop itself lasted another thirty years as Brunetti’s.
Soon after the restaurant opened, the Anderson family sold their house on West Lane and moved to a new one Anderson had built in North Salem, in an area of his holdings that overlooked three lakes: Waccabuc, Oscaleta and Rippowam. In the early 1920s the family moved again, this time to the Gold Coast of Long Island, purchasing an estate in Sands Point. Sands Point was the town F. Scott Fitzgerald used as the model for his iconic novel of upper class American life, The Great Gatsby.
Other than memories, little remains of Anderson’s Port of Missing Men today. Immediately after World War II, the site was under consideration as the headquarters of the United Nations, but lost out to Lake Success, New York. In the 1950s, the Ridgefield portion of the estate, comprising about 600 acres, was sold to a land development company called Eight Lakes Development which built and sold hundreds of homes in the area. On the New York side, the estate was ultimately acquired by Westchester County and turned into a park. Today the Sal J. Presidio Mountain Lakes Park, the county’s largest, offers miles of hiking trails, overnight campsite rentals, and summer camping opportunities for the county’s disadvantaged kids.
The area itself looks a lot different today. In 1907, it was largely agricultural – farms ruled the day. Today our food comes from California, other states and other countries, and the onetime farm lands are now woods. Houses exist among the trees on the Ridgefield side, while trees predominate in Westchester County’s park.
Were you to Google “Port of Missing Men,” you would find it’s been used elsewhere. A similar hideout was established in eastern Long Island near the Hamptons during the 1920s and grew to be much larger than its Ridgefield counterpart. The movie database, IMDB, cites a movie of that name made in 1914, but has no other details. And in 1987, author Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, who coincidentally was living in Ridgefield at the time, published a novel that she named The Port of Missing Men. But it had nothing to do with Henry Anderson – the story’s protagonist was an Olympic swimmer and the name itself was given to an ocean liner.