Aberdeen Hall: The History of an Exclusive Area of West Yarmouth

Great Island in West Yarmouth is perhaps the most restricted location on all of Cape Cod. There are no less than three layers of security standing between the entrance to the elite neighborhood and the tip where Point Gammon Lighthouse stands. For nearly a century this has been the case as the posh homes which dot the 800 acre land mass are owned and visited by the cream of the crop of society. However did you know that for a short time it was public property?

Initially home only to a smallpox hospital at the turn of the 19th century a lighthouse would be added to aid navigation. These would be the only inhabitants of the massive Great Island for the vast majority of the 1800’s. It would begin to change in 1883 when ornithologist Charles Cory inherited his family’s fortune and purchased the entire property from Samuel Payson for use as a game preserve as well as his summer home. Though he would occasionally open up his property for events such as concerts, Cory kept it private much as it is today. After developing an affinity for golf in 1897 Cory would have a private course built on Great Island. This would lead to the creation of Cory’s own high class country club which would be frequented by America’s elite. It was called Aberdeen Hall.

Cory’s club would be built by himself along with Henry Frick in 1902 at a cost of $100,000 ($2.8 million in 2018). The forty-five-bedroom structure would be frequented by fellow elite members of society by invite only. There would be numerous invitational golf tournaments held on the property which made great use of Aberdeen Hall. After only a few years though Cory would lease his country club to E.M. Guild, manager of the successful Sea Cliff Inn on Nantucket, for use as a first class hotel in 1905.

The new use of Aberdeen Hall was an immediate success with countless locals registering for a stay at the hotel. In January 1909 Cory would sell the entirety of Great Island at auction due to heavy losses in the stock market. The 800 acre property, Aberdeen Hall, the golf links, a cottage, water tower, stable, and barn were purchased by New York steel magnate Henry Phipps. He would immediately get to work improving Aberdeen Hall and heavily promoting it as the ‘only 1st class hotel on Cape.’ Phipps would have a large addition built in May 1909 and bring in A.W. MacDougall to manage the property.

During the summer of 1909 Aberdeen Hall would be full beyond capacity as locals and visitors flocked to Great Island. Offering private baths, fine dining, fishing, walks in the pine and oak tree groves, as well as rounds on the golf links, it was no wonder Aberdeen Hall was the place to be. For those not able to make it to the hotel via automobile or on foot a ferry service was put into place shuttling people to the property from the Ocean Street docks in Hyannis.

Before the hotel reopened for the 1911 season Phipps paid the United States Dredging and Irrigation Company of New York to come to Great Island. Their job was to drain the bogs and marsh lands on the property in an effort to rid the area of mosquitoes which had become a black cloud over the otherwise terrific vacation spot. It is unknown if the efforts were successful.

Aberdeen Hall would see continued success even after a change in management to Frances Yeager in 1912 ended in her declaring bankruptcy two years later. It was around this time that Rhode Island banker Malcolm Chace would purchase Great Island in 1914. He would keep Aberdeen Hall running smoothly installing George Heely as manager. The hotel would see its greatest heights in terms of occupancy including its most successful season of 1919 after Chace’s purchase.

The reign of Aberdeen Hall would sadly end on August 3, 1924 when a fire burned it to the ground. The fire began in an old laundry room, spread to the water tower, and finally to the hotel. It took nearly forty-five minutes for the fire to reach the hotel, meaning that if it had been noticed earlier perhaps the iconic building could have been saved. Luckily all of the staff as well as the fifty-eight guests staying there at the time made it out safely. Firefighters came from as far away as Falmouth and Orleans but the fire was a total loss causing $200,000 in damage ($2.9 million in 2018).

With Aberdeen Hall gone the time of Great Island being opened to the public ended as well. Today the vast majority of the property is still owned by the Chace Family with security patrolling year-round and home values averaging in the several millions of dollars. The island and its homes are private and the property should be respected. The only true way to catch glimpses of Great Island is via boat, or if one is lucky enough to know someone with a home out there.

By Christopher Setterlund



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