hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News May 2022


Recruiting guardians for a seagull sanctuary

Maury Thompson


The somewhat unusual classified ad, published in various newspapers around the country in 1921, generated 1,600 applications:

“Wanted — A man to live alone on an island, inland lake; eight miles from the shore; transportation, food, shelter, boat, etc. furnished; no work; no compensation.”
The successful applicant that year was a recent Harvard University graduate.

Similarly worded ads had been placed annually for more than 15 years, directing responses to “Summer Time,” a pseudonym for Edward P. Hatch Jr., whose family owned Four Brothers Islands, a group of four Lake Champlain islands 5.5 miles northeast of Willsboro, on the New York side of the lake, roughly across from Burlington.

The islands were a breeding place for the Arctic seagull and a stopping point for migratory geese, ducks and other birds.

Hatch was the grandson of Burlington physician Horace Hatch and the son of Edward P. Hatch Sr., a principal in the Lord & Taylor dry goods business as well as a financier and real estate investor in New York City.

The father, who died in 1909, left an estate of more than $2.6 million — the equivalent of $79.7 million in today’s dollars — including real estate valued at more than $863,000, the Ticonderoga Sentinel reported on Aug. 31, 1911.

The son, Edward P. Hatch Jr., was a naturalist and environmentalist. He purposely kept his identity and the location of the islands out of the ads, and exaggerated the distance from shore, to keep curiosity seekers away from the islands, fearing they might disturb the gulls that returned each summer.

“For fear that the birds be molested, Mr. Hatch has sent one man yearly to live on the islands with no pay, but with all his needs adequately supplied, as guardian of the birds,” The Lake Placid News reported Oct. 20, 1922.

One might think of the gulls as feathered tourists from New York City. They lived most of the year at the New York harbor but returned to the islands for mating season.

“The old ones return each year, but the young of each season’s hatch seek places as yet undiscovered,” The Republican Journal of Belfast, Maine, reported on July 17, 1909.
“Each year, the same ten or twelve hundred come back to the islands to rear their young,” The Washington Herald of Washington, D.C., wrote on May 19, 1912. “Their number never increases, because under a peculiar law of their own, the young are sent away as soon as they have learned to shift for themselves and establish new colonies elsewhere. Only the original settlers return to the old home the following spring. When an old gull dies, his place is filled by another elderly bird, but never by a young bird.”

Hatch’s motive for protecting the birds extended beyond an interest in ornithology.
“Mr. Hatch says that the gulls deserve protection, for despite their beauty they are really flying sewage disposal plants, as they consume about two pounds of waste daily,” the Ticonderoga Sentinel reported on May 19, 1921.

Hatch began bringing a summer “guardian” to the islands annually around 1904, when he learned the connection between gulls and remediating pollution.

He led an early 20th century effort for more than a decade to crack down on pulp mills that dispensed sludge into Lake Champlain — and to convince the city of Burlington and other municipalities to find alternatives to dumping raw sewage into the lake.

Backers of the campaign included Dr. W. Seward Webb, a capitalist and former railroad builder who lived in New York City and Shelburne, Vt., as well as George H. Allen and publisher Henry Holt.

The group convinced New York Gov. Benjamin Odell, who served from 1901 to 1904, to direct the state Health Department to conduct an investigation, which led to the state requiring pulp mills on the New York side of Lake Champlain to build sedimentation beds to keep sludge out of the lake.

“The fight against the pollution of the beautiful lake aroused widespread interest at the time, and, as usual, the authorities in many states have taken similar action to stop the pollution of streams and lakes by manufacturing interests,” the Ticonderoga Sentinel reported on Oct. 26, 1905.
In 1907, Hatch was chairman of a similar campaign that the Merchants’ Association of New York City established to reduce the quantity of sewage being dumped into the Hudson River.
At Four Brothers Islands, the duties of the guardian included counting the number of gull eggs that were laid, keeping strangers off the islands, cleaning up storm damage that might damage nesting areas, and filing a report at the end of the season with the Audubon Society.
In 1912, there were about 1,200 applications for the unpaid position.

“They came from men of millions … and they came from penniless young men who begged for the chance of earning their food and shelter,” The Washington Herald reported. “There were applications from romantic young women and disheartened old men, from artists, inventors, professional men, students and from hundreds of both sexes in every walk of life.”

Several engaged couples applied, thinking the islands would be an ideal honeymoon destination.
“The house is a particularly snug little abode, sheltered by a grove of cedars and very close to the water’s edge,” the Herald reported. “It is cozy and warm, with a large cooking range, ample furniture, romantic little verandas, vine covered and looking out over the lake. There are corners for books and room for a piano, if you like, and pleasant windows where the sun comes in at morning and the breeze from the lake floats up at night.”

The details of the accommodations normally were shared only a few finalists who were called in for interviews each year. Hatch arranged for all provisions.

“You could go there in your pajamas, if you like, for all necessary clothing is supplied to your order,” the Herald reported.

The guardian had use of two rowboats and of Hatch’s motorboat, “The Fly,” named for a national campaign he conducted to convince municipalities that dumping sewage in open waters created conditions that contributed to breeding of the common house fly.

In October 1922, Hatch and his family donated the islands to the New York Zoological Society, which planned to bring a team of university scientists to the islands the next summer to study the migratory and mating patterns of the gulls.

At least one report at the time suggested that the island’s seagulls had done their part in enforcing Prohibition.

“Bootleggers, of late, tried unsuccessfully to establish a base on the islands, running from Canada in fast motorboats by night,” The Post-Star of Glens Falls reported on Oct. 9, 1922. “But the birds, by their screaming and uproar at the intrusion, betrayed the Volsteadian pirate of the northern moon.”

The bootleggers may have been more successful than the report suggested, however. Antique bottles from the Prohibition era could still be found buried on the islands, The New York Times reported on Nov. 29, 1981.

The islands have had various owners over the decades.
In 1977, John Jacob Astor donated them to the University of Vermont, which in 1981 sold them to The Nature Conservancy, at which point the town of Willsboro refused to continue a property tax exemption, the Times reported.

The group of islands, home to eight species of rare birds, is still one of the most important nesting areas for colonial water birds on Lake Champlain, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.


Maury Thompson was a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls for 21 years before retiring in 2017. He now is a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.