What's in a name, fact or legend?
When it comes to some Long Island roads, the answer depends on whom you ask and what you believe. Historians at the historical societies in Nassau and Suffolk counties can tell you what the history books say and what a Google search reveals.
Either way, road names featuring wild and domestic animals are signposts into life as it once was on Long Island, attesting to the prominent role four-legged inhabitants played in the region's history.
If you've ever worried about toothy beasts lying in wait in the shadows as you pass along Wolf Hill Road in the Huntington area, you can stop looking over your shoulder -- the critters have been gone for centuries.
But in the 17th century, when Long Island was still a fledgling settlement where vast forests were home to hoards of wildlife that outnumbered residents, the danger was real. According to historians, packs of wolves lived and raised their litters in a jumble of rocks on the edge of a hilly trail that is now called Wolf Hill Road. Wolves are rugged predators and were constantly on the prowl for food. They raided homesteaders' farm yards, feasted on their cattle, chickens and geese and fought with their pet dogs. When they began to go after small children, a party of settlers attacked the lairs, all but wiping out the packs. To ensure complete eradication of escaped strays, anyone who brought a dead wolf to the local constable was awarded a bounty equal to the value of an Indian coat. The incentive worked, but while the wolves of Wolf Hill Road disappeared, their memory lingers on its road signs, scary links to pioneer life on Long Island.
Drive south into Unkechaug Indian country from South Country Road along picturesque Beaver Dam Roadin Brookhaven hamlet (formerly called Fire Place) to Squassux Landing on the Great South Bay, and you'll be charmed by its peaceful aspect as it ambles across the small bridge that spans Beaver Dam Creek.
But the tranquillity is deceptive; this is a road that's been wracked by disaster, controversy and countless name changes ever since it was commissioned by town officials in 1735.
In fact, old deeds show that Beaver Dam Road was not its official name until the mid-1800s, after it had been saddled with a string of descriptive tags such as "the road crossing Fireplace Neck" or "the road going over."
The beavers moved on or were driven away by their two-legged neighbors, who used their sturdy dam as a shortcut to cross over the creek until a small bridge was built. The Great Concrete Controversy of 1931 caused an uproar among locals about whether to pave the roadway with concrete.
In 1910, an attempt to clean up debris in the creek ended up destroying the dam and damaging the bridge, which was rebuilt only to be wiped out by the hurricane of 1938, also called the Long Island Express, and again rebuilt as it stands today.
In the Revolutionary era, Samuel ''Horseblock'' Smith owned the Horseblock Tavern in New Village, now known as Centereach. It was a popular watering hole at the intersection of what are now Middle Country Road and Horseblock Road. Smith had a horse block for the convenience of his patrons -- a raised platform placed next to the hitching post for riders to stand on while mounting their horses. The tavern, however, had an unsavory reputation as a hangout for deserters, ruffians and thieves. Smith sold the tavern to Titus Gould in 1806, but records of its eventual demise are fuzzy.
In the mid-18th century churchgoers in the village of Nissequogue in the Smithtown area would race on horseback and in buggies along a straight stretch of Moriches Road after services. The sport was so popular the section of road was officially named Horse Race Lane.
Although ''Bull'' is not used in the official name of Bread and Cheese Hollow Road in Smithtown, the large animal was a major player in the legendary origin of the road and of the town itself, and a life-size statue of Whisper the Bull stands at the intersection of Route 25 and Route 25A.
According to the tall tale that has become local lore, early settler Richard ''Bull'' Smith chose the longest day in the year back in 1665 to accept an offer he couldn't refuse: Nesconset, sachem (chief) of the Nissequogue Indians, promised him all the land he could encircle in a day while riding his bull. Smith stopped at what is now Bread and Cheese Hollow Road, now the western border of the town, for a lunch of, what else, bread and cheese, and continued his ride, completing the outline of today's Smithtown.
Another version of the road's name stems from hawthorn plants with their edible leaves, which English settlers called "bread and cheese." Hawthorn hedges were often used to mark boundaries in the settlers' former country, and the practice continued here on Long Island.
Skunks Misery Road takes its name from a swamp that once upon a time was a natural formation in what is now the Locust Valley area. Early settlers used it as a dump that was a handy fast-food stop for large numbers of skunks that foraged in the refuse. The odor was said to be so bad that people wondered how even the skunks could tolerate it.
According to historians, Oxhead Road, which runs north from Centereach, is a remnant of a longer trail that once meandered farther south. In 1836 a boundary lawsuit took the oral testimony of several elderly gentlemen, who described their recollections of the road's path in their childhoods and that it took its name from an ox head that was set on a post at one point, although no one could fathom why it was there.
Muttontown Road snakes through some of the most exclusive real estate on Nassau County's Gold Coast, but in Colonial days the village of Muttontown was known for sheep-raising farms complete with a large slaughterhouse. According to historians, early settlers seldom ate lamb (or mutton, the meat of a mature sheep), an almost unheard of luxury, and Muttontown Road was used to carry the meat to more affluent areas.
Sheep Pasture Road connects East Setauket and Port Jefferson, an area once known as Comsewogue. In the late 18th century the road ran through a large sheep farm owned by Daniel Jones. The land was later acquired by Hubbard Gildersleeve, who sold 13 acres for the establishment of Cedar Hill Cemetery in 1859.