The Long Life Of Nellie H

By Ann Dermody

A century may have passed, but the boat still sails, and a family still treasures the memories that held four generations together.

Photo of the Nellie H on the water in a bygone day

It is the Summer of 1914. The same summer an archduke and heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand, is assassinated in Sarajevo, sparking the beginning of World War I. In just weeks the Panama Canal will officially open after 10 years of U.S. construction, and the world's first red and green electric traffic light will be installed in Cleveland, Ohio. Unemployment is at 7.9 percent; the Boston Braves win the World Series; and the cost of a first-class stamp is two cents.

Photo of the Nellie H on the water

Photo of the Nellie H in a good windKen Cotter's mother, Joan Brush Heymann, up front on the bow.

Photo of A.J. Sammis giving his grandnephew a turn at the wheelOwner A.J. Sammis gives his grandnephew Jim Albert a turn at the wheel.

Photo of a woman at the wheel of the Nellie H

The world is changing, but for the eight young heads, bobbing in the water off a dock in Huntington, Long Island, time is centered on the here and now. On long hot summer days on Nellie H, the 38-foot oyster sloop owned by A.J. Sammis, the father of Kathleen, Erma, and Gwen Sammis, the three young ladies pictured in swim caps (left to right) below.

Photo of Kathleen Sammis, sisters and friends bobbing in the waterBobbing In The Water: Ken Cotter's grandmother, Kathleen Sammis, sisters and friends from Bedford Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn cool off at "Puppy's Hole," a creek off Huntington Harbor. Nellie H is in the background, circa 1914.

Nellie H had been built in 1903 by Erastus Hart, and named for the owner's daughter. It was bought in 1910 by A.J. Sammis from Brooklyn, who made his fortune in the textile industry in New York City, and who created a summer retreat, and later permanent home, for his family on what were then the farmlands of Huntington, Long Island. There, the boat became a social center for the families and friends who left the stifling streets of Brooklyn en masse in the summer. "It would be packed on weekends," says Ken Cotter of Ellicott City, Maryland, great grandson of A.J. Sammis, who recently donated Nellie H to be restored. "My mother tells me they once had up to 21 people aboard."

But 110 years after she was built, and after several reprieves, Nellie H has somehow endured. During the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, which killed between 700 and 800 people, she landed on another boat, but made it through. After A.J. Sammis passed away in the 1940s, she went to a cousin, Kenneth Johnson, a New York City harbor pilot later lost at sea during a transfer in 1974. After that, the boat left the family for a few years, before Ken Cotter bought back his great-grandfather's, grandmother's, and mother's beloved boat. Now, more than a century after A.J. Sammis first bought Nellie H, and after 30 years of sitting in Ken Cotter's backyard, she's gone to Maine to be restored.

But for the eight faces smiling at the camera in 1914, that would all happen several unborn generations into the future. For them, the Roaring Twenties and The Great Gatsby are still a decade away. The four young women in the photo will have to wait another six years to win the right to vote. This generation, one that will live through the Great Depression and World War II (when Nellie H won't run because of gas shortages), has no inclination yet of what is on the horizon. For now their days, for this summer at least, are packed only with long sails through the sound, and the echoes of young people splashing off a dock on Long Island. 

For more on the Nellie H visit the Wooden Boat Rescue Foundation.

— Published: August/September 2013

Every picture tells a story: Thanks to Ken Cotter for sending in this photo of his grandmother, her sisters, and their friends for our Photo Contest earlier this year. Do you have a great photo that also tells a story? Email it to us with an explanation to


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