Port Washington, named for a president who never slept there or even visited, is "our town" to its 32,000 residents, yet it's never been a town. More than most places, Port Washington is a study in contrasts. Though it's a model of modern suburbia, its Main Street is known as antiques row. Its average income ranges from $50,000 in its blue-collar neighborhoods to more than $185,000 on its Gold Coast.
And though it's an amalgam of four villages, parts of two others and an unincorporated area - linked only by a zip code and a school district - Port Washingtonians have united to fight for a common pasture, for independence, for putting a stop to sand mining or incinerator construction, for converting the 1909 Main Street School into a center for all ages.
This year Port Washington marks two centennials. The first train arrived with great flourish in 1898, the same year the Mill Pond Model Yacht Club was established, one of this seagoing community's enduring hobbies.
The first battles were waged in the 1670s, when the British Crown granted land on the peninsula then known as Cow Neck to "deserving subjects" - much to the consternation of those already there. "The early colonists had enclosed the whole peninsula for cattle grazing and they felt the land was theirs," says George L. Williams, historian of the Village of Port Washington North. The first homesteader, John Cornwall (variously spelled Cornwell, Cornhill or Cornell in history books) built the first house about 1676 near Manhasset Bay. The house was torn down by angry cattle owners, but Cornwall persevered. More settlers arrived and the fence came down.
Port Washington continued to be called Cow Neck until 1857. Wanting a more dignified name, residents decided to commemorate Washington's 1790 visit - to Roslyn, which was close enough.
Had Washington detoured to Cow Neck on his whirlwind postwar tour of Long Island, he would have encountered some of his most ardent supporters. Carried by ship or horseback, news of the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775 fired up this small, isolated community. Local militia set up beacons on Sutton's Hill, now called Beacon Hill, to signal the approach of British warships, and conducted a spy operation known as the Secret Road during the British occupation beginning in 1776.
After peace and order were restored and the Town of North Hempstead severed from the Town of Hempstead, North Shore transportation improved. The North Hempstead Turnpike, now called Northern Boulevard, opened in 1801, though travelers had to pay 2 cents to use it from Roslyn to Spinney Hill in Manhasset. By 1830 Port residents had stagecoach service to the city, and in 1836, steamboats to Lower Manhattan.
But another New York City connection was to have the greatest impact on Port Washington's landscape and population. A fine-grained sand was discovered on the shores of the peninsula, and a massive sand-mining operation began in 1865. Whole hills were leveled to produce concrete for city sidewalks and skyscrapers. For decades city paving contracts specified "Cow Bay Sand." Workers recruited from European communities - particularly Polish and Italian - later brought their families and settled in ethnic pockets. Some workers were buried in sand avalanches. There was widespread protesting of what was called "the rape of Long Island," but the mining continued into the mid-1900s.
Meanwhile, the arrival of the railroad in 1898 ushered in the commuter age, and Port Washington's population swelled. The easy commute brought the rich, who converted farms into large estates. Artists and writers came, first as summer people. Sinclair Lewis wrote his first novel on the train to Manhattan; poet William Rose Benet composed his ballads of the West on the eastbound train, and cartoonist Fontaine Fox created his "Toonerville Trolley" in the early 1900s, when a trolley ran to Mineola.
A seaplane factory opened in 1929 on Port Washington's Manhasset Isle, on the west shore of the peninsula, from which, a decade later, the famous Pan-American Clippers took off across the Atlantic. As industries replaced summer colonies, home developers saw the need for housing more people on smaller plots and felt constrained by North Hempstead Town's zoning regulations, says Larry Rose, trustee-historian of Manorhaven, one of nine villages that incorporated on the Port Washington-Manhasset peninsula earlier this century.
First to incorporate in the Port Washington area was Sands Point, in 1910. After Manorhaven formed in 1930, the village of Baxter Estates, smallest on the peninsula, was incorporated in 1931, led by resident Carolyn B. Dissoway, the first woman admitted to the bar in Nassau County. The village contains one of the area's oldest houses, the 17th Century Baxter house, once the home of the village's namesake, Oliver Baxter. Port Washington North incorporated the following year with only 250 residents, many centered around the historic Mill Pond. Change accelerated in the 1950s when the old Treadwell farm became the Soundview Village complex, and, with it, Soundview Shopping Center, the first and largest in Port Washington.
Where to Find More: "Port Recalled," by Virginia Marshall; "The Mill Pond," "Lower Main Street," "Port Washington in the 20th Century," by George L. Williams, at Port Washington Library and Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society.