Sand, sea and sprawling estates shaped Port Washington

The Port Washington Long Island Rail Road station, The Port Washington Long Island Rail Road station, circa 1910. Photo Credit: Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society

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The buildings, sidewalks and tunnels of New York City were mostly built with sand that was mined in Port Washington and made into concrete. That “Cow Neck Sand,” as it was called, not only provided the building blocks for Manhattan, but it shaped Port Washington, too.

Port Washington was settled in 1644, when the Matinecock Indians sold the land to English families. Until the mid-1800s, the area was called "Cow Neck Village,” because it mainly served as pasture land for the settlers’ cows. Farming was the main industry, but shellfishing took off in the mid-1800s along with sand mining. Between 1865 to 1989, the peninsula was home to the largest sand-mining operation east of the Mississippi.

“It was a huge employer in town,” said Chris Bain, president of the Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society.

Immigrants came from Italy, Germany, Poland and other parts of Europe to work in the sand mines, which delivered more than 140 million yards of sand to New York City.

“It was very tough work, very labor intensive, dangerous at times … but it provided a pathway to a better life in the United States,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Danish, Scandinavians and Norwegians were attracted to Port for its nautical work, including fishing, boat building and an early seaplane industry. (The original Marine Air Terminal was located on Manhasset Bay.) Also, moguls like Whitney, Astor and Coe specifically recruited immigrants from England, Ireland and Scotland to work on their Sands Point estates.

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“It was an amazing amalgam of people,” said Elly Shodell, who interviewed some of these immigrants through her role as director of the Local History Center at the Port Washington Public Library. “They were all in the same boat, trying to better themselves and make a living in America.”

The influx of people to the peninsula spurred the growth of Port Washington, as homes, schools, businesses and services were built to support the growing population. The arrival of the Long Island Rail Road in 1898 also brought new people, particularly white-collar workers looking for a short commute to Manhattan.

As these suburbanites settled in houses built on the cliffs near the sand mines, though, they made a push to stop the mining near their homes.

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“It was not compatible to have somebody who had come in as a commuter from New York City to be on top of these rattling, filthy, dangerous cliffs,” Shodell added. “Politics really ended sand mining.”

The last sand mine ceased production in 1989, the Marine Air Terminal moved from Port Washington to LaGuardia Airport in 1940 and the arrival of yacht clubs interfered with shellfishing in the bay. Although these industries left the area, the workers stayed. The children they raised went on to become doctors, lawyers and prominent people in town, Shodell explained.

“They created a vibrant, vital place of mixture and not just snobbery and wealthy people,” she added. “I think they were a mellowing influence on the town.”

Port Washington native Debbie Greco-Cohen, 54, is the granddaughter of a sand miner. Her grandfather came from Italy to work in the mines. Her mother moved to Port Washington from Wales and her father was a clam digger.

“It’s a great place to live and raise a family,” said Greco-Cohen, who has a daughter of her own now. “I looked at other places to live, but I never found anything I liked as much as Port Washington … There’s so much history here.”

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