The first Europeans known to have seen Northport were Dutch sailors exploring the Long Island coast in 1650. The harbor has continued to play a pivotal role in local history ever since.
When the white explorers came, the area was already the home of Matinecocks who camped along streams and called the area Opcathontyche, meaning Wading Place Creek. In 1656, Asharoken, head of the Matinecocks, sold land in the area to settlers from Huntington who cleared it for farms. The area at that point was called Great Cow Harbor, presumably because of the unusual proximity of cattle pastures to the harbor mouth.
By the Revolution there were 31 families, including Bryant Skidmore, whose house at 529 Main St. still stands. Although British troops occupied the area, the only bloodshed came in 1781 when Joseph Buffet was killed when he and his slaves tried to recover livestock taken by a raiding party. Meanwhile, what is now called Crab Meadow Beach was the site of an important Revolutionary moment. In 1781, 100 American raiders in whaleboats from Connecticut landed at the beach and burned the British Fort Slongo. (For more details about this battle, see the history of Fort Salonga in the Smithtown part of this section.)
After the war, Great Cow Harbor began to grow rapidly. A new settlement grew at Red Hook, where today's Main Street and Route 25A intersect. Sailing vessels carried cordwood to New York and returned with horse manure for fertilizer.
After Woodbine Avenue was fashioned out of a dirt trail, the business district, including the post office, shifted from Red Hook to the harbor. The name Northport first appears in town records of 1837, though there is no record of how it was selected.
The harbor took on one of its most important roles - and began to take its present-day shape - during the War of 1812, when shipyards began to appear along Bayview Avenue. By 1840 shipbuilding had become the community's first major industry.
Its most successful shipbuilder was Jesse Carll, who in 1855 set up shop at the intersection of Bayview Avenue and Main Street, site of the current village park. Carll remained the leading shipbuilder in Northport until 1890; his son Jesse continued to run the yard until 1918.
Ultimately, Northport turned out more than 200 sailing vessels by the time the industry waned in the late 1800s, when steel hulls, for which the local yards were unsuited, began to replace wood, and improved roads diminished the need for coastal trading vessels.
The late 19th Century brought ferries from New York City and an increase in visitors that filled boarding houses built earlier in the century. But it was another maritime trade, one that survives today, that came to dominate the harbor. Shellfishing developed in 1848 when oyster beds were discovered in Northport Bay. The catch was processed on docks along Bayview Avenue. By the turn of the century, oystermen had banded together to form Long Island Oyster Farms Inc., which survived until 1990.
In 1881, Edward Thompson, who had been a successful oysterman, and James Cockcroft established the Edward Thompson Law Book Co., which eventually was housed in a large brick building at the corner of Woodbine and Scudder Avenues. The Thompson firm published the country's first legal encyclopedia and its law books were shipped around the world. The company moved to Brooklyn in the 1930s, but not before its staff of lawyers had a major impact on the village's development into a modern community. In 1894, the law-book people led the drive that made Northport the first incorporated village in the Town of Huntington; they also developed its fire department, the public library - an original Andrew Carnegie library, in 1914 - and a debating society.
In 1895, the Thompson principals brought electricity to the community. They started the Northport Electric Light Co., which built a steam-powered plant where Cow Harbor Park is located now. In 1911, the Northport utility along with ones in Islip, Amityville and Sayville merged to form Long Island Lighting Co.
One industry tied to the harbor that wore out its welcome was sand mining. In the 1950s residents battled the Steers Sand and Gravel Co., which had been operating in the village since 1923, about the company's removal of the sand and gravel from the foot of Steers Avenue. The sand pit was halted just short of Ocean Avenue, and "the pit," as locals still refer to it, became a housing development.
In 1867, when the Long Island Rail Road was extended from Syosset to Northport, a station was established in the village, near where the King Kullen shopping center is now. It lasted only six years, however: In 1873 the station was moved to East Northport. An electric trolley ran from the business district to the train station from 1902 to 1924, and some of the tracks remain. A horse-drawn trolley operated in the '70s and '80s as a weekend tourist attraction.
By 1920, the waterfront, which had played such a critical role in Northport's history, had fallen into decay after a century of heavy commercial use. The village purchased land along the harbor and created Northport Memorial Park in 1932. That set the stage for the Northport that visitors see today. Where to Find More: Village historian Barbara Johnson at the Northport-East Northport Public Library, and the Northport Historical Society Museum.