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A Trip Down Memory Lane In Sag Harbor

Originally Posted: January 21, 2011

Nicole A. Flotteron

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A band concert at the bathing beach in Sag Harbor in 1890. (Sag Harbor Historical Society)

Sag Harbor - Established as a permanent settlement in the New World in 1730, the town of Sag Harbor is relatively young in comparison with its neighbors, some of which were settled nearly a century earlier. Young it may be, but short of history it is not; to this day, walking down Main Street or along Long Wharf can be as much of a lesson in history as it is a day or night out on the town for shopping and dining.

Colonel Jonathan Meigs who led the 1777 attack against the British in what some refer to as the Battle of Sag Harbor. (Courtesy Photo: New York Public Library)

The Port of Sag Harbor served as a replacement for the Northwest Harbor, which was part of East Hampton. Five miles from the Port of Sag Harbor, Northwest Harbor's port was too shallow and could not accommodate the boom in international ships that were making their way to the region to trade. For years, trade routes between the West Indies and Sag Harbor were in place, bringing fruits, sugar, rum, exotic lumbers like mahogany and cypress, and much more to the region from all over the world.

Sag Harbor played a unique role in several of the great American wars. During the American Revolutionary war, British troops set up a garrison and naval blockade to prevent the Port of Sag Harbor from sending and receiving supplies from the American army. As a result, many residents who were not loyal to the Crown fled to Connecticut, while those who stayed behind endured extreme suffering. On May 23, 1777, American raiders under the direction of Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs attacked a British garrison on what is the present day Old Burying Ground next to the Old Whalers Church. The raiders crossed from Guilford, Connecticut into Southold in 13 whaleboats. They rowed across to North Haven where they hid their boats in the woods and launched a surprise attack on the British, killing six, and taking 90 prisoners. Known as Meig's Raid, General George Washington himself commended Meig's and his men for their efforts.

On July 31, 1789, the Second Session of Congress chose Sag Harbor as the first official port of entry into the United States over New York City. Approved by President George Washington, Sag Harbor thrived with a cosmopolitan mix of people and cultures from all over the world. The first U.S. Customs house on Long Island was in Sag Harbor, as well as the first newspaper on Long Island.

A log page records whales that were taken.(Newsday via the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum)

During the War of 1812, warships of the British navy were stationed in the Long Island Sound and off of Gardiner's Island in order to prevent supplies from traveling in and out of the port. On July 11, 1813, the British attacked Sag Harbor, however the militia and infantry were prepared for such an attack and drove the British forces back.

In 1817 however, disaster struck Sag Harbor in the first of four fires that would level the town. The fire started in a hay barn, and as a result, the first volunteer fire department in New York State was born. Fire struck once again in 1845 however, with 57 stores, shops, warehouses, stables and barns destroyed.

Sag Harbor reached its heyday between 1820 and 1850 as the whaling industry thrived across Long Island and throughout New England. More than 60 whaling ships called the Port of Sag Harbor home as they braved wind and sea in search of sperm, right and bowhead whales. The streets bustled with merchants and sailors from all over the world speaking different languages and bringing different cultures to the area. Taverns and inns dotted the streets and overflowed with captains and crews telling stories of their adventures at sea.

An 1830 piece of artwork depicting blood spewing through a whales blowhole. (Newsday via the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum)

Many relics of the whaling period remain in Sag Harbor today, including the Old Whaler's Church, a Presbyterian church with a 168-foot high steeple. It was claimed to be the tallest structure on Long Island in 1843 when it opened, however the steeple collapsed during the Long Island Express - the great hurricane of 1938. The Masonic Lodge, a Greek revival building constructed in 1840 and designed by famed and influentional American architect Minard Lafever, is now home to the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum.

The steeple of the Old Whalers Church before it was toppled in 1938.

The industry began to fall apart in the early 1850's, however the discovery of petroleum in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859 sealed the fate of the Sag Harbor whaling community. Many of the whaling ships were sailed to San Francisco and later abandoned during the Gold Rush. In a final devastating blow to the whaling industry, confederate raiders crushed 33 remaining whaling ships during the Civil War. The last whaler in Sag Harbor, Myra, sailed away in 1871.

With the end of whaling came the start of a new era of business in Sag Harbor. Residents needed to change and adapt in order to continue to thrive as they did during the whaling heyday, so they turned to industry. Some of the exports coming out of Sag Harbor during its industrial period include brass, hats, watch making, sugar, cottom, flour and pottery. The Bulova Watchcase Factory was a huge business in Sag Harbor and employed hundreds of residents, however it closed its doors in 1981. Other notable industrial companies that took up residence in Sag Harbor include Agwam Aircraft Products and Gumman Aerospace.

During World War I, the E.W. Bliss Company used the harbor to test torpedoes. As a result, Long Wharf was reinforced with concrete and rail spurs. Notable inventor Thomas Alva Edison observed the testing of these torpedoes, which were shipped to and from Sag Harbor on the Long Island Rail Road. On occasion, divers have found torpedo shells on the bay floor.

Aside from a rich, diverse history, Sag Harbor has also been home to a wealth of literary geniuses, artists, actors, and other notable persons. Many credit the beautiful landscape year round as the inspiration for their works and popularized the region as an artist colony.Herman Melville mentions Sag Harbor in four chapters of the book Moby Dick. Pulitzer prize winning author John Steinbeck lived in Sag Harbor from 1955 until his death in 1968. Great American poet George Sterling was born in Sag Harbor. Famed monologist Spalding Gray spent much of his time in Sag Harbor, where he made two unsuccessful suicide attempts from the Sag Harbor- North Haven Bridge in 2002 and 2003. Pop artist Ray Johnson successfully committed suicide from the same bridge in 1995. Sculptor John Chamberlain, whose career has spanned over six decades spent many years in Sag Harbor where he kept his boat, before settling on Shelter Island.

The history of Sag Harbor is a rich and diverse one, however one thing that has not changed through the centuries, is the ability of Sag Harbor residents to adapt, change, survive and thrive.

Artists on the beach in 1962. (Hans Namuth)

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Guest (Fran Carlen Jones) from Port Saint Lucie, Florida says::
Recently I bought a 4"x4" tile with a half red and half white lighthouse with a two story building next to it. Beneath the picture it says Sag Harbor, NY. As a past 50 year resident of the area, I'm curious as to whether such a lighthouse existed.
Mar 30, 2015 6:22 pm

Guest (Lorraine Blount Peckham) from North Carolina says::
The Sleight family also played an important part of the Whaling on Long Island and all the shipping up and down the eastern seaboard.
Aug 22, 2014 12:14 pm

Guest (Cheryl McDonald) from Clearwater, FL says::
I am surprised that you do not have anything about Jacob Schellinger and his step-son James Jacob Loper who were the first to have an agreement with the Indians concerning near shore whaling on Long Island during the mid 1600's.
Jun 3, 2014 5:02 pm

Guest (Michael Hemmer) from Sag Harbor says::
Very nice article. Thank you Nicole.
Feb 3, 2011 3:17 pm


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