A Brief History of Northport, Long Island

Once known as Great Cow Harbor, Northport, as it is called today, was originally settled by the Matinecock Indians in the early-1600s and was founded on the sea and its natural resources.

It was marked by the Eaton’s Neck Lighthouse, which was lit for the first time in 1799, and its first dock at Bryant’s Landing, built three years later at what is today’s harbor front.

The early- to mid-19th century saw area sand mining and brick manufacturing to facilitate the construction boom in Manhattan; shellfish harvesting; and what can be considered the golden age of shipbuilding.

Despite its small size, however, transportation in its land, sea, and air forms was integral to the area’s development. The Northport, Huntington, and Oyster Bay Steamship Company, for example, was incorporated in January of 1866 and offered scheduled passenger and cargo service to New York City.

“The first side-wheel steamer, ‘Mattano,’ was purchased for $45,000 and, after (the) Jesse Carll Shipyard made repairs, she began regular service for passengers and freight to New York City,” according to “Our Stories: The History of a Community” (Northport Historical Society, p. 8). “The vessel would lay over in Northport Harbor overnight and leave at 5:30 a.m. for Manhattan. The roundtrip fare was 75 cents. Unfortunately, this service wasn’t maintained for very long.”

Track access to the town was established on April 25, 1868 when the Long Island Railroad inaugurated service to the Northport Station on Washington Avenue, located a half-mile south of Main Street. A second terminal, in East Northport, opened five years later as part of the railroad’s line extension to Port Jefferson.

Although this latter station became the sole passenger depot in 1899, the village’s original terminal saw freight operations for another 79 years.

Commuters nevertheless needed a local method of reaching these stations. While George W. Wheeler of Fresh Pond remedied the interurban challenge with a passenger and mail stagecoach service from Main Street that necessitated a half-hour and 25 cents for the trip, the Northport Traction Company, with its electric trolleys, replaced it with a faster, more reliable method in 1902.

Operating on a single, three-mile track, which entailed 14 stops between its Woodbine Avenue terminal and the East Northport train station, it was provisioned with switch sidings so that trolleys could pass one another.

“A two-man crew of motorman and conductor outfitted in tailored two-piece uniforms and large brimmed hats greeted riders of the Northport trolley each day,” according to “Our Stories: The History of a Community” (ibid, p. 17). “The motorman also wore heavy padded rubber gloves to protect himself from the current coming through the power lever, while the conductor carried a deck of cards to help pass the time when the current failed to come.”

Nevertheless, the service served the community well for 22 years. Although the track remains imbedded in Main Street and serves an occasional tourist trolley run, feet and wheels provide conveyance down it today.

Transportation-accessed, the village had become autonomous in the autumn of 1894, when voters approved its incorporation, electing Nathaniel Ackerly, Clinton Hubbs, and Charles Sanford as trustees, with postmaster and tinsmith William Sammis as president, so that residents could more fully regulate their home affairs, create a better quality of life, and stimulate the local economy.

While the village had achieved sea and land (rail) access, it was not without an air means. Brandley Field Air Station, in support of World War I, was established on 90 acres of farmland on the northeast corner of Jericho Turnpike and Larkfield Road in East Northport. Even its farmhouse served as its headquarters.

Structures were both temporary and permanent. In the former case, tents accommodated some 700 men. In the latter, five steel hangars housed squadron aircraft, since the fledgling field became the final training station, in conjunction with Mitchel Field, located further west, for fighter pilots bound for their European assignments.

In what was once a doll factory on 10th Avenue in East Northport, a plant headed by Roy Knabenschue churned out lighter-than-air surveillance balloons for the government.

While access to the Gold Coast village of Northport sandwiched between Huntington and Smithtown is either by automobile from Route 25 or 25A or boat through the harbor, today it is a scenic, compact, history-rich destination, whose Main Street is lined with Victorian buildings, including the original 1914 Carnegie Library, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and houses the Northport Historical Society, and the John W. Engeman Theater, where live plays and performances take place in the original 1932 structure.

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