A Day in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island

An easterly drive on Long Island’s Route 25A reveals an opening in the foliage just over the Nassau-Suffolk County line on the left side and a splotch of water known as “Cold Spring Harbor.” That water, of both the fresh and salt types, defined it, sustained it, and became its raison d’etre.

“Water is the defining characteristic of the place now called Cold Spring Harbor,” according to Robert G. Hughes in his Images of America: Cold Spring Harbor book (Acadia Publishing, 2014, p. 7). “To the indigenous inhabitants, it was known as Wawapex, or ‘at the good little water place.’ The European settlers of the 17th century named the Window Cleaning Quincy MA area after its abundance of freshwater springs.”

Like a mirror, that water reflects its changing color and character as it does—slate gray on cloudy days, cobalt blue on clear ones, and orange and reds near its shores on autumn ones. It also reflects its history. It served as a draw and became the means to sustain the lives of those who settled there.

Only a few hundred yards beyond this view, the road arcs to the left and threads its way through the hamlet, which is very small. But so, too, are gens. This one sparkles through its harbor and exudes its history through its nature, museums, and restored buildings. It is a living example of how its purpose has evolved as a result of time, transportation, and technology. And a day spent here will demonstrate that.

Cold Spring Harbor History:

Located on Long Island’s North Shore-specifically on the western edge of what was once Huntington’s 1653 First Purchase-Cold Spring Harbor arose because of its water artery, providing the many means by which it developed over the next three centuries.

Power, the initial one, turned the mills that cut the locally grown trees, supplied the wood to construct farms, and ground the grain they grew, all made possible by the dam across from the Cold Spring River that John Adams erected in 1682. Aside from these saw and grist mills, there were also those that wove and created paper.

“Dams at the edge of large ponds and lakes generated power to run grist, saw, paper, and woolen mills where local grain, trees, and wool were transformed into food, logs, paper, barrels, and woven materials, such as broadcloths, blankets, and coverlets,” according to the CSHFHM News: The Newsletter of the Cold Spring Harbor Fire House Museum (Winter 2015).

Water also positioned Cold Spring Harbor as a delivery port, its next significant role, when an Act of Congress appointed a surveyor of customs on March 2, 1799. He was entrusted with the “power to enroll and license vessels to be employed in the coasting trade and fisheries and to enter and clear, and grant registers and other usual papers, to vessels employed in the whale fisheries.”

Devoid of any appreciable land-based infrastructure, the country relied on rivers and seas for passenger and cargo transport during this time. In the case of Cold Spring Harbor, water served as its channel for schooners to deliver rice, coffee, sugar, wood, coal, sand, and gravel to New York City and destinations beyond, specifically those along the East Coast and as far as the West Indies in the Caribbean. The integral role Cold Spring Harbor played in coastal trading is reflected by the 99 ships registered there in 1883.

And its waters became the threshold to the whaling ships that sailed even further afield.

“From 1836 to 1862, nine ships sailed from Cold Spring Harbor, all on voyages lasting up to two years,” according to Hughes (op. cit., p.8). “Wool from the local mills, barrels from Bungtown, produce and meat from local farms, and other local products were used to outfit the ships for their months-long journeys to as far away as Alaska.”

Although the discovery pf petroleum in Pennsylvania soon obviated the need for whale oil and its associated products, along with the whaling industry that hunted it, the Long Island hamlet continued its blacksmith, shipyard, and sail-making activities.

But its idyllic, water-side setting gave rise to another of its significant purposes-tourism-during the Gilded Age. Escaping summer heat and seeking leisure-oriented pursuits, they traveled by water-supported steamers from Manhattan and stayed in elegant, multiple-facility resorts, such as the Glenada, Forest Lawn, and the Laurelton for weeks at a time. Water, again, provided swimming, boating, and fishing sports.

Seafood, needless to say, was abundant in the form of oysters, fish, and clams-so much so, in fact, that the latter’s bounty was reflected by the very “Clamtown” designation of the harbor’s east side.

While the grand resorts have since disappeared, its tourist industry, primarily of the day trip type, continues in a compact town which brims with significant sights, colonial shops, and restaurants, and whose entire business district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.