Early Years In Port Jefferson

Footnotes to Long Island History

Early Years in Port Jefferson

Thomas R. Bayles



Port Jefferson was called Drowned Meadow years ago, and the Indian name for the locality was Sonasset. The neck of land lying between the west side of the harbor and Setauket was called by the Indians, Poquott. The site of this village remained almost unnoticed for a century after the settlement of Setauket, and in 1805 there were only five houses in Port Jefferson, but later on the village grew rapidly, and in 1880 there were 2,000 people living here. A steam ferry called the "Brookhaven" was placed in operation in 1872 between this village and Bridgeport, and the railroad was extended to Port Jefferson in 1872, but telegraph connection to the outside world was not established until 1880.
Ship building was the principal industry to which this village owed its prosperity, and the pioneer in this industry was Capt. John Wilsie, she began to build vessels here as early as 1797. He purchased of Judge Strong a piece of land in the northeast part of the village and built ships on the site of where ship yard of James M. Bayles & Son was later located. In the early 1800s Richard Mather engaged with Wilsie in the business, and in later years his son John R. Mather continued the business.
About 1836 the ship building business boomed and brought prosperity to the village and through the enterprise of Capt. William L. Jones, who ventured more capital and energy Port Jefferson than any other man. He purchased a tract of land from about the Presbyterian church north to the harbor and in 1837 received a grant from the town to build a dock into the harbor from the shore of his property. He built a public highway 18 feet wide over the salt meadow to his dock, which was stoned up to be above ordinary high tides. This was the busy street that in later years ran from the hotel square to the shore of the harbor.
During the war of 1812 the shipping of this little port was annoyed by the British cruisers that sailed up and down the Sound, and a small fort was built on the west side of the harbor near the Sound and a single thirty two pound gun was mounted. One time two English frigates the "Indemnity" and the "Parmoon" made a raid of the harbor at night and captured seven sloops. One of them grounded on the harbor's mouth and was set on fire and burned to the water's edge. The others were afterward ransomed by their owners.
The name Port Jefferson was given to the village in 1838 and at that time the ship building industry was more important here than any other village in Suffolk County. For many years the shore of the harbor was lined with docks, railways and shipyards.
A steam flour mill was established here in 1858 and it was enlarged in 1837 and its capacity for the manufacture of flour was increased. It was destroyed by fire in 1877 and the following year the Port Jefferson Milling Co. was incorporated and a new building erected, which was forty feet square and four stories high. The mill contained four runs of stone and two sets of rolls with a capacity of one hundred barrels of flour a day.
Port Jefferson was made a port of entry by an act of Congress in 1852 and a custom house established in 1855, with Sidney S. Norton as the first surveyor of the port. The number of vessels enrolled in 1874 was 203, which dropped to 110 in 1880.
The first church was a Methodist Episcopal, which was built in 1836 on Thompson st. This building was moved to a new site in the southern part of the village in 1873. The Congregational society built a church in 1855 which was purchased by the Baptists in 1861, when their church was organized. A Presbyterian church was erected in 1854, as a branch of the old church in Setauket, adn was organized as a seperate church in 1870.
The Suffolk Lodge No. 60, F & A.M. was organized in 1797, and ceased to meet in 1827, at the time of the anti-masonic excitement. It was reorganized in 1856.
The first newspaper published in Port Jefferson was the Independent Press, which was moved here from Stony Brook in 1868, and was continued by its founder, Harvey Markham until it was suspended in 1874. The Long Island Leader was started by William A. Overton in 1873. The first issue of the Port Jefferson Times was printed by Walter R. Burling Dec. 14, 1878.
Cedar Hill Cemetery, which occupies a commanding site on one of the highest hills was formed March 30, 1859. In April, 13 acres were purchased from Hubbard Gildersleeve and the first officers were J.B. Randall, secretary; R. H. Wilson president; Abram Brown, treasuror.
Cumsewogue was an open plain of farming land lying near the railroad station.

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