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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 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.
Cold Spring Harbor’s diverse sights serve as its natural and manmade imprints.
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory:
Founded as far back as 1890 when the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences established a field station on Cold Spring Harbor’s western shore so that students could study nature instead of books, the laboratory offered it first course in biology and has since shaped contemporary biomedical research and education with programs in cancer, neuroscience, and plant and quantitative biology. It spawned eight Nobel Prize winners.
“(Its) education programs introduce students to the newest ideas, discoveries, and technologies in biology and the life sciences, and allow them to work alongside some of the most innovative scientists in the world in an open, collaborative environment,” according to its website. “We offer programs for children, teachers, college, high school, and graduate students, as well as established scientists.”
For the tourist or day-tripper, 90-minute campus tours are scheduled.
Cold Spring Harbor Fish Hatchery and Aquarium:
Founded in 1883 by the State of New York and now a nationally recognized historic landmark, the Cold Spring Harbor Fish Hatchery and Aquarium took up initial residence in two leased woolen factory buildings at the head of the harbor.
“The fish hatchery was an immediate success,” according to Hughes (op. cit. p. 32). “Its first superintendent, Frederic Mather, introduced brown trout from Germany. Soon, thousands of pounds of fish were being grown and released into local rivers and lakes.”
In 1982, it reinvented itself as a nonprofit environmental education center, aquarium, and working trout hatchery dedicated to increasing the awareness and understanding of the state’s freshwater ecosystems. It contains its largest collection of aquatic reptiles, fish, and amphibians.
Several exhibits enable the visitor to gain greater understanding.
The Fairchild Exhibit Building, for instance, serves as the facility’s entrance, gift shop, and aquarium. In the latter guise, it displays blue spotted sunfish, bowfin, black bullhead, and crayfish, and, in its larger turtle tanks, spotted, bay, snapping, spiny softshell, wood, and northern diamondback types. Its “New York Amphibia” exhibit, featuring frogs and salamanders, is the largest living collection of native amphibians in the northeast.
Outside are trout, warm water, and turtle ponds covered with nets to protect them from hungry heron and osprey attacks.
“The hatchery and aquarium’s turtles and warm water fish are kept in water that originates in St. John’s Pond, located south of the hatchery and east of St. John’s Church,” according to the facility. “This water flow is raw lake water; no processing or filtration is used. The temperature of the water ranges from 34 degrees in the winter to over 80 degrees in the summer. The warm water fish thrive in water which reaches such temperatures.”
Two round, self-cleaning ponds hold brook and rainbow trout that ranges between 1.5 and 2.5 years in age.
Visitors may either feed or altogether catch fish in the Tidal Raceway, whose water empties into Long Island Sound. Bait is available for purchase and there is a per-pound fee for any catch.
The Hatch House and rearing pools, located across from the main facility, serve as the incubation and hatching areas of brook trout eggs that are taken in early November and produce life the following month. After a four-month period, they are moved to the rearing pools themselves, which are considered the intermediate facilities between the Hatch House’s troughs and the larger, outdoor Trout Ponds.
The Walter L. Rose II Aquarium Building, the fish hatchery’s second such indoor display, houses more than 30 different species of freshwater fish native to New York State, such as smallmouth bass, yellow perch, channel catfish, brown bullhead, chain pickerel, green sunfish, and lake trout. Newly hatched turtles from the outdoor Turtle Pond are also displayed here.
Behind the building is one of the five artesian wells that supply the hatchery with fresh water.
A wooden marker behind the fish hatchery faces the upper parking lot of St. John’s Parish, location of the so-called “Bungtown School,” or the first West Side Schoolhouse at the head of Cold Spring Harbor. Built in 1790 and initially measuring 24 feet long, 14 feet wide, and 14.5 feet high, it gained additional notoriety when President George Washington, traveling from Widow Platt’s Tavern in Huntington to Oyster Bay on April 23 of that year, passed through Cold Spring Harbor and observed its construction.
According to the now-legendary story, he stopped, lent a hand in raising one of the rafters, and even left a silver dollar for the workers.
The single-room structure was functional, but hardly opulent: long, wooden benches on either side faced equally-wooden plank desks that were fastened to the wall beneath the windows. Warmth was provided by a large fireplace. Grades varied according to age, which ranged from five to 21 years.
While the curriculum consisted of reading, writing, grammar, spelling, arithmetic, and geography, and employed both slates and copy books, it also included religion. The day, in fact, began with either a prayer or a Bible verse reading after students, who themselves chopped the wood, warmed themselves at the fire.
Increased enrollment soon necessitated increased size-in this case, to 51 feet in length. Aside from education, the school became the breeding ground for those who ultimately entered the whaling industry. The stoppers used to seal the wooden whale oil barrels, or “bungs,” earned it its “Bungtown School” name.
Nevertheless, serving its purpose for more than a century, it was closed in 1884, its last class taking place on December 21 of that year.
St. John’s Episcopal Church:
The Bungtown School briefly served a secondary purpose-namely, as a location for Cold Spring Harbor’s Episcopalian services until the definitive St. John’s Episcopal Church was constructed there in 1835 after area founders had each pledged $2,000 for the project.
Fabricated by means of the post-and-beam method, with hand-hewn timbers fitted with mortise joints and pegs, it featured plastered indoor walls, cedar shingle-sheathed outer ones, and Tiffany stained glass windows. It was consecrated two years later, in April.
In 1950, it was relocated further north and 40 feet east of the landfill. Twelve years later an addition enlarged it.
St. John’s Pond and Nature Sanctuary:
A seemingly oval gem of blue tranquility surrounded by dense greenery and dotted with ducks gliding across its glass surface, St. John’s Pond and Nature Sanctuary, to the side of the church, not only reflects the sky, but almost appears to mirror the souls above it.
Created by the lower dam and surrounded by steep, farming-prohibitive terrain, it features some of Long Island’s oldest woodlands. It is the perfect setting for solitude and communing with nature.
Cold Spring Harbor Library and Environmental Center:
Propped above the town with commanding views of the harbor, the imposing, 26,500-square-foot Cold Spring Harbor Library and Environmental Center occupies five acres of Cold Spring Harbor State Park and reflects the ever-increasing size of community patrons, now representing some 8,500 local residents.
It traces its origins to 1886, when it stored its book collection in a tenement house. At the turn of the century, the Post Office served this purpose. In 1913, it moved into a brick structure and 73 years later it took up residence in the East Side School. The current rendition opened in 2006.
A carpeted Reading Room, almost resembling a study in a palatial mansion, is located on the left side after entry. Its atmosphere is further completed by its leather easy chairs, marble fireplace, and Stokely Webster’s painting, “Punta della Dogana,” hung above the mantel. A rocking chair-adorned outside terrace offers views of the harbor and its moored boats.
The oil-on-linen “Reflections II: Lloyd Harbor View” painting by Pauline Gore Emmet in the Quiet Room expands the facility’s gallery-feel, but of historic significance here is the wooden plaque that lists the 43 names of those from the two Cold Spring Harbor school districts who fought in the Civil War between 1861 and 1866.
The three-floor library’s other facilities include a Children’s Room, a Storytime Room, a Hands-On Learning Center for Crafts, a Tween area, an Environmental Center, a Local History Room, an Archives Room, and the newly-opened, teen-targeted Underground.
Cold Spring Harbor State Park:
Both part of and next door to the library is Cold Spring Harbor State Park, which, according to its own description, “is comprised of 40 acres of hilly terrain that offer scenic vistas of Cold Spring Harbor. It features a mixed hardwood forest with notable large oak specimens that measure three feet in diameter, as well as thickets of wild mountain laurel.”
Topographically steep, it requires a rigorous climb of dirt and wooden steps to reach and continues up a slope, passing giant tulip trees and mighty oaks that loom over gnarled groves of mountain shrubs before descending to the pond on the other side, offering views of horned owls and red-tailed hawks. Various songbird migrations can be seen during the spring and the fall.
As the northern trailhead of the Nassau-Suffolk Greenbelt Tail, it extends to Bethpage State Park and, eventually, to Long Island’s South Shore.
Along the Waterfront:
The Town of Huntington ramp is located across Main Street (Route 25A) from Cold Spring Harbor State Park. But a walk to it may be met with an olfactory waft of fish-scented air before the water surface and the slowly moving boats rounding the sandspit are actually viewed.
Like floating buoys, they mark the threshold to this North Shore Long Island hamlet. A small parcel of grass serves as the ideal place for a picnic here. Fishing poles protrude from those hoping for the day’s catch and the evening’s dinner.
A walk further into town reveals another harbor-eyes-view, but its tranquility is a sharp contrast to the commemorative cross-of-sorts encountered-a World Trade Center artifact dedicated to the memory of local victims lost during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and erected by the Cold Spring Harbor Fire Department. “All gave some, but some gave all,” it philosophically proclaims.
Closer to the sidewalk is another, but more ancient reminder-an historical marker advising that “Israel Ketchum of Cold Spring Harbor, while jailed for counterfeiting, revealed a plot to assassinate Washington in June of 1776.” Ill-intentions apparently always existed, regardless of how far back they occurred.
Another historical marker, on the corner at the beginning of the town’s c luster of shops and restaurants, reminds of its once-prevalent mills.
“Paper Mill, built by Richard Conklin circa 1782, produced fine linen paper–site at (the) end of Mill Dam and Bridge, northerly 250 feet,” it advises.
While the mill itself no longer exists, much of the town’s architectural heritage has been preserved.
“Cold Spring (its original name) was, over 200 years ago, much as it is today,” according to the Fall 2019 edition of the CSHFHM Newsletter. “The same harbor, the same hills, the same valley through which Bedlam Street and Black Street ran and which today are known as Main and Spring Streets. It was a community where commerce was strong.”
Aside from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Fish Hatchery and Aquarium at the entrance to the town, there are several other important attractions here.
Cold Spring Harbor Fire House Museum:
Like the public library, the town’s fire house had several locations before it occupied the present one, and the museum building that preserves and interprets its history survived more than a century before it could do so.
Its first location, in the Harness Store, but known as the Teal Building, was chosen on April 11, 1896 by the Cold Spring Harbor taxpayers, and its Hook and Ladder Company #1 served a one-mile fire district. Moving to a new, larger fire house constructed in 1906, it became a co-resident with the Phenix Engine Company, which itself had protected the community since 1852.
In 2007, local citizens saved the original Teal Building from demolition, at which time it was acquired, relocated, restored, and preserved, and, as the front portion of the current museum, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“We invite you to step into the past,” its brochure states. “Visit our nationally registered firehouse. See and feel the texture of the wainscoted walls and ceilings. Delight in the tiny sounds of the museum’s century-old nickelodeon. Let your imagination take you back to a time when neighbors stood side-by-side in this small whaling port and fought the ravages of fire.”
The museum’s equipment includes a Phenix hand tub, a Ford Model TT chemical truck, and a 1939 American La France Engine. Other artifacts and displays encompass a Pompier ladder, signal lights, balls, copper and brass extinguishers, fire grenades, leather buckets, and fire gear.
The cupola that adorned the fire house as far back as 1930 is located outside, behind the museum. Discovered in pieces after the District’s Board of Commissionaires voted to have it replaced it with an aluminum one, it was painstakingly restored to its present condition.
Methodist Episcopal Church and Preservation Long Island:
Across Main Street and not far from the Cold Spring Harbor Fire House Museum is the Methodist Episcopal Church, another of the town’s buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Constructed in 1842 by Israel Valentine, a local craftsman, during the whaling era on a site acquired from Judge Richard M. Conklin, who himself was one of the Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Company’s partners, it was subjected to various architectural modifications, particularly to its front façade and steeple configuration, throughout the years.
At the time, the town’s Main Street, reflecting tis pre-motorized days, was a path only wide enough for a horse-drawn carriage to occupy and it passed right outside the church’s front door.
After serving the congregation for 149 years, the building was closed and acquired by Preservation Long Island in 1996 for use as an upper-level exhibition gallery and a lower administration office.
Founded in 1948 as the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, but amending its name in 2017, it states its mission is “to work with Long Islanders to protect, preserve, and celebrate our region’s cultural heritage through advocacy, education, and the stewardship of historic sites and collections.”
With more than 8,000 objects, it possesses one of the most significant regional assemblages of material culture in New York State. Its exhibition gallery has showcased four centuries of fine and decorative arts, architecture, and historical documents. Some of its past exhibits have centered around landmarks, maps, photography, and antiques.
The Whaling Museum and Education Center:
Of Cold Spring Harbor’s many attractions, the Whaling Museum and Education Center ranks as one of its more significant ones. This is aptly reflected in its very mission of “engaging the community in exploring the diversity of our whaling heritage and its impacts to enrich and inform our lives.”
It totes itself as “the only museum open year-round which explores the whaling history of Long Island.”
‘Long Island boosts a particularly vibrant whaling heritage,” according to its website. “Historically, whaling was one of Long Island’s most important commercial industries, significantly shaping the economic development and social foundation of the region, as well as contributing to American’s emergence as an international power in the 19th century. One of the three whaling ports on Long Island (along with Sag Harbor and Greenport), Cold Spring Harbor… offers a microcosmic view of the quintessential 19th-century American whaling town.”
Cornerstone of the museum is New York State’s only fully-equipped, 19th-century whaleboat. Constructed of white oak and featuring canvas sails and American hemp ropes, the 1,000-pound vessel is 28 feet long and six feet wide. Typically crewed by a half-dozen, it was provisioned with18 to 22 oars, and was last used by the Daisy, a New Bedford whaling brig, during one of the final American whaling voyages from the Caribbean to South George Island in the Atlantic between 1912 and 1913. The more than 143 whaling ships that made some one thousand voyages from Cold Spring Harbor, Sag Harbor, and Greenport during the era were each equipped with between three and five such boats that were only lowered to the water after a whale sighting.
“… (The full-sized) ship had three masts, carried four or five small boats, and had the largest crew,” according to the “Golden Age of Whaling” article in the Amityville Record (July 13, 2021). “There were six men per small boat, and ship keepers (steward, cook, cooper, blacksmith, or carpenter) stayed aboard the vessel when the small boats were chasing whales. The ship was built to travel the longest distance and could stay at sea for three to four years.”
Crew occupied their time during long stretches by etching images into whalebones.
The last Long Island-based whaling ship sailed in 1871, but never returned.
Other museum exhibits include a ship model of the Charles W. Morgan, the skull of an orca whale, a diorama depicting Cold Spring Harbor during the 1850s, maritime art, and one of the northeast’s most significant scrimshaw collections. The era is brought to life with re-creations, such as “James General Store,” “Chores on Deck,” and “Life Below Deck.” Other displays include “Waterproofing a Whaleship,” “Whale Oil Barrels,” and “Cooking with Whale Oil in a Trypot.” Video monitor films enhance the experience, with documentaries like “The 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan.”
The museum’s 6,000 object and archival holdings preserve Cold Spring Harbor’s maritime history and its 2,800-strong library collection consists of primary and secondary volumes and manuscripts from the town’s whaling fleet, ship logs, journals, records of Long Island coastal trade, and documents from the Cold Spring Harbor Custom House.
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s DNA Learning Center:
The DNA Learning Center, the educational arm of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, is the town’s last major attraction, but is considered the world’s first biotechnical museum.
“Since the DNA Learning Center was established in 1988,” according to its website, “we’ve been advancing genetics education for students and families. We deliver biotechnology instruction through laboratory field trips for students in New York and beyond. More than 700,000 middle and high school students have experienced our hands-on approach to science instruction over the last 30 years. We offer in-person field trips and summer camps on Long Island and in New York City.”
While shopping may not carry historical connections, Cold Spring Harbor’s very structures prove to be preserved pockets of its past.
“… Many of our shops and businesses are located in buildings that once served as the homes of ship captains,” the Fall 2019 edition of the CSHFHM Newsletter explains. “Our beautiful harbor now welcomes visitors who arrive by yacht and serves recreational boaters, baymen, and fishermen.”
Antiques, art, souvenirs, trinkets, and candles are all sold in shops that line Main Street, which almost exudes a New England atmosphere.
Country Club Studio, for instance, bills itself as offering “gifts with a Tiffany touch.” A waft of scents and fragrances meets the visitor as he enters the Heritage and Candle Home. And Kellogg’s Dolls’ Houses displays and sells meticulously-assembled, museum-quality doll houses made from 3/8ths-of-an-inch birch plywood.
Cold Spring Harbor dining depends upon the meal and the monetary means. The Gourmet Whaler, for example, offers lighter, lunch fare, such as tacos, wraps, burgers, sandwiches, salads, and quesadillas. Sweetie Pies on Main, serving “fine coffee and incredible edibles,” offers croissants, mini-pizzas, bagels, quiches, and salads, along with sweet-side satisfactions like muffins, cookies, scones, and pastries with cappuccinos.
Two restaurants offer more elegant selections.
Grasso’s, the first, was established in 1994 and takes the diner “on a journey from a quaint 1850 town to a hip, New York-style restaurant and jazz club serving New American cuisine,” according to its self-description.
Its menu includes appetizers of grilled hearts of artichoke and Prince Edward Island mussels; Gail’s grilled peach and classic Caesar salads; grilled Atlantic salmon, chicken parmesan, and Long Island duck entrees; and tartufo, gelato, tiramisu, and triple chocolate mousse cake desserts.
Harbor Mist, billed as “Cold Spring Harbor’s finest steak, Italian, and seafood restaurant,” is the second local upscale eatery. Its menu features items such as clams on the half shell, mozzarella caprese, Mediterranean salad, sesame seed encrusted yellow fin tuna, pork chops Michelle, filet mignon, and rack of lamb. Both restaurants have extensive wine lists.
Although it is compact, a day in Cold Spring Harbor is naturally, historically, and culinarily rewarding.
CSHFHM News: The Newsletter of the Cold Spring Harbor Fire House Museum, Winter 2015.
CSHFHM News: The Newsletter of the Cold Spring Harbor Fire House Museum, Fall 2019.
Cold Spring Harbor Fish Hatchery and Aquarium website.
Cold Spring Harbor Fire House Museum website.
Cold Spring Harbor Library and Environmental Center Newsletter, July-August 2021.
“Golden Age of Whaling.” Amityville Record. July 13, 2021.
Hughes, Robert C. Images of America: Cold Spring Harbor. Charleston, South Carolina: Acadia Publishing, 2014.
Preservation Long Island Biennial Report: 2019-2020. Cold Spring Harbor, New York.
Preservation Long Island Notes Newsletter. Cold Spring Harbor, New York: Fall 2020.
The Whaling Museum and Education Center website.
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