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Hidden HOME Town: Historic Port Washington

11/09/2021
Sands Point Castle Postcard

Courtesy Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society

First flights, famous homes, classic books and one of the most beloved holiday movies of all time. It’s all here as we take a stroll through historic and hidden sides of Port Washington.

A cow pasture utilized by the town’s founding families after they acquired it from the Matinecock Indians inspired its original name: Cow Neck.

The hamlet of Port Washington was settled in the 1660s, and was eventually named in honor of George Washington in 1790, following an April 24 visit to Roslyn as he was ending the first year of his presidency with a five-day tour of Long Island.

Despite the watery moniker, Port Washington made a name for itself from the earth in the 1870s—although its proximity to the water and access to New York City certainly played a major roll. As the largest major sand-mining center in the East, it sent roughly 140 million cubic yards of sand to create concrete that helped build the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and other Manhattan landmarks. The sand mines are now the Harbor Links golf course.

Port Washington made a thwarted attempt to incorporate itself as a city in 1930. Today a quartet of incorporated villages—Baxter Estates, Manorhaven, Port Washington North and Sands Point—call Port Washington home, along with a portion of the village of Flower Hill.

As Jay Gatsby gazes across the water from his “West Egg” mansion to that eternally blinking green light of Daisy Buchanan’s dock and all it represents, he is actually looking over the bay from Kings Point and toward Sands Point, the fictional “East Egg” of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby. Beacon Towers, which was constructed for Alva Vanderbilt Belmont and stood in Sands Point until 1945, is said to have been an inspiration for Gatsby’s lavish home.

The National Register of Historic Places lists Port Washington’s Thomas Dodge Homestead, Execution Rocks Light, Gould-Guggenheim Estate, William Landsberg House, Main Street School, Monfort Cemetery, Sands-Willets Homestead, Sands Family Cemetery and the John Philip Sousa House.

Pan American Airlines and it’s “flying boats” made Port Washington the birthplace of commercial aviation when the Pan Am Dixie Clipper took off from the waters (yes, waters) of Manhasset Bay on June 28, 1939 for the first trans-Atlantic passenger flight.

Port Washington has presidential ties beyond its namesake. The Port Washington Brass Band marched in the inaugural parade for Theodore Roosevelt in Washington, D.C. in 1905. Legend has it that the native New Yorker yelled out “That’s my band!” and left the reviewing stand to shake their hands.

Spoiler Alert (of sorts): At the heart of the classic 1947 holiday film Miracle on 34th Street is eight-year-old Suzie Walker’s wish for a house, a place she and her mother can call home. Suzie doesn’t believe in Santa, but the charming house at 24 Derby Road in Port Washington got the little girl, and audiences everywhere, “believing in something when common sense tells you not to.”

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