This is the second in a series of articles looking back at Greenport’s government, business community, architecture — and its people’s independent spirit over its 175 year history.
As harbors go, Greenport’s is not very large, but from 1795 to 1859 the little village by the sea was a gateway to ocean waters far across the world and became a major whaling port with 24 ships, rivaling Sag Harbor as the busiest on Long Island.
While whaling often conjures images of a bustling downtown port, Greenport’s whaling industry can trace its beginnings to a time long before the first Europeans set foot on the North Fork. The Manhassets, one of Long Island’s Native American groups, were here long before the colonists arrived and hunted whales without tall ships or years-long voyages. Using small rowboats, spears and netting, the Manhassets taught the settlers, who perfected the skills needed to provide oil for lamps and machines before petroleum replaced whale oil.
The rise of the industry marked a turning point in Greenport’s history. The success of whaling ushered in an era of prosperity for the village.
Even after whaling declined, commercial fishing continued to fl ourish. By 1881, 5,350 ships were moored in Greenport harbor. Cargo vessels, personal boats and dozens of commercial fishing boats kept the harbor full. The focus, however, shifted to processing menhaden, also known as bunker, an oily, bony fish converted into fertilizer and oil. During the first half of the 20th century, oystering was also a lucrative industry in Greenport. At one time, there were as many as 14 oyster-processing companies in the village.
With such a heavy emphasis on maritime trade, it comes as no surprise that during this time shipbuilding flourished. So did construction of commercial buildings for suppliers and outfitters and residences for ship captains and ship owners.
Greenport’s harbor was an attraction for visitors as well as fishermen. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin both toured Greenport; American poet Walt Whitman called the village home for some time and was even said to have taught one semester at Greenport High School.
Everyday folk were also drawn to the village as hotels cropped up in response to an influx of tourists. Boarding houses also were a staple in the village. It wasn’t uncommon for businesses to house and feed their workers in multi-story homes, many of which still stand in the historic district.
Residents worked hard, but played hard, too. Eateries like Claudio’s and Flavors Ice Cream, on Front Street, catered to the village’s middle class and tourists. Manuel Claudio opened his saloon near the Main Street Wharf and later moved to the present location and added the restaurant and a hotel. Claudio’s is said to be the oldest family-owned restaurant in the nation. The village was also home to an opera house, a theater and three bowling alleys.
Bowling was a particularly popular pastime. Fishermen formed leagues and enjoyed friendly competition. Schiavoni’s Bowling Ally was just west of Mr. Robert’s at the corner of Third Street. A second bowling alley was located on Front Street where Aldo’s coffee shop is now. Later, in the ’60s, a third bowling alley called King’s (also called Falcaro’s) was located on Moores Lane.
The financial success spawned by the maritime industry served as a catalyst for the village’s independence. In 1898, Greenport became the first municipality in Suffolk County to own a light and power plant. The village purchased the property, along with the Greenport Water Company, for $70,000. The Moores Lane facility, which remains in operation today, is the oldest municipal utility on Long Island.
During Prohibition, between 1920 and 1934, bootlegging also became a profitable endeavor. Greenport became a stop on the illegal booze run from the Caribbean to New York City. Shipyards and docking facilities became known as “Rum Row” and served as a key component of the illegal trade. In 1924 bootlegging was a $40 million industry in the United States, according to the Department of Commerce.
While there was a lot of money to be made during that time, it came at a high cost. Murders and shoot-outs related to bootlegging were rampant in Greenport, according to village historian Carlos DeJesus. Infamous crime boss Frank Costello headed up the operation in New York.
Local businesses got in on the action as well, and Claudio’s was among the most notable speakeasies. The iconic eatery was a fi ne, family-friendly French restaurant downstairs. But upstairs was where locals sought a different type of pleasure and illegal spirits flowed freely. Under cover of night, bootleggers ran smuggling operations and Claudio’s, which sat on stilts over the water, was a popular and convenient drop-off location. A trap door still exists behind the bar.
Long after the days of sail, ship building was going strong in Green-port. During World War II, Brigham’s Shipyard, now the site of Greenport Yacht & Shipbuilding, built PT boats and landing craft for the Navy. The village also turned out minesweepers for the war effort.
After World War II, the tide turned on Greenport’s once booming oystering and menhaden industries. A major storm, overfishing and biological factors are believed to have caused a decline in the local fish population, leading many companies to declare bankruptcy. Jobs became increasingly difficult to find and many left the village for the prospect of life in the suburbs and employment in New York City.
Social changes were also beginning to take place. The introduction of cars and shopping malls left Greenport struggling to find its identity.
“Life changed, the world changed,” said village historian Gail Horton.
As the fishing industry began to shrink, the village turned its attention to tourism. Restaurants like Mitchell’s were popular attractions. Mitchell’s, now the site of Mitchell Park on Front Street, was the place to be seen and featured a lounge and a Tiffany glass canopy. It was also a regular meeting spot for local civic groups like the Greenport Rotary before it burned down in the late 1970s.
Today, Mitchell Park is considered the jewel of the village.
In 2011, Forbes magazine declared Greenport “One of America’s Prettiest Towns.”
In the past two decades the village has welcomed dozens of new businesses that have breathed new life into to the community. Front and Main streets offer clothing, antique and jewelry shops that appeal to both tourists and locals.