Greenport at 175: A look back at the village’s start

FLOYD MEMORIAL LIBRARY COURTESY PHOTO | Local businesses boomed on lower Main Street in downtown Greenport during the 1800s, when the port was a major hub for shipping and commerce.

It’s had several different names over several centuries, but for the last 175 years the North Fork community with the only deepwater port tied to the region’s rich maritime history has been known as Greenport.

At one square mile it’s a small community, but arguably the North Fork’s most diverse. Some there live lives of plenty; others know only poverty. Tall ships of the kind that once filled the harbor are now rare visitors and fishing no longer dominates the economy. Greenport has known hard times, but has enjoyed a relatively recent renaissance fed in no small measure by restaurants of high renown.

Greenport is home to about 2,200 people, but a destination for many thousands more. This Memorial Day weekend it will welcome the traditional start of the busy summer season, but beyond that this year the community will celebrate its status as the North Fork’s only incorporated village, a designation held since 1838.

This is the first in a series of articles looking back at Greenport’s government, business community, architecture and its people’s independent spirit.

In 1638, 13 men and their families sailed from England to the New World, eventually arriving in New Haven, Conn., where they remained until 1640.

In search of new land, the colonists, led by the Rev. John Youngs, settled in what would later become Southold Town in 1640.

The Rev. Youngs got his start as a Puritan preacher in Hingham, England. According to published reports, he envisioned Southold as a parochial community that placed biblical law over civil rule. Under his order, those who were not members of the Church of England were not eligible for citizenship.

FLOYD MEMORIAL LIBRARY COURTESY PHOTO | Parades were a big tradition during Greenport’s early years. Impromptu parades, conceived by the fire department on the spur of the moment, were not uncommon.

Farming, not fishing, was Green-port’s mainstay when colonists first put down roots there. Corn, beans and squash were grown by the Manhassets, one of the Long Island Native American tribes that were here before the settlers arrived, and those crops became the settlers’ primary source of food.

The area that comprises modern day Greenport was controlled by the reverend’s oldest son, Capt. John Youngs, in the early 1680s.

In 1687, Capt. Youngs sold the land for less than 300 pounds to William Booth, and it became known as Winter Harbor. The Booth family held the land for several generations before it was divided into smaller plots and sold to early home builders.

By 1750, Greenport had becoming a bustling port, drawing the likes of American revolutionaries George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Some Eastern Long Islanders, however, did not rebel against the crown when the Revolutionary War erupted.

“Those who stayed here felt sure the war would be short and the patriots would not win,” Elise and Frederick Corwin wrote in their 1972 book “Greenport: Yesterday and Today.”

After the Revolutionary War, the village was called Stirling and later Green Hill, a name that came from expansive marshland and a hill located near present-day Greenport Yacht and Ship Building. The hill was leveled at the turn of the century to fill in the ground that would become the village’s commercial district.

With the hill no longer in existence, residents decided on the name Green-port during a public meeting in 1831. That, they believed, was more representative of the village’s growing seaport.

By the early 1800s, trade with the West Indies had transformed the village in a booming seaside community with 700 residents, 100 dwellings and numerous businesses. It was around this time that villagers began considering incorporating Greenport. Similarly to cars today, that during that time nearly every family had a least one boat, according to published reports.

After 1810 the ports along Peconic Bay established a thriving fishing industry. “Aside from Sag Harbor, Green-port was the hub of shipping and commerce on Long Island,” village historian Carlos DeJesus said.

The Village of Greenport was incorporated by an act of the state Senate in April 1838. The act called for the election of five trustees, five assessors, one treasurer and one police constable. Rather than mayor, one trustees was designated as president of the village. The act established Greenport the only incorporated village in Southold Town.

While it’s unclear what finally motivate villagers to incorporate, local historians speculate that the it could have had something to do with the anticipated arrival of the Long Island Railroad in 1844.

“It must be more than a coincidence the village was incorporated around the same time,” said Anne Clark, who maintains the historic records at Floyd Memorial Library. Trains provided a means of smooth travel and shipping, but were resented by many farmers, who protested the rails that bisected every farm between Riverhead and the village.

Nonetheless, when the first train rolled into Greenport in June 1844 it was cause for a grand celebration.

As the book “Greenport” by Antonia Booth and Thomas Monsell reported, “People came from all over and there were many toasts with French champagne.”

When the railroad arrived so did Irish immigrants, many of them rail workers who settled in the village. Poor at first, the Irish later became a vital part of the business community, according to the writings of Ms. Booth.

In 1870 there was a boarding house in the village filled with single Irish brickmakers, many of whom went on to marry. One of those bachelors was Thomas Burns, a successful businessman who ran a grocery store and was treasurer of the village’s athletic club.

By the end of the 19th century the Irish were a well-integrated element of Greenport society, along with other immigrants such as Manuel Claudio from Portugal, who went on to open Claudio’s Restaurant.

At the turn of the 20th century, civic-minded villagers recognized the need for a hospital in the area. At that time, the nearest hospital was 80 miles west in Mineola.

Greenport’s Eastern Long Island Hospital opened its doors in 1905, becoming Suffolk County’s very first hospital.

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