Early Days in Port Jefferson

Footnotes to Long Island History



September 1956

Thomas R. Bayles


       Port Jefferson lies at the head of a beautiful harbor about two miles east of Setauket, and the site and surroundings present a very picturesque appearance.  The Indian name of the locality was Sonasset.  The neck of land lying on the west side of the harbor between this and Setauket harbor was called by the Indians “Poquot,” and was later known as Dyers Neck. 

The side of this village, formerly called Drowned Meadow, remained almost unnoticed for about a century after the first settlement was made at Setauket in 1655.  Around 1800 there were only five houses in the village, and for the next 15 years the average growth was only one house a year.  In those days this place was important only as a point for loading cordwood.

During the war of 1812 the shipping of this little port was considerably annoyed by the British cruisers that sailed up and down the Sound.  For the protection of the harbor a small fort was erected on Dyers Neck on the west side of the harbor, and on this was mounted a single 32 round gun.  On one occasion two English frigates, the “Indemnity” and the “Parmoon,” made a raid on the harbor at night and captured seven sloops.  One of them was grounded in the harbor’s mouth, set on fire and burned to the waters edge.

Shipbuilding was the principal industry to which this village owed its prosperity in years gone by, and the pioneer in this was Captain John Wilsie, who began to build vessels here as early as 1797.  He purchased from Judge Selah B. Strong a tract of land in the northeast corner of the present village and established a tavern in the house which was in 1882 owned and occupied by James M. Bayles.  He began to build vessels upon the site which was in later years occupied by James M. Bayles & Sons.

In August, 1809, the town granted to Mr. Wilsie the privilege of extending a wharf into the bay from his land.  In the early 1800’s Richard Mather, who married a daughter of the senior Wilsie, engaged with him in the business and afterward continued it.  His son, John R. Mather, spent his life in the shipbuilding business.

The name of Port Jefferson was adopted in 1836, and about this time a new period of progress and improvement opened, which was due in large measure to the enterprise of Captain William L. Jones.  He purchased from the Roe family a tract of land extending from about the site of the old Presbyterian Church to the bay.  On November 10, 1837, the town granted him the right to construct a dock on the shore of his property, and at the same time agreed with him to construct a causeway over the salt meadows through his land to the dock.  This was to be a public highway, stoned up high enough to be above ordinary high tides.  This was the busy street that ran from Hotel Square to the shore.  This village was the principal trading center for the north side of Brookhaven town.

A steam ferry was placed in operation between this place and Bridgeport in 1872.  The boat used was called the Brookhaven, and was 61 feet long.  The railroad was opened to Port Jefferson in the same year.

A steam flour mill was opened there in 1858 by a Mr. Many but was destroyed by fire in 1877, and a new and larger one built.  The Port Jefferson Milling Company was incorporated in 1878, and its main building was 40 feet square and four stories high, with an engine room added.

The mill contained four runs of stone and two sets of rolls, and had a capacity of 100 barrels of flour per 24 hour day.  The daily consumption of grain was 450 bushels of corn and oats.

Several newspapers have been established in this village.  The first of these was the Independent Press, which was moved here from Stony Brook in 1868.  After several enlargements it was continued as a seven column paper by its founder, Henry Markham, until August, 1874, when it was suspended.  The Long Island Star was moved here from Setauket in 1869, and then to Patchogue in 1870.  The Long Island Leader was started by William and Winfield Overton in 1873 and continued for about a year.  The first number of the Port Jefferson Times was printed there in December 4, 1877, by Walter S. Burling.  In October, 1879, it was purchased by T.B. Hawkins and L. B. Homan, the latter having been its editor from the start.  In 1881 Homan became the sole proprietor.


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