Generations of Trash at Havens Beach Is Now Treasured

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Sag Harbor Historical Society member Jean Held sorts through artifacts she found in the water at low tide on Havens Beach on Thursday, 5/16/19. Michael Heller photo

The Sag Harbor Historical Society (SHHS) opens two exhibitions on Saturday, May 25, in the Annie Cooper Boyd House, and both are largely open to interpretation.

“Sag Harbor Long Wharf Archeology & History of Havens Beach” will preview a wealth of historic artifacts collected by amateur archeologists and metal detectorists, curated by historical society board member Jean Held. All of the items — pottery and porcelain; glass, brick, and metal pieces were recovered from Havens Beach since late 2017. This exhibition will evolve and expand over the summer months.

Held notes that two professional archeologists have said, “I’ve never seen so many items from one site.” Sag Harbor historian Dorothy Zaykowski said that her favorite finds include “pieces of old English pipes and redware shards that go back to the early 1700s.”

But history has not been kind to Sag Harbor’s only public bathing beach, the source of this treasure trove has been controversial. The artifacts have largely been collected from dredge spoils deposited on the beach by the Suffolk County Department of Public Works. An estimated 10,000 cubic yards of sand and detritus was deposited on the shore in the fall of 2017. Held noted that a constant refrain among beachgoers last year was, “What happened to the beach?”

Among the most common “finds” from the dredging are square metal nails, rocks, and chunks of coal. In addition to solids, a layer of black sludge just offshore is thought to result from the disturbed coal breaking down.

The Havens Beach recreational area is a 11.4-acre watershed, rich in natural springs, which forms a bowl that feeds into the bay. The filling in of Little Creek, which ran through the grassy circle where the annual firemen’s carnival is held, in the 1930s, set the tone for further manmade changes that have contributed to high coliform bacteria counts, as reported by the Surfrider Foundation, and deteriorating seaside aesthetics.

Much of the soiled snow cleared from village streets is left on this beach to melt directly into the bay. Then, when it rains heavily, roadway run-off rich with automotive and dog waste pours into these waters. Hempstead Street, now paved, was originally named “Slough Road.” The area filtered rain water that slowly progressed to the shore. The beach is also popular among dog owners, who often let their animals run free, though dogs are officially prohibited there. Pleasure boats are often anchored off the beach.

Spurred by the Friends of Havens Beach, the Ninevah Beach Property Owners Association, and the Azurest Homeowners Association, the Harbor Committee had the dredge spoils sifted last June, which removed most of the larger solids.

Held reports that her band of “finders” are locating “fewer and smaller” articles at low tide these days. Some of the items collected to date include five pieces of big, salt glaze jugs that were found separately. Such jugs were made in New York City in the late 1700s to early 1800s, by a free black man named Thomas Commeraw. The jug shards are identifiable by their distinctive shape and by a unique illustration of a swag and a tassel.

“I’ve been finding a lot of shoes, soles of shoes. I found out it was a thing people did — they went down to the wharf and threw away their old shoes,” said Held. Historical society Vice President Jack Youngs has dubbed this component of the exhibition “the lost soles.”

The concurrent exhibition, “The Plethora of Outtakes Tell Tales of Sag Harbor” offers images that did not fit in Tucker Burns Roth’s 2018 “Images of America: Sag Harbor.” All of the photographs are labeled and many are dated, the oldest goes back to about 1880. But when you see these images, many unanswered questions emerge — how did it feel to be alive that day? What was the relationship between the people in the photograph?

Both exhibitions will be on view through Columbus Day weekend. Admission to the Annie Cooper Boyd House, 174 Main Street, is by voluntary donation. For more information, visit sagharborhistorical.org or call (631) 725-5092.

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