By James FitzGerald
Since Sag Harbor’s founding in 1707, the history of the community has been intertwined with the history of its port.
From the onset, Sag Harbor’s position on a sheltered bay made it an excellent location for settlement. The Algonquin Indians and, later, Europeans, took advantage of its strategic location. By the mid-1700s, Sag Harbor was becoming a thriving whaling hub. Its port quickly replaced Northwest Harbor as the East End’s principal shipping center. It became the first official port of entry in the United States in 1789, before New York City’s harbor supplanted it. The Customs House, built in 1765, was established to service the numerous ships entering Sag Harbor, many of which were involved in whaling.
The peak of Sag Harbor’s whaling industry came in the 1840’s, when the port was said to have more commercial vessels than even New York City. The decline of whaling began in earnest around 1847, with the California Gold Rush and the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania hastening the decline. The last whaling ship to set sail from Sag Harbor, the Myra, left the port in 1871.
Following the collapse of whaling, the fleet scattered across the globe. During the Civil War, some ships became part of the renowned stone fleet, which Union forces sank at the mouth of Charleston Harbor to create a blockade. Other remnants of Sag Harbor’s whaling fleet were used in the illegal African slave trade.
Sag Harbor was the starting point of several voyages of exploration and commerce. Mercator Cooper lead two such voyages in the 1840’s and 1850’s, which made him the first American to formally visit Tokyo Bay and the first person to land on East Antarctica. After its completion in 1869, the Sag Harbor Branch of the Long Island Rail Road also helped to salvage the local economy, running directly to the port, and connecting with steamboats.
“Waterfront activity continued after the whaling period. The railroad brought in shipping and freight, but it was a period of economic struggle,” said Andrea Meyer, a Sag Harbor Historical Society board member and educator. The Sag Harbor port and its centerpiece, Long Wharf, experienced a new era during World War I, when the E.W. Bliss Company used the bay as a torpedo testing range. From that point onward, the waters around Sag Harbor began a long transition from commercial to tourism uses.
“That industrial to recreational shift was really post-World War II,” Ms. Meyer added. A major player in the transformation was Patrick E. Malloy III, who recognized the potential of the harbor and established the Waterfront Marina and came to own extensive holdings along the village waterfront.
Today, the harbor remains a thriving port for both local recreational boaters and large ocean-going yachts that from as far away as the Mediterranean Sea.