Port Jefferson (informally known as Port Jeff) is an incorporated village in the Town of Brookhaven in Suffolk County, New York on the North Shore of Long Island. Officially known as the Incorporated Village of Port Jefferson, the population was 7,750 as of the 2010 United States Census.
Port Jefferson was first settled in the 17th century and remained a rural community until its development as an active shipbuilding center in the mid-19th century. The village has since transitioned to a tourist-based economy. The port remains active as terminus of the Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Ferry, one of two commercial ferry lines between Long Island and Connecticut, and is supplemented by the terminus of the Long Island Railroad's Port Jefferson Branch. It is also the center of the Greater Port Jefferson region of northwestern Brookhaven, serving as the cultural, commercial and transportation hub of the neighboring Port Jefferson Station, Belle Terre, Mount Sinai, Miller Place, and the Setaukets.
Colonial and precolonial history
The original settlers of the Town of Brookhaven, based in the neighboring hamlet of Setauket, bought a tract of land from the Setalcott Indians in 1655. The deed included the area of contemporary Port Jefferson along with all other lands along the North Shore from the Nissequogue River eastward to Mount Misery Point.
Port Jefferson's original name was Sowasset, a Native American term for either "place of small pines" or "where water opens.
The first known home within the present village boundaries was erected in the early 1660s by Captain John Scott, an important leader in Long Island's early history. This house, named Egerton, was a grand abode on the western end of Mount Sinai Harbor at Mount Misery Neck. The first settler in Port Jefferson's current downtown was an Irish Protestant shoemaker from Queens named John Roe, who built his still-standing home in 1682. It remained a small community of five homes through the 18th century, and was renamed to "Drowned Meadow" in 1682.
Local lore has it that the pirate Captain Kidd rendezvoused in the harbor on his way to bury treasure at Gardiner's Island. During the Revolutionary War,and that John Paul Jones had a ship fitted here. However, there is no factual support for these assertions, and the historical works quoted do not present them as definitive facts. John Paul Jones' career in particular is well documented, and there are no accounts of him actually visiting the village which was under British control during the entire time he served as a commanding officer.
Development as a shipbuilding village
In 1797, when the town had but five houses, its first shipyard was built. By 1825, several shipbuilding firms existed, bringing in new residents and commerce.
During the War of 1812, British interference on the Long Island Sound upset local shipping routes. On one occasion, two British warships, the frigate H.M.S. Pomone and brig H.M.S. Despatch sent their boats into the harbor under cover of darkness and captured seven sloops. To protect local interests, a small fortress was set up on the west side of Port Jefferson Harbor.
It wasn't until 1836 that the local leadership truly initiated the community's transition from a swampish hamlet to a bustling port town. Twenty-two acres of the harborfront, which flooded with the tides, were brought to a stable elevation with the construction of a causeway. Concurrently, the village was rechristened from "Drowned Meadow" to "Port Jefferson" The name choice was in honor of Thomas Jefferson, who provided significant funds for this project.
Numerous shipyards developed along Port Jefferson's harbor and the village's shipbuilding industry became the largest in Suffolk County. A common misconception is the belief that the village was as a major whaling port. This is not supported by Government documents used to compile the two definitive references on the American Whale fishery. These two works list every vessel and every voyage undertaken by American whaling vessels from colonial days until the 1920s, none of which began or ended at Port Jefferson. However two whaling vessels were built for New Bedford at Port Jefferson in 1877 (ship Horatio and bark Fleetwing), and a Port Jefferson built schooner (La Ninfa) was later converted into a whaling vessel at San Francisco. Port Jefferson's main role as a port in the 19th Century was to build and support vessels engaged in the coastal freighting trades. Many of Port Jefferson's remaining homes from this period were owned by shipbuilders and captains. This includes the Mather House Museum, a mid-19th century home once owned by the Mather shipbuilding family that now serves as the center of a museum complex and headquarters for The Historical Society of Greater Port Jefferson.
With the 1923 sale of the Bayles Shipyard to the Standard Oil Company and demolition of all but two of its structures, Port Jefferson's shipbuilding industry came to a close. This resulted in an economic downturn and the closing of many of the grand hotels in Hotel Square as tourism declined along with the industry. Port Jefferson Harbor was repurposed for the oil transportation and gravel industries and, since the 1940s, as the site of a Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) coal-fired power plant. The harbor also had activity as a rum-running center during the Prohibition era. It would not be until well into the 20th century that Port Jefferson rehabilitated its economy with tourism as its primary focus.
The village of Port Jefferson was incorporated in 1963. The revitalization of Lower Port Jefferson soon followed as local tourism brought increased revenues and the village adjusted itself to its new economic role. One such transformation was the 1976 redevelopment of the defunct Mather & Jones Shipyard into a shop-lined promenade known as Chandler Square.
A result of the transition is new public access to much of the waterfront, as several industrial lots had previously stood in the way. Danfords Hotel and Marina was one major waterfront project, which integrated several new and historical structures into a luxury hotel. Danfords includes a commercial marina and walkable pier, marking an aspect of the harbor's transformation from industrial to recreational use.
Harborfront Park, a project completed in 2004, similarly transitioned the site of a shipyard turned Mobil Oil terminal into a public park with picnic grounds, a seasonal ice skating rink and a promenade. Concurrent to the park's construction was the rebuilding of a former shipyard warehouse into the Port Jefferson Village Center, a new public space for events and recreation.
Since the early 1990s, a section of Upper Port Jefferson developed into a Latin American immigrant neighborhood with residents and business-owners from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and El Salvador.
A number of historic buildings were included in the Port Jefferson Village Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. Separately listed are the Bayles Shipyard and First National Bank of Port Jefferson building.