West Shore Road is a flat, straight, four-lane, divided highway with a 45 MPH speed limit intended to discourage commuters who would like to imagine they are in a drag race with James Dean.
Even if you resist the fantasy and stay within the speed limit, you’ll have to slow down even more not to miss the turnoff to the Sand Miners Monument Park. How many of us have passed it by day after day without even knowing it’s there?
Too bad, because this is a perfect place to pull over, get out of the car, and chill out. Our rest stop feels larger than its two-acre setting thanks to the No. 2 hole of the Harbor Links golf course on the other side.
Hard to imagine, but you are in the middle of what was once a bustling company town, the largest sandbank east of the Mississippi.
The sculpture in our featured photo is the focal point of the park and tells a dramatic story of sand mining in three acts.
In Act One, three sand miners are positioned above us, each one holding his own tool of the trade – a mallet, a shovel, or a wrench. They are not working or even resting after a hard day’s work, but look out over what they have accomplished. Looking back at them from below, they appear confident and self-assured.
In Act Two, at eye level, captured in mid-air, sand flows through a larger-than-life pair of hands. An informational panel tells us that “if you dumped all the sand that came from Port Washington on New York City, with the Empire State Building being the point at which the sand reached its peak, you would build a mountain of sand on the island of Manhattan that would stretch as far north as 59th Street and to the south of Washington Square, from river to river.”
In Act Three, the sand has been transformed into a miniature model of Manhattan. Cow Bay sand is there, in the subway tunnels, the sidewalks, and the skyscrapers that make New York what it is today. It’s a legacy to be proud of.
But their story is more complicated than that. Take a look in the tunnel that ran under the original Shore Road. The gates and the conveyer belt are artifacts from the mines. The conveyer belt brought the sand down to the barges in Hempstead Harbor.
In the early days of sand mining, the miners used wheelbarrows to transport the sand. This was hard work.
A series of graphic panels use maps, historic photographs, and succinct text to tell a more complete story of sand mining and its role in the development of Port Washington.
Easily perused, you can take in from them as much as you have time for. Here are a few that stick with me.
One map shows the boundaries of the various sand mining operations on both sides of the peninsula. If you live in a relatively flat area in Port Washington, it’s likely to be on the site of a former sand mine, and you can find the name of your own sand mine here. Aerial photographs capture the enormity of the operations.
There’s a more detailed map of the company town that surrounds you. Workers’ homes, shops, a bocce court, and a school are interspersed with cement plants, train tracks (121 miles worth!), and the sand washing building that was the last step before transfer on the conveyer belt.
Photographs capture events and feelings. In one, a giant boulder at least 20 ft high and 30 ft wide dwarfs a group of sand miners posed in front of it.
In another, an ominous group of men who were deputized to bust a strike in 1908 confront the viewer as they once did the workers, who were asking for a 25 cent a day raise. Not until 1939 were unions able to negotiate for better working conditions.
One text provides some stats that put the industry in perspective: “Early in the 20th century, sand mining became one of the largest employers on Long Island. In 1915, there were 400 workers, and later when mining was to reach its peak, there were almost 4,000 miners employed on the Port Washington peninsula.”
Names of some sand miners have been memorialized in bricks; “Antonio Carta, 1900 -1985” rang a bell for me, so I reached out to my neighbor to see if he was related. Turns out to be his grandfather who, in an oral history preserved at our library, told a story about discovering that giant boulder.
Before you get back in your car, time travel back to the present, but don’t forget where you have been, and drive carefully.
Ross Lumpkin is a trustee of the Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society, www.cowneck.org.