By Ken Buettner
When someone says “skyscrapers”, the iconic New York City skyline usually pops into the minds of most folks. For Skyscraper Day on Sept. 3, I suggest you take a different approach — this time, instead of thinking of Manhattan and looking up, I suggest that you think of Port Washington and look down.
No, there are no skyscrapers buried in the ground in Soundview, Baxter Estates or Manorhaven, or at the Harbor Links Golf Course, but a lot of the ground from those places is an integral part of the famed Manhattan skyline.
It seems that when the glaciers retreated after the last Ice Age, the sand that was left behind was a unique mix of different grain sizes that was just right to make excellent concrete.
Before Port Washington took its current name in 1857, the peninsula was known as Cow Neck and Manhasset Bay was sometimes called Cow Bay. As a result, the sand that was mined here came to be known as “Cow Bay sand.”
The quality of this local sand was so good that architects would often insist on Cow Bay Sand in the construction specifications for their projects. Some 140-million cubic yards were removed during the roughly one-hundred years of mining, which continued until 1989.
This dangerous and back-breaking work was undertaken by men who worked with shovels and wheelbarrows, loading the raw sand onto conveyors. The sand was washed and processed and loaded onto barges in Manhasset Bay or Hempstead Harbor for transport to Manhattan.
When mining was at its peak on the peninsula, the industry employed over 1,000 workers. Many of them lived in town, or in housing in the sand pits, some with their families. For a time, the Port Washington School District even maintained a small grade school to educate the families of those who lived in the small community on Hempstead Harbor.
In remembrance of those workers, the Sandminers Monument was dedicated in 2011. On “Skyscraper Day” instead of looking at the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building, both constructed with Cow Bay Sand, how about going around to West Shore Road and taking a look at the names of many of those sand miners who made the skyscrapers possible. It’s well worth the trip.