Modern civilization, like Long Island, is built on sand and gravel. Humans use sand more than any other mineral. Sand formed by water erosion and glacier pressure sticks together better than sand formed merely by wind erosion. Demand for beach-quality sand, Long Island-quality sand, the sweet stuff that sits between our soil and our water table, is skyrocketing. From 2011 to 2013, China used more cement than the United States used in the entire 20th century.
Silicate sand mines in the Midwest can’t keep up with the demand from gas fracking operations in the Dakotas and other states. In India and other countries, violent black market gangs are stealing huge amounts of sand from rivers and beaches. There are accusations about illegal and improper sand mining taking place out in Suffolk County.
Today, we mostly think of the sand mining operations off Hempstead Harbor and other sections of Port Washington when we think about Long Island sand. There’s even a monument there dedicated to the sandminers (pictured). While the Cow Neck peninsula for many years had the largest (and most picturesque) mining operations on Long Island, it was neither the first nor the only major contributor to construction of skyscrapers, subways and other infrastructure around New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Just after the Civil War, the island’s largest mining operations were at Northport, Cold Spring Harbor and Stony Brook, where 500 men took out grit and gravel used for furnace bottoms, paving gravel and asphalt. By the time the Hempstead Harbor mining companies switched from hand-held picks, and shovels and wheelbarrows to steam shovels and conveyor belts late in the 19th-century, the other side of the peninsula on Manhasset Bay was pock-marked with exhausted sand pits, stretching from the shore into the Plandomes.
The first real Hempstead Harbor mining fortune was made at Glenwood Landing on the Oyster Bay side by John Gallagher, who bought part of a cliff and spent 10 years digging it away with modern equipment. It touched off a “sand rush” attacking the hills above the old Great Plain and on the plain itself. Wedged between the horse farms, small truck farms, country estates and villages were mining operations. There were major sand and gravel companies operating at Garden City Park, Searingtown, Hicksville, Baldwin, Garden City, Elmont. All over.
The honeymoon was over with old salt locals, who blamed the now-massive mining enterprise and its barges for wrecking oyster beds (once Long Island’s largest industry) or who resented seeing picturesque acreage converted to moonscape. The mining operations also brought immigrants and everything they represented. When “striking Italians” launched a work stoppage at Port Washington in 1908, the Nassau County Board of Supervisors offered top wages to locals willing to protect owners’ property and “prevent rioting” as temporary deputy sheriffs (bring your own shotgun).
Every new housing colony brought excavations for sand or rainwater catch basins. The sand pits would become local swimming holes, and almost every year there would be a drowning. The “death pits” issue raged on for decades, hitting a fever pitch in 1953 after two boys drowned in Levittown and three in Elmont. Governor Dewey signed laws that required barbed wire fencing and other precautions, and authorized towns to create tougher ordinances. The inability of towns to get a handle on this basic quality of life situation was a driving force behind the landmark 1964 state constitutional amendments granting towns “home rule” powers to pass powerful local laws on their own initiative.
Michael Miller (email@example.com) has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park. The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the publisher or Anton Media Group.