The convergence of New York City’s growth after the Civil War and the proximity of Port Washington’s sandbanks, the largest east of the Mississippi, led to the sand mining industry, which moved 140-million cubic yards to build the city’s skyscrapers, bridges and highways. The arrival of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century further facilitated those operations by supplying workers to mine the sand.
These days, when driving along verdant West Shore Road from Beacon Hill south towards Roslyn, it is hard to visualize a landscape of sandy cliffs, barren acres and massive equipment. It was not a pretty sight. For over 100 years, large sand mining operations flourished and easy access to water transport to the city enhanced their growth. The sand was not the fine sand of south shore beaches but was coarse with diverse grain sizes, which, when packed together, made excellent concrete. Developers specified Cow Bay Sand in their building contracts because of these characteristics. It was used in the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Queensborough Bridge, the FDR Drive and the West Side Highway as well as countless other buildings, streets and sidewalks. The sandy vistas were also used for more artistic applications such as backdrops for old movies like The Perils of Pauline.
In the early days, workers moved sand with wheelbarrows, but soon mechanization leveled the land more rapidly. The work was difficult and dangerous, causing serious accidents and cave-ins. When digging into the cliffs, torrents of sand would fall, threatening to engulf the miners who ran for their lives. In 1910, wages for a 12-hour day were $1.50. Sand was moved on conveyor belts to processing centers where it was washed, crushed, screened and tunneled under the road to be loaded on barges in Hempstead Harbor. In 1908, there was a strike by workers seeking to join a union. They were unsuccessful. In 1938, workers struck again. The owner of the Colonial Sand & Gravel Company, Generoso Pope, and the strikers reached an agreement and joined the AFL. There were other companies mining in the Soundview area, Manorhaven and Bayview Colony, but the West Shore operations were the largest. At its peak, 1,000 workers were employed on our peninsula and 50 barges a day were filled with sand and gravel. The last company to mine here was Roanoke Sand & Gravel, which ceased operating in 1989.
Workers expressed pride in their work. One praised the quality of the sand as “having a life,” and another said, “We did it with passion because we knew we were helping to build New York.” Some unmarried men lived in barracks while families had small houses, a few built on stilts. They shopped nearby at Langone’s and Marino’s stores. Their children attended the Hempstead Harbor School, where first to fourth graders were taught between 1916 and
1930. People expressed a fondness for the camaraderie of the tiny community. Most were Italian and shared a language and a culture.
In 2011, the Sandminers Monument located on West Shore Road was dedicated to the workers and the industry that helped make New York great. Within the monument’s roadside park there is a statue of three workers standing on top of the opening to the only remaining tunnel. The original tunnel gate was refurbished by Carmine Meluzio, who worked as a maintenance welder when he first arrived from Italy in 1962. Edward Jonas, a well-known sculptor, designed an impressive tableau featuring a large hand from which sand is descending on a miniature Manhattan with replicas of hundreds of buildings, including our beloved Twin Towers, which were constructed with Cow Bay sand.
Information about the operations, its owners and workers is displayed on large panels within the park. Paving stones bear the names of workers. Those names are recognizable to many of us as their descendants still live in Port. A quote attributed to an early Italian immigrant tells a story in itself and truly applies to the sand miners: “First, the streets aren’t paved with gold. Second, they aren’t paved at all. And third, you’re expected to pave them.” The monument is a tribute to the miners who helped pave the streets and transform a city.
What an amazing story! I hope this is taught in school!
I played in the pits and. Build a fort on one bluffs that was left standing in the middle, you could see all of the harbor and Bar beach. That was in the fifties till 1960.
We used to shoot our fireworks up off the bluff behind the school up in Salem area. When you got there yoy passed what wad a playground area for the kids from the sand mines. Don’t know if it’s still there. Plus the houses along shore road. Colonial also had a cement mixing plant up by beacon hill road, where they would load the cement trucks. Also was a huge junkyard there as well of outdated cement trucks.
I remember these buildings as I rode my motocross bike through there in the 70s
It was quite a place in its heyday. I trucked sand out of that pit from the late seventies till the closing. Heard many stories from the older operating engineers about the operation. The sand miners monument is worth seeing explaining much of the operation and its interaction with Port Washington.
To me, this article brings back priceless memories of growing up in Roslyn in the 50’s and 60’s. I doubt there are any of us growing up in those halcyon days that don’t have memories of those times. Seeing endless barges under the conveyors in the harbor as the mining was going on on the other side of Shore Road —-New York Trap Rock and Colonial come immediately to mind——— swimming naked in Bare-Ass Lake in the warm muddy water, swimming and fishing at Bar Beach (when Jay Corn would let you fish from his pier) Yes, Jay also owned The Duck Pond and only he could fish with impunity from the concrete drain which was across from the caretakers abode. That was hallowed ground and the caretaker chased everybody else away, but could never see Jay fishing for carp there.
When we got older, Shore Road became the place where formal and informal drag races were held. So precious was that strip of asphalt that The DeJanna’s lived there and reigned supreme over the road. Others with actual experience there and intact memories will have to tell us if the characters were Pete or Charlie DeJanna that owned that red 426 Ramcharger. Perhaps they can even regale us with tales of the time someone brought a AA Fuel Dragster out there in an 18 wheeler and made a few runs.
For the politically conscious among you, you may be aware that Anthony Scaramuci’s dad was a sand miner in those pits, and I could go on endlessly about stories of Anthony’s uncle, who owned all of Port Washington that Jay Corn didn’t own, including Ghost Motorcycle on Main St.
Also in the later years, there were Port Washington hang-outs that I have no first-hand knowledge of but I heard tales of them from those a few years older than myself. The only one that comes to mind specifically is a bar called The Salem, where allegedly they had naked go-go dancers, but sadly, I left Roslyn in 1966 and never got to see any of that myself.
There was a Roslyn kid named Bobby Rodin who wrote a novel called ARTICLES OF FAITH, that was based on many factual events and real places and people from Roslyn and Port. It is available on Amazon and it was actually a good read if you love nostalgia as I do. Bobby Rodin had two legendary sisters, both of whom were goddesses. Beyond that, I will say little other than I fell in love with one of them after our 30th High School Reunion.
I do hope that some of you reading this will take the time to add your own recollections of the good old days when the sand pits were operational.
We swam in those muddy sand warm waters across from Bar Beach in the early 60s. We called it The Lagoon. It was kinda secret place that only some knew of and kinda reminded me of a trek through woods ending up near a shallow area of water that was warm. Then we hitched home to new Hyde park ! I also had mAny drag races on shore road in 1965. But in 67 the draft got me and I was off to Vietnam as a rifleman. I know Sal from Ghost and that’s a whole other story. I miss old Bar Beach but winters were too cold so I put it all in my rear view mirror !!
We took the sports cars there to learn how to recover from spin outs. Great experience to learn how to deal with ice, road flood hydroplaning and skids.
My grandfather Thomas McCann was a part of the successful 1938 unionization. He became head of the union. Some of my uncles and other family friends worked for the sandbanks and colonial.