Celebrate Port Jefferson History Here and Now!

port jefferson
Port Jefferson. Photo credit: MIHAI ANDRITOIU/iStock/Thinkstock

Let us explore one of our attractive villages: Port Jefferson boasts restaurants on every corner and quirky stores selling everything from sea-themed souvenirs to homemade fudge to unique clothing. Events in Port Jefferson (“Port Jeff” for short) go on throughout the year—they include the Antiques & Garden Weekend (late April), Green Fest (early June), Harvest Fest (October 26 to November 6), Dickens Festival (December 4 – 6) and more. Many of these events take place in the beautiful Village Center, where four function rooms offer a unique view of the Village and harbor. Hotels, restaurants and the ferry to Bridgeport, Connecticut are all within walking distance of the Center.

Port Jefferson’s original settlers bought the land from the Setauket Indians in the mid-17th century. The traditional name for the area, Souwassett, means “at the place of small pines,” but there is evidence to suggest that the name Souwassett, like the name Poquott (still the name of the village to the east of Port Jeff), was a corruption of “Poquossett,” meaning “where it (water) opens out or widens (i.e., drowns the land).” Settled by John Roe, an Irish shoemaker from the Queens area, Souwassett was known as Drowned Meadow after 1682. It remained a small community of five homes through the 18th century, but developed into a small ship-building center by the 19th century.

In 1836, the community’s leaders, realizing “Drowned Meadow” was a poor name for the location of shipbuilding businesses, decided to  re-christen their village Port Jefferson—naming it after President Thomas Jefferson. They chose to honor Jefferson in the village’s name because Jefferson was the primary source of funding for a project to prevent the flooding of the lower village. The town went on to become a major whaling port.

The past is celebrated in Port Jeff, as the village has held onto its historic structures—many of which remain businesses or private residences, but history buffs can get a peek inside at the Mather House Museum Complex on Prospect Street. It consists of the Home of John T. Mather, a 19th century Port Jefferson shipbuilder; the Spinney Clock Collection, which consists of 250 antique clocks; the Tool Shed Collection, a vast array of carpentry tools; Dr. R. Sherman Mills Country Shops, a recreation of a country store, a barber shop and post office; a marine barn and sail loft; and the Craft House & Museum Shop.

In 1873, P.T. Barnum, celebrated showman and circus impresario, bought a tract of land in Port Jefferson, with the intention of making Port Jefferson a home base for his circus, Barnum’s Big Top. The townspeople, in an early display of the not-in-my-backyard phenomenon, put a stop to Barnum’s plan, arguing that his ideas were too grandiose. Barnum, unable to develop his property as he desired, eventually sold his land. Barnum Avenue now runs through the area that was once his land, and one of the Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Ferry boats is named the P.T. Barnum. The house he had constructed on his property remains in private hands.

Theatre Three on Main Street is a year-round professional regional theater that was founded in 1969. For the past 30 seasons, Theatre Three has occupied the 160-year-old Athena Hall building. Each year, Theatre Three presents a main stage season of seven productions (four musicals, two plays, and A Christmas Carol.)

These sights, along with the charming marina with its expansive views of Long Island Sound, make Port Jeff one of the jewels of Long Island.

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