Division Street: 1848 War Changed Sag Harbor Forever

Division Street cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

People have always asked me about how Division Street in Sag Harbor got its name. It’s an odd name, and in fact everything on the western side of Division Street is part of Southampton Township, while everything on the eastern side of Division Street is part of East Hampton Township.

I’ve always told people that this came about when Sag Harbor was first mapped in 1707. Both East Hampton and Southampton towns, which had been founded in the 1640s, laid claim to it. Instead of fighting about it, however, the two Mayors instead decided to have a walking race. Each Mayor would go to the farthest reaches of their respective towns—in East Hampton to the Montauk Lighthouse and Southampton to the border at Remsenburg—and commence walking or running toward Sag Harbor. When they met in Sag Harbor, the walk would end. A line would be drawn north to south becoming, at first, Division Street and then Town Line Road to the ocean. West of that would be Southampton Town. East of the line would be East Hampton Town.

According to my story, the Mayors met and shook hands just 300 feet to the east of Long Wharf. That is why Long Wharf, which would have been the obvious joining point, is in Southampton Town and not half in one town and half the other. And that is why the Mayor of East Hampton, who lost, got the nickname “Old Baggy Pants,” because he was too slow.

Now, this story is not the true story—I made it up. It is fake news. But today, because of Google, we know the true story. It took me just 12 seconds to locate what really happened. Here it is.

The two Mayors actually met, and happily shook hands, right in the center of Long Wharf in 1708, one year after the founding of Sag Harbor. As a result, the name of Main Street, which goes down to the tip of Long Wharf, was officially changed to Division Street. It remained that for 130 years. Then, the boundary was moved, to the disadvantage of East Hampton. And Division Street was moved to where it is now. It’s quite a story.

During those 130 years, Sag Harbor residents lived happily with the knowledge that the village was evenly divided. Every four years, a new mayor was elected for Sag Harbor. As it happened, every mayor elected was from the more populous and prosperous East Hampton side. It didn’t seem to matter. Sag Harbor was flourishing. It was a port of entry into the United States. Prosperous Sag Harborites got rich through manufacturing, finance and shipping from that East Hampton side. They soon outpaced those living on the Southampton side, which fell behind while farming and fishing.

Around 1810, however, the whaling industry began to flourish in Sag Harbor. Whale oil was needed around the country for fuel and lighting. As a result, whaleboats left Sag Harbor to go around the world and return full of rendered whale oil. As a result, a whole new kind of seafaring community took hold, all of which was on the Southampton side where land was cheaper. By 1835, Sag Harbor downtown was taken over by the whaling industry. There were bars and taverns and whorehouses. Drunken sailors, many of them taken against their will as mates on the whaling ships, arrived from foreign lands such as Fiji, India, Borneo, Africa and China. They’d sleep in the gutters and speak as many as 14 foreign languages and otherwise behave badly. The smell of sweat, alcohol, unwashed bodies and whale blubber permeated the area, and was especially noticeable on the wealthy East Hampton side when the wind blew it that way.

At that time, the Mayor of Sag Harbor was Lincoln Abraham, a wealthy watchcase manufacturer. He abhorred the arrival of the whaling industry. He declared those employed in it an “uneducated scourge on our town,” unaware of the Bible, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He called for the “freedom of these immigrants,” particularly those who ran away to the East Hampton side seeking refuge from their masters.

On the other side, a challenger to the Mayor arose, a whaleboat captain by the name of Arlington Lee. Lee was a fiery speaker and now, with the bulk of the town populated with people from the whaling industry, he demanded that “runaway mates” be arrested and returned to their masters.

In the run-up to the election of 1838, Lee and Abraham conducted a series of debates. Abraham, offering an olive branch, agreed to bring to court any “runaways” and have them returned to the whaling captains in the west. But he also declared that these foreigners be offered future citizenship if no whaling captain came east to claim them. All the courthouses in Sag Harbor were on the East Hampton side then.

Abraham won this re-election. There were occasions when runaways would be claimed by whaleboat captains, but in court Freedom Vigilantes would break in and, with the authorities looking the other way, spirit the runaways off to Shelter Island, which was even more liberal than the good people on the East Hampton side of Sag Harbor.

When this happened, Lee dropped a bombshell. He declared that those on his side would create a new village called Whaletown. His speeches were full of hate. He espoused violence. Responding, Abraham declared the rebels blubberheads. “They do nothing. They are sub-humans who got rich on the backs of their crewmen.”

Lee then declared Abraham “an effete liberal” and drew a line moving Division Street east (to where it is today.) “Don’t cross it,” he said. Whaletown would incorporate all of Long Wharf and all of Main Street.

The first shot of this two-month-long war was fired by Whaletown when rebel soldiers attacked and took over Haven’s Beach. Rebel whaleboats then blockaded all merchant ships coming to Sag Harbor. Sag Harbor Minutemen won a skirmish at the Whalers’ Church and took that over. But the rebels counterattacked and took it back, and then climbed up Turkey Hill and stole the big cannon up there that had been used to repel the British in the War of 1812. Aimed at the courthouse on Bay Street in the east, Lee said the cannon would “reduce the courthouse to rubble,” and he meant it. And so Abraham’s men withdrew and asked for an honorable surrender, which they got by retreating to where Division Street is now.

For the next 20 years, Whaletown thrived and the Village of Sag Harbor was just the East Hampton Town part of town. The main parts—The American Hotel, the Whalers’ Church, the Long Wharf and even the former Watchcase Factory were incorporated into Whaletown. Lee was declared “Premier” and, for all intents and purposes, chaos, bribery, brutality and fear ruled there.

But that was not the end of it. As the 1840s continued, the whaling industry went into decline. Not only were whales now hard to find—they almost went extinct—but
kerosene and oil made whale blubber almost entirely unnecessary. On August 19, 1848, news of gold found in California was shouted up and down Main Street (today’s Main Street), and all the whalers pulled up anchor and sailed off for San Francisco. Thus Whaletown collapsed.

In the Village Election of 1850, those “liberal effetes” won again, and Whaletown went under.

“Thus freedom rings again in our fair city,” new Mayor Hamilton Alexander, a wealthy manufacturer, shouted from the front porch of the American Hotel. He restored the laws, gave women the vote, a path to citizenship for the whaleboat mates and full health care for all.

But he didn’t move Division Street back to Long Wharf. It was unnecessary after all. And it was a sop to those few “blubberheads” who still remained yearning for the old ways.

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