Text size: increase text sizedecrease text size

Freeport

Action on the Nautical Mile

Freeport began billing itself as the ``Boating and Fishing Capital of the East'' in the 1940s, but its shoreline has been attracting visitors for hundreds of years - and not always for legal purposes.

Once Freeport attracted smugglers and rumrunners. Today visitors flock to there to fish on charter boats and eat in seafood restaurants. But everyone came after the Meroke Indians, who were attracted to the bay and streams by the abundance of food and of shells for wampum.

Edward Raynor came in 1659 from Hempstead to what was then called the Great South Woods. He cleared land and built a cabin, and the area became known as Raynor South, later Raynortown. The names stuck for nearly two centuries. In 1853, residents voted to rename the community Freeport. They adopted a variation of Free Port, the nickname used by ship captains who during colonial times landed their cargo without paying customs duties. Oystering became a thriving industry after the Civil War, though it declined at the beginning of the 20th Century because of changing salinity in the bay and because of pollution.

The Southside Railroad arrived in 1868, and within a few years the improved access resulted in a building boom led by developer John J. Randall, who arranged the dredging of Woodcleft Canal - site of the fabled Nautical Mile - and other canals. Residents voted to incorporate the village in 1892. Six years later the village set up its own electric utility, which is still saving residents money.

For a quarter-century starting in 1902, the New York and Long Island Traction Corp. ran trolleys through Freeport to Jamaica, Hempstead and Brooklyn. The trolleys went down Main Street to a ferry dock near Woodcleft Avenue, where boats traveled to Point Lookout's ocean beach. The short-haul and short-lived Freeport Railroad joined the mix in 1913, running trains down Grove Street from Sunrise Highway to the waterfront. The train was nicknamed ``the Fishermen's Delight,'' and cartoonist Fontaine Fox supposedly used it as inspiration for his famous ``Toonerville Trolley That Meets All the Trains.''

Elinor Smith, who grew up in Freeport, focused international attention on the village when fellow pilots voted her the best female pilot in America in the 1920s. Smith soloed at 15, earned her pilot's license the following year and at 17 performed the daring stunt of flying under all the East River bridges. Merrick Road was the site of an airplane factory owned by Arthur and Albert Heinrich, who in 1910 flew the first American-made, American-powered monoplane.

Freeport was a rumrunning center during Prohibition. Freeport Point Shipyard, founded by Fred and Mirto Scopinich just after World War I, built rumrunners as well as the Coast Guard boats that chased them. From 1937 until 1945 the shipyard built small boats for the U.S. and British navies. The family moved the operation to East Quogue in the late 1960s. Another renowned Freeport family still in the boat business is the Grovers, who started with a marina and dealership operated by Al Grover in 1950. The family built fishing skiffs from the 1970s until about 1990; Al Grover and his sons took one of their 26-footers from Nova Scotia to Portugal in the first outboard-powered crossing of the Atlantic in 1985.

Other prominent maritime industries were established in the village. The Columbian Bronze Corp., founded in 1901, made the propeller for Nautilus, the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, before folding in 1988.

Freeport has a number of other claims to fame. It was the home of Long Island's first 24-hour radio station: WGBB, founded in 1924. Freeport Municipal Stadium, completed in 1931, drew crowds of up to 10,000 to ``midget'' auto races from the '30s until after World War II, when stock-car racing took over. In the early '30s a semipro baseball team, the Penn Red Caps, named after Pullman Car porters, played in the stadium, and the prewar years saw the Brooklyn Football Dodgers using Freeport as their midweek training site.

Freeport's most famous resident, band leader Guy Lombardo, moved to the east shore of Woodcleft Canal in 1940. Known as Mr. Freeport, he owned the popular East Point Restaurant. Lombardo had gotten involved in hydroplane racing in 1939 and owned a succession of eight cabin cruisers and racing boats named Tempo. He was national Gold Cup champion in 1946, which allowed him to bring the hydroplane race to Jamaica Bay the next year; he dropped out because of lubrication problems with his boat.

Lombardo wasn't the first show business star to discover the village. Vaudeville actors established an artist's colony by 1910. They founded the Long Island Good Hearted Thespian Society (LIGHTS), which built a club in 1915-16 and presented shows during the summer for more than a decade. Later, actors Broderick Crawford and Susan Sullivan lived in Freeport. Other famous residents have included Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Henry Slocum, inventor of the inflatable ''Mae West'' vest-style lifejacket. Television programer Brandon Tartikoff, TV sports commentator Dick Schaap and gossip columnist Cindy Adams also grew up in Freeport.

Beginning in the 1960s, Freeport began to see a growing ethnic population that continues to transform the community.

Where to Find More: Freeport Historical Museum, open at the end of April.

Related topic galleries: Seafood and Fishing Industry, Shipbuilding, Fishing, Mae West, Long Island, Broderick Crawford, Radio Industry

Get breaking news | Most popular stories | Dining and Travel deals all via e-mail!

Our Towns

This special online section combines community profiles with historical snapshots and maps from the turn of the century. Clicking through the section reveals just how much Long Island and Queens have changed over 100 years.