The First West Side School House 1790-1895

  • Bungtown School Sketch

    "Bungtown School" 

    Original West Side School Bell  After enjoying a hearty lunch at Platt’s Tavern in Huntington during his 1790 tour of Long Island, President George Washington happened upon the construction of a newschoolhouse at the head of Cold Spring Harbor.  He was on his way from Huntington to Squire Young’s house in Oyster Bay. This modest building (just 24 feet long x 14 feet wide x 14.5 feet high) would serve as the community’s schoolhouse for the next century.

    As the President and his party neared the salt marsh at the head of the harbor on the afternoon of April 23, 1790, they gave a cheer for the men building the community’s first schoolhouse there. According to local legend, the President also assisted in raising one of the roof rafters and gave the workers a silver dollar for refreshments.

    Wooden Desktop from the First School HouseThe school building stood in what is now the upper parking lot for St. John’s Church and consisted of one room with a huge fireplace.  Seats were long wooden benches on either side of the room facing wooden plank desks, which were fastened to the wall directly beneath the windows. Students would gaze out the window to the harbor and carve pictures into their desktops of the sailing ships they saw out at anchor.  This early daydreaming led to many careers at sea, and the school became known as the “Nursery of Sea Captains.”  In time, as the whaling industry developed here in the 1840’s, the west side of the harbor became known as “Bungtown” because of the large number of bungs—the stoppers used to seal wooden whale oil barrels—that littered the area outside the local barrel factory.  Naturally, the school took its name from the area and became known as Bungtown School.

    Over the years, the school building was enlarged until it reached a length of 51 feet and it faced south.  Not surprisingly, a century after its construction the building showed its age.  In 1894, the State School Commissioner ordered the building closed.  The last classes were held on Friday, December 21, 1894.  Bungtown School was boarded up on May 14, 1895, and the building was later sold to a former student. The Account Book of School District No.11 dated July 3, 1899, records the sale of the “old school building” to John H. Doughty of Woodbury for $10, and the land on which the school stood was sold to Chas. H. Jones for $40  on October 1, 1899.

    Writing in the April 1959 edition of Long Island Forum, former Huntington Town Historian Roy E. Lott explained that, “by taking it apart he was able to cart it to his estate in sections on a farm wagon….  A major part of the original building was reassembled and used as a harness shop. Inside on the old wallboards may be seen the carved initials of some of the students....” Most of the original building was taken to Doughty’s estate in 1899, and the addition was left behind.

    The schoolhouse remained on the Doughty property from 1899 to at least 1959.  In 1956, Mr. Doughty’s great-granddaughter contacted Roy Lott to donate the building to the Town of Huntington.  Cold Spring Harbor Library Park was selected to be the new site for the old schoolhouse, and the Town of Huntington agreed to underwrite the $500 cost to move the building.  The Cold Spring Harbor Civic Association intended to cover the restoration cost.  Some local residents, however, objected, claiming it was a waste of taxpayer dollars and that the old schoolhouse would attract vandals to the park.  Ultimately the project was abandoned. The Doughty farm, located on the north side of Jericho Turnpike east of Woodbury Road, was sold to Harold Van Sise in 1957. The land has since been developed into a gated community, and the fate of the original schoolhouse building is unknown.

    Prior to the construction of St. John’s Church, in 1835, church services were held in the Bungtown School. In 2010, an historical plaque was placed near the school’s original site.


    Cold Spring Harbor has a splendid harbor with a fresh water supply that permitted the town to prosper during the exciting era of the whaling industry. 

    The town built her own ships, grew her own sailors and sea captains. The townspeople raised hogs, beef, corn, spun wool for clothes, and hunted whales. The ships then carried these goods to the mainland and abroad.

    Hotel resorts appeared on the shores of this popular and fashionable harbor in 1875. Excursion steamboats would bring weekend city crowds to delight at the seashore for a day. The sons and daughters of the people that worked at the resorts attended West Side School.

    Children between the ages of 5 through 21 years old attended the school. Regular attendance was a big problem. The sons and daughters of the local storekeepers, millers, and farmers also attended West Side School. They were grouped by the level that they reached in their schoolwork rather than by their age.

    On cold mornings the students would enter the school and warm their hands and feet by the woodstove before they took their seats. Boys were responsible for chopping the wood for the fire. The day began with a prayer or reading from the Bible.

    There was a 2 month summer and 2 month winter session. Most of the students’ education came from the farm, home, shop, and church.

    Schools tried to repress feelings and denied instruction in arts and crafts. An American education based upon American beliefs and traditions was taught. The students studied reading, writing, grammar, spelling, sums, and geography. Schoolwork was done on slates, penmanship in copy books, and patriotic lessons were taught. Hornbooks, The New England Primer, the Bible, Aesop and Greek classics were the backbone of the curriculum. The New England Primer contained the alphabet, easy syllables, the “Lord’s Prayer”, the “Creed”, the shorter “Catechism”, and a rhymed alphabet.

    In most schools of the time the classroom teaching can be described as rigid and strict. The students were expected to be little adults and were sent to school to learn good behavior, good character, and moral manners. They were expected to be diligent in study, obedient, and respectful citizens of the new republic.

    In the 1860’s teaching became increasingly a woman’s work. The pay was very low and male teachers were paid more. School districts realized they could save money by hiring women. To save money, the district would have teachers board with the families of their students.

    On January 8, 1850 New York State passed a law inaugurating “Free Schools.” Prior to this, the parents paid for their children to attend school.

    Miss Sarah A. Nichols taught at the school in 1858 and was given a salary of $22.50 for nine weeks. Miss Georgia D. Titus was the teacher-principal in 1876 and was paid $600 per year.

    In 1895 classes were held for one year in an old house on Harbor Road before the second school house was completed. The house belonged to W. R. T. (Walter Restored Twice) Jones, and the school paid him $84 rent for the period January 1895 through February 1896 except July and August.

    Two original artifacts, a cedar plank desk and the school bell, were saved from the Bungtown schoolhouse and currently reside at the third West Side School. You can still see the ninety-seven ships and schooners that students carved with their jackknives on this plank desk. The bell is still rung on the first day of each school year as a reminder of the many traditions at West Side School.