“I get more letters from young people than I do from old,” said Ernest Simon who writes a column on local history in the weekly Port Washington News. Simon, a volunteer historian in the classic mold, is alert, fast talking, tall, slim and gray – not white haired; you wouldn’t suppose he’s 83. He is a walking page or two of history, himself. His father was an early engineer on the Long Island Railroad. The family moved to Port Washington in 1902, after the railroad was extended there, as the new terminus.
The Port Washington News hired him to deliver the newspapers to the post office, Simon recalled, “in 1906.” His association with the paper has never ended. He advanced to writing sports news, sold advertising, and was for many years, the editor-in-chief before beginning his history columns in semi-retirement five years ago. In “Port Remembered,” Simon sketches the lives of old-timers and describes noteworthy events of generations ago. Characteristic of history buffs, his memory is uncommonly keen.
"When I started writing these stories I thought only the older people would appreciate them,” Simon said in his snug, slightly untidy widower’s home at the northern edge of Roslyn. “But it’s the younger people who get more of a kick out of it. One fellow wrote me a beautiful letter. He said "I’m glad to realize from your stories that we live in a town that’s got good roots. Kids come and ask me for back copies of columns. I hear from old-timers too but mostly they complain that they think I’ve spelled names wrong or mixed-up dates.”
Name a year and Simon can tell you something special that happened then in Port Washington.
Ernest Simon Photographed at the Sands-Willets House, now home to the Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society, Port Washington, New York's historical society.
Originally appeared in Newsday, 11/11/1973
1911. "That was the year some local singers put on ‘HMS Pinafore" on a barge in Manhasset Bay.”
1917. “That’s when the Home Guards were formed during World War One. We had three companies — I was in Company A — and we marched around the schoolyard with wooden guns.’’ Simon breaks off to hurry upstairs to find (which he quickly does) the original roster of the members of the companies.
Skip at random to 1927: “They widened Main Street. Had to take down a lot of big trees.”
Simon stores old books and pamphlets, clippings and boxes of photographs in three rooms of his house. He keeps the oldest bound file volumes of the Port Washington News in his basement along with piles of loose copies of fraying back issues. “Every time they move the office things get lost.’’ he said. “I want to be sure nothing happens to these. I’ve got the only remaining copy of the first issue in 1903 down in my cellar wrapped in brown paper.’’
If anyone in Port Washington has a question about the past, he goes to Ernie Simon. “One fellow wrote me that he’s lived in a house on Reid Avenue since 1920 and could I tell him who built it? Somebody brought over an old flagpole he found on his property. Digging around I was able to determine that it came off the racing yacht "Shamrock" around 1910.”
Simon relentlessly pursues old photographs besides wanting to preserve them. He needs them to illustrate his columns. “There’s one fellow in the old Dodge homestead on Mill Pond where George Washington is supposed to have had breakfast. I know he’s got some rare photographs from the old days — not of George Washington of course — but he won’t give them to me. “I’ve always been interested in history. When people want these facts they just won’t be there unless someone keeps track of them."
Published in Newsday, November 11, 1973