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Rebuilding history: The Cold Spring Harbor seawall

photo of the seawall in front of the Jones building at CSHL
View of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory campus and the harbor seawall. Jones Laboratory, named after the three Jones brothers that built the wall, is just a few yards from the water.

Brothers John and Walter Jones founded the Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Company in 1836. The company was a major driving force in the local economy, financing 44 voyages on nine ships that came in and out of the local harbor during its operation. The rise and the fall of the daily tides, along with occasional flooding from storms, would come up on the shores of the town. John and Walter, along with their third brother Townsend Jones, recognized the need to protect the local land from the ocean waters. In 1850, they constructed a seawall on the shores of the land owned by their father, John Jones. They transported stones from a Connecticut quarry on three schooners and built the wall to block seawater from flooding what are now the grounds of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL).

black and white photo of the Jones building at CSHL after hurricane Gloria in 1985
In 1985, Hurricane Gloria swept through CSHL. The high tide and storm surge caused the seawater to overflow the seawall and surround the buildings on the lower roadway, including Jones Laboratory (on the right in the foreground) and Luke Building (in the background).

Since then, powerful storms, especially Hurricane Sandy of 2012, have weakened the protective seawall. With sea levels rising due to climate change, the historic wall is no longer tall or long enough to withstand stronger and higher storm tides. To combat this, CSHL will dismantle 925 feet of the original stone seawall, install pile-supported concrete, and increase the height and length of the new wall to be more resilient to anticipated future storms and floods. The wall will be refaced with original seawall stones to preserve its historical appearance.

photo of Jasmine Lee standing next to Jones building
In 2012 Hurricane Sandy caused an extreme storm surge on the shores of Cold Spring Harbor, surrounding Jones Laboratory with over three feet of seawater. CSHL installed a plaque indicating the flood line from Hurricane Sandy, pictured here next to Jasmine Lee, a CSHL content developer/communicator.

CSHL has been developing the restoration plans with GEI Consultants Inc., P.C. since 2019. Skanska, a Swedish-based construction and engineering group, is overseeing the project, while Triumph Construction is doing the building work. The Laboratory is working with all state and local authorities, including the New York State (NYS) Department of Parks and Recreation, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, NYS Historic Preservation Office, the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers, and the Village of Laurel Hollow. The construction work started in June 2021 and is anticipated to finish by summer 2022.

One of the project’s major considerations is its environmental impact. The harbor is home to a species of fish known as winter flounder, which lay millions of eggs in the water during the spawning season. GEI Consultants investigated whether the construction would affect the fish and their breeding patterns. When the tides are low, the shoreline of the inner harbor becomes too dry for flounder eggs to survive, so the fish lay their eggs in deeper water, away from the seawall. Therefore, the construction is not anticipated to affect the flounder population. Recognizing the minimal environmental impact, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation granted the Laboratory a permit for construction.

Rebuilding and extending the seawall represents CSHL’s commitments to historical preservation, environmental protection, and the Laboratory’s future. In a nod to local history, the new Laboratory (founded in 1890 as The Biological Laboratory) named its first building after the three Jones brothers in 1895. Careful stewardship of the Laboratory’s namesake harbor is key to its future, ensuring that Jones Laboratory and other historical buildings close to shore remain safe for the next 170 years.

black and white photo of the Jones building at CSHL circa 1895
The Jones Laboratory, 1895.

Written by: Jasmine Lee, Content Developer/Communicator | jaslee@cshl.edu | 516-367-5940

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