Huntington schools have been known to close for snow storms, ice storms, hurricanes and similar calamities, but because of a beached whale? It happened; it really happened.
October 21, 1946. It’s a long time ago, but there are still people living in the community that witnessed it firsthand.
When a 63 foot whale beached itself on Monday, October 21, 1946 in a small, sandy beach area not far from what is now the waterfront behind the Halesite Fire Department it was one of the biggest events to ever hit this town.
After thousands of students decided to go look at the whale instead of showing up at school for classes, the Huntington Superintendent Dr. Lyle L. Morris decided to throw in the towel and shut all buildings at 10 a.m.
There’s still some confusion about whether the finback whale was 62 or 63 feet in length and just what led to its coming ashore. Some believed that it came to die from old age while others concluded it was mortally injured after being struck by a ship.
The whale came ashore at 2 a.m. and its periodic loud cries and thrashing in the shallow water awakened nearby residents. Word soon spread throughout the area and eventually all around town about the giant sea creature.
Throngs headed to the harbor with one estimate putting the crowd at 8,000. It was written that as many as 2,500 students went to see the whale instead of attending school that day. The kids that did show up were unable to concentrate and teachers got very little work out of them since their attention was focused squarely on the whale. The country roads, including every side street in Halesite were jammed with cars.
Some of the spectators summoned their courage and mounted the giant visitor, walking on its back and then trying to stay upright when the whale periodically let out its deafening moans and convulsed, flapping its tail. Over the hours, the whale gradually dug itself into the sand.
Schools as distant at Oyster Bay closed for the day. The Huntington Police Department’s chief assigned 24 patrolmen to the area to deal with crowds and traffic. (There was no Suffolk Police Department at the time.)
People came by foot, car and even rowboat to view the beast. At about 1:30 p.m. the whale went into what proved to be its last convulsion and then it died. With its jaws gaping open about two feet, kids with knives raced down and cut off chunks of the whale’s skin to keep as souvenirs. The whale’s “brown back was streak with splotches of a rusty yellow,” according to The Suffolk County News.
Current Huntington School District James W. Polansky will participate in a ceremony this Saturday, June 17 at 11 a.m. during which a historical marker will be unveiled commemorating the event.
Huntington School District Heritage Museum curator Brian Hansen spearheaded to drive to install the commemorative marker. Several people who were among the crowds that saw the whale that day more than 70 years ago are also expected to attend along with town officials.
The cover of Huntington High School’s 1947 yearbook includes a drawing of a whale and images of whales appear throughout the volume. One page of the book is devoted to the story.
“The light abandoned the harbor water last, tinging it with sunset and finally leaving it limpid and shadowy around the great mammal that had come to Huntington’s shores,” states a story on page 56 of The Huntingtonian yearbook. “There it lay, stranded at Halesite – a sixty-three foot, solitary finback whale, oblivious to the stir it had caused in choosing its grave. New York Avenue was thronged with crowds running, shouting spectators and cars. People came to line the shores of the little beach. They stood there in the sun: children, delirious with holiday from school, curious onlookers, newsmen, cameramen and scientists – all part of a scene that was to appear in newspapers even on the Pacific coast. October 21 was a great event for Huntington High School. Perhaps it stirred recollection of an older, seafaring Huntington.”
In October 1946, the Huntington School District consisted of Huntington High School (now Town Hall), Main Street School (now the small of the two building that comprise Town Hall), Robert K. Toaz Junior High School (now owned by the Good News Church and formerly used by Touro Law School), Roosevelt Elementary School (demolished with a new school erected on an enlarged plot; the building is now called Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School), Woodbury Avenue Elementary School (demolished and replaced by condominiums), Nathan Hale Elementary School (now condominiums on Bay Avenue) and Lincoln Elementary School (converted in co-op apartments on E. 9th Street near St. Hugh’s Church).