We can’t find any vintage photos to document what Rockaway Beach looked like when it was first settled in the 1860’s. The closest we have to a visual image is a fisherman’s map, circa 1900, that marks natural features such as marshland, dunes, and trees. That map can be found on page 2 of my book, Images of America: Rockaway Beach.
We also have written accounts from the first two decades of the twentieth century, which tell us that even into the 1870’s, “the entire beach was covered with groves of fine cedar trees.” This is found on page 104 of the 1917 book, Bellot’s History of the Rockaways. Page 52 of Seyfried and Asadorian’s out-of-print Old Rockaway, New York in Early Photographs, adds: “until the second half of the 19th century most of the Rockaway peninsula, especially the western section, lay fallow, an uninhabited land of sandhills, dunes, and marsh grass. ”
Perhaps the most personal commentary came from Fannie Holland’s grand-daughter Isadora, who recorded her childhood memories of early Rockaway Beach in an unpublished 1932 memoir, stating: “Sand hills all along the ocean front, just a soft sand trail called ‘the road’ to Far Rockaway; the waters of Jamaica Bay coming up to the road and meeting the ocean on high tides…There were only a few scattered houses here….[At Beach 80th Street and road was] a little house where Captain and Mrs. Baker lived, and where I was born, on August 25, 1870. Three or four years later my uncle took me up to visit the little house, and Aunt Mellie Baker filled my little pinafore with pink roses from her garden.”
There is a series of 1899 photos of the Seaside section (see pages 57 and 58 of the Seyfried and Asadorian book), documenting that numerous groves of cedar trees remained, even after popular amusement rides had been constructed, and after the Great Seaside Fire had ravaged the area in 1892. This is confirmed by an 1881 publication, Guide to Rockaway Beach and Progress of Popular Favor to the Sea, available online from public domain sources, which glowingly described the offerings of at least twenty “select” hotels, including Seaside House, Atlas Hotel, Surf Pavilion, and the Egbert Emmet House. Thanks to this guide, we know that Otto Huber’s lager (brewed in Williamsburg, thank you), was drawn “fresh and cool from the wood” for serving in the “large picnic grove” at the Seaside Walk House on Remsen Street (between today’s Beach 102nd and Beach 104th Streets). A large and beautiful grove at Atlantic Park Hotel (Beach 75th and the oceanfront) allowed guests to gather “under the shade of the fragrant cedars…[to] enjoy the full benefit of the cool sea breezes.” There are also references to establishments constructed to take advantage of the superior views and cooling breezes afforded by heightened elevation.
So, the first wave of Rockaway Beach settlers developed the land with at least some semblance of respect for the importance of trees and dunes. However, as the numbers of visitors increased exponentially, it appears that the land was flattened for tent and bungalow colonies (generally constructed quite close to the beach, photos show). Then, these gave way to beachfront high rises, playgrounds, roller rinks and handball courts when Robert Moses left his mark on the peninsula from the 1930’s through the 1960’s.
I think it’s past time to reestablish dunes and vegetation on Rockaway Beach. Double dunes, triple dunes, heck, why not quadruple dunes?
In the post-Stupid Storm Sandy world, we need all the protection we can get.
Text copyright Vivian R. Carter 2013. Photos copyright Vivian R. Carter 2012.