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Fred’s History of the Jetties at Rockaway Point

By October 23, 2017May 31st, 2020No Comments

Fred submitted this historical insight into the jetties at Rockaway Point which was published in the Rockaway Point News  September 2017

The Lost Jetties of Rockaway Point

 

Midmorning on May 11, 1922, a pair of carpenters who had been constructing a new bulkhead about 200 feet west of Fort Tilden took a break. They drank coffee from a thermos and ate rolls that they had brought with them from Sheepshead Bay. Sitting on a log, they watched the tide slowly recede.

The beach was littered with flotsam and jetsam after the long winter. Ships entering New York channel would regularly dump their garbage into the sea before passing the Ambrose lightship. Huge garbage scows dumped the city’s refuse into the ocean illegally, but with impunity. Inevitably, wind and tide would spread the debris of an urban economy along the long strip of the Rockaway peninsula. Drift wood and charcoal, wooden wheels and cork products of every size and shape, fishing nets and traps, black tarry globules of leaked fuel, as well as long ribbons of garbage awaited the scavengers and beach combers who would appear in a few weeks.

A small boat bobbed in the swells about 300 yards off shore. The sole rower had passed toward the west and now began slowly to row back toward the two men and gradually approached the shore. A breaking wave surprised the man, capsized his boat, and tossed the castaway into the rolling surf.

The two carpenters threw off their boots and ran down into the surf to help the man struggling with his oars and the undertow. One carpenter grabbed the slight survivor under his arms and towed him toward a clearing on the beach. His friend grabbed the small wooden boat and pulled it above the receding water line.

The survivor was a small black man about five feet tall wearing torn canvass shorts and a torn grey t-shirt. His grey hair and scrawny build suggested old age. He lay in the sand panting, “Thank you, thank you,” rolling his head.

The carpenters offered the wayfarer water from a canteen and half a remaining hard roll. The man emptied the canteen and gnawed at the bread in desperation. He gradually grew calmer.

He repeatedly thanked his rescuers. He explained that he was from Haiti and had worked on an English ship. Now he wanted to be away. The carpenters offered him a pair of shoes and some money, but he refused. He would be away.

The workers watched him gather up his two oars and slowly push his dingy through the waves. The old man was fortunate. In the last half hour, the morning breeze had fallen and the seas were calmer. He rowed beyond the breakers and headed again westward toward the Ambrose channel.

The carpenters returned to their work of building the barrier against the sea. They were not alone. Twenty pairs of workers labored every 200 yards or so to construct the shore protection before the end of the summer. Teams of horse drawn shovels dug the deep trench in which the bulkhead would be footed. The workers arrived at 8:00 o’clock from Sheepshead Bay each morning five days a week on a ferry owned by John Reid. The transportation was supplied by their employer, Mr. William M Greve, president of the West Rockaway Point Company that was responsible for building the ocean bulkhead and jetties.

Ten feet inland from their construction ditch a rustic boardwalk, partially covered with sand, stretched like a ribbon in front of the single row of bungalows that stretched from Fort Tilden in the east toward the Rockaway Inlet. These simple wooden, one storied summer houses had appeared only in the past ten years. During the first decade of the century, a tent city had appeared like spring wild flowers each year only to disappear by the end of September. Gradually, a community developed. Middle class people, firemen, teachers, laborers, many of them Irish, sought a summer paradise.

Kay and John McGinty with Father Jack and Uncle Jay

Since the early 1880s, the East Rockaways had joined the array of summer vacation spots for the rich and noteworthy of the city. Over thirty years, grand hotels and casinos had proliferated to the delight of many thousands of summer visitors and inhabitants. Already by the turn of the century, Belle Harbor, Far Rockaway, and Rockaway Beach represented “New York’s Playground.”

 

Rockaway Point was decidedly in the “roughing it” tradition. By 1920, over 2000 bungalows had been built and stretched along the entire oceanfront. Bungalows had also been built along sections of the Jamaica Bay shore. St Francis de Sales parish in Belle Harbor had built the Roman Catholic mission church St Edmund’s in 1914. Sunday morning services were held from the end of June to the beginning of September. A year later a YMCA chapel was constructed nearby.

In 1910, the newly established Rockaway Point Yacht Club had purchased for its clubhouse the old Seaman’s Hotel from Howard Reid. In the same year, the volunteer fire company that would play such a crucial role in the community’s development was founded. By 1915, Center Street, later renamed Market Street, offered a butcher, a small grocery store, a hardware store, ice cream parlor, and at its eastern end, a lumber yard.

The growing summer community lived with two enduring threats. One was the recurring political debate concerning ownership of the land. Originally, the peninsula was a fishing and hunting ground of a small tribe of Canarsie Indians. On and off for twenty years around the turn of the nineteenth century ownership of the nine hundred acres of Rockaway Point was contested. The Rockaway Pacific Corporation, the City of New York, and individual investors vied for recognition as the legal owner of the nine hundred acres west of the Rockaway Naval Air Station.

Storms represented the second recurring threat. The majority were winter storms that wreaked havoc with the fragile summer homes and their environment. Over the preceding few years, major storms had hit the developing community on Jan 12 1918, April 12 1918, and Feb 6 1920. The winter storm of 1918 produced heavy flooding across the Rockaway peninsula resulting from exceptionally heavy rains and high tides. The peninsula was marooned for several days as sections of the rail trestle were covered with water. Three months later, a record high tide of 8.15 feet flooded the Fort Tilden and Rockaway Point area and battered at least twenty bungalows from their foundations.

The storm that produced the most publicity and had a serious impact upon the entire city was the treacherous blizzard of Feb 6 1920. High tides and roaring winds thrashed the peninsula and resulted in flooded resort cellars and large swathes of boardwalk destroyed. During the storm, the coastal steamer, Princess Anne, ran aground on the sand bar at the tip of the Rockaway Point and remained pinned there for several days. Fortunately, all passengers and crew survived thanks to the services of the US Coast Guard, the NY City Police Patrol, and local fisherman. On Feb 10, the ship broke in two amidships and sank. Parts of the ship were still visible at low tide when the Rockaway Inlet Jetty was constructed in the early 1930s.

Two approaches were taken toward protecting the homes of the summer residents and safeguarding the growth of the beach community from the ravages of the storms. Sand management and swamp fill was undertaken on an annual basis by the Rockaway Pacific Corporation who owned the land occupied by the beach community. The second initiative was the construction of the bulkhead and jetties

By September of 1922, the team of carpenters completed the construction of thirty-eight timber groins, or jetties as they were called locally, reaching into the sea and a timber bulkhead that stretched for 7,600 feet laterally along the coast from the western border of Fort Tilden to west of Reid Avenue where it angled slightly inland following the line of Oceanside. The groins were spaced between 200 to 350 feet apart. Their length also varied between 200 and 400 feet in length. The height of the ocean end of the jetties was one to four feet above mean low water. By the end of September, the completed jetties, black against the white sand of the beach and blue surf, outlined beaches that were roughly square, but of somewhat differing dimensions.

Some ten years later, the Rockaway Point Inlet stone jetty was constructed by the US Government at the westernmost tip of the peninsula and stretched 8400 feet into the sea a few hundred yards west of where the Princess Anne had sunk. The purpose of this grand jetty was to protect the shipping lanes from shifting sand and assist in the protection of the communities of Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay, Brighton Beach, and Manhattan Beach

The jetties had two major impacts upon the beach community, one was environmental and the other recreational.

As might be expected, the jetties sustained and, perhaps, increased the westward expansion of the peninsula’s tip. The gradual expansion had been observed since the turn of the century, and the graphic below illustrates clearly the development of the peninsula over time.

 

 

The intended effect of the groins was realized in as much as the beach continued to grow, but at a reduced rate and the tip of the peninsula thickened. Particularly on the Jamaica Bay side, this land growth was achieved by regular sand fill projects. As for protecting the bungalows, the bulkhead helped, but did not guarantee safety particularly during winter storms.

The bungalows built beginning in 1912 were raised above the sand less than a foot and rested on short pylons sunk into the sand. Eventually, during the late ‘40s and early 50s, the bungalows were raised three or four feet above the sand level to protect them from the flood waters that would occasionally cover a large portion of the peninsula. Many of the homes built inland from the oceanfront remained on short legs imbedded in the sand for many years. The overwhelming destructive force of hurricane “Sandy” in 2012 finally changed the landscape radically.

(Mary Alanah, Fred and John in front of 271 Rockaway Point)

For a child during the 40s and 50s, the jetties marked the geography of one’s playground. One’s beach was defined by the two jetties on either side of the family bungalow. Children played on “their” beach and swam between “their” two jetties. In addition to the lifeguards employed by the Long Shore Beach Club located just west of Reid Avenue and the Breezy Point Surf Club further to the west, Breezy Point lifeguards worked on the weekends between Reid and Tioga Walks. Along the oceanfront of Rockaway Point, however, the beaches were not supervised by lifeguards, and the “rule” was that children could only swim if an adult was present.

Normally, children played on their own beach which offered an amusement park of opportunity. Waiting for an adult to arrive, they buried each other in the sand with only the head showing. They fished from the jetty. The scaled shells into the water counting bounces, and played beach softball. In late August, they would play in the tidal pools that formed after storms. Occasionally children would play on other beaches either to join a friend who lived one or two jetties away, or to walk to the “rocks.”

During the 50s, the timber, tar soaked jetties stretched out into the ocean at various lengths. Some barely had their feet in the water while others stretched a few hundred feet into the surf at low tide and were submerged at high tide. At the end of each jetty was a cluster of three or four pylons that were two or three feet higher than the main jetty wall. These high posts made excellent diving platforms at mid to high tide and fishing perches for young anglers.

The oceanfront area of Rockaway Point was threatened by real estate speculation beginning in 1960 when the Atlantic Improvement State Corporation purchased 800 acres west of the fort for high-rise development. The Breezy Point Cooperative was formed and purchased the remaining private land. By 1962, the bungalows along the oceanfront from Fort Tilden to Reid Avenue were being abandoned and, ultimately, bulldozed.

In 1972, the US Congress created the Gateway National Recreation Area with various sectors around Jamaica Bay, Staten Island and Sandy Hook. In the Breezy Point area, Gateway has visitor centers at Floyd Bennett Field and Fort Tilden. Fort Tilden was officially decommissioned as a US military base in 1974 and became part of the national park.

By the mid 1970s, the bulkhead and jetties of Rockaway Point had largely disappeared beneath the sand, and the area had reverted to a nature reserve. The sand dunes had been leveled and vegetation reclaimed the land. Today, the only remaining evidence of human activity is the Silver Gull Beach Club that was built in stretches back from the oceanfront along the boundary the fort. Occasional beachcombers stroll along between the water’s edge and the seaside wilderness either from the Fort Tilden recreational site, or from the Breezy Point Cooperative farther to the west.

Today, public interest concerning jetties, bulkheads, and other interventions intended to protect the Rockaways continues. In a recent article (13 September 2017) entitled “Could the Rockaways Survive Another Sandy?” New York Times writer Luis Ferré-Sadurni outlined the ambitious project developed by the Army Corps of Engineers to protect the Rockaways between the East Rockaway Inlet and Rockaway Beach from the destructive effects of another major storm. The Rockaway Point News published an article by J. W. Roberts in its 29 September 2017 issue, “Hurricane Sandy Beach Resiliency and Recovery,” that updated the details and intention of the project.

Breezy Point Today

Fred Piderit

October 2017

Givrins, Switzerland

 

(2200 words)

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