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A Short History of Great South Bay

July 1, 2016



Long Island was formed by during the ice age by the movements of the huge sheets of ice coming from the north leaving a rocky north shore and a smooth sandy south shore. In the north, Long Island was separated from Connecticut by a fresh water lake that eventually was breached by the ocean at the eastern border becoming saline as we know it now. The Atlantic Ocean was contiguous on the south shore, however the materials eroding from the northern regions were transported south by the long shore current and were deposited beginning at Long Island forming a barrier beach which is now called Fire Island and Barrier Islands further south along the eastern coast of the United States. There are a few theories as to where the name Fire Island came from among which is that pirates used to light fires on the shore luring passing vessels to grounding where their cargo could be looted, or that Fire Island is loaded with poison ivy and it turns bright red in the autumn resulting in a red shoreline when viewed from afar. This barrier beach began the formation of the Great South Bay be- tween Fire Island and Long Island stretching approximately 45 miles from Fire Island Inlet east adjoining South Oyster Bay in the west and Patchogue and Moriches Bay in the east.


The earliest inhabitants of in the area were the Native Americans who had migrated south from what is now Connecticut. The Secatogue Indians, as they became known, had sailed and fished throughout the New England waters had found a utopia, a protected lagoon rich in fish and shell fish. The English and Dutch settlers began to arrive the late 17th century and the Secatogues coexisted with them and other tribes that had filtered south from Connecticut. There is no record of a big war or deadly epidemic to account for it but the Indian population decreased such that in the mid 18th century there is little information re: any Indian tribes existing in the area of the Great South Bay. In 1683 William Nicoll was granted a patent to the land that now covers much of the Town of Islip and part of Brookhaven along the Great South Bay. Further settlement did not increase rapidly. The geological characteristics did not make it easy to set up any kind of permanent settlement. The numerous rivers pouring into the Bay presented problems for anyone traveling east of west, forcing travelers to travel great distances inland to get around the many headwaters. The sandy environment certainly was a further impairment in moving about carrying goods in horse drawn wagons. The hoofs and wheels quickly sank into the sand becoming almost unmovable. The only way to transport large quantities of material was by boat, which was not really big advantage when one has to find deep navigable water and/or a place to land.


During the Revolutionary War, the English controlled Long Island Sound and all goods shipped were taxed. However smugglers determined they could elude the British by routing their ships east thru the Great South Bay to a point where they could sail their goods into Long Island Sound avoiding the British ships. From there, it was north to colonial patriots in New England. Although Long Island played a small role in the American Revolution, it should be noted that one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was William Floyd, who owned an estate on the Great South Bay. After the Revolution it was a relatively quiet period along the Great South Bay where the population fished and farmed in isolation unable to bring their wares along inadequate roads to the more densely populated areas.


Although the pirates and privateers were no longer prevalent in the waters around the Great South

Bay after the Revolution, there was still upheaval around the Bay. The War of 1812 brought another blockade and the opportunity for the local residents to take advantage of the situation. Since there were no British troops quartered on shore, the residents no longer had an any animosity for the British, and lucrative black market operation was organized to ferry fresh produce to the British ships patrolling off Fire Island. The following years weren’t without incident. Although a lighthouse was built in 1826, during 1854 to 1857, there were 64 shipwrecks on the northern shore Fire Island. The Great South Bay became a busy thruway for opportunists who could salvage the cargos and marine equipment from the wrecks and take them to the mainland for sale. In 1857 Congress appropriated $40,000 to build a new, much taller light house. The whale oil was lit on the brand new lighthouse on November 1, 1858. As noted earlier, Fire Island was formed by the deposition of eroded material being borne south by the off-shore current An example of this geo-hydrodynamic process is the relative location of the lighthouse when it was built to where it stands now. The light house was opened at the western end of Fire Island in 1858 at the mouth of Fire Island Inlet. It is now located miles east of the Inlet. The added barrier reef was from the sediment deposition from 1858 to today.


Development began in earnest at the end of the Civil War. Taverns and, other accommodations were built, all along the shores of the Great South Bay to accommodate the newcomers to the area. The region was a sportsman’s paradise, boating and fishing, trout in the incoming estuaries and flounders and other salt water species in the Bay. William Bayard Cutting, William K. Vanderbilt and other sportsmen of the time purchased a tavern created the Southside Sportsman’s Club. It became a major attraction for New York’s elite; even President Ulysses S. Grant spent a summer vacation there in 1871. Another marine spectator sport drew them in, i.e., yacht racing. The shallow waters and shifting winds of the Great South Bay created great sailors including Captain Hank Haff, winner of two America Cup races.


Unfortunately the boom did not last. When the Surf Hotel on Fire Island was purchased by the federal government and used to quarantine cholera patients arriving from Europe in 1892, it alarmed many of the annual vacationers and marked the decline of Great South Bay as a resort area. As time went on fires destroyed most of the resorts. They were large wooden structures that had been built along the Great South Bay in the early 20th century including Vanderbilt’s Idlehour

House. Often lit and heated by oil or gas, they were disasters waiting to happen.


Declining tourism following the Depression left very little incentive to rebuild them. The Great South Bay’s shell fish industry also began to falter. The hurricane of 1938 opening up an outlet to the saline Atlantic Ocean and depositing multi layers of silt over the oyster beds just about marked the end of the industry. By the roaring twenties most of the large estates along the South Shore were falling to disuse. Availability of jobs in the urban areas meant it was harder to find caretakers for the isolated antique houses leaving them vulnerable to fire and looting. The area around the Great South Bay needed some sort of stimulus to get it going again.


This set the stage for Robert Moses, educated at the finest schools, Yale, Oxford and Columbia, he went to work for New York Governor Al Smith. As a reward for helping him win reelection in 1922, Governor Smith allowed Moses to create the Long Island Park Commission and appoint himself Commissioner. His dream was to build a State Park on Fire Island and the opportunity came when the Commission obtained from the federal government four miles of beach west of the lighthouse. His first project was the building of Jones Beach, named after an Irish immigrant and privateer who established a whaling station in the area in1692. When Moses inspected the site it consisted of swampland only 2 feet above sea level. The area was built up by dredging sand from the ocean night and day eventually raising the land to 12 feet above sea level. When

work began the workers were constantly tormented by windblown sand. This problem was solved by planting sea grass throughout the area to contain the sand. The park opened on August 4, 1929. During the same time frame, he also obtained permission to dredge the State Boat Channel from the Fire Island Inlet to Jones Beach. Dredging began in 1927 and the last link of the Channel was opened on June 4, 1934 when Robert Moses cut the rope across the Channel, lined with the flags of the various yacht clubs, at 3:35 p.m. The new Channel, thirteen miles long, eighteen feet deep and 200 feet wide, would reduce the travel time from Jones Inlet to Fire Island from half a day to two and a half hours.


Another project facing Moses was to build access roads beginning with the Wantagh Parkway, the first parkway to Jones Beach. It opened August 4, 1929, the same day as the Jones Beach opening, and was known as the Jones Beach Causeway. It went from Merrick Road to Wantagh then to Jones Beach Island. It was extended to the Southern State Parkway in July 1932 and to the Northern State Parkway in December 1938. There has been a proposal on the books to extend it to the Long Island Expressway since the late 1950’s.


The Wantagh Parkway was the only route to Jones Beach. On a weekend during the summer attendance figures of 100,000 people a day would travel the Parkway, and the Wantagh was inadequate to carry the load. To alleviate the problem, work began on the Meadowbrook Parkway in 1932 and in the Fall of 1934 the road was opened from Merrick Road to Jones Beach and extended to the Southern State Parkway in 1935. A year later Moses issued plans to extend the Meadow Brook Parkway to the Northern State, but WWII intervened and the project was not completed until 1956.


To connect Jones Beach to the other barrier beaches the Ocean Parkway was built in early 1930. This Parkway has been called the jewel of the Long Island Parkway System, and rightfully so. There has been criticism of Robert Moses’ tactics in achieving his goals but whatever they are they’re in the noise as compared to his accomplishments. Take a drive on the Ocean Parkway from Jones Beach to Robert Moses State park then, take a ride down the New Jersey Shore. The Ocean Parkway runs along the pristine shore barrier beach with the ocean to the South and Great South Bay to the North. One can breathe in the fresh ocean air and enjoy the flora and the fauna indigenous to the area without encountering housing developments and business establishments
to mar the scenery. The route along the New Jersey shore seems like one continuous Coney Island. For those of you who are too young to remember Coney Island was (maybe still is) and enjoyment park with multitudes of tourist souvenir shops, fast food distributors and multiple other establishments exuding gaudiness and/or noise.


Finally, Moses’ major achievement, a recreational park named after him on Fire Island was established just west of the lighthouse. The access road, Robert Moses Parkway, initially called the Captree State Parkway goes from Sunken Meadow State Park, King’s Park to the western tip of Fire Island, crossing the State Channel between Captree Island and land east of Oak Beach and finally over the last bridge to Fire Island. We go around the traffic circle and can go east or west. To the west we pass several beaches on the ocean side and a great view of the Great South Bay to south. A U turn at the end brings us back to the Tower and on to the next U turn at parking lot 5. Further east is the light house and barrier beach communities.


We have learned by schooling that we must observe the “Red Right Returning” rule, i.e. when coming in from sea you keep the red buoys on your right, the starboard side. Those of you who are not familiar with Great South Bay should be aware that there is a modification to interpreting the rule. When traveling east through the State Channel the rule applies but through Dickerson Channel and east, the red buoys must be passed on your left or port side. This is because the State Channel uses Jones Inlet as the seaward direction but other channels near Robert Moses Bridge use the Fire Island Inlet.

Editors Note - The late Henry “Hank” Foglino was one of our popular contributing writers. “Hank” was a long time boater on the waters of Long Island Sound and Great South Bay. He earned a degree in electrical engineering and, after retirement, taught oceanography at Suffolk Community College. His articles will reappear in these pages on occasion as tributes to his talents as a contributing writer for this publication.






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