Reviewed by Leah Chiappino
Long Island beaches have become the Island’s internationally known trademark attraction. Long days surfing at Atlantic Ocean beaches, relaxing at the gentle waters of South Bay beaches coupled with gazing at what seems like meticulously painted sunsets at the rocky North Shore beaches have provided storybook summer memories for Long Islanders for generations.
Yet, how many of us have had the opportunity to understand how the beaches have come to be what they are today, and the stories of past residents and visitors who enjoyed them so long ago?
Kristen Nyitray, the director of Special Collections and University Archives, as well as a university archivist at Stony Brook University, takes readers along for the story of the history of beaches in Nassau and Suffolk counties in her book, “Long Island Beaches” or what she describes as “a facet of Long Island’s social and cultural history and lure of picturesque beaches.”
Published by Arcadia Publishing as part of its Postcard History Series, the 128-page paperback book details coastal Long Island history beginning with the Native Americans, who had respect for its beauty and used it to live off the vast resources of the coast, often engaging in whaling and fishing. Beach areas became desirable for land ownership in the 16th and 17th centuries and were an asset during the 18th century with lighthouses and stations opening up to combat shipwrecks.
Long Island beach destinations became commercialized during the mid- to late 1800s, with hotels, restaurants and attractions popping up in response to increases in transportation efficiency, even becoming a major source of illegal prohibition transfers. Environmental activism took hold by 1924 when Robert Moses worked with the New York State Council of Parks and Long Island State Park Commission to build beaches and parks throughout the island, along with bridges to link the barrier islands of Jones Beach Island and Fire Island to the South Shore coast.
Nyitray organizes her book by county, then shore and community. Black and white photographs, along with vintage postcards, gleaned from local libraries, historical societies, museums and private collections are sprinkled throughout, beautifully display the coastal culture so ingrained on the island.
It begins with a survey of Nassau County North Shore beaches, showcasing historic hotels and the wealth of those who resided on the coast. For example, Nyitray tells the story of John Pierpoint Morgan Jr., the benefactor of Morgan Memorial Park in Glen Cove in honor of his late wife. It featured seven miles of coast, and as reported by the New York Times in 1926, was one of the first breaks in elitist private estates and chances for the public to access the sound.
Nassau’s South Shore was also populated by hotels and home to the Long Beach Boardwalk and Jones Beach State Park. The Moses-led endeavor at Jones Beach was made accessible to the disabled in 1883 when Strandkorbs, rolling beach chairs, became available. Made of wicker, people were pushed along the boardwalk in them, a major stride in accessibility.
Suffolk’s central beaches consisted of Lake Ronkonkoma and Shelter Island, with the latter being home to the Prospect House Hotel, consisting of a two-story bathing pavilion and a relaxation haven for guests in what is today the Shelter Island Heights Beach Club. The North Shore beaches were home to exclusive communities such as Belle Terre and Greenport.
Albert Einstein even vacationed with his friend David Rothman in Cutchogue, after Einstein visited Mattituck to lease a home for sailing, later renting a home in Nassau Point.
Suffolk South Shore beach history consists largely of Montauk and Fire Island. Nyitray speaks of journalist Margaret Fuller, who tragically drowned with family near Point O’Woods after the ship she was sailing on, The Elizabeth, sank after hitting a sandbar. At the request of poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau traveled there to search for her, but to no avail.
These stories are just a sampling of the anecdotes that Nyitray lays out, and by the end of the book has the reader walk away with an immense sense of pride in being a Long Islander, along with better appreciation for being able to live in a place of such indisputable beauty, history and culture.
“Long Island Beaches” is available locally where books are sold and online at www.arcadiapublishing.com.