Johnson Review, Long Island Beaches

Reviews

Suzanne Johnson on Kristen J. Nyitray. Long Island Beaches (Postcard History Series). Charleston, SC:  Arcadia Publishing, 2019.  127 p.  Bibliography. ISBN:139781467103299, $21.99

At first glance, you might think, ‘why a book about Long Island’s beaches?’ This book is different. Not only a postcard history, it is nearly a guidebook to Long Island’s most attractive and important features.  Fortunately, the book has been thoroughly researched by the author who is Stony Brook University’s Director of Special Collections and University Archives and University Archivist, and whose access to their collection and many others around the island enhance this excellent publication. Ms. Nyitray draws on a dizzying number of special collections to describe the history and significance of the many beaches and beach communities on Long Island.

The book’s five chapters divide the island into Nassau and Suffolk counties, north and south shores, and central beaches, then arranges the beaches alphabetically by community.  This inventory method can sometimes be confusing as you are moving west to east but once you accept her arrangement, there’s much good information about each locale.  Most of the images date from the golden age of postcards, 1907-1915. In addition, Ms. Nyitray provides detailed information about the many photographers who created the postcard views, including Milton & Muriel Price’s Tomlin Company of Northport, Henry Otto Korten of Sea Cliff, Samuel H. Gottscho and William H. Schleisner, Ambrose Fowler, and Arthur S. Greene of Port Jefferson.

The Long Island Rail Road’s influential publication, Long Island the Sunrise Homeland, published annually from 1922 through the 1950’s, is mentioned frequently for its promotion of Long Island’s new beach communities as a place to go to live a healthier life. Charming scenes of 19th century families, fully clothed in “bathing costumes”, and eating full meals on the beach with tables set with china and glassware remind us of the long history of some of those communities.

Whenever applicable, she credits the local civic association or environmental group for establishing or continuing the existence of many beach communities.

The chapter on Suffolk county’s “central” beaches includes Lake Ronkonkoma, formed by a kettle hole after the glaciers receded, and Shelter Island, located between the forks at the eastern end of the island.

Several pages are devoted to the development of Long Beach in 1907 by Austin Corbin and William H. Reynolds, who created a city “on a barren 2400-acre waste of sand.” Later Robert Moses linked Long Beach to his parkway system, bringing cars and roads onto the narrow strip of sand. The city of Long Beach suffered greatly from hurricanes and Superstorm Sandy in 2012 but rebuilt its famous boardwalk.

State parks played an important role in establishing beaches as the main attraction to draw campers to their sites.  Fire Island State Park was the first state park on Long Island, established in 1908, and only accessible by ferry until Robert Moses built a bridge in 1954 west of Bay Shore. The original name was changed to honor Moses in 1964, curiously when the Fire Island National Seashore was established, and his plan to extend the parkways all the way out east was stopped by the seventeen existing communities.  Jones Beach State Park, still the most popular of all the state parks on Long Island, opened in 1928 after obliterating the High Hills beach community.  Jones Beach became Moses’ crowning achievement.  Hither Hills State Park in Montauk, another Moses project, features the only oceanfront camping in New York State. Still growing in popularity, Long Island state parks had 26.8 million visitors in 2019. For a fuller history of the Fire Island beach communities, see Shoshanna McCollum’s Images of America publications in 2012 and 2014, and Christopher Verga’s Saving Fire Island from Robert Moses (History Press, 2019).

The book is not just about the summertime life on beaches. Winter activities such as skating, ice boating, and ice fishing are also covered.

Probably the most famous photograph included in the book is that of Albert Einstein sitting on a large rock in Cutchogue near Nassau Point, where he rented a house for two years.  He is seen wearing a pair of women’s sandals that he had purchased in Rothman’s store in Southold as they were “the largest ones he could find.” Another famous photo unfortunately missing from the book is Martin Luther King Jr. riding a bicycle in Seaview on Fire Island.  As Ms. Nyitray explains, the high cost of using such an iconic image was prohibitive.

Only one pictured area, Hemlock Beach in Amityville, was known for attracting blacks to its shores in August during the years 1841 to 1915 to celebrate Emancipation Day.  Farther east, there is no postcard documentation of the communities of Nineveh, Azurest, and Sag Harbor Hills, frequented by middle class African Americans since the 1950’s which was recently listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Ms. Nyitray begins and ends her book quoting Walt Whitman’s poem, “Starting from Paumanok”.  He describes Long Island as an “isle of salty shore and breeze and brine.” The fact that Whitman would further call out Long Island as the “isle of sweet drinking water-healthy air/and soil!” more than 100 years ago should give us all pause and consider the unique beauty of this fragile place.  Everyone should have a copy of Ms. Nyitray’s excellent book handy for reference, right next to the books on where to go and what to see on Long Island.

 

Suzanne Johnson

Rocky Point

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