Eastern Nassau

Eastern Nassau: Wantagh, Seaford, Massapequa, Amityville and Jones Beach

At first glance the eastern part of Nassau County resembles a typical post-war suburban region with few historic maritime structures or activities, in stark contrast to the working waterfronts of Freeport and Point Lookout in the western region. However its past was directly connected with the waterfront, sporting ferry ports, boat yards and recreational fishing clubs that local residents recall as major attractions for them and their families in years past.

Photo: The Jones Beach Water Tower

The Jones Beach Water Tower

In the early 1900s local residents from the south shore and Queens frequently visited High Hill Beach, the predecessor to today’s world famous Jones Beach, where local families built cottages and clubs for recreational use. Local ferry boat owners including the Wanser family of Seaford and operators from Bellmore transported families in modest boats to the offshore community, where approximately 98 families built wood shingle cottages, a hotel and bathing pavilion. At the same time mainland residents built simple frame houses. Most of the residents were either farmers or fishermen, however there were also tradespeople including carpenters, boat builders and business owners including shop keepers, blacksmiths and other skilled workers.

Photo: Ketcham Boat Yard, Amityville

Ketcham Boat Yard, Amityville

The Ketcham family was one of the earliest boat builders in the area, creating a boat yard and later an inn run by Zebulon Ketcham that was reportedly a stop for young commander George Washington. The former inn is no longer standing. However the Ketchams have continued their legacy as boat builders and restorers of skiffs, a common boat type on the south shore. The Seaford skiff was a common sail powered skiff used by baymen, recreational sailors and fishermen in the late 1800s and 1900s. During the winter local townspeople and sportsmen raced the boats across the bay, a tradition that is common throughout the estuary. Today the skiffs are used by bay house owners who find them useful in navigating the shallow bay waters.

Well-to-do New York City residents patronized prominent summer resort hotels such as the Hotel Amityville, the Alexandria and Hathaway Inn in Amityville and its neighbors. Popular activities at the hotels include swimming and boating. There were also family and community clambakes on local beaches.

Local residents meanwhile harvested eels in the offshore waters and springs, shipping them to Fulton Fish Market where they were eagerly consumed by immigrants from Germany and other European countries. Baymen also harvested clams, scallops and oysters, until the 1938 hurricane which buried shellfish beds throughout the estuary. Using haul seine nets baymen also harvested bluefish, fluke and flounder and other finfish. In the early 1900s the fish and clams were plentiful.

After the 1938 hurricane and World War II, the suburban population exploded, with new houses built along the shorelines. However most developments also allocated small parcels for open space so that residents could easily dock their boats and swim. While some of these parcels remain, others have been fully developed. Yet there are still remnants of the historic maritime recreational traditions, including several historic marinas such as the Paul Ketcham boatyard and the Unqua Corinthian Yacht Club and unique summer homes ranging from residential bungalows to elaborate waterfront houses.

Jones Beach

Long Island, the thin long arm of the New York metropolitan area jutting 120 miles out to sea embraces practically all of the salt water frontage in the State of New York. For the development of a comprehensive beach program, it offers unequaled natural opportunities in providing for the recreational needs of a great metropolitan population. Public beaches can not be considered luxuries but necessities which contribute directly to the health, well-being and pleasure of the people.
— Robert Moses c. 1938

Until 1926 Jones Beach was a sandy shore dotted with fishermen’s cottages and vacation homes. Hundreds of baymen fished the waters for oysters, clams and shellfish. Families at High Hill Beach enjoyed summertime swims in the ocean surf. The beach included Savage’s Hotel, a general store and post office, and a lifesaving station. Two ferries ran from Seaford and Bellmore to High Hill. On this scene Robert Moses cast his vision for a beach open to all, with facilities providing food, furnishings and entertainment for a great day — and evening — at the shore. His vision forever transformed Jones Beach and its people, creating the first public ocean beach on Long Island and New York State.

Photo: High Hill Beach houses

High Hill Beach was destroyed to make room for Jones Beach. Many of the homes were moved to West Gilgo Beach, where they remain.

Moses and the Long Island State Park Commission secured land and permission to build Jones Beach in 1926, with Sidney Shapiro as the lead engineer. The first step was dredging 40 million cubic yards of sand from the bay to form the parkway roadbed and the building foundations. The work damaged the bay’s shellfish beds, forcing hundreds of baymen to work in other waters.

As construction moved forward, builders arrived from surrounding communities. During the Depression many were glad to find work. On the beach they raised magnificent architectural symbols: the Water Tower, the East and West Bathhouses, the Marine Theatre, the Jones Beach Restaurant, and houses for the park superintendents. The water tower’s base is made of Ohio sandstone, the shaft of multi-colored Barbizon brick, and the cap of limestone and copper. Solid brass doors with decorative panels framed the tower entrances. It pumps 300,000 gallons from two wells 1,200 feet deep. John Polek, the son of the 1st park superintendent, remembers that “from by bedroom window you could see the water tower lit up at night.” Dozens of unemployed men hired by the Works Progress Administration built the bathhouses and other structures. The work, at times, was very hazardous due to sudden storms or freezing temperatures.

Photo: Jones Beach bathhouse

Jones Beach bathhouse

Many of these structures today need care and rehabilitation, as salt water naturally corrodes many architectural structures. Moses and Shapiro left their design imprint on them all. They chose eye-catching nautical elements. Seahorses appeared on mosaics and flags; driftwood framed the signs. Park workers dressed in navy-style uniforms. The atmosphere was that of a seaside “playland.” In 1930 the Bee Line Bus Company began running public buses from the Wantagh and Freeport train stations to Jones Beach.

The state park came to life immediately. Visitors came for swimming, but also for water ballet shows, Guy Lombardo’s orchestra, surfboard polo games, rollerskating and archery. Musical performances and nightly fireworks kept many at the park into evening. For park staff, however, the workday was strictly no-nonsense. Lifeguards trained hard, cashiers served continuous lines of customers and maintenance workers strived for the clean environment Robert Moses demanded. Park managers and supervisors wore uniforms like those of the U.S. Navy. Lifeguard inspections took place daily. The park was a great source of pride to all.

Today Jones Beach still plays an important role in the lives of Long Islanders and visitors. Learning to swim at Zach’s Bay, eating hot dogs and clam chowder, fireworks at the beach on the Fourth of July and recalling memories of a sandy shore are cherished traditions. Jones Beach will forever be a part of Long Island’s identity.