The history of Fire Island is a long and complicated one, beginning with its Native American settlements. Local indigenous peoples harvested shellfish and finfish including migrating whales, traditions that were shared and passed on to new European immigrants who settled in Bay Shore, Moriches, and other shoreline communities. To protect regional commerce the newly formed federal government authorized the construction of the island’s first lighthouse in 1826, which was later replaced in 1857 by the current structure. In addition several life saving stations were also constructed. Nearby, David Sammis built a chowder house east of the Fire Island Lighthouse, later expanding it into the Surf Hotel. Eventually the Surf Hotel would accommodate 400 guests, until it burned down in 1917. In 1908, New York State also created a park, the Fire Island Park, where Robert Moses Park now stands. Shortly thereafter out-of-town residents began building modest and elaborate summer cottages along the barrier beach, made possible by convenient train and ferry service to the scenic beaches. Local residents worked as ferry operators, hotel staff, store owners and other seasonal positions. The oldest communities are Cherry Grove (1795) which began as a traditional fishing post, Kismet (1855), Fire Island Pines (1868), Ocean Beach (1908), and Saltaire (1910). To learn more about Ocean Beach, click here. This article is from the Fire Island Tide.
Families and groups regularly summered at the seashore, until 1954, when the creation of the Robert Moses Causeway led to day trip visitors to the island’s western end. In 1954, a permanent bridge to Smith Point County Park was completed on the eastern end of Fire Island. To help prevent further development, the federal government designated Fire Island National Seashore (FINS) in 1964, shortly after a state proposal to extend Ocean Parkway failed. The establishment of the Seashore was supported by Fire Island residents and homeowners, still concerned that an expansion of the parkway would wipe out the existing communities on the barrier island. Its enabling legislation called for the conservation of wildlife while also permitting “hunting, fishing, and shellfishing on lands and waters.” Its 2006 management plan also calls for the park to “address mutual interests in the quality of life of community residents, including matters such as compatible economic development and resource and environmental protection” while also adhering to the underlying principles that NPS policies “must ensure that conservation will be predominant when there is a conflict between the protection of resources and their use.”
Living on Fire Island
With the creation of the Robert Moses Causeway, some Long Island families built permanent year round homes on Fire Island, particularly in the western part of the island. According to the 2000 census there were approximately 500 people who lived on the barrier beach. There are no paved roads through the interior of the island. Motorized off-road vehicle use is restricted, and the number of permits is specified by Fire Island National Seashore driving regulation. During the summer season, cars are prohibited, with transportation and delivery services provided by local ferries. Before Memorial Day and after Labor Day most communities allow residents to obtain beach driving permits. Local school age children attend classes in Bay Shore.
According to a recent cultural resource survey, Lonelyville is one of the island’s oldest and most private settlements. It started as a fishing village in the 1880s, established by the Fire Island Fishing Company, and a major pier and railhead were built. Originally, the rail was to extend across the entire bay. While this never happened, boats transported fish to the mainland. All of this was destroyed in the 1938 Hurricane. Lonelyville also began to develop as a summer resort in the early 20th century when lots went up for sale. But the community grew slowly, composed of only 23 houses in the 1950s. Today, most homes are vintage beach cottages, some dating back to the 1900s.
Working on Great South Bay
For hundreds of years, fishers have harvested various species of finfish and shellfish, for subsistence, commercial, and recreational use. During the 19th century and early 20th century, Great South Bay was one of the largest shellfishing producing regions in the country. However there have been historical changes in the bay that have greatly reduced the fisher’s ability to earn a living and also impacted the estuary’s health. They include the 1938 hurricane which covered oyster and clam beds, the closing of inlets which changed the bay’s water quality, water pollution including runoff from fertilizers and other pollutants, bulkheading, and land development. In recent years baymen have faced numerous local, state, and federal regulations which have severely impacted their way of life.
Since the establishment of the park there has been tension between baymen, homeowners, and park officials over the management of natural and cultural resources. Controversies over beach replenishment, inlet openings, hunting, and harvesting practices are just some of the issues unique to Fire Island National Seashore and their neighbors. Unlike other National Parks, FINS must work with dozens of communities, town, state, and other federal agencies to accomplish its goals. Often their goals conflict with traditional and historical uses, such as vector control, deer management, or beach access to year-round residents. At FINS, only recreational hunting, fishing, and shellfishing are authorized, although, historically, commercial harvests have taken place before and after establishment of the Seashore. More recently FINS has banned horseshoe crab harvesting by area baymen in its surrounding waters. To learn more about the Fire Island National Seashore and its current management plan click here.