common / History

Rockaway

Rockaway..."place of waters bright"

History records that in 1609 Henry Hudson and his crew first set eyes on what was to become (in later years) the Rockaway peninsula, when he attempted to enter what he thought was the northern most great river in the area...the body of water that is known today as Jamaica Bay. He had been on a specific mission in search of the northwest passage to the Orient.

Rockaway was then known as Reckowacky, which meant "the place of our own people", a name that literally was interpreted from "neck of the land". It was provided by a small tribe of Canarsie Indians who inhabited this area. The name was given simply to differentiate it from other Indian villages which were all a part of the Mohawk Indian nation. Reckowacky has also been translated to mean "lonely place", or "place of waters bright". (Rockaway, The Playground of New York, Annual yearbook of the Rockaways, June, 1934) By 1639, thirty years after Hudson sailed into Jamaica Bay, the Mohegan tribe of the Mohawk nation sold the greater part of Long Island, including the Rockaway peninsula, to the Dutch. By 1685, after the English took New York over from the Dutch, an agreement was reached between the tribal chieftain, Chief Tackapoucha, and the English governor, to sell off Rockaway to a certain Captain Palmer. Palmer bought Rockaway for 31 pounds sterling.

After ownership disputes between Captain Palmer and the town of Hempstead, in 1687, the land known as Rockaway, was once again sold, this time to Richard-Cornell, an iron master from Flushing. By 1690 Cornell settled in Far Rockaway with his family on a large homestead that he built near what is now known as Central Avenue, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. When he died in 1694 Cornell was buried in a small family cemetery near his Far Rockaway home. The Cornell Cemetery remains today the only designated New York City landmark in all of Rockaway.

In 1833 the Rockaway Association, a group of wealthy individuals who wanted to develop a fine oceanfront hotel in Rockaway, purchased most of the oceanfront property on the old homestead from descendants of Richard Cornell. The Marine Hotel was erected on the site of the original Cornell home and immediately gained popularity among New York's rich and famous, including such notables as the Vanderbilts, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Washington Irving. The Rockaway Association was also responsible for the construction of the Rockaway turnpike, to guarantee easy access to the hotel. Although the Marine Hotel was completely destroyed by fire in 1864, its success gave way to the erection of many more fine hotels and private residences on the peninsula.

Transportation to and from Rockaway originally consisted of horse-drawn carriages and horses. A ferry took passengers from downtown Manhattan to Brooklyn, and by the mid-1880's, the steam railroad succeeded the stagecoach, terminating at the present Far Rockaway station of the Long Island Railroad. Benjamin Mott deeded to the railroad company a seven acre tract of land to be utilized as a railroad depot. The coming of the railroad to Far Rockaway increased land values and resulted in a boom to the businesses in the area. By 1888, the village of Far Rockaway was large enough to apply for incorporation.

The increasing appeal of the Rockaway area gave rise to an amusement park in Seaside, which attracted families from all over the city. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by the Great Seaside Fire in 1892. It was at that time that The Wave was founded serving as the community newspaper of the entire Rockaway peninsula.

A building boom followed the great fire. The entire section destroyed by the fire was rebuilt and many other places of entertainment and amusements were added, and the area was further developed as a seaside resort...making Rockaway widely regarded as "The Playground of New York".

The Rockaway resort area offered various amusements and rides, including George Tilyou's Amusement park. In 1896, on the Fourth of July, the Seaside Amusement Company officially opened its doors to the public. This park was the future home of Rockaways' Playland. Built in 1901, Playland became world renowned and was the home of the Cinerama coaster, an Olympic size swimming pool, and a million dollar midway. It was eventually bought by the Geist family of Rockaway. Millions enjoyed the long days they spent with family and friends at the beach, followed by a trip to Playland. It lasted until 1985, when it could no longer compete with major regional theme parks being developed all over the country.

On July 1, 1897 the Village of Rockaway Park was incorporated into the City of Greater New York. Streets were graded and sections of Rockaway Park, Belle Harbor and Neponsit began to be developed.

The completion of the Cross Bay Bridge in 1925, the further development of the beach and boardwalk in 1930, the completion of the Marine Parkway Bridge in 1937 and the improvements to the railroad services in 1941 were all the factors that made Rockaway more accessible to the working class people of New York.

The popularity of the Rockaways as a vacation spot began to decline significantly after World War II, when advances in transportation made more distant resorts and summer attractions more accessible and desirable. Businesses began to close down and only a handful of the main resort hotels remained as rooming houses and apartments. Many others were destroyed by fires or torn down as part of a large scale development projects and urban renewal programs.

Apartment houses, that numbered six in 1900, now exceed 200. The population of the Rockaways continued to increase from 80,000 in 1960 to just over 100,000 today.

The Rockaway Irish In Old Time Rockaway

After the Revolutionary War most of the British sympathizers choose not to stay and settle in New York. Irish names like Wilson, Everet, Higbie, Innis and Mills are examples of those found in local militia who organized in Hempstead town, which was part of Rockaway at the time, and areas known as Near Rockaway (Oceanside) and Far Rockaway.

During the War of 1812, a block-house was built at the point of the Rockaway peninsula, at approximately Beach 137 street, and manned round the clock by the military of New York City. Irishmen with last names like Finnegan Craig, McGuire, McGowan, Smith and Sweeney served here at Fort Decatur.

During the great Irish immigration to the United States in the mid 19th century, some immigrants settled in Far Rockaway. The "Sons of Ireland" living in Far Rockaway at the time listed names such as: Moran, Caffrey, McCarthy, Kelly, Reilly, Mulhearn, Hickey and Fitzpatrick. They all contributed to the development of the area, which by the 1850's became known as the Irish Saratoga.

Meanwhile, the Seaside section of the Rockaways began to grow as a summer resort. Many hotels and bath houses, complete with watering holes and restaurants, were constructed for the masses seeking relief at the seashore from the hot inner city. A local map dated in 1886 revealed examples of some of the following Irish surnames in Seaside: O'Brien, Norton, Curley, McLain, Farrell, Fannagan, Coghlan, Griffin and Ryan. As early as 1881 there were 48 bars in Seaside, most of which were operated by Irish owners.

After the great Seaside Fire, some proprietors began to rebuild new and larger establishments. Newcomers also bought land and put up hotels and amusements.

In 1893, James Keenan founded The Wave, Rockaway's community newspaper. By the turn of the century, Seaside, "Old Irish Town", resounded with names like McIntosh, McKeon, Finan, McVey, Kavanagh, Flynn, Allen, and Gilmore.

After World War I, peacetime brought the Roaring 20's. Prohibition, however, did not completely dry up the watering holes in Seaside. By 1933, when the Volstead Act was repealed, Seaside once again became the Mecca for the parched. Some of the favorite oases were: Allen's Dancehall, Grogans, Dick Smyth'', Hugh McNulty's, Michael Gilfather, Curly % Burns, J. Buckley, J. Rogers, Billings and Murphy, Hickey's, Harrington's, and the Crystal Hotel, just to mention a few.

The good times lasted until the beginning of World War II. Many establishments closed for the duration, with the remaining open ones taking up the slack, Servicemen were treated as royalty; and, despite rationing, good times were still to be had in Rockaway.

After World War II, Old Irish Town had a marvelous rebirth. In the 1950's, Playland was the center of attraction. The main attractions in Seaside now were the many bars in the area. These included O'Gara's Sligo House, The White House, Harbor Rest, Maher's, Smyth's, the Park Inn, the Mermaid Inn, Boggiano's and McWalter's, the Last Stop Inn, Riordan's, Gildea's, and the Irish Circle. In the name of civic improvement, less than a decade later, most of the section was torn down. Hi-rise apartments, a sewage disposal plant, shopping centers and parking lots, replaced the bungalows, bars, hotels and gaiety of Old Irishtown.

The portion of the old boulevard between Beach 108 street and Beach 109 street plays host each July to Rockaway's Irish Festival, and the Rockaway St. Patrick's Day, held the first Saturday in March, returns each year "No matter what!" (Excerpts taken from 100th Anniversary Collector's Edition, The Wave, July 24, 1993, Emil Lucev, Historian)

Broad Channel

Broad Channel is the only inhabited island in Jamaica Bay, connected to the mainland and the Rockaway peninsula by Cross Bay boulevard and its two bridges. It was at first just a small sand island surrounded by marsh, with only a few fishermen's shacks. But, by 1880, with the coming of the Bay Railroad, four large hotels and a fishing station were constructed in Broad Channel within a year; two on each side of the railroad trestle which crossed the island.

About the same time, two small villages, on stilts, The Raunt and Goose Creek, were established. Access to the villages was proved by elevated wooded walks and all necessities were brought to the villages by train.

The island was expanded by landfill and, by 1912, the City of New York took ownership. The Cross Bay Bridge opened in 1924 and Cross Bay Road was completed in 1926. By that time there were approximately 2,000 structures on the island and it continued to develop rapidly, eventually becoming a year-round residential community.

Breezy Point

Breezy Point has been described as "the playground of the chic Brooklyn Irish on the stylish Queens peninsula". It was not always a cooperative. In earlier days, bungalows could be rented in Breezy by city folks for as little as $20 a season. Today, a family spends upward of $5,000 to rent for the summer season and the prices of homes now range from the low $100,000's to upwards of $300,000.

In 1960, 800 acres were sold to the Atlantic Improvement State Corporation for $17,000,000. The residents of this seasonal community then got together and purchased half of the land for over $11,000,000 and the cooperative was formed. Breezy Point remains today a quiet private community consisting of about 3,500 homes, more than half of which are now lived in year 'round.

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