Rockaway Museum Brings Home Local History
History tells us that Charles Lindbergh was the first to fly across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis. We assume that Atlantic City and Coney Island were the places where people vacationed when they wanted to make use of the beaches on the east coast in late 1800’s, early 1900’s.
If you wanted to know where the largest hotel in the world was located in the late 1800’s you’d probably guess Europe. There is just one problem with those statements – they are either wrong or incomplete.
The first transatlantic flight took off from the Rockaways, Rockaway Beach rivaled Atlantic City and Coney Island and the world’s largest hotel once stood, you guessed it, in the Rockaways. The Rockaway Museum is where you will learn all that and more about a community that is approximately 350 years old.
Harold Cornell, the Acting Director, recently discussed the museum’s history and took this writer on a personal tour of the place. The museum was the brainchild of the former publisher of The Wave, the late Leon Locke.
"This was a dream of his for many years," said Cornell. "About seven, eight years ago a group of us, with Leon, organized a museum.
"It was a labor of love on Leon’s part. It was a labor of love on all our parts. It allows us to give the people of Rockaway a sense of what their community once was, and what it is today and, hopefully, some of the vision we might have for tomorrow."
A lot of the items in the museum come from the collection of Leon Locke, who Cornell called an "avid collector of artifacts," a fact that Locke’s wife, Susan, seconds.
"He was very interested in history – especially Rockaway," said Susan Locke, the current publisher of The Wave and a trustee at the museum. "He always had a lot of memorabilia and he wanted to get [the museum] off the ground.
"He loved to collect things, and he gave a lot to the museum."
The Rockaway Museum’s archives are a combination of things it brought and things that were donated by residents of the Rockaways.
The floor of the entrance walkway to the museum is authentic Rockaway. Actual wooden boards from the old Rockaway Boardwalk gives a ‘you are there’ feeling.
"When they ripped up the old boardwalk, we managed to have them save some of [the boards] for us," said Cornell.
On the left hand side of the walkway is a mural painted by one of the museum’s trustees – Steve Yeager. On the right side of the walkway are photographs of Rockaway bridges that were donated by The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.
The huge faces on the wall inside the museum come from Rockaway Playland.
"These are the actual masks that were at Playland," said Cornell, who pointed out that the Playland signs were also originals.
A painting depicting Playland by Cornell’s wife, Arlene, is also displayed. Sitting prominently in the museum is a blue go-cart that once called Rockaway Beach Boulevard (across from Playland) its home.
An exhibit called "Time In A Bottle" displays bottles that date from 1872 to approximately 1919. The historian for The Wave, Emil Lucev, wrote about the exhibit "All of these antique glass containers have been dug out and recovered from the marshes of Jamaica Bay and old buildings in the Rockaways…as well as construction sites and empty lots."
Lucev points out that close inspection of the bottles show names of local Rockaway Bottlers of the era. The exhibit includes maps and photos that indicate where many bottles found.
Air travel, past and present, is also displayed. The museum bought a model of the Concorde from British Airways for $15. Adjacent to the Concorde is a photo history of the first plane to fly across the Atlantic – the NC-4.
"What they did is, they shipped the NC-4 over from the Curtiss Plant [in Garden City, Long Island] in parts and pieces and then they assembled it in Rockaway Beach at the Rockaway Naval Air Station," explained Cornell. "Which, by the way, was about 150 to 200 feet east of the Marine Parkway Bridge on the Bay."
The NC-4 (along with the NC-1 and the NC-3) took off from the Rockaway Naval Air Station at Rockaway Beach on May 8, 1919. It stopped in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, The Azores, Portugal, Spain and it finally Plymouth, England on May 31. This made Charles Lindbergh’s flight, eight years later, the second flight across the Atlantic (but the first solo flight).
There is also a model of the NC-4 in the museum, as well as actual video of the planes taking off from Rockaway Beach. The original NC-4 is on display at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida.
Some of the other items displayed are: an old-style typesetting machine donated by Leon Locke; ice tongs used for delivering ice in the Rockaways at a time when there was still no refrigerators; old postcards of the Rockaways and black and white photos of parades and holiday celebrations from times long past.
Summer was the major business for the Rockaways. The population would soar from five or seven thousand in the winter to close to 100,000 people during the summer months.
"Very few people know that the largest hotel in the world was built in Rockaway – in the 1860’s," said Cornell, referring to the Rockaway Beach Hotel that ran from Beach 110 Street to Beach 116 Street. "At one time Rockaway was the playland of very wealthy people."
Funding for the museum comes from the sale of tee-shirts, sweatshirts, books and other souvenirs as well as grants from such high profile politicians as City Councilman Joseph Addabbo, Jr. and Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer. Yet, it is not enough.
"We run hand to mouth, always borderline," said Cornell. "We don’t have any major endowments. We don’t have any big fundraising opportunities.
"We certainly don’t get the support that the museum in the Five Towns gets – Rock Hall."
Yet, there is no doubt this is an exciting time for the Rockaway Museum. Plans are being made to develop new exhibits, with the hopes of bringing three or four a year to the citizens of the community. The museum is also hoping to bring in more grants.
In the meantime, you can check out the museum on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from noon to 4pm. It is located at 88-08 Rockaway Beach Boulevard in The Wave Building. Micki Couglin, the Docent (official museum guide), will be pleased to give you a tour.
The Rockaway Museum is a place for all the citizens of the Rockaways – young and old – to learn about the place in which they live. To Harold Cornell, knowing about where you come from is extremely important.
"I think if you know where you come from – the community understands its history – what was – they could envision something for the future that can be better than what is."