2003-10-03 / Columnists

From the

By Howard Schwach
From the Editor’s Desk By Howard Schwach

A while back, we asked readers to respond to the question of what they thought was the most important event in Rockaway history.

Only one person responded. He thought that the 1919 transatlantic flight of the NC-4 was the most important event. I guess that event was the winner of the poll by default.

For an historian, even a minor league historian like myself, it was disheartening.

If there is anything that I learned by looking through the 110 years of Wave archives for our special July 110th Anniversary Issue, it is that Rockaway has a long and rich history, something to be savored by those who live here today.

Rockaway did not begin with the Golden Venture, with the World Trade Center, with the crash of American Airlines into Belle Harbor; all stories that drew massive national and international coverage.

The European chapter of the Rockaway story began in 1685, when Captain John Palmer bought Rockaway from the Leni Lenape (literal translation, "Ourselves"), a branch of the Canarsie tribe, which in turn was a sub-tribe of the Algonquin’s.

Five years later, Palmer sold the land to Richard Cornell, who then built a home and moved onto the land.

There is little evidence that the Leni Lenepe (often mistakenly called the Rechouwhacky Indians in deference to the sandy area in which they reportedly lived and worked) ever lived in Rockaway. It is more likely that mainland Native Americans came to the beach often to fish and to pick shells that were used as wampum (trade bracelets and belts).

In any case, the first report that Rockaway was important to the outside world was that a large black post had been planted on the last point of Rockaway land (called Blackmast Punt, or point. To this day, nobody is sure where the westernmost point of Rockaway stood in those days) to tell Dutch ships when they were entering the Nieu Amsterdam harbor. Nobody seems to know just who put the post up, but it acted as a guide to navigation for a number of years.

What brings this nostalgia up at this point is the fact that the Rockaway Museum (which resides in The Wave Building at 88-08 Rockaway Beach Boulevard), is reorganizing and planning an expansion.

The first major exhibit to be undertaken by the "New" Rockaway Museum is a Playland Retrospective.

While the museum holds many maps and artifacts from the late, lamented amusement park, those who are planning the exhibit want this to be a hands-on Rockaway happening.

For that reason, the museum is asking long-time Rockaway residents (or their descendents) to dig deep into those memory banks and into long-forgotten trunks to come up with remembrances, pictures, movies, slides, documents, artifacts, etc. of Playland in both its heyday and in its declining period.

Those who donate material will be credited in the museum exhibition and in the program for the exhibition.

Those who have material or remembrances to contribute can do so through The Wave.

This could be a large step forward, a museum of our own that will tell our story.

It is time to get on board, even if you do not believe that history is important in the scheme of things.

There were many things that made Rockaway important to the world at large.

Playland was only one of those things, a magnet for the middle class looking to beat the heat in the other four boroughs.

There were others:

Irish Town, in its heyday, was another of those things;

The playground at Beach 108 Street and Shore Front Parkway, where the McGuire brothers (whose father owned a bar where Snug Harbour now stands) drew the best basketball players in the nation for ad-hoc games that were better than the nascent NBA;

The massive summer hotels that, for decades, drew crowds of tourists to Rockaway’s beaches;

Morrison’s Theater, which, in the 1900’s drew acts such as Eddie Cantor, George Burns, Jack Benny and Henny Yougman to Rockaway shores;

The flight of the NC-4, which took off from Rockaway (where Roxbury now stands) and made the first transatlantic flight across the Atlantic Ocean (it was not no-stop as Lindbergh’s flight was eight years later);

The row upon row of bungalows from Beach 25 Street to Beach 108 Street, that drew summer residents by the tens of thousands each summer and made a thriving business of such boardwalk regulars as Jerry’s Knishes, Tuckeecup and the penny arcade;

The burning of the Long Island Railroad trestle and its resurrection as the subway A Line. The coming of the subway opened Rockaway to development of city housing projects that might have sealed its fate as a summer tourist destination as well as a destination for developers;

The coming of the housing project and the growth of crime in Rockaway, causing a White flight that still exists today in some areas;

The revitalization of the peninsula, still going on, that brought a new home to every empty lot on the peninsula, including, finally, the Arverne Urban Renewal Area;

The Golden Venture, which dumped hundreds of Chinese illegal immigrants into the Rockaway surf;

The World Trade Center attack, which impacted Rockaway more than any other community in the nation;

The crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in Belle Harbor;

The storms, the blizzards, the shipwrecks.

All of those events, many which achieved national and international noteriety, are part of Rockaway history and all will be addressed by the museum in due course.

It is an exciting course, aparticularly for those of us interested in history, and one that you should get involved in if you have any feeling at all for the history of the peninsula.

You can do so by helping the Rockaway museum.

It is all about you and your past, the events that shaped Rockaway, and you can be there.

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