2003-12-26 / Columnists

Historical Views of the Rockaways

From The Rockaway MuseumDedicated To The Memory Of Leon S. Locke
Broad Channel Historical Notes
by Emil Lucev, Curator
Historical Views of the Rockaways From The Rockaway Museum by Emil Lucev, Curator Dedicated To The Memory Of Leon S. Locke Broad Channel Historical Notes

Historical Views
of the Rockaways
From The Rockaway Museum
Dedicated To The Memory Of Leon S. Locke
Broad Channel Historical Notes


The  arrow points to the beach in the giant bar that separated Jamaica Bay (X) from the Atlantic Ocean during early Colonial times. Map courtesy of NY State Archive.The arrow points to the beach in the giant bar that separated Jamaica Bay (X) from the Atlantic Ocean during early Colonial times. Map courtesy of NY State Archive.

Thousands of years ago, according to Fuller’s Geology of Long Island (1914), the great glacier, whose terminal moraine can still be seen on Long Island from Southwest Brooklyn to Montauk on the east end, melted, receded and advanced again a few times. This happened before the great meltdown which occurred at the end of the last ice age.

It is believed by some geologists and glacialogists, that during the last advance a glacial prong (a local extension) came down the easterly side of the Rockaway ridge. This ridge comes southeasterly from Valley Stream down to the ocean shore at Far Rockaway. In 1879, the Southside Railroad to Far Rockaway was built on this ridge and today the present Long Island Rail Road, which has been cut off at Nameoke Street.

How far the prong extended has yet to be determined by the experts on the subject, but the sheer weight of the ice is said to have compressed the glacial till or layers of runoff washed out of the glacier with the meltwater. When this prong melted/receded, a sort of bowl shaped depression was left between southeast Brooklyn and Rockaway ridge.

As the melting continued, the glacial lake flushing came to be behind the terminal moraine left on the north side of Long Island. The great lake was drained to the bed of the Atlantic Ocean, due to the great inundation into the lake by the meltdown and the rising of the land under the area due to the release of the great weight, which was depressing the terra firma.

When the dam broke, so to speak, waters drained out in what we call at present the Hudson Canyon (an extension of the river presently under the ocean) and the rock or glacial till dam was near the site of the present Verrazano Bridge crossing lower New York Harbor between Brooklyn and Staten Island. At the eastern end of Long Island, the glacial till was broached above the north fork and melt water ran southeast to the ocean through what is known today as Four Mile Wide Race.

As the melt continued, it has been said that the ocean level came up to within two and a half feet higher than at present. Others believe the land area subsided.

Before this rise in the ocean, the bowl like depression left by the glacial prong mentioned previously, began to fill up with various silts washed down from the high ground of the glacial deposit or terminal moraine to the north. The ocean height reached that elevation about eleven hundred years ago, the time that the Vikings explored our neck of the woods if you will. In their sagas, the Vikings described the south shore of Long Island as having magnificent furdustrands, or beaches. It is even written that they feasted on the flesh of a whale found on the vestigial bar across what is now the Lower New York Bay.

The great sands or beaches described by the Viking Explorers most likely blew around like a desert scene. The sands were brought by the ancient littoral drift before the ocean level dropped a thousand years ago.

When this resurgence of ice ended hundreds of years ago, ocean levels began to rise again to the present levels…and are still rising! When it will stop is anybody’s guess. Even the experts do not know.

We do know that up to this point in time that the outer beaches of Long Island, of which the Rockaway Peninsula is part, were formed by the littoral drift of sand as the ocean rose to the present height, and that this ocean rise put Jamaica Bay on a salt water level once more.

We also know what the offshore areas of Lower New York Bay and Jamaica Bay looked like at the time the Dutch settlers came to settle in New York in 1624.

Most of these early maps showed shoaling sands that seem to be on the increase. Some maps were copied or added to by others, claiming that they were original. Some maps are scoffed at as being absurd, but the art of making maps in the old days left a lot to be desired. That is perfectly understandable when you put yourself in the other guy’s shoes. He drew what he saw and tried to put it down on paper as best he could. But the idea of accumulating sands bore fruit with the Hubbard map of 1666. Before Hubbard’s map, sand bars and shoals were increasing to the point of closing off Jamaica Bay from the ocean as shown on the 1666 map.

Hubbard described the closure of Jamaica Bay with a bar an English mile wide with lots of sand hills upon it, from Far Rockaway to Brooklyn, with one outlet to the ocean. Waters drained out of the bay through the marshes of the present Floyd Bennett Field to the area of the present Dead Horse Bay.

As fantastic and unbelievable as it sounds, Hubbard drew his map in order to settle a land dispute, and drew it exactly as he saw it. There are those who say that Hubbard’s Map is corrupt and not to scale and incorrectly drawn. If you look at the map – correctly – it as just as accurate as a map of the present.

In 1667, a great hurricane struck our area and broke through this bar creating an inlet at about where the current Crossbay/Veterans Memorial Bridge and parking areas but across the present peninsula. An English mile is about a thousand feet less than our mile measure, so that must have been one big storm!

So far we have covered thousands of years of geological history, and a pinpoint of local history. Now let us get down to some brass tracks.

When the bar was opened by the great snowstorm of 1667, a record was made of this in what was described as the Ryder map of 1670, and I believe that map is dated incorrectly. My information on the storm comes from the National Hurricane Center, and new maps are usually drawn a short time after a change, not three years later. Directly to the north of this opening in the bar, as always is in this type of event, a huge accumulation of sand in the shape of an island, which I believe became the physical foundation for the present marsh island in Jamaica Bay that we know as Broad Channel.

Later maps, both crude and detailed, only show shifting sands in the bay area. It was not until 1797 that actual marsh islands, described as submerged by higher tides, appeared on maps. At this time boundaries of towns and counties were being firmed up. For my case, Broad Channel was once known as Hog Island or Hog Marsh, not because of pigs kept there, simply because in Swedish or Scandinavian, the word hog means a heap or pile of sand looking like a hog’s back. In the old days, Swedish fisherman from Chesapeake Bay fished in our area and a few place names in the bay can be traced to a Swedish origin.

Besides Hog Marsh, Blue Marsh and Flat Marsh as well as Big Egg along with Little Egg Marshes were shown as Broad Channel in the early cartographic processes. At times, the Channel was shown as two or three marsh islands. Goose Pond Marsh was the last favored name for the area until the New York, Woodhaven and Rockaway Railroad built a line over Jamaica Bay to the Rockaways in 1880. In the early part of 1882, the influx of fishermen caused a station to be built, named after the waterway or deep channel which passed the place…Broad Channel.

The first seasonal inhabitants, before the coming of the railroad, were oystermen, fishermen and boatmen who are said to have kept shacks, shanties, storm huts or buildings for shelter, storage, or security of their lives, possessions or leased oyster beds and favorite fishing holes.

There were about a dozen or so of these hearty souls in the beginning, and this blossomed into thousands after the turn of the century.

Before the first Rockaway Inlet was opened by the great hurricane of 1667, it was noted earlier that waters drained out of the bay to the southwest, through Barren Island Marsh Creeks (Floyd Bennett Field) to a single outlet close to the present Dead Horse Bay. Drainage channels in the enclosed bay most likely were minimal in size and depth.

Now with the new inlet directly to the south, tidal waters could now gush out of the bay much faster with tidal changes, causing more and deeper channels to be cut gradually.

By 1814, an official paper to Governor Thompkins of New York, noted that there was only one good channel (the archaic Beach Channel) along the north shore of the peninsula, and that all others were of some value at high tide only. The other channels were not even marked on the map submitted with the report during the War of 1812. Also noted in this report was that the Jamaica Bay was a big tidal flat at high tide.

For almost 300 years, Rockaway Inlet has migrated westerly and changed from a north/south direction to a southwesterly one. And to make a long story short, the bay channels have also adjusted accordingly, and have gotten longer and deeper with time. Dredging of the bay bottom for deeper navigable channels and landfill projects, plus high contemporary tides that increase the volume of water flowing at tidal changes, had and are still washing away sediments upon which bay marshes grow. These sediments took hundreds of years to accumulate and are disappearing at an alarming rate.

It could very well be that Jamaica Bay will become one big sand flat during this century, after all the marshes become history. Then someone will come along and fill it in for a housing development.


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