2005-12-09 / Community

Paper Examines The Queens-Nassau Border

By Tori Toth

  • It’s an invisible line but the Queens-Nassau border has had an enormous influence on life in the Rockaways for more than a century.
  • Ever wonder why the Town of Hempstead turned its back on this beachfront community?

    The town’s decision had upset many Rockaway residents. Once the city owned the Rockaways “many residents wished they were still a part of Hempstead after the city failed to uphold their promises,” according to Emil Lucev, Wave historian.

    The history and impact of the border, which separates suburbanites from city dwellers and determines taxes, schools and municipal services, is examined in “The Location of the Queens-Nassau Border” by Patricia T. Caro, which is reprinted in “Nassau County, From Rural Hinterland to Suburban Metropolis,” Empire State Books, Interlaken, New York, 2000.

    Caro’s research found that the border came into existence in 1899 only after the city split Queens County one year earlier. But, defining the location of the line was difficult.

    Although there was a pre-existing line between the towns of Flushing from North Hempstead Caro wrote the city, “only approximated the boundary lines between the Town of Jamaica and the Town of Hempstead” causing a headache for lawmakers.

    Jamaica shared nearly 23 miles with Hempstead most of it along the Rockaway Peninsula.

    Residents on the peninsula believed it made more sense to be a part of Hempstead. Caro said, “Until the twentieth century, it was far easier to travel from Rockaway to Hempstead than to Jamaica” or other parts of Queens.

    But in 1898, Hempstead gave the city the peninsula from Rockaway Beach-Shelter Island Inlet westward to create Greater New York. The book states the peninsula lay under the radar for years because the area was just west of the Welles Line, Hempstead’s principal legal landmark.

    The town never realized what they had, however, the city did. The peninsula was deemed critical to Greater New York to achieve maritime prominence through Jamaica Bay.

    The peninsula would “define the eastern edge of the entrance to the harbor and its six miles of length would protect the bay,” according to Caro.

    The city believed that obtaining the first inlet would allow Greater New York to have all of Jamaica Bay plus room for shoreline development.

    Disputes erupted over ownership of the land as Shelter Island and the spit of Plum Gut changed their shape and location.

    Caro found, “the channel between Rockaway Beach and Shelter Island had moved thirty-five hundred feet westward” in four years.

    There was also another issue looming over the border. The Senate amended the bill to extend the cities territory. She suggests, all of Queens would be “excluded from [the bill] and it would provide the annexation of Brooklyn and Long Island City only.”

    The Greater New York bill passed in 1894 without adopting the land in Queens. However, later that year, Queens County residents voted in favor of the referendum—awarding parts of Queens County to the city.

    Shortly after the vote, The Town of Hempstead hired Thomas V. Smith, a civil engineer to map the boundary line. Caro’s work revealed, “Greater New York was a straight line that closely paralleled [former landmark] the Welles Line.” The town board accepted his plans.

    But many were not satisfied with Smith’s map, “the boundary bisected several election districts and left their voters disenfranchised,” Caro found. Some of the county’s wealthiest individuals were also unhappy with owning land in the city.

    A town judge proposed the line should be redrawn to accommodate citizens in election districts and to retain a valuable piece of land owned by the upper class.

    When Hempstead’s town board agreed to change the line, the Queens County Board of Supervisors decided to take them to court.

    Although, Caro said, “the issue never made it to court. On January 1, 1898, Greater New York became a reality and it included all of the lands west” of Smith’s boundary line.

    The city now owned more than seven percent of Hempstead—including the Rockaway Peninsula.

    The remaining towns outside of the city—The Towns of Oyster Bay, North Hempstead and the rest of Hempstead—grew bitter.

    They wanted to reorganize their political and administrative functions something that became difficult Caro suggests as “western Queens became more urban and Democratic while eastern Queens remained largely rural and Republican.”

    The three towns eventually became Nassau County in 1899 creating the Queens-Nassau border.

    Some parts of Greater New York were returned to The Town of Hempstead after Assemblyman Wilbur Doughty proposed a bill to reclaim its land. Caro emphasized, “Inwood, parts of Lawrence,” and the area that is now called Valley Stream, Elmont, and southwestern Floral Park were returned as part of a desperate plea “to salvage the high and dry areas” that were most valuable.

    The Rockaways, however, was left to fend for itself in the cityscape.

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