For 90 years, everyone who has lived on Long Island for more than a few months or who has visited Jones Beach State Park has had a favorite story about it. The official anniversary of the park’s opening was Aug. 4, and it was marked with the opening of a series of new facilities, including WildPlay Adventure Park, as well as the “Great Gatsby”-themed restaurant in the West Bathhouse, which once housed the offices of Legendary New York builder Robert Moses, who designed the park.
Seaford native Donna Schneider’s favorite memory is of four or five of her 13 siblings packing themselves into the family car after Sunday Mass at St. William the Abbot Catholic Church and heading off with their father for an afternoon of surf and seaside antics.
With more than 6.5 million visitors a year, the beach averages about a quarter million beachgoers a week at the peak of the summer season, according to George “Chip” Gorman, regional director of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, who has worked at the facility for 42 years.
“My mom” — 99-year-old Dorothy Meinke — “didn’t like the beach, so she’d stay home with the rest of my brothers and sisters,” Schneider recalled. “My dad worked two jobs, but if he’d had a good week, my mom would make cream cheese and jelly sandwiches, and we’d all pile in to the car, as many as would fit.”
If the children were reasonably well behaved, the afternoon would be capped by pizza and treats from Carvel, she said. “It was always Jones Beach during the summer.” She remembered the “pencil” — the tower that still provides the facility with 350,000 gallons of fresh water annually, according to Gorman, who once cleaned the beachfront with a bag and a stick.
Seaford Historical Society Vice President Judy Bongiovi has her own memories of going to the beach with her girlfriends, and eventually her boyfriends, including her husband. We used to take the bus from Verity Plaza,” Bongiovi recounted. “The beach was always such a welcome relief.”
But she also described how Seaford contributed to the park’s construction. “You can still see a big depression in Wantagh Park where Moses scooped out sand” to help create the beach, she said.
Cathy Powell, president of the Wantagh Chamber of Commerce, spoke of her hamlet in the way it is traditionally referred to on local signage — as the “Gateway to Jones Beach.” And Powell has her own happy memories of heading off to the beach with friends, and later to concerts with her future husband. “We used to count bunnies on our way to the beach,” she said.
Bongiovi has a slightly different take on the “gateway.” “The shoreline south of Seaford is actually straighter and longer than from Wantagh,” she said, laughing. And a ferry service ran south from Seaford to what was then High Hill Beach before the Wantagh Parkway existed, she said.
“The entire boardwalk had to be raised to 17 feet above sea level,” Gorman said — and all the islands in what was then mostly marshland had to be filled in. Moses had 45 million cubic yards of sand dredged from the ocean bottom and brought in from other locations to create the boardwalk, Gorman said.
Originally named High Hill Beach, the area was once a destination for Seaford and Wantagh residents, as well vacationing New Yorkers, Gorman said. Make-shift ferries departed from Seaford, taking residents to cottages that were subsequently relocated by barge or truck to Gilgo Beach, according to Bongiovi. Many of the cottages are still in use, she said.
Jones Beach was Moses’s first large-scale project in the area. Named for Maj. Thomas Jones, an officer in the Queens County Militia in the 18th century, it is the largest public beach in the world, Gorman said, stretching some six miles along the boardwalk.
In 1930, in the interest of entertaining beachgoers with other attractions, Moses persuaded a Lakota Indian woman, Rose Bud Yellow Robe, to open a Plains Indian crafts village at the beach, replete with three teepees. Beginning in 1930, the attraction ran until the 1950s, Gorman said, and was enormously popular.
In interviews with the Rapid City, S.D., Journal, Rosebud described teaching “tens of thousands” of children about Indian lore, both at the village and in local schools.
State Sen. John Brooks described the musical attractions at the band shell on Zach’s Bay, including the conductor Guy Lombardo, who would arrive in a “beautiful mahogany speedboat.”
Hurricane Sandy left enormous devastation in its wake in 2012, according to Gorman. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s commitment to the park was unwavering, he added. State workers labored long shifts planting the sea grass necessary to anchor the dunes in place and prevent further erosion. As a result, the park was able to reopen with minimal disruption.
Brooks and Gorman both praised Cuomo’s and the state’s ongoing efforts to help restore and develop the park. “The state has poured enormous investment into upgrading the facility, both as a family entertainment venue and an education center and nature preserve,” Brooks said.
In addition, efforts have continued to develop reefs offshore to protect against erosion. Bike paths have been extended, and now run some 11 miles. And Adventure Park recently opened to much fanfare.
‘The next 10 years should see even more improvements,” Brooks said. “I give the governor a lot of credit for the work he’s had done here.”