• TVHS

Isle of Shells: A History of Long Island Beaches

by Kristen J. Nyitray, April 2020


Thank you to the Three Village Historical Society for this opportunity to share research from my book Long Island Beaches, an illustrated history of our beautiful shores featuring vintage postcards, photographs, and maps. My talk “Isle of Shells: A History of Long Island Beaches” for the society’s lecture series is postponed, but I look forward to presenting in the future. For now, I have prepared an overview with a few historical postcards of Three Village Area beaches that may be familiar to you!

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For centuries, Long Island’s beaches have provided sustenance, relaxation, and inspiration. The coastline is renowned for its sandy Atlantic Ocean surf beaches, calm bayfront beaches, and rugged north shore Long Island Sound beaches. For millennia, wind, water, and sediments have converged to create the island’s beach systems. 

Long Island’s history is uniquely intertwined with its beaches. In his poem “Paumanok,” Walt Whitman described Long Island as “isle of the salty shore and breeze and brine.” The earliest Native American inhabitants respected the pristine shorelines, regarding them as sacred resources that provided subsistence. The area was called Sewanhacky ("Isle of Shells") in reverence to the offerings received where the water met the land. Beaches were sites of whaling, fishing, and collecting clams and whelk to fashion wampum. In the 17th century, Dutch and English settlers recognized the economic potential of beaches, which became desirable areas for land ownership. During the American Revolution, accurate understanding and navigation of coastlines were critical for informing military tactics, maintaining the economy, and transmitting intelligence. In the late 18th century, shipwrecks caused by treacherous sea conditions, shoals, and sandbars spurred construction of life saving stations and lighthouses across Long Island. 

In the mid-to-late 19th century, beaches shifted from places fraught with danger to places of respite and fresh beginnings. Long Island became a tourist haven with beaches as the lure, creating new sources of income and summer colonies. This transformative change was influenced by advances in transportation, particularly steamships and the Long Island Rail Road. Suggestions of restorative health benefits gained from breathing salt air and swimming in pure waters were also heavily marketed. During prohibition (1920-1933) in the United States, Long Island’s beaches were sites of illegal transfers of rum and other alcohols. 

The golden age of postcards was 1907 to 1915, and Long Island beaches were a popular subject found pictured on them. In the larger historical context, postcards are visual culture that document and communicate points of view, social norms, and history. Today, technology has reimagined traditional postcards as Instagram and Facebook posts, but the premise of forming social connections by sharing brief, written personal sentiments coupled with images remains lasting and unchanged. 

This photograph and real photo postcard were produced in summer 1907 by prolific Long Island photographer Arthur S. Greene (1867-1955). The note on the card was written in 1938 by A.G. Hallock. Reflecting on his past, Hallock states he worked for Greene and accompanied him when this photograph was taken. In his “p.s.,” Hallock identified the location as West Meadow Beach near Stony Brook and the subjects as summer boarders. The first public suggestion of a park at West Meadow Beach was made by local resident and philanthropist Eversley Childs (1867-1953) to the Town of Brookhaven board on May 19, 1908. Later that year on November 21, Childs and others conveyed their “land at West Meadow for the uses and purposes of a public park forever.” (Both, courtesy of the TVHS.)

The subjects of these two real photo postcards produced a year apart are summer boarders of all ages at Pine View House, the c. 1710 Eleazer Hawkins Homestead, in Stony Brook. The c. 1907 photograph above is attributed toIsrael Hawkins and the c. 1906 photograph below was taken by Arthur S. Greene. The location is the vicinity of Sand Street Beach, Shipman’s Beach, and West Meadow Beach in Stony Brook. Evelina Hawkins and her proprietor husband Israel G. Hawkins opened theboarding house and hotel in 1898 which accommodated up to 25 guests. It was situated near a pine grove within afive minutewalk to the beaches. (Both, courtesy of the TVHS.)

Shipman’s Beach (above) and Stony Brook Beach or Sand Street Beach (below) overlook Stony Brook Harbor. Popular activities here include swimming, kayaking, and fishing. Wetlands and tidal salt marshes provide habitat to shorebirds including egrets, osprey, and piping plovers. To the east, the area adjoins West Meadow Beach along the Long Island Sound and Smithtown Bay. (Both, courtesy of a private collector.)


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