Jones Beach turns 85: Robert Moses' vision had birth pangs

Throngs fill Jones Beach on July 28,1940; at Throngs fill Jones Beach on July 28,1940; at that time this section was called East Beach. Photo Credit: New York State Parks, Recreation

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Moses parted the political waters and Jones Beach appeared.

Well, eventually, and with the help of some unlikely bedfellows in the 1920s.

Monday marks the 85th anniversary of Jones Beach State Park, whose beachfront not only attracts millions of visitors annually but was recently voted by more than 500,000 Long Islanders as the second-most iconic thing about Long Island. (Singer Billy Joel won the top spot.)

But were it not for compromise, negotiation and trust on the part of a developer and two Republican politicians in Hempstead Town, Jones Beach would never have even been a contender.


Opposition on Long Island

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For developer Robert Moses, his greatest creation -- the impeccably designed, fastidiously maintained, oceanfront park in Wantagh reached by parkways laid through the shallow bays of the South Shore -- owes its existence to then Hempstead Town Supervisor G. Wilbur Doughty and Assemb. Thomas McWhinney of Lawrence.

In 1924, when Albany announced its intention to create a series of parks around Long Island, as part of an overall expansion of the state park system, local politicians reacted with anger. As they saw it, the new parks would bring the teeming masses of New York City streaming into their bucolic communities, turning Long Island into Coney Island.

Besides, the idea of the state strong-arming towns, villages and private landholders into giving up their land -- not only for Jones Beach, but for the entire system of parks that was being proposed by Moses -- was offensive.

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"They are here to make plans for all of us on Long Island," Babylon's Assemb. John Boyle said in a meeting with Moses present. "We don't want people coming in and telling us where we shall have parks, when there is no public demand for them."

The opposition extended to the printed page.

"Babylon wants this land which is hers . . . for nearly a century and a half before the state came into existence," thundered the Babylon Leader, a local newspaper at the time. "Keep it . . . never surrender an inch."

The crown jewel of the proposed new parks system was Jones Beach, then a remote, oft-flooded stretch of sand only reachable by boat. The land for the park was owned by three townships in two different counties: Babylon in Suffolk, the Town of Oyster Bay in eastern Nassau and the Town of Hempstead in western Nassau, which owned the majority of the land that now constitutes Jones Beach State Park.

Babylon had made its position on the issue clear. Oyster Bay followed suit: Thousands of residents joined a "Save Our Beaches" committee that was organized to stop Moses' efforts to get control of their slice of Jones Beach.

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In a referendum on Election Day in 1925, voters of the Town of Hempstead were asked whether they wanted to turn over to the state their 5-mile strip of land on Jones Beach and part of what was then called Short Beach (now the West End) for the new park.

Voters soundly rejected it by a count of 12,106 to 4,200. Moses was crushed by the defeat.

"It looked like we'd lost Jones Beach," he told biographer Robert Caro years later. "It looked absolutely hopeless."

Hope came in an unlikely form: Doughty, the portly, mustachioed town supervisor, one of a long line of GOP bosses in what would become known as the Nassau Republican machine. At the urgings of fellow Republican McWhinney -- a man who, Moses later said, "grasped the scope" of what he was proposing -- Doughty agreed to meet with the developer.

It was an eyebrow-raising move, considering that Moses was the protege of Gov. Al Smith, a Democrat who would serve four terms and become the first Irish Catholic to be nominated for the presidency. Yet, during a series of off-the-record meetings, Doughty began to see what Moses was proposing: a world-class public facility that could not only allow breathing space for city residents, but that might also be good for business on Long Island.

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Doughty agreed to support the effort to create a state park on Jones Beach. (What he got out of it, Caro suggests in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Power Broker," was a construction contract on the project for his brother-in-law's firm.)

Moses also agreed that representatives of the Town of Hempstead would have a say in the planning for Jones Beach. That representation came in the person of McWhinney, with whom Moses would develop a close friendship.

A year later, in November 1926, the referendum, with some slight modifications, was again put to voters. In a stunning change of heart -- or collective twist of arm -- they overwhelmingly supported the bill to give Jones Beach to the state.

In an editorial, The New York Times, a supporter of the project, praised the Town of Hempstead for "its good work on behalf of state parks."


The park opens

A month after the referendum passed, state parks historian Chester Blakelock later wrote, the first engineering stake was driven into the sands of Jones Beach, at the precise spot where the water tower stands. While legal battles over ownership of other parts of Jones Beach continued, a 3½-year construction project ensued.

At a final inspection of the new facility a few weeks before it opened, Moses not only extolled his vision of the new park but, perhaps cognizant of the bitter opposition he had faced, sought to reassure any doubters that Jones Beach would be unlike any other seaside resort. There would be no carousels, no sideshows, no hotels.

"We want to get away from the idea of an amusement park," he told The Times. "We want to give the people of New York and suburbs a place where they can spend a day quietly at the beach."

On Aug. 4, 1929, Jones Beach State Park was officially opened. In a ceremony at the new East Bathhouse, Moses stood next to Smith and then-New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt. But there were also two Republican figures on the mostly Democratic stage that day -- McWhinney, by then a Long Island State Parks commissioner, and Doughty, who, instead of taking credit as he could have, admitted to the audience that he had believed the whole project was a pipe dream.

The opening was also memorable for a literal dustup. There was a lot of wind blowing that day, and sand blew into many of the carburetors on celebrants' cars, causing many of them to stall. As a result, the state planted beach grass to anchor the sand.

In 1930, its first full season, the park attracted 1.5 million visitors. By 1933, that number had more than doubled. By the end of the decade, Jones Beach was known worldwide and today attracts 6 million to 8 million visitors a year. They come not only to splash in the Atlantic Ocean but to attend concerts at the music theater and enjoy the annual air show, which features the Navy's Blue Angels flight team, the Army's Golden Knights parachute team and vintage airplanes.

Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, believes the actions of the two long-ago Republican legislators are worth remembering.

"The lesson for us today is that it isn't possible to do great public works . . . and there's no active park greater than Jones Beach . . . unless men and women from different parties and ideologies are willing to put aside their differences," he said.

Neither Doughty, who died in 1930, nor McWhinney, who died in 1933, lived to see Jones Beach at its zenith. Moses, not a man generally inclined to share credit, never forgot them: Faded plaques honoring the two Republican legislators stand to this day on the north side of the West Bathhouse.


JONES BEACH TIMELINE

Jones Beach State Park was a work in progress when it opened on a windy Aug. 4, 1929. The East Bathhouse -- where the opening ceremonies took place -- was the only one of what would become the park's "signature structures" that was already complete.

1930: Opening of Jones Beach Marine Stadium open-air venue that was the site of water shows and circuses.

July 2, 1931: New York State Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt returns for the opening of the West Bathhouse.

Oct. 27, 1934: Meadowbrook Parkway becomes the second major route to the beach.

1936: Original Jones Beach Restaurant opens on the boardwalk.

June 26, 1952: Mike Todd's "A Night in Venice" is the first show in the new Jones Beach Marine Theater.

1960: In anticipation of continued growth in beach attendance, West End 1, a new parking and bathing facility on the western end of Jones Beach, is opened.

1961: The even larger West End 2, with 3,200 parking spaces, opens.

July 1975: The 4.5-mile Jones Beach Bikeway welcomes cyclists. It is also known as the Ellen Farrant Memorial Bikeway and now extends to Tobay Beach.

May 2004: As part of the commemoration of the park's 75th anniversary, the first Bethpage Air Show is held. Attendance usually averages about 400,000.

November 2012: Damage from superstorm Sandy closes the boardwalk. It reopens Memorial Day weekend in 2013.


CELEBRATE 85 YEARS!

To mark Jones Beach's 85th year, there will be birthday cake and cupcakes at Field 5 at 8 p.m. Monday, Aug. 4, at the conclusion of the Summer Run Series race.

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