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Long IslandHistory

Jones Beach, the marvel by the sea

Wherever you look — bridges, tunnels, roads, beaches and parks — you can see the legacy of Robert Moses, who played a larger role in shaping the physical environment of New York State than any other figure in the 20th century.  (Credit: Newsday)

When Jones Beach opened Aug. 4, 1929, visitors marveled at the elegance of Robert Moses' nautical vision. A trip to the new state park was more than a day at the seashore; it was a voyage.

The water fountains were operated by miniature ships' steering wheels, the trash cans were hidden inside ship funnel ventilators and the employees were dressed like sailors.

The 2,413-acre state park featured swimming in the ocean surf, in a bay and in heated pools, and a variety of other activities. Patrons - and there were 1.5 million of them during the first full year of operation in 1930 - could also enjoy handball courts, deck tennis and shuffleboard courts, an outdoor roller rink, archery, softball, fishing docks, rowboat rentals, an 18-hole pitch-and-putt golf course, dancing, and other sports and entertainment programs. There were even solaria for nude sunbathers and electric bottle warmers for mothers caring for their babies.

As time and tide have washed across the beach over the decades, much has changed. The nautical water fountains and uniforms, the nude sunbathing and the bottle warmers are long gone, and other facilities and programs have been lost to budget cuts or changing times.

Among the things eliminated were handball courts, archery ranges, and umbrella, beach chair and rowboat rentals. The outdoor roller rink, unused for a decade, may be converted to lighted volleyball courts. Parking Field 9 was closed in 1977 because of beach erosion.

But other facilities and programs have been added as the park operation expanded. Since Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated Jones Beach, the West End complex has been developed with two large parking fields, although West End 1 was closed in 1991 because of budget cuts. A pool was added in the East Bathhouse in the 1960s.

The 8,200-seat Jones Beach Theatre was added in 1952 - at first presenting musicals and then shifting to rock concerts. For this summer, the theater's seating capacity is being expanded to 14,354. The pitch-and-putt course has also been expanded and a miniature golf course was opened in the late 1970s. Basketball courts were added.

Joseph Lescinski, the Jones Beach superintendent, said the crowds have changed as well. When the beach first opened, most visitors came from New York City. Now there is a mix of city and suburban users. "Our weekday crowd tends to be primarily a Long Island crowd; our weekend crowd tends to be a mix of Long Island and the city."

In a typical year, the park attracts 7 million to 8 million people - about 5 million of them during the summer. The single-day attendance record was set on July 4, 1995, when about 275,000 hit the beach. On an average sunny July Sunday, the park attracts 150,000 to 200,000.

The parking fee, initially 50 cents weekends and 25 cents weekdays, has risen to $5. The park is run by about 75 year-round permanent employees with about 850 to 900 seasonal workers in the summer. The peak staffing back in the early '60s was about 2,000 employees. On Jones Beach's first opening day, three parking fields were open for 10,000 cars. Now there are a dozen that can accommodate 23,500 cars.

The history of Jones Beach and the other Long Island state parks is chronicled in a permanent exhibit called "Castles in the Sand," in the East Bathhouse. It displays photographs and memorabilia from the early days of the park system. There are maps and plans from park construction projects, old uniforms worn by employees, and videos of the park in the 1940s and 1950s, including snippets from a movie titled "The Girl From Jones Beach."

The exhibit is open April 1 to June 19 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week; from June 20 to Sept. 7, noon to 8 p.m.; Sept. 8 to Oct. 12, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., seven days a week; and from Oct. 13 to March 31, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, 10 a.m to 4 p.m. The admission is $1.

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