Were the Rockaways ever an island?

Yesterday, the urban history site Forgotten-NY published my photo essay on Seagirt Avenue, a two-lane road located in the extreme southeast of the city. Separated from the rest of Far Rockaway by Bridge Creek, this avenue is a peninsula inside a larger peninsula.

farrock 5

On the above topographical map, Seagirt Avenue is highlighted with Bridge Creek running to its north. The constantly shifting sands of the city’s oceanic coastline raises a question, was the Rockaway Peninsula ever an island?

Among the hidden waterways of Queens, Bridge Creek is unique for being the only one that is not on the mainland of the borough. In the photo below, Beach Second Street, which is the first in the peninsular numbered grid, crosses over Bridge Creek. To the east is the toll plaza for Atlantic Beach Bridge, the last cash-only crossing in the state, an anachronism that deserves to be eliminated once and for all.

Farrock 13

To the west into the city proper, the Roy Reuther Houses dominate the skyline. The tallest structure on the Rockaway Peninsula, it was built in 1971 under the auspices of the United Auto Workers. It is mostly occupied by retirees. This view from the Beach 2nd Street Bridge straddles the city line. The bridge is in Nassau, but this marina is within the city.


All of the above information appears in my Forgotten-NY essay, as well as why the peninsula’s neighborhoods are commonly described in the plural as “the Rockaways.”

Let’s move on to two truly forgotten waterways: Far Rockaway Bay and Norton’s Creek, which appear on the 1901 Sanborn property map below. Between 1889 and 1911, Norton’s Creek was carved between the neighborhoods of Edgemere and Wavecrest, effectively transforming most of the peninsula into an island. Alfred Henry Bellot’s authoritative book History of the Rockaways from the year 1685 to 1917, described this short-lived waterway as “Wave Crest Inlet.”

norton's ck 1

Going further back in time, the 1877-1878 geodetic survey also shows Norton Creek running across the peninsula. As descriptions had it, it was too shallow for boats to use.

norton's ck 2

Local historian Emil Lucev picks up the story on what happened to them. To read about a shortcut canal between Jamaica Bay and Atlantic Ocean was not a surprise in its time, when some planners were also proposing a Flushing to Jamaica canal, and a Newtown to Flushing canal.

norton bridge

In his book The Rockaways, where this rare photo of Norton Creek appears, Lucev wrote that while Norton Creek flowed between Jamaica Bay and the ocean, the swing drawbridge carrying Rockaway Beach Boulevard across the creek was opened only once to satisfy state inspectors. The drawbridge stood from 1894 until 1911. That year, the city’s Board of Estimate agreed that this creek was no longer navigable as shifting sands kept on sweeping into it. The city agreed to cover the creek and the Rockaways have been a peninsula without an interruption since then.

The only remnant of the peninsular canal today is Norton Basin, an inlet of Jamaica Bay enveloped within the bird sanctuary of Bayswayer Park, as seen on the Google Earth snap below. Nothing remains of Far Rockaway Bay, which is partially today’s East Rockaway Inlet, as illustrated in the black lines in the above 1901 Sanborn map.

norton basin

Every stream needs friends, and support for the maintenance and restoration of Norton Basin comes from the Norton Basin Edgemere Stewardship Group, part of the larger Rockaway Waterfront Alliance and American Littoral Society.

The Rockaway Peninsula is not the city’s only former island. In contrast to Coney Island Creek, which was buried by land reclamation, Norton’s Creek was sculpted by shifting sand patterns. With one storm, it would appear, and with another it would disappear again.

mecox 1

The situation similar to how Mecox Bay in the Hamptons fluctuates in its description as either an inland lagoon or a bay of the ocean; or Moriches Inlet, which is widened or sealed by storm waves. Nature is the greatest sand sculptor, with the map as its canvas.

In the News:

The iconic Sixth Street Viaduct above the Los Angeles River is coming down, to be replaced with a more contemporary design; while Copenhagen is designing parks that turn into temporary ponds when the rain is heavy.d

5 thoughts on “Were the Rockaways ever an island?

  1. Andrew Koeppel July 13, 2020 / 6:10 am

    Please let me know if the elimination of Norton’s Creek and its connection to Far Rockaway Bay that ended in about 1911 was coordinated with the creation of Reynolds Channel and what is now called the East Rockaway Inlet. It seems Reynolds Channel needed an inlet connection to the Atlantic, and filling in Far Rockaway Bay helped to make that possible.


    • glenn a taylor May 25, 2021 / 6:50 am

      Andrew. Do you know how Far Rockaway bay was filled in? I visit the area recently and still can not how this large body of water was filled in with sand. The area is solid and there is no indication that Norton Basin ever reached that area.


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