Before JFK International Airport took up more than 5,000 acres of wetland at the northeast corner of Jamaica Bay, the site contained a golf course, fishing shacks, and bungalow communities. Harbor Haven was a collection of homes built along a mile-long canal. No trace of it remains today.
The first photo that I’ve found of Harbor Haven is from Vincent Seyfried’s book Old Queens, showing a structure surrounded by marshland on the edge of Jamaica Bay.
Where it Flowed
On this 1909 E. Belcher-Hyde atlas plate we see the Idlewild marshes undeveloped but divided among dozens of owners with lengthy parcels running between Rockaway Boulevard and Jamaica Bay.
At the southeast extreme are Warnerville, Meadowmere, and Meadowmere Park, all of which are still standing today, straddling the Queens-Nassau border.
The long canal and boxy properties of Harbor Haven stick out on this map. The community was the idea of property owner Isaac S. Remsen, a descendant of Dutch settlers who envisioned “a sort of copy of Venice.”
A postcard from 1908 available on eBay shows a footbridge spanning the Harbor Haven canal. The seller specializes in old postcards of the city. So far this photo of the footbridge is only the second photo of Harbor Haven that I’ve found online. This bridge was located near the head of the canal.
This tight-knit summer community’s residents celebrated their lives together. In 1909, the first baby born here, Elizabeth Ellen Beitel, who was a maternal descendant of the colonial Henrcikson family. Another Harbor Haven resident who made headlines was Fannie Chase in 1911, as the first woman boat pilot on Jamaica Bay. She survived a lightning strike but was still able to pilot her family’s 30-foot boat.
The 1924 city aerial survey shows the homes of Harbor Haven running for a mile along the Harbor Haven Waterway, linked to the rest of the city by Rockaway Boulevard. Following the construction of JFK Airport, only the marshland north of this road would be spared from development. But even there, intrusions include an airport logistics warehouse and encroachments on its northern edge. Hook Creek, Motts Creek, and Thurston Creek can be seen here flowing into Jamaica Bay.
The End of Harbor Haven
Construction of the city’s international airport began in April 1942 on the site of the nearby Idlewild Golf Course. In 1943, the City Council voted to name it the Gen. Alexander E. Anderson Airport. In 1947, the Port Authority decided that New York International would be a more fitting name. By the time that the airport opened in July 1948, it occupied five times the golf course’s property. Its growth included the demolition of Harbor Haven. The airport was renamed for President Kennedy shortly after his assassination. On the aerial survey above, we see Bergen Basin carved around the airport’s western edge, bordering on Hamilton Beach.
Flowing out of Baisley Pond, the section of Cornell Creek on the airport grounds was entirely filled. In this massive project the communities of Springfield Dock, Richmond Hill Circle (Bergen Landing) and East Hamilton Beach joined Harbor Heaven on the condemned list.
The approximate location of Harbor Haven is today’s Runway 4R-22L, at 8,400 feet in length by 200 feet in width.
Thurston Creek was rerouted around the airport’s border, flowing into Jamaica Bay at Warnerville. To the east of the runway is an undeveloped section of the airport. On Rockaway Boulevard surrounded by Idlewild Park is the JFK Logistics Center, an apparent instruction on the undisturbed landscape.
It could have been worse. In the 1970s the city had plans to extend Interstate 78 (later 878) through the Idlewild marsh, connecting Queens to the five Towns and Atlantic Beach via highway. It was never built, and only portions of it were completed as NY-878, the Nassau Expressway. Looking back at Harbor Haven I can imagine many of its residents arriving to their summer homes not by car but boat, from docks across Brooklyn, Queens, and beyond. Today, this once-idyllic vacation community is New York’s gateway to the world.
Extra Feature: Venice on Jamaica Bay
Isaac Remsen wasn’t the only developer who dreamed of Venice imitated on Jamaica Bay. The front cover of New York Tribune from July 3, 1910 offers an alternative to the prevailing industrial seaport plan for the bay.
The illustration faithfully copies the Rialto Bridge of Venice for an amusement district that would straddle the marshy islands of the bay.
At the time, Jamaica Bay already had a few amusement parks in its vicinity: Rockaway Playland, Canarsie Park, Bergen Beach, and Coney Island.
Dan Hendrick, who produced a documentary film and book on Jamaica Bay expressed gratitude that this plan never materialized. Had this “American Venice” been built, the cost of keeping these islands above the surface would have been astronomic. They are best left alone as a nature preserve. The actual Venice in Italy is situated in a setting similar to Jamaica Bay: an archipelago of marshland islands in a lagoon buffered from the sea by a sandy barrier island. The famed city also suffers from flooding and the rising sea level.