- Historic Sites
Travel: Jones Beach, and How They Dreamed It Up
This experiment in "recreational socialism" was so successful that Ronald Reagan starred in a movie about Jones Beach.
September 12th, 2016, by Edwin S. Grosvenor
Socialism, the critics said, that was what it was—“a gigantic exercise in recreational socialism,” in the words of the New York Herald Tribune. Al Smith, the man behind the exercise, agreed, and he said as much 78 years ago tomorrow, August 4, 1929. That afternoon, the former governor of New York rose to speak before a crowd of 3,000 assembled under an enormous tent, as ocean waves broke behind them. Smith, who less than a year earlier had been defeated by Herbert Hoover in his bid for the Presidency, could use this occasion to celebrate a victory, as he saw it, over private and parochial interests, a victory for good government and for the health of the citizenry. It was the birth of Jones Beach.
The six-mile-long strip of sand on the South Shore of Long Island was the crown jewel in an ambitious plan to expand the parkland available to New Yorkers—much to the initial dismay of wealthy landowners, suspicious farmers, and largely Republican local governments that didn’t like having the governor or anyone else tell them what to do. “There is no fundamental question of party policy involved,” Smith said to the crowd at the beach that day. “If it’s anything, it’s socialistic. The Republicans should work hand in hand with the Democrats in the common cause of the welfare of the people of the state.”
In truth, the local Republicans, at least, had done exactly that. There had been resistance in the early 1920s, when Smith’s brilliant Yale-educated protégé Robert Moses had informed the sleepy, rural towns of Long Island that they must cede their beaches to the state for the construction of a seaside beach park that would be clean and open and pristine and free of commercial development. But then there had been cooperation and bipartisanship, and the result was “a miracle playground,” as The New York Times described it.
Some 25,000 people visited Jones Beach on its opening day, driving down the brand-new Wantagh Causeway. Just a few years earlier, such a drive would have been impossible. There was no road at all; outside of a skiff or a rowboat, there wasn’t any way to get to the oft-flooded sand spit named after an Irish privateer, Thomas Jones, who had run a whaling operation there in the early 1700s. Jones Island was part of the chain of barrier beaches along the South Shore of Long Island that stretched from the Rockaways to the Hamptons.
One weekend in the early 1920s Moses, then an ambitious young aide in Smith’s administration, had been staying at his bungalow in nearby Babylon and had gone out into South Oyster Bay in his little motorboat. He landed, as his biographer Robert Caro later described it, on “a wide, straight strip of the whitest sand he had ever seen, stretching unbroken until it disappeared at the horizon, sliding on one side beneath the ocean surf, rising on the other into dunes covered with tufts of beach grass.” Miles and miles of pristine beach, and less than 25 miles from Manhattan.
He had an idea. He would build motorways—parkways—from New York City, using tracts of land purchased by the city’s water companies decades earlier and no longer used. The rights of way led straight east across Long Island and down to the bay. There a causeway could connect to the long, white strip of beach. “That was the idea behind Jones Beach and the Southern State Parkway,” he told Caro years later. “I thought of it all in a moment.”
It took almost a decade of political wrangling for the flash of inspiration to become a reality, and it took a lot of engineering too: 40 million cubic yards of earth moved, miles of roads and three bridges constructed, the entire beach raised 14 feet, to be more stable and less susceptible to flooding. When the job was done, the results were dazzling. “The beach is apparently endless,” said one early visitor. “Good taste is the order of the day,” remarked another.
Good taste didn’t come cheap. Moses had taken the $100,000 allocated to him by the New York State legislature and spent it all on the foundation for one building, the East Bathhouse. Visitors had never seen a bathhouse like it. Instead of a rickety wood pavilion, it was an edifice of rusticated Ohio sandstone large enough to hold 10,450 lockers and dressing rooms, a mini-hospital, a snack bar, and stations for umbrellas. With its sundeck, time and tide dials, and touches such as sidewalk mosaics of a compass and seahorse, the East Bathhouse was an aesthetic triumph as well. It rose out of the sands, one architect said, “like a force of nature.”
It would be followed over the next few years by a second, even larger bathhouse, gaudier and more in the style we now call Art Deco, plus a two-mile-long boardwalk and, the crowning creation, a 200-foot-high water tower, designed, apparently at the behest of Moses himself, to resemble the historic bell tower on the Piazza San Marco in Venice.
Upstate politicians had fits, but most New Yorkers were delighted. Beach attendance soared in the first decade and again after World War II. In the mid-1950s, the beach was attracting about 10 million visitors a year. By then even Hollywood had taken notice, casting Virginia Mayo in the title role of 1949’s The Girl from Jones Beach, complete with a fake East Bathhouse backdrop (the film was shot in California). Mayo’s love interest was played by the 38-year-old B-movie actor Ronald Reagan. Imagine—Ronald Reagan co-starring in a paean to a work of socialism. Or was it? The man sitting next to Al Smith on August 4, 1929, Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt, poked fun at the idea when it was his turn to speak. If this, he said—with the flashing smile and patrician voice that would soon become familiar to the entire country—was socialism, “well, then Governor Smith and I are pretty good socialists.” It didn’t really matter. Everyone had a great time at Jones Beach. They still do. Attendance has leveled off in recent decades, but about 7 million visitors a year still promenade or jog along the boardwalk, attend concerts at the open-air theater, or just sit and admire the vast, still-pristine sands of the once-remote strand. Unlike at the New Jersey shore, there are no hotels or motels, but that is by design. There are no arcades, fast-food joints, or boardwalk amusements either. Still, while you can’t spend a week at Jones Beach, you can have a thoroughly enjoyable day there. Leave at an off-peak time, and it’s only an hour’s drive or so from the city. Follow Moses’s dream—the Southern State Parkway to the Wantagh Parkway and south to the end. There, for an $8 parking fee, you can walk the boardwalk, play golf or shuffleboard, and enjoy the breezes of the Atlantic and the limitless vistas on what is still one of the widest and cleanest beaches in America. —John Hanc is the author of Jones Beach: An Illustrated History, published this year by Globe Pequot Press.