Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Hungry Harbor and Sunken City

Throughout the more than 300-year history of Long Island's English-speaking inhabitants, some quirky place-names have developed, many of which are retained today.   Some owe their origins to the native American inhabitants who preceded Long Island's 17th century Dutch and English settlers. Other places are named for those settlers and their descendants, and some names reflect people or events whose stories have been lost to modern memory.

In the Five Towns,  such a place is Hungry Harbor Road.  Inhabitants of the homes built in the area which has variously been called Lord's Woods (when owned by the Lord Family) or later Woodmere Woods, may not know that the area has been called Hungry Harbor (or Harbour) since colonial times.

Gathering Salt Hay
While the 1643 agreement between Long Island's English settlers and Native tribes established the borders for the Town of Hempstead, boundary disputes with the settlers at Jamaica (originally the Dutch settlement of Rustdorp) were not infrequent.  The Dongan Patent agreements of 1681 between the Towns of Jamaica and Hempstead defined the boundary line:

Whereas it mentioned in ye agreement that Jemaica bounds shall run to Rockaway Swampes mouth it is to be understood that Rockaway River that runs out of Rockaway Swamp shall be Jemaicaes east bounds and
all ye midows lying on ye west side of ye said River shall
belonge to Jemaica as wittneseth our hands the day before

The name "Hungry Harbor" was in use as early as 1682,  when John Tredwell of Hemsted [sic] deeded meadow land at Hungry Harbor to Jonathan Smith, Jr. of the same place.   (NY Genealogical and Biographical Record, vol. 42).  Although Hungry Harbor, a swamp, was not a good place to grow food crops, (hence one of the explanations for its name), it yielded salt hay -- a valuable commodity.  (More information about the salt hay industry appears in the FTLH blog of 8/20/2009.)

Samuel Carmen's will of 1728 mentions Hungry Harbor as Carmen's "plantation on Long Island." Several other documents of the period (a 1738 bill of sale from George Clarke to Josiah Martin (owner of Rock Hall),  and the wills of Edward Cornell (October 1770 and Nathaniel Frost, (March 1782) mention salt meadows "lying in Hungry Harbour."

Salt Marsh, Oceanside, NY

An 1854 article in Knickerbocker Magazine ("Editor's Table," v. 43, p. 191) mentions Mr. Pemberton, a merchant of New York City.  Pemberton contracted "fever-and ague which was in his eyes more to be dreaded than cholera, yellow fever or the plague," during his youth at Hungry Harbor and never returned to the Rockaways.

As early as the seventeenth century, Hungry Harbor became known as a haven for squatters and poachers.*  The meadows and swamps were town lands, leased to individual tenants, but not every resident was an paying tenant.  A 1909 New York Times article chronicles the eviction of a 76 year-old squatter, the indigent granddaughter of a Revolutionary War soldier.  Others lived on boats.   In a 1932 article, William Eibler (1861-1941), reminisced about his childhood in Rosedale and his impressions of Hungry Harbor.  Eibler retells a pre-Civil War story of a group of Massachusetts explorers who got lost in the swamp and starved to death.  This is similar to a story told in Oregon about a bay called Hungry Harbor along the Columbia River:
Hungry Harbor, a bay on the north bank of the Columbia River east of Megler in Pacific County.  Fishermen claim that seven men drifted into the bay and starved to death.  It is an ideal shelter for small boats and fishermen frequently anchor there to eat their meals, which may be another origin of the name. --- (Washington Historical Quarterly)
Harold Ruehl, author of the History of Valley Stream, 1840-1975, writes that the area was

so called because it was largely a settlement of squatters, and the squatters went hungry a goodly part of the time. True, it was a harbor because it was the only area of farmland that possessed rich fertile land in addition to having access to the sea.

During the last decades of the Nineteenth Century, members of the Lord family (FTLH blog of 8/6/2015) owned vast tracts of land in what is now Cedarhurst and Woodmere; their land holdings stretched from the Rockaway line LIRR tracks to the Queens border.  Attorney Franklin B. Lord was President of the Long Island Water Company, whose pumping station also occupied some of this property.  Although much of his land consisted of woodlands, low-lying bog and marshland, Lord constructed a country home on the property.  The home was well-maintained during Lord's life, but after his death in 1916, 

" it met with fire and vandalization, and fell into general disrepair.  After World War II the [Dr. William] Lee family acquired the Lord house and much of its surrounding land, and completely restored, renovated and modernized the dwelling, completing the major portion of this work in the early 1950's."  --  In the Matter of Town of Hempstead, Respondent, v. Lee Associates, Inc., Appellant.  Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Second Department. February 17, 1981.

Dr. Robert M. Lee, a dentist, bought the property with an eye towards development and after 1952 was developing other properties in the area  To this end, he created a private lake and used the dredged land from the lake as landfill for adjacent lots.   

Other parts of Hungry Harbor became Rogers Airfield, then Curtiss Field and, later, Green Acres Mall.

Sunken City
At the Hewlett end of the Lord's Woods, another squatters community existed as late as the 1950s. (see Newsday article below).  During and after the Great Depression, whole families squatted in abandoned houses along the route of the yet-to-be-constructed Peninsula Boulevard.  Their children attended school and, occasionally were the recipients of charity from their more affluent neighbors. Those living in the neighborhood considered Sunken City, whom appear in the 1940 U.S. Census, were white, native born Americans with an elementary school education. The head of the house was working (but for very low comparative wages) to support large families with many children.  A number of men worked as laborers for the WPA.  Truck drivers and gardeners were also common professions.  For these people, prosperity was still very far away.

The end of World War II signaled an unprecedented construction boom and the remaining fields and swamps soon gave was to housing developments.   In his evocative book The Lord's Woods, Robert Arbib chronicles the destruction of the woods and its development into the single-family housing units which epitomized the American Dream of post-WWII Long Island. 

Notes and Further information: (database articles may require H-WPL login)

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