The mild winter has made walking on the beach a very pleasant experience this year. During January several storm fronts passed causing a lot of changes on the beach. I noted that when storm winds were from the northwest a lot of gravel was "pulled" onto the beach, however, after the recent small "noreaster" when the wind was dominantly from the south most of the gravel disappeared. The gravel, while it lasted, yielded quite a few early colonial pottery pieces and several indian artifacts. This got me motivated to go to the library to start digging for information.

In the library I've fouund several books translating original text written in the very early colonial period of the New York area (then New Amsterdam). These early descriptions got me interested in the general history of human occupation of the region. To see a brief (unqualified) outline of the history of the NY Bight region click on this following word: HISTORY. (Hit the "BACK" to come back here).

Old accounts recorded in books describe a very transient shoreline in the region. The barrier islands on the south shore of Long Island were constantly changing. Hurricanes and noreasters in the last few centuries changed the location of inlets and caused the barriers to migrate a significant distance landward. Islands even vanished, Hog Island in the vicinity of offshore East Rockaway was destroyed in a storm in the last century. An early observer, names Van der Donck, described a great storm in 1691 that cut an inlet through a barrier, probably an ancestral Fire Island, as follows:

"Nothing is so fluctuating and unstable as the solid earth, an nowhere can one better mark its changes than on this sea-born island of Nassau. But Neptune, like his father Kronos, devours his offspring. Within the two centuries of intelligent observation, there have been may gains of land and frequent annexation of out-lying islets, but the ocean ever beats and buffets the undefended coast and carries its spoils to build up some other land whose history is not yet begun." [Hint, Martha Bockee, Long Island before the Revolution: [NY], Ira J. Friedman, Inc., 1967(?), p. 25.]

In certain areas the back beach area had stands of dwarfed American Cedar that were harvested to make fence posts. These early harvests may have contributed to the demise of some of these early barriers. The writer also describes... "Coney Island, with its smooth and yearly lessening strand, is all that remains of the sand hills where but a hundred years ago, cedar posts were cut two miles beyond the present shore line." During the past few months I've been noticing lots of old, weathered cedar wood, mostly stumps on the beach at Rockaway. Could these be wood from these old islands?

Perhaps even more interesting is the stories I've been hearing about the offshore areas from old fishermen who have gotten to know the sea bottom in the area very well. They have all kinds of names for offshore features (where fish congregate), mostly are old shipwrecks or artificial piles on the sea bottom. One interesting feature exist offshore about a third of a mile from the community of Belle Harbor on Rockaway Island. The feature is called a "shell bed" or "mussel shoal" depending who you talk to. This area of the sea bottom is covered with a large accumulation of shell material, both old and new. What are these shell piles (if they are piles)? Are they an oyster bank that grew on the restricted side of an old island (possibly Hog Island)? Could these shoal beds of shell be the remains of large shell mounds (called shell middens) similar to the mounds along the coasts of the Carolinas and in Florida created by tidewater cultures of paleo indians? These shell mounds might be the source of many of the Holocene fossils and indian artifacts washing up on the beach. Natural oyster reefs existed around parts of Raritan Bay and along the lower river mouths of the Raritan, Hudson, Navesink, and Shrewsbury rivers where salinities were low enough for oyster beds to fluorish. Unfortunately, these original natural beds are long gone.

A number of Lenape shell middens existed around Raritan Bay and on Staten Island until early in this century. Much of it was hauled away for lime fertilizer or to gravel roads. Too bad!

Who knows what kinds of populations inhabited the coastal environment during the warm periods of the early Holocene. That section of the coast is now all under water, reworked by currents, and buried by younger sediment. How prepared were these early cultures for giant storms? Probably not much more than we are today!

One more thought-provoking image... check out: HURRICANE BERTHA

Bertha came to visit late last summer (August, 1996). This image was downloaded from active satellite data services (free on the Internet via U. Mich.) This very weak storm did considerably little damage compared to the noresters of recent years. However, had the ocean waters been a little warmer, the tide a little higher, and the speed and direction of its approach been more westerly, then what??? Would the current inhabitation of the coast also become a "lost culture?" (For a good summary about Atlantic Coast storms check out: Coch, Nicholas K., [1993], Hurricane hazards along the Northeastern Atlantic Coast of the United States. in, Journal of Coastal Research Special Issue No. 12: Coastal Hazards, chapter 9, p. 115-147.)

One last tidbit... "Octover 9, 1677, John Thompson of Setauket has a permit to go to Flushing and other ports of Long Island to search for sea coal, of which he hath probable information" [ibid., p. 22] Sea coal? Is all that coal we see on the beach natural? Was there enough for an old colonist to go collecting coal on the beaches long before coal was used on ships, etc? Apparantly so! Next time you walk on the beach take a look at this stuff. Some of it is, no doubt, from lost cargo or intentional dumping at sea, however, some of the beautiful large chunks may have been a part of the beach "forever." I'm thinking about asking to get one of these collecting permits myself. Hmmm, who should I ask, the governor or the mayor? I could wrap each piece in a small colored box. Just think of all the wonderful Christmas presents!

Cheers! - Phil

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Writers and Webmeisters:

Phil Stoffer and Paula Messina

CUNY, Earth & Environmental Science, Ph.D. Program
Hunter College, Department of Geography
Brooklyn College, Department of Geology

In cooperation with
Gateway National Recreational Area
U.S. National Park Service