A Glimpse of the Past

"A brief History of the Community of Broad Channel" taken from the Introduction to the book Broad Channel by Liz and Dan Guarino, from Arcadia Publishing.

Broad Channel; by Liz and Dan Guarino
Broad Channel; by Liz and Dan Guarino

First came the fishermen, then the railroad, the hotels, the entrepreneurs, the families. Fishing and crabbing in the waterway shown on navigational maps as "Broad Channel" must have been good since even before the construction of the railroad in 1879, fishing shacks were noted in this area of Jamaica Bay. A year later the New York, Woodhaven and Rockaway Beach Railroad began service and Broad Channel became a stop in 1881. A cluster of hotels developed at the station, catering to the anglers and families out for a good Sunday dinner and escape from the heat of summer in the city. Shops and houses were soon to follow. Notable hotels were the Enterprise, Delevan House, Sandstrom's, and the Atlantic. By 1914, New York City's Department of Docks listed almost 400 leases, including 27 fishing clubs, such as the Broad Channel Yacht Club, Egg Harbor Yacht Club, Anabas Boat Club, and Iroquois Yacht Club, the latter two organizations flourishing to the present time.

The new community's hub was the railroad station, the line having been taken over by the Long Island Rail Road. The town was growing and in 1915, Pierre Noel, for whom Noel Road would be named, leased all of Big Egg Marsh from the city and two years later assigned the lease to the Broad Channel Corporation of which he was president. It was full steam ahead for Broad Channel. The corporation laid out streets, erected boardwalks, filled in marshland, laid water mains, installed fire hydrants, dug a 720 foot well and built a power house to generate electricity. The lighting would flicker at the appointed hour to signal the end of power for the day and the need to switch to lamplight. The well and the power plant were appropriately located on Power Road, the site today of P.S. 47. A series of slips, or canals, was created on the west side of town and the dredged sand used to fill in Jamaica Bay Boulevard, later to be known as Cross Bay Boulevard. Realtor Marcel Peysson built several dozen bungalows which could be rented for $50 per year or purchased for $375. As the Broad Channel Corporation brochure put it: Broad Channel "offers you all the fun and healthful outdoor life that the blue bloods spend thousands to enjoy." While often thought of as a summer colony or vacation spot, Broad Channel actually had about 25 families in the 1920s living here year round.

A flair for organization, comradery, and perseverance are traits that can easily be ascribed to residents of The Channel, as the community is often called today. Early on, the Volunteer Fire Association was established, with all able-bodied men expected to join. The biggest threat to a community of wooden houses with no municipal water supply was fire. Their firehouse was completed in 1908. To raise money to build that house and to purchase equipment, the "vollies" initiated the tradition of holding a Mardi Gras, not to mark the beginning of Lent, but to mark the end of summer as many residents did not remain year round.

The next order of business was establishment of schools, houses of worship, and a civic Association. A dance hall that floated from neighboring Goose Creek became Public School 47. Until the churches were built in the 1920's, Catholics attended Mass in private homes or at Hoob's Pavilion. Sunday School was held at Marcel Peysson's open-air moviedrome prior to the building of the Protestant church that would eventually become Christ Presbyterian Church-by-the-Sea . Not surprisingly, separate clubhouses sprang up for Democrats and Republicans. The Broad Channel Civic Association was not far behind; it meets today in the former Democratic Clubhouse.

The social life in Broad Channel was brisk. Dance cards testify to the "Mid-Summer Festival," "Summer Night's Reception," and the "1st Annual Ball of the Broad Channel Ice Handlers." Add to these, events sponsored by the yacht and boat clubs, the German Club, and other social organizations such as the Circle of Foresters, it's easy to conclude that Channelites loved to party.

By 1929, progress included bridges to the mainland and the Rockaway Peninsula, as well as the connecting roadway first known as Jamaica Bay Boulevard (later Cross Bay Blvd). These improvements provided increased access to Broad Channel, especially during Prohibition for those who wanted to frequent the many drinking establishments that gave rise to a nickname for the town, i.e., Little Cuba. Legend has it that one speakeasy would be designated to "take the fall" each time a "revenuer" came to town to search for illegal liquor. Other visitors included Mae West and Jimmy Durante who performed at Hermit's Cafe.

Other amenities included O'sullivan's Pharmacy and the Broad Channel Bathing Park, complete with two pools, 16 handball courts, tennis courts, a restaurant, and a ballfield. St. Virgilius Parochial School graduated its first class in 1927. By 1928, St. Virgilius Dramatic Society put on the "Bay Breezes Minstrel Show," one of many entertainments in the town. St. Patrick's Day shows would showcase local talent for many years to come.

The 1930's would witness the formation of a Red Cross Auxiliary, a Boy Scout Troop, and establishments such as Weiss' Restaurant and Smitty's Boat Rental that would become synonymous with Broad Channel. The Cardinals baseball team and the Broad Channel Nut Club, a sports group whose members chose to be known as the nut of their choice started a tradition of organized sports that no doubt influenced formation of the Broad Channel Athletic Club, the BCAC, in later years. In 1939, the Broad Channel Corporation leases were taken over by New York City. The "perseverance" trait would soon come to the fore.

During the 1940's, with the population of Broad Channel around 5,200, Channelites not only had to fight a war abroad, but also battle New York City to extend their 5 year leases. Some organized air raid wardens while others marched on City Hall to defeat the city's proposal not to renew any more leases. Service men and women wrote letters to their public officials wondering what they were fighting for, if not to be able to return to the home they left. After the war, Broad Channel born attorney Eugene Powers failed in his attempt to buy the land from the city and resale it to the occupants of Broad Channel.

Succeeding years would witness the feisty residents of Broad Channel thwart a variety of schemes by the city to do away with the town, affectionately known as a "poor man's paradise" and the "Venice of New York" — after the canals constructed on the west side. But neither an alleged hepatitis scare nor a plan to extend runways at JFK International Airport in the 1960's, nor an earlier proposal by Robert Moses to subsume the land in Broad Channel into a mini-Jones Beach type park succeeded in the town's demise.

In the 1950s, the LIRR trestle burned for the last time. It had been plagued by interruption of service over the years by fire and the havoc that ice in the bay worked on the miles of open trestle. The line was transformed into a subway line by the NYC Transit Authority when it struck a deal with Parks Commissioner Robert Moses to lay the tracks on fill dredged from the bay and make two impoundments. These brackish ponds would become the two ponds of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, later to be incorporated into Gateway National Recreation Area, a part of the National Park Service. Driving the first subway train to traverse the new line across Jamaica Bay in 1956 was none other than Broad Channel's own, Joe Carey.

In the ongoing struggle for Broad Channel residents to buy their land, organization and hard work by the community finally paid off in 1982 when the administration of then Mayor Ed Koch concluded successful negotiations with a united Broad Channel. Amenities taken for granted by other communities would now flow to Broad Channel: a sewer system, a library, parks, and a new PS 47. The 2000 census put the population of Broad Channel at 2,630 with 1,019 housing units.

If a coat of arms would ever be devised for families in Broad Channel, a pair of boots or waders would be very apt, for "Wellies" and waders come in handy during an exceptionally high tide, a nor'easter, or a hurricane. Times of high tide are carefully noted in a community with an average elevation of three feet, with some areas of town actually below sea level. While much damage was sustained by the community during hurricanes in 1938 and 1944, it was the "Nor'easter of 1992" that "Old Timers" describe as the storm of the century.

Another emblem on the coat of arms would be the American flag. The town has sent its youth to war and welcomed them home, continue to hold parades and services on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, and fly the flag all year round. Events are promoted by the VFW and the American Legion.

In September, 2001, residents gazed in horror at the column of smoke clearly seen across the water in Manhattan. Firemen, police, and emergency service personnel living in Broad Channel rushed to the World Trade Center, some by private boat. A town ambulance was destroyed when the towers collapsed. The town would mourn the great loss of life, including that of a resident and two former residents.

The foregoing history covers only the "bare bones" of the growth of a vibrant American community. The authors and the Broad Channel Historical Society hope that this book will whet the reader's appetite to learn more about Broad Channel. Visit the local library where the historical collection is housed and read the many first hand accounts of living in Broad Channel over the years ■