It is as hard to pin an incontrovertible fact on the history of Fire Island and make it stick as to build a house on the berm of the beach and expect the same of it. Things shift and change.
Is it naturally assumed to be as it is named to be, an island. It is–of a kind. It was once, however, a spit connected to Long Island at its eastern end. Here, at the point of junction breakthroughs occasionally occurred, after which, in the course of nature, they closed. While open, however, access to the ocean was found a convenience by boaters and one such cut was stabilized as the Moriches Inlet. After that, everything west became an island.Its name, too has undergone many changes.The name longest to endure was simply Great South Beach. But over the past half-century the Island’s fame has out-moded this shrug of a descriptive generic, and “Great South Beach” is seldom heard. Reportedly, it got its first real name in an ancient survey made in the wake of a great storm that had left a cut-through from ocean to bay so it appeared to be five strung-out islets. The surveyor called it “Five Islands.” After a hundred years came another survey. By then the cuts had healed, giving this surveyor the impression of a beach entire; taking “Five” for a misprint he “corrected” it to “Fire.” Why fire? Because fires did appear, campfires of Indians (whose name for the island was “Seal” and “Raccoon”), fires of whalers rendering blubber, fires of salvagers luring ships aground, and more kindly ones as beacons warning them away, fires of runaways, survivors– perhaps even early Sierra Club Outings!This is not necessarily a factual account of how Fire Island got its name, but it is the one most widely believed. How far it is from the “mainland” (that is, Long Island, which is agenuine island) has also been in dispute. Eight miles say most people; but not everyone. A Mr. Richard Bayles, historian, writing in 1874 had it at five— perhaps by measuring at the eastern end where the bay is only half as wide as at the western.
The island is getting longer. In 1963, when it came to William Smith by King James’ Grant, its length was said to be 24 miles. At that time, and for the following century, it produced chiefly fodder for mainland animals and peril to New York shipping. Shortly after the construction in 1858, on the Island’s western end, of the second lighthouse (the one that still stands) a hundred-room hotel was built, just east of it, creating the Is;and’s identity as a summer resort. As the Island’s property value took a forward leap so did its length. It is now, in 1983, 32 miles long and growing in a southwesterly direction.In most people’s minds its name triggers a pleasure-response, but “Fire Island” also means peril. In the old days it was called “The Graveyard of Ships.” Its early summer houses sometimes had unexpected winter occupancy as the heavy seas threw up ship-wrecked sailors.
After the 1938 hurricane many of these same houses found themselves wrecked as any storm-torn ship, or were swept away entirely.Swept away, too, was much of the Island’s past. Fire Island seems born again! . . . fresh and new, a summer playground! Still, in many of its communities some relic remains that lets the past be heard– voices of the pirates, hermits, scavengers, the hero guardians of the coast, fish-processors, donkey drivers, promoters and bankrupts, the dreamers, schemers, and the mere dogged– like the old King’s ghost they urge “Remember me!“
The peril they knew is the same– ocean against the land– no longer visible in wooden wrecks washed up on shore but in the shifting of the dunes. Fire Island is a barrier beach built up by the ocean waves’ complicated response to a large body of land (Long Island) which it then proceeds to protect against the very waves that created it, in loopy symbiosis.
Long Island itself was formed by the Wisconsin Glacier, last of the Age of Glaciers, and, as its terminal moraine, has an approximate age of 25 to 50,000 years. Fire Island as Long Island’s barrier beach could share its age; its spit, however, could be much younger. So its age, too, is in doubt. Fire Island’s sand composed of grains of quartz and feldspar enriched by clay, calcine, garnet. It is silken, pale, and shines in the sun and moonlight. Where all doubt vanishes and agreement becomes unanimous is that Fire Island is one of the world’s most beautiful beaches!
Fire Island Recollections– Histories of the Island, The Fire Island Association and Its Member Communities 1983(10-11)
1911. The Princess Irene is rescued by the Lifesaving Stations at Lone Hill, Point O’ Woods and Blue Point. As you can see our history goes way back. Before the Pines was created it was called Lone Hill.
1925 The Home Guardian Company of New York under Dr. Warren Smadbeck purchases 200 acres on Fire Island. The Great Depression and WWII delayed development. During this time HGC sells the property then regains it in a mortgage foreclosure then waits again…
On the property is a Coast Guard station built in the 19th Century used during the war for observation to watch for submarines and German U-Boats. These were called Life Saving Stations. Each station contained four rooms on the first floor- a boat room, mess, storeroom, and a keepers room- and on the second floor, two dormitories, as one for the crew and one for shipwreck survivors. Our history would not be complete without this chapter on an institution that saved so many lives and ships.
Twenty three Live Saving Stations were established in Suffolk County, numbers 15 through 25 in the area Fire Island inlet to Shinnecock. The stations were equipped with a cannon and shot for firing a line to a ship, a life car, and a breeches buoy. A breeches buoy is a round life ring from which hang two canvas legs for a survivor to step into and be hauled on shore.
Each of the 23 Suffolk County stations was manned with 7 surfmen and the keeper. The men provided their own food and clothing and were expected to maintain a daily look out and enter a report of every watch in the log. With the strict discipline, lengthy daily drills, an hazardous duties, the surfmen led lives similar to those of firemen today. Off duty, the men had, for recreation, the beach and the water for fishing, clamming, duck shooting, deer hunting, sailing, and scootering.
Six oarsmen and the stations keeper, who steered and gave orders, comprised the crew. The boats used by the cruise in these stations contributed greatly to the success of the U.S. life saving service. Made of white cedar, the boat was 25 feet to 27 feet long, weighing 700-1100 pounds, it was light enough to be dragged across the sand in a cart. With pointed bow and stern, the boat was highly maneuverable and could be launched safely through heavy surf.
For the crews, the period of service- originally just the three winter months- gradually increased until the stations were manned ten months of the year, with only July and August off.
The most celebrated duty of the surfmen was beach patrol. Each night and on foggy days of poor visibility surfmen were out walking every foot of Fire Island beach, looking and listening for signs of ships in distress. Two men were assigned to each watch. They would set off opposite directions from the station and walk the beach to a halfway hut, if there were one, or until they met their counterparts from the next station. Upon meeting the patrols would exchange copper discs, then return to their own stations where keepers would record the trips in the log. The next night the discs were returned. In this manner it was proven that all patrols were completed.
1940’s. Squatters as they were called built makeshift huts, and created their own community of sorts. On the left and below are early Pines settlers Carl and Mabel Iverstrom.
1940’s. It was a tent, lean to, or beach shack but the early Pines settlers like Mabel Iverstrom, and Alice Thorpe made it their home. The beauty of the area inspired nudity in all forms allowing people to express their freedom.
A community was forming. Nudist’s, bohemians, and locals were finding Lone Hill and making it their own. After the 1938 hurricane early squatters used the wood remnants left to build their own more permanent shacks on the beach.
John and Alice Thorpe were part of history as some of the earliest settlers in the community. John would go onto becoming the first president of the newly formed FIPPOA (Fire Island Pines Home Owners Association).
In the history of the life-saving service, it was the first 10 years of service that were its period of greatest achievement. After that, steamships came more into use. By the end of the 19th century most of the evils that have given fire island a bad reputation had been overcome, and the life-saving service had played its part. Far fewer ships foundered on the beach.
Fire Island was becoming a resort. The residence of local communities, like Sayville and Patchogue were discovering Lone Hill.
With the growth of communities like Cherry Grove it was time, and the Home Guardian Company of New York would now develop what was Lone Hill into a new community called Fire Island Pines. HGC would ask the Sayville ferry service if they would add this to their ferry run, and began advertising and selling.