The History of our Community
In the 1800’s, next to Jamaica Bay in New York, in what is now Southern Queens County in New York City, there was a marsh with a creek that ran next to it. It was called Haw Tree Creek by the locals.
Hawtree Creek meandered northeasterly for centuries before the first fishermen's squatter shacks were built upon its banks in the years after the Civil War. These haphazard structures were designed to protect the old salts from the elements and gave way in the 1880s to more permanent houses built atop pilings driven into the mud bank of the creek.
Both sides of Hawtree Creek slowly developed rows of stilt homes connected by wooden boardwalks. The west and east sides of the creek each had a path nearby leading north, away from the bay and marshes. The dirt trail on the West side ran toward Aqueduct, and the eastern road led northeasterly to Jamaica Village.
The origins of Howard Beach can be traced to three key 19th century ingredients that converged in 1897 1. The attractiveness of Hawtree Creek and its environs. 2. Construction of the Long Island Rail Road line across the creek and Jamaica Bay to Rockaway. 3. The arrival of William J. Howard, the founder and namesake of Howard Beach.
Hawtree Creek and Jamaica Bay were ideal in the late 19th century for fishing, clamming, boating, swimming and the fine salt air and lack of congestion that plagued the big city. What began as getaway shacks for fishermen slowly evolved into the community of Ramblersville. By the 1890s it was known as "Little Venice, " a summer and weekend resort community which by then had year-round residences.
The construction of the Long Island Rail Road line to Rockaway Beach dissected the budding community on Hawtree Creek. The rail line went due south over the creek, the community beginning east of the railroad would adopt the name South Aqueduct, while a smaller settlement east and a little further south of the rail line and on the edge of the bay would be known as East Hamilton Beach.
Ramblersville would be the name adopted by folks who lived along Hawtree Creek west of the railroad. A 1,913 New York Herald article relates a stranger's visit to the town in the 1890s, during which he exclaimed, "this is the greatest place for a ramble that I ever struck!" The name stuck and seemed appropriate for the sleepy fishing village on stilts all connected by a wooden boardwalk.
To the west of the railroad and between Ramblersville and Jamaica Bay, with Hawtree Creek to its north and west was the handful of houses that would become West Hamilton Beach. Just as the early stilt homes along the creek were threatened by the rise and fall of the tides and the freezing and thawing of the salt water in winter, so too was West Hamilton Beach exposed to the elements. When first settled, the land was a marsh that needed to be filled and raised above the tidal line to support a year-round community. The land west of the creek was a marsh.
The arrival of William J. Howard with his purchase of 37 acres of marsh west of Hawtree Creek in 1897 brought all these elements together, Howard would provide the impetus to fill and develop his land and create the town of Howard Beach, into which Ramblersville, South Aqueduct, East Hamilton Beach and West Hamilton Beach would later be absorbed.
To this day, however, the folks of Ramblersville and West Hamilton maintain their towns individual names and identities, having never formally recognized being annexed into greater Howard Beach.
Ramblersville, immediately surounding Hawtree Creek, only had ten year-round residents at that time. There were no streets or roads in 1890s Ramblersville; the homes were all connected by a wooden boardwalk built above the marsh. The boardwalk known as Broadway became the main street, negotiable at low tide but often flooded over at high tide. The lack of roads only served to keep the community remote and secure, just the way the residents liked it. The little billage built on stilts increased its population by tenfold on weekends and by a hundredfold in summers, as folks flocked in from the city to enjoy the salt air, swimming, fishing and boating. By the late 1890’s scores of homes had been built along the banks of Hawtree Creek. No longer fishermen's squatter shacks, these homes were being built for year round use, and designed to last many years.
While William Howard was buying the swampy marsh west of the Creek, the folks in Ramblersville were developing and populating two adjacent areas, one on the east side of the railroad-South Aqueduct, and one to the south - East Hamilton Beach. While these three sites were progressing, developing and populating, Howard was buying up the unwanted swampy marsh to the west of the creek.
In 1899 the Long Island Rail Road added a stop at Ramblersville. There was no station; the train simply stopped at Russell Street and the passengers disembarked. If the tide was high they stepped from the train into afoot of sea water A short walk led them to the connecting boardwalk called Broadway, from which they could walk to any location in town.
The railroad at this time also handled freight as well as passengers. It surprised the folks in Ramblersville when Howard imported ten carloads of Angora goats. The goats were off-loaded and led to Howard's marsh where a sod wall was built as a goat-pen. This must have been a sight to see; dozens of goats grazing on the barren marsh with only the sod to keep them corralled. A good storm would take out the sod wall and the goats, but Howard could not be deterred. Bill Howard's plan was to breed the goats for leather which could be turned into goods-gloves, footballs, wallets, coats by his brother's firm, Howard & McDermott.
William Howard was a prime mover, a man of initiative and determination. While his grazing goats fattened themselves by munching on marsh grass within their sod pen, Howard commenced work on his next project, the Hotel Howard.
For the first two decades of the 20th century, enormous dredging operations were carried out in Jamaica Bay. Some of the dredging was to deepen the bay, its channels, and adjacent creeks. The sand that was dredged up from the bay was deposited on the marshes to raise the land.
William Howard had plans for his marsh. In the short term the dredged sand would continue to be deposited on his marsh, eventually raising it above flood stage; this project coincided with Howard's goats.
But Mother Nature was taking a dim view of Howard's goats. The cold, wet weather did not suit the Mexican-bred beasts. Eventually a great storm roared ashore, flooding Ramblersville and Howard's marsh. The surging tides wiped out the corral, drowned the goats and swept many of the carcasses out to sea. A New York State record rainfall of 11. 17 inches fell in Central Park on October 9, 1903; that storm surely got Howard's goats.
Howard's mid-range plan was to build a pier and hotel over Jamaica Bay which would attract vacationers and nature lovers. His long-range plan involved the completion of the dredging operations" and when his marshland had been filled in and was ready to support home construction; his plan was the building of a beach on Jamaica Bay within a Howard-constructed park, as well as box-like streets upon which the Howard Estates Company would build and sell their first homes.
Late in the 19th century Howard began constructing a 2000 foot pier out into Jamaica Bay from what is today 98th St. His hotel was a three-story wooden structure with minarets and cupolas sitting near the far end of the pier, Fourteen additional two-story bungalows, each with its own private dock, would be built north of the hotel. On the land end of the pier Howard built a generating plant which would provide electricity to his hotel. Sadly, the hotel and bungalows were later destroyed by fire in 1907,
However, Howard's long range plans were also helped along when the US Government drafted plans just before World War 1 to build a submarine base off Jamaica Bay in Southern Queens. The project was approved and today's Shellbank Basin was dredged to a depth of 40 feet and the sand was deposited on the surrounding march lands. The Government's plans changed, but the marsh lands were filled making the building of homes in the area possible.
Other plans made by the city, including creating canals into Queens helped open the area to building and the developments of Marcella Park and Howard estates began to grow.
For further information about the community's development, including the stories of Flynn's Folly, Howard's Casino, Sand Beach, Bay Harbour, the Cycle Path, the Mettco Club and others, Google "The History of Howard Beach by Richard Ranft" Published by the Queens Forum, June 13, 1997.
Howard Beach Motor Boat Club
59 Russell Street | Howard Beach, New York 11414