First things first: the name of Sheepshead Bay comes from a fish, more commonly found in the south, that once lived in local waters. Apparently its teeth resemble those of a sheep.
There are alternative theories, of course, but they don’t hold much currency. The chief rival is that the bay originally looked like a sheep’s head. Or maybe the title is an allusion to some 17th-century satanic ritual involving ovine entrails. (OK, I made that one up.)
Originally part of the town of Gravesend, Sheepshead Bay was mostly ignored until the mid-1800s. The bay (frequently called Kings Bay) was originally connected to Gravesend Bay to the west by Coney Island Creek, which was actually a saltwater inlet that separated Coney Island from the land to the north. Starting in the 1870s there was talk of dredging the creek and creating a 200-foot-wide, 15-foot-deep canal.
This would have been practical for Sheepshead Bay, which was difficult to access by water; sailors could only enter by navigating the treacherous Dead Horse Bay. A major improvement came when an 1898 storm washed out much of Manhattan Beach. Manhattan Beach’s easternmost mile was dredged away after.
Development began at a rapid clip in the late 1870s and 1880s, thanks in part to the Manhattan Beach branch of the Long Island Rail Road, the Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island Railroad (today’s BMT Brighton Line), Ocean Parkway, and the Brooklyn Bridge, each of which made the area’s more temperate climes accessible to many more residents of Brooklyn and New York.
The biggest draw, however, was the Coney Island Jockey Club’s 1880 decision to put its flagship track in Sheepshead Bay. While the club also owned the Brighton Beach and Gravesend tracks, the Sheepshead Bay Race Track was the crown jewel. It had a tall iron picket fence with hedges, and a dedicated LIRR spur route served the facility on race days. Its purses were larger, and the house jockeys were well known.
The track lasted until the state banned gambling in 1910, at which point it was converted to a two-mile loop for automobile races. Known as “The Shrine of Speed” for its records (a 350-mile race was won in 1915 at an average speed of 102 mph), it also served as a site for aerial spectacles. In 1911, Calbraith Perry Rodgers took off in the Vin Fiz on his quest to fly from coast to coast, which he completed after many stops and crashes. Daredevil Ormer Locklear changed planes mid-flight.
The site’s owner, Harry Harkness, wanted the stadium to seat 200,000, but his unexpected death in 1919 forced its closure.
The track’s closure – and the decline of Manhattan Beach and Brighton Beach to the south – sounded an ominous tone for Sheepshead Bay. For forty years, the area had served the hordes wagering at its track and enjoying its cool breezes and local seafood. Now the track was gone (it was parceled into 4,000 lots, which sold for $3 million in 1924), and sewage was being pumped directly into the bay. The LIRR ceased service in 1926. Millionaire’s Row, a set of large mansions along the water, had been crowded by bungalows. The route of the proposed canal to Gravesend Bay was slowly filled in, connecting Coney Island to the rest of Brooklyn.
In 1931, the city took control of the bay. Its most significant development was the widening of Emmons Avenue, which runs along the water’s northern edge. To complete the project, the city had to condemn all buildings to the south, including the famous Lundy’s, which moved across the street.
Residents were afraid the change would result in the area’s transformation to a commercial fishing port; to pacify this opposition, the city designed the piers at an angle, which would prevent trucks from entering them. The piers are still used today as a launching-point for daily deep-sea party-boat tours.
The Shore Parkway came to the area soon after, in 1941. It provided easy automobile access to the area, which made it a much more attractive place to live for those who worked in Manhattan. The last few remaining farms were built over, and by the 1960s Sheepshead Bay was the fastest-growing community in Brooklyn.
The cultural make-up of Sheepshead Bay has closely mirrored that of Brighton Beach: long an enclave of Jewish refugees from New York’s tenement slums and the Soviet bloc, it has become somewhat more diverse in the last few decades, with Muslims and Chinese growing in number. It remains a mostly middle-class community.
Sheepshead Bay saw one of the most tragic incidents in FDNY history on August 2, 1978. Six of Brooklyn’s bravest died when the roof of the Waldbaum’s supermarket at Avenue Y and Ocean Avenue collapsed during a fire. At least 35 others were injured. It would remain the largest single loss of Brooklyn firemen for 23 years.
Despite its railroad-rich beginnings, the neighborhood is ill-served by public transit, and thus is highly dependent on the automobile. The BMT Brighton Line runs to the western part of the area, but other possibilities were long floated before being doomed by fiscal problems. One wonders how different Sheepshead Bay would be if the most ambitious – the extension of the IRT Nostrand Avenue Line (today’s 2 and 5) perhaps as far as the waterfront – had come to fruition.
Gravesend, the home of Coney Island by Eric J. Ierardi (Arcadia, 2001).
The neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Kenneth T. Jackson, Ed. (Yale University Press, 2004).
The story of Sheepshead Bay, Manhattan Beach and the Sheepshead Bay library by Ruth L. Lines (Brooklyn Public Library, 1949).
Brooklyn’s gold coast: the Sheepshead Bay communities by Brian Merlis, Lee A. Rosenzweig and I. Stephen Miller; edited by Robert Weisser (Sheepshead Bay Historical Society, 1997).
Views of picturesque Sheepshead Bay: Borough of Brooklyn, Greater New York by The Sheepshead Bay Board of Trade and Improvement Association (self-published, 1909).