Plumb Island: Brooklyn’s Grenada

“The people of the Plumb Beach section got to their rapid transit subway by the Emmons Avenue bus service of an independent operator, that is, when the buses ran …”

– Joseph B. Milgram, An informal history of Sheepshead Bay

The fare for the bus was five cents, equal to that of the subway. Such was the price for the 1,500 residents of Plum[b] Island in 1934 to reach civilization in a rapid manner.

They led lives seemingly better suited to the frontier than to America’s largest city: no electricity, no telephones, no police. Children had to wait for high tide to get to and from school. The few amenities included a grocery store, running water, and “two itinerant barbers” who made house calls. Ice-filled milk containers buried in the sand kept things cool.

A waterway called Hog Creek was responsible for the buses’ inconsistent schedule. Separating Plumb Island from Sheepshead Bay, its height fluctuated with the tides. Even the sandy “road” was a recent development; earlier settlers had to wade across the creek or pay a ferry to traverse its 40-foot expanse. This service was known as the shortest in the world.

Panoramic view of Hog Creek, 1932. (from the Brooklyn Collection)

The community was little changed from a quarter-century earlier, after the conclusion of one of the strangest episodes in Brooklyn history.

The government intended to build a mortar battery on the eastern end of the island in the 1890s, purchasing one third of the island’s 150 acres. But “Reservation Beach” was unsuitable to the task due to the quicksand-like soil, so squatters moved in, selling liquor and cigars free of any excise tax. To make its investment worth it, the government had to find other purposes for its holding – and the purposes it found, it would come to regret.

In May 1907, Secretary of War William Howard Taft entered into an agreement with former Judge Winfield S. Overton to lease the property for five years. Overton, soon known as “the czar of Plumb Island”, ruled with an iron fist, setting up his own private police force to protect his domain. To deal with the squatters who refused to pay him rent, he even convinced two Army companies from Fort Hamilton to perform the evictions (after all, it was federal land).

Overton then pushed the envelope. He figured that since he was on government property, state laws didn’t apply. So he announced a “carnival” complete with boxing matches, an illegal activity in New York State*. On August 15, 1908, around 200 members of the recently formed “United States Military Athletic and Sporting Club” took in the three-card afternoon as the Sheepshead Bay precinct of the NYPD looked on helplessly. When Overton repeated the feat one week later, the crowd more than doubled in size.

But the Department of War had gotten wind of the happenings, and understandably didn’t like how its property was being used. In January 1909, it revoked Overton’s lease, and kicked him off the island; in his place was installed a new “mayor”, Frank Dotzler, who would also treat the land as his own private fiefdom.

When word came in May that Overton was returning, the 12th Infantry was sent to keep him out – the second “invasion” of Plumb Island in as many years.

Headline in the New York Times, May 17, 1909.

The city finally acquired the federal property for park purposes in 1924, but leased it to a contracting company, which parceled and rented the land.

Plumb Island had always been a place for hardy individuals. Sailors had long stopped there, perhaps snacking on the beach plums that gave the island its name. Some might have been among the first to enjoy its status as a rent-free haven.

Later inhabitants thought of it as a “poor man’s summer resort”. Of course, there were some who stayed year-round, too, trading convenience for calm. “This isn’t Palm Beach, thank God,” said long-time resident George A. Stuber. “We’re just a bunch of roughnecks who came here to be left alone.”

The 1929 E. Belcher Hyde atlas shows several buildings on the western tip of Plumb Island. The grid had not yet been laid.

But the free buffet would soon come to an end. Plumb Island came into the crosshairs of the Shore Parkway in the late 1930s. Most of the squatters left by 1937, and Mother Nature fired off a warning shot to the rest. The great hurricane of 1938 – the Long Island Express – did significant damage to the remaining buildings on the island. Robert Moses finished the deed over the next two years, filling in Hog Creek in the process. Plumb Island, in terms of both community and geography, was no more.

The government once again took over Plumb Beach in 1972, making it part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. Its shore had become known for two things: terrific windsurfing and horseshoe crabs, which mate in droves there every spring. By the late 1970s, it was also known as a dump, as shown in this news clip (featuring current Borough President Marty Markowitz).

Much more recently, Plumb Beach gained prominence as a weak spot in the city’s evacuation plan. 2009′s Hurricane Ida brought water within a few feet of the Shore Parkway (a major escape route) and destroyed the bike path. Neither problem has yet been fixed, although the shore is now covered with sandbags.

Get off and walk.

The most convenient access to Plumb Beach is at a parking area off the eastbound Shore Parkway. Due in part to its isolation, the lot gained a reputation as a rendezvous spot for male sexual encounters. This became more widely known after the 2006 death of Michael Sandy, a gay man who had been lured there by four men intending to rob him. He was hit by a car on the Shore Parkway while trying to escape his attackers.

*It’s probable that rendering a decision in a boxing match was what was actually illegal, not the fight itself. Overton’s bouts violated this premise. After his first two successful Saturdays, he threatened to charge admission going forward, which was also outlawed by the state.

Other newspaper sources:

“Plum Island to become a rival to Goldfield”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 23, 1908.

“Pulls off ring fights on U.S. leased land”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 16, 1908.

“It’s 23 for Overton: 23 U.S. Army warriors”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 17, 1909.

“Plumb Beach opposes ‘modernistic’ trend”, New York Times, July 30, 1934. (I can’t find this in the online morgue, so maybe it’s not from the Times, but the type is the same)

“A fact a day about Brooklyn”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 12, 1940.

Bound sources:

Desk atlas, borough of Brooklyn, city of New York (E. Belcher Hyde Map Co., 1929).

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).

An informal history of Sheepshead Bay by Joseph B. Milgram (Brooklyn Public Library, 1970).

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2 Responses to Plumb Island: Brooklyn’s Grenada

  1. chickenunderwear says:

    I never knew anyone ever lived there.

  2. H nemzer says:

    Late 1960′s we would take a date to that parking area off the Belt to watch submarine races. Never knew all of the history of the place; thanks!

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