Life in Far Rockaway in the Late 1800’s

Parishes typically reflect the era and culture in which they exist, and St. Mary’s reflects its environment at this time as well. Far Rockaway was then an unincorporated village, a part of the town of Hempstead, which itself was part of Queens county, and not yet a part of the City of New York. Its population swelled greatly in the summertime, but it was struggling to retain the aura of gentility of its halcyon days of the period 1833-1869. The summer population flocked to the many “cottages” and to the 30-plus “hotels” in the village, large short-term boarding houses with porches and dining rooms. The streets were unpaved and dust was a great problem. Central Avenue farther away from the ocean was referred to as “the wooded district”. Liveries and stables dotted the village, and horseracing was a common pastime. Pigs and hens were commonly kept in backyards and barns, occasionally destroying a neighbor’s garden. One news item in 1883 reported that Patrick Kane lost a valuable cow, which poisoned itself by drinking paint. On another occasion a mad bull got loose near the train depot, hurling into the air a man who tried to stop him with his cane. Debates over the installation of sewers and street paving were incessant. Occasionally a hotel would burn down, evoking calls for establishment of a fire department for the village. The nearby hamlets or “branch villages” of Lawrence, Cedarhurst, Woodsburgh, Westville (Inwood) and “Hewletts” looked to Far Rockaway as their center for shopping, lawyers and other services. “Base ball clubs” such as the “Young Rocks”, the “Little Rocks” and the “Dauntless” contested on the diamond against teams from all over Long Island. Goat races, amateur theatricals and “hops”, or socials, formed a regular part of the social scene here, as did numerous clubhouses, such as the Colonia, the Columbia, the Mikado, and the Sylvan. Fraternal and literary groups abounded, such as the Masons, Foresters, Norma Circle, the Literary Society and the Current Topic Society. The Far Rockaway Bowling Club, the Bayswater Yacht Club, and the Waldorf Opera House gave a wide range of recreation to their patrons.

Local politics generated much heat, and the weekly newspaper reports on the court proceedings showed a startling array of crimes: assaults, burglary, drunkenness, domestic disputes and occasionally murder—as much from the nearby hamlets as from the village. Marriages, funerals, scandals, fishing reports and marine misadventures paraded in turn through the local papers. Publication of the names of those who rented or visited for the summer was a staple of public comment. Any notable or almost-notable public figure was breathlessly regarded as a sign of better times to come. New York Tribune writer Whitelaw Reid, the friends of Oscar Wilde, and other contemporary stars whose names are now unfamiliar to us, each in turn generated their share of journalistic anticipation. The preponderant amount of newsprint was devoted to real estate deals, new construction and renovation, business openings and closings and entrepreneurial news.

The social fabric of the community was largely European. Most press attention was devoted to the white Protestant establishment, particularly in the hamlets, while Far Rockaway increasingly reflected an Irish and Catholic nomenclature after the Civil War. By the mid-1890’s, services in the Italian language at St. Mary’s were offered by visiting preachers. Italian names started to surface in news from Westville (Inwood) and there was an occasional news item referring to African-Americans. Some of these references reflect the popular stereotypes of the times. The names of Jewish residents and merchants began to emerge in the 1880’s. There was a noticeable toleration toward all religions. The newspapers reported the Christmas and Easter services of all the major churches, as well the social calendars of the Protestant clergy.

On several occasions different pastors of St. Mary’s are reported to have delivered a stinging sermon on the evils of alcohol, perhaps reflecting a particular problem of the flock. One gets a little flavor of the local color from this item in the Hempstead Inquirer of April 26, 1878.

[Far] Rockaway has 3 churches, 6 butchers, 3 bakers, 3 groceries, 3 barbers, 3 doctors, did have 3 druggists, 3 candy stores, 3 stationery stores, and last, though not least, about 35 liquor stores.

In December of 1885, the South Side Observer reported that the Catholic (Father Zimmer), Episcopal and Presbyterian pastors in the town held a meeting with the 42 saloon and hotel owners and a citizen committee from each church. Their goal was to arrange a mutual agreement that the saloons would stay closed on Sunday until at least 1 P.M., after the end of church services. This must be one of the earliest examples of ecumenism in action in Long Island’s history!

read more

return to index