Long Island’s South Shore is typically 3.9 miles (6.2 km) away from Fire Island, yet it comes very close to touching it on the East End. The Great South Bay, which spans related bays on Long Island, including Patchogue Bay, Bellport Bay, Narrow Bay, and Moriches Bay, separates it from Long Island. Boat, seaplane, and a variety of ferries that run across the bay from Patchogue, Bay Shore, and Sayville to more than ten sites on the island connect the island and its tourist areas. Near its western end, the Robert Moses Causeway, and near its eastern end, the William Floyd Parkway (Suffolk County Road 46), the island is accessible by car. The rest of the island is off-limits to motor vehicles, except for an emergency, construction, and utility access, as well as a few winter beach driving permits.
The History of Fire Island
The history of Fire Island begins in 1653 when Isaac Stratford built a whaling station there and gave it the name Whalehouse Point. Fire Island, like Nantucket, was first settled as a significant whaling hub in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Fire Island Lighthouse, built by the federal government in 1825 at the western point of the island, was its next major development. At the turn of the 20th century, transatlantic ships entering New York Harbor used the Fire Island Light as a crucial landmark. Many European immigrants’ first view of land when they arrived in America was the Fire Island Lighthouse. This beacon still exists as a landmark and a museum, serving as Fire Island’s distinguishing feature which solidifies the architectural styles that signify New York’s beauty and grandeur.
In the 1950s, when real estate was booming, Fire Island became the premier summer getaway for artists. New Yorkers with unique flair lit up the newly built beach bungalows. In the ensuing 10 years, the area turned into a patchwork of rooftops where the affluent and famous could relax in the sun and escape the bustling streets of New York City.
The Name Origin
It’s unclear where Fire Island got its moniker. Sictem Hackey, which means “Land of the Secatogues,” is thought to have been the name given to it by the Native Americans. Near the present-day town of Islip, there was a tribe called the Secatogues. It belonged to a group of islands known as the “Seal Islands.” In a deed, Fire Island’s name first appears in 1789.
In The Power Broker, Robert Caro makes the same claim that the island was given its name to honor four inlets that have since vanished. According to historian Richard Bayles, the name is a mistranslation or corruption of the Dutch word vier (which can also mean “four”), which refers to the number of islands close to the Fire Island inlet. Because of the inlet breaks, it has occasionally been referred.
According to some stories, Native Americans or pirates lit fires along the water’s edge to entice unsuspecting ships into the sandbars, giving the island its name. Some claim it has to do with how the island appears to be on fire from the sea in the fall. Yet another explanation claims that the island’s poison ivy rashes are to blame.
Behind Fire Island Lighthouse
The 74-foot (23-meter) tower that was first constructed in 1826 was replaced by the 180-foot (55-meter) stone tower that became the current lighthouse in 1858. The light was turned off by the US Coast Guard in 1974. To protect the lighthouse, the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society (FILPS) was established in 1982. To repair the tower and light, FILPS raised more than $1.2 million. The United States Coast Guard reinstated the Fire Island Lighthouse as a functioning aid to navigation on May 25, 1986. On February 22, 2006, the light was converted to a personal navigational aid. Although the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, not the USCG, operates and maintains it, it is still listed on nautical charts. It was included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, and the national historic district’s boundaries were expanded in 2010.
In the USCG light lists, it is identified as Fire Island Light, number 695. When the lighthouse was constructed, it stood at the westernmost point of Fire Island, close to Fire Island Inlet. However, Fire Island has grown by accumulating sand, and as a result, the lighthouse is now located at Democrat Point, approximately five miles (8.0 km) from the western extremity of the island.
A Car-Free Paradise
Time Square offers a lot of things that you can do but if you opt for another level of adventure, the Island’s mainland is just a short boat journey across the Great South Bay from the barrier island of Fire Island. At this “vehicle-free” seaside paradise, locals and visitors get around on foot, bicycles, wagons, and golf carts. The island’s 32 miles of coastline are home to gorgeous beaches and a tranquil beachside atmosphere.
Sailors’ Haven’s 40 acres of rare maritime Sunken Forest can be explored on foot, as can the 182 stairs to the top of the Fire Island Lighthouse, guided canoe tours through the Salt Marsh, public marinas for boating and fishing, surfing, camping at Watch Hill, and a day at a lifeguarded beach. Don’t forget to have a glass of the renowned specialty drink from Fire Island at CJ’s, the location of the rocket fuel.
There are 17 distinct resort villages on Fire Island, including individual residences and inns. Top vacation spots include Ocean Beach and The Pines and Cherry Grove, two well-known LGBTQ resort communities. During the summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day, regular ferries run from Bay Shore to the West End, Sayville to the East End, and Patchogue to Davis Park and Watch Hill. You can also use a jet ski, a private boat, or a water taxi to get there.
The Devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012
The island sustained significant damage from Hurricane Sandy’s high tides in 2012, including three breaches near Smith Point County Park on the island’s sparsely populated eastern end. The largest breach, which is also the most contentious politically because it occurs in a wilderness region, is at Old Inlet, which is in the Otis Pike Wilderness Area and is close to Smith Point County Park. Old Inlet was 108 feet wide following the storm on the south end and 1,171 feet on February 28, 2013, near the location of prior breaches which had come and gone on their own. The Great South Bay has been being flushed out by nature, which has improved the water quality, therefore officials have been considering whether to shut the gap and let nature take its course. However, after the storm, residents of the bay front areas noticed more flooding. Later investigation revealed that the flooding was not caused by the breaches but rather by many nor’easters. In 2018, the breach was still active. The other two breaches, one in Cupsogue County Park and the other in Smith Point County Park, on either side of Moriches Inlet have been closed by authorities.