Fire Island National Seashore: Before Watch Hill, There Was Bayberry Dunes

by Elizabeth Rogers

Before Watch Hill, there was Bayberry Dunes: a small seaside enclave built a little more than a half-mile east of Davis Park and Ocean Ridge. Bayberry Dunes was a secluded settlement with no ferry service, electricity, or stores. It was said to have attracted artists from Manhattan, including Bob Dylan, who savored the simple life. If not for the campaign to establish a national seashore on Fire Island, Bayberry Dunes may have been the first of many communities planned and constructed in a sparsely developed eight-mile stretch on Fire Island’s east end.

The Watch Hill marina in June 1969. NPS Photo

As plans for Bayberry Dunes were being formulated in the early 1960s, so too was legislation being finalized to designate Fire Island as a national seashore. In addition to protecting the natural environment and providing access to recreation, the vision for the new national seashore included a balance between a developed west end and a relatively natural, undeveloped east end.

In the early stages of the campaign for a national seashore, Fire Island residents aimed to prevent the construction of the Fire Island Highway, proposed by Robert Moses. As the grassroots effort evolved and development on Fire Island expanded, supporters of the seashore designation grew increasingly concerned over plans for new communities like Bayberry Dunes.

While the seashore legislation moved through Congress, developers rushed to build Bayberry Dunes. When the legislation passed in September 1964, it authorized special conditions for the acquisition of property with structures predating July 1, 1963, on the east end of Fire Island within the eight-mile zone between Davis Park and Smith Point. The conditions, including 25-year occupancy and life tenancy options, did not apply to the homes at Bayberry Dunes completed after the July 1, 1963, cutoff. So a grace period was established by then Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall allowing Bayberry Dunes homeowners to remain in their newly-constructed cottages for the next ten years.

Some of the Bayberry Dunes homes were moved elsewhere on Fire Island, but many residents chose to wait out the grace period. During that time, residents of Bayberry Dunes, accustomed to their isolated slice of the island, looked on as a large marina, cross-island boardwalk, and other NPS facilities were constructed and as ferry service began to provide public access to Watch Hill, the new national seashore site. By 1967, residents were sharing their community with park staff who lived on site in the Rogers House, the first Bayberry Dunes home transferred to the NPS.

Seventeen of the original 29 Bayberry Dunes homes were removed. Two octagonal homes –separated by one of the only Bayberry Dunes swimming pools – were relocated to the east end of Fire Island. One of the homes served as an early Smith Point County Park checkpoint, and the other became what is today the NPS Wilderness Visitor Center.

The fate of Bayberry Dunes and other fishing cottages that once dotted the eight miles between Davis Park and Smith Point is part of the story of the establishment of Fire Island National Seashore. Property once enjoyed by few can now be enjoyed by many, and for generations to come. While it is rarely an easy or undisputed process, land acquisition is part of the history of many of the public spaces we enjoy or rely upon, including transportation routes, military bases, and national parks and preserves.

Whispers of Bayberry Dunes can still be found at Watch Hill: twelve of the original cottages are now park housing for seasonal park employees. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy uncovered a bit of Bayberry Dunes history, carving back the tall dunes to reveal foundations of some of the former oceanfront homes. And bayberry, the shrub for which the community was named, can still be found in abundance along the lee, or north, side of the primary dune.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *