Robert Moses's Jones Beach

How the planner and the project helped create each other

By Michael Adno for Curbed (Available online here)

In 1923, the young, ambitious, then-unknown city planner Robert Moses visited Jones Beach on Long Island countless times. He’d launch a small boat from across the bay and, according to his biographer Robert Caro, spend days alone out there. Across the dunes, Moses would look onto the Atlantic, the Fire Island lighthouse further east, and New York City 25 miles west. Besides a few men who lived in caves among the dunes and seasonal hunters who visited Jones Beach, the place was empty, wild, and far away. It conjured up something in Moses.

He wanted to learn more. In the Babylon Library on central Long Island, he read about Maj. Thomas Jones, a Welsh privateer, then a settler on Long Island, up until his second career as a whaler in the 18th century. Jones established a whaling station on the edge of the Great South Bay in 1700, sending men out to trail passing pods of whales. Over time, the shoals and dunes rose and fell as water and wind molded the western neck of Fire Island and the area now known as Jones Beach became an island.

In the library stacks, Moses pored over maps of the city’s boroughs. After hundreds of visits, Moses had an epiphany while looking over maps of the city’s reticulated infrastructure. The water-supply properties of Nassau County led in a row toward Jones Beach, making it possible for a network of roads to connect the city to Jones Beach with a causeway over the bay. The idea became Moses’s first public-works project, an indicator of his career ahead.

Moses would survey outcrops along the Great South Bay, venturing onto the private estates alone with a legal pad, according to Caro. Moses sketched some drawings of the Taylor Estate and its promontories, and took note of similar thumbs along the coast, jotting down the names of the properties’ owners: Fisher, Hennessey, Phipps, and so forth. Soon enough Moses would set in on Jones Beach State Park, and he’d bring to Long Island’s pastoral plots parkways that spurred the rise of the automobile class and led to the contemporary parks system. Caro reported later that Moses remembered having “thought of it all in a moment.”

Read the entire feature and see Chris Mottalini's haunting photographs online at Curbed.