Long Beach - Riding the waves of a colorful history
By Bill Bleyer, Newsday Staff Writer
A mayor assassinated by a cop assigned to protect him. Political scandals. Celebrity residents like Bogie and Cagney. And a boardwalk construction project hyped with a parade of elephants.
To call the history of Long Beach colorful doesn't quite do it justice.
The story starts out conventionally enough with Rockaway Indians spending summers hunting, fishing and whaling on the island. After the Indians sold the area to colonists in 1643, the barrier island was used by baymen and farmers for fishing and harvesting salt hay. But no one lived there year-round for more than two centuries - not until Congress established a lifesaving station in 1849. A dozen years before, 62 people died when the barque Mexico carrying Irish immigrants to New York ran ashore on New Year's Day.
The first attempt to develop the island as a resort was organized by Austin Corbin, builder of the shorefront Oriental Hotel in Brooklyn. He formed a partnership with the Long Island Rail Road to finance the New York and Long Beach Railroad Co.
It laid track from what is now Lynbrook to Long Beach and the first passenger train ran on May 31, 1880. By July, the company had opened the 1,100-foot-long Long Beach Hotel, at the time the largest in the world. The railroad brought 300,000 visitors the first season. By the next spring, tracks had been laid the length of the island, but after repeated winter washouts they were removed in 1894.
Corbin's development scheme ultimately failed, as did two successive efforts. In 1906, along came William Reynolds, a 39-year-old former state senator who developed four Brooklyn neighborhoods -- Bedford-Stuyvesant, Borough Park, Bensonhurst and South Brownsville -- as well as Coney Island's Dreamland, the world's largest amusement park. Reynolds, who also owned a theater and produced plays, gathered investors and acquired the oceanfront from its private owners and the rest of the island from the Town of Hempstead in 1907 so he could build a boardwalk, homes and hotels.
Reynolds had a herd of elephants march in from Dreamland, ostensibly to help build the boardwalk, but in reality just to publicize it. Dredges created a channel 1,000 feet wide on the north side of the island so Reynolds could bring in large steamboats and even seaplanes to carry more visitors. The new waterway was named, naturally, Reynolds Channel.
To ensure that Long Beach lived up to Reynolds' billing as The Riviera of the East, he required every building to be constructed in an ``eclectic Mediterranean style'' with white stucco walls and red tile roofs. And they could be occupied only by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. After Reynolds' corporation went bankrupt in 1918, these restrictions were lifted and Long Beach became a melting pot filled by immigrants from overseas.
The new town attracted wealthy businessmen and entertainers. Before Reynolds' bankruptcy, he built a theater called Castles by the Sea with the largest dance floor in the world for dancers Vernon and Irene Castle. (It burned down in the 1930s.) In the '40s, Jose Ferrer, Zero Mostel, Mae West and other famous actors performed at local theaters. And Jack Dempsey, Cab Calloway, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and John Barrymore lived in Long Beach decades before anyone heard of Long Beach's most famous modern-day native, Billy Crystal.
Long Beach's most colorful period was the Roaring Twenties. The city became a center for rum-running, which was orchestrated by Police Commissioner Moe Grossman, according to historians. ``Residents reported stories of areas on the beach being roped off when cases of illegal booze were to be landed,'' according to former city historian Edward Graff. ``The signal as to whether it would be `safe' to land allegedly was the light in the clock tower of the old city hall.''
In 1923 the world-famous Prohibition agents known simply as Izzy and Moe raided the Nassau Hotel and arrested three men for bootlegging. In 1930, five city police officers were charged with offering a bribe to a Coast Guard officer to allow liquor to be landed. The police had another problem a year later: a mystery that captivated the nation in the summer of 1931. A beachcomber found the body of a beautiful young woman named Starr Faithfull. She had left behind a suicide note, but others believed she had been murdered.
By this point, official corruption had become almost a regular feature of life in Long Beach. In 1922, the state Legislature designated Long Beach a city and Reynolds was elected the first mayor. He was promptly indicted on charges of misappropriating funds. When he was found guilty, the clock in the tower at city hall was stopped in protest. When a judge released Reynolds from jail later that year on appeal, almost the entire population turned out to greet him. And the clock was turned back on.
Reynolds' problems were minor compared to those of Mayor Louis Edwards. As Edwards was leaving his home in 1939, patrolman Alvin Dooley, who had been assigned to the booth in front of the mayor's house, fatally shot him and seriously wounded his driver and bodyguard, patrolman James Walsh. Edwards had taken away Dooley's motorcycle and backed Walsh over Dooley in an election for PBA president. Dooley spent 15 years in prison.
Long Beach's heyday as a resort ended because of cheap air travel and the advent of air conditioning, city historian Roberta Fiore says. ``With air conditioning, people didn't have to escape the city in the summertime and the airplane got them farther away faster,'' she says.
By the '60s and '70s, ``Long Beach got very depressed,'' said Alexandra Karafinas, head of the Long Beach Historical Society. ``The hotels had mental patients in them and welfare recipients. The property values were way down. There were some race riots here.''
Urban renewal began in the late 1970s and the city sported new housing, a new shopping center on Park Avenue and other improvements. ``The renaissance took place in the early '80s,'' Fiore says. ``For example, the Granada Towers was closed in 1975 by court order because it was deemed uninhabitable. In 1980 it was not only reopened as a condominium but it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.''