Vernam Barbadoes Peninsula
Vernam Barbadoes Preserve (Terrapeninsula Preserve)
Vernam Barbadoes Preserve occupies the greater part of the Terrapeninsula, which extends into Jamaica Bay in the Rockaway section of Queens. The peninsula is flanked by two silt-filled inlets, the Vernam and Barbadoes Basins. For centuries Rockaway has been an ever-shifting barrier beach, simultaneously protecting the mainland and supporting New York’s coastal wildlife and the rich marshland of Jamaica Bay. In addition to hosting a wide variety of plants and animals, Jamaica Bay is a major stop in the migration cycles of thousands of species of birds. Along with natural features in the Jamaica Bay Parks and Wildlife Refuge, the Vernam Barbadoes Preserve is part of the 64,000 acre Gateway National Recreation Area that was established in 1972.
The Preserve is a mixed coastal dune, also known as a scrub meadow and saltwater marsh matrix. There are a variety of marshland grasses and sea lavender on the western shore of the peninsula, and beach heather, bayberry thickets, and woodland species further upland. The preserve also hosts various breeding songbirds, nesting kingfishers, and black-crowned night herons. That such wildlife manages to persevere in the Jamaica Bay area is particularly significant since the largely untouched natural habitat lies so near to the New York metropolitan area.
The word “Rockaway” is a Delaware Native American term for “sandy place.” A group of 300 Native Americans occupied the area before the colonial period. Until the early 20th century, the Rockaways were largely inaccessible and inhabited mainly by fishermen. The first permanent structure was a fishing shack built in 1856. Vernam Barbadoes became the site of a repair area for local fishermen's boats. The name Barbadoes is a corruption of “Barbados,” the Caribbean Island. Several Dutch settlements around colonial-era New York were named New Barbadoes.
Vernam Basin is named for Remington Vernam (1842-1907). Vernam first came to Far Rockaway as a retreat from the stress of his work as a lawyer, but soon saw an opportunity to develop the area. Together with Edgemere, the Arverne neighborhood was the last part of the peninsula to be developed. The area was plagued by confusion of land titles, and people who bought property sometimes found that the person who had taken their money had built a home and lived on the land but did not hold the title. More often there were legal disputes over the boundaries of the properties. As Vernam was a lawyer, he was able to both earn money by resolving the contested titles of other area property owners and skillfully acquire property for himself. After consolidating a considerable amount of land, he replaced the dunes with paved streets, sewers, and sidewalks.
Vernam built a large hotel as the centerpiece of his new upscale resort community. His wife Florence, noticing that he signed his checks "R. Vernam," decided to name the hotel and surrounding community as a variation, "Arverne," which she thought had a nice French sound. Vernam opened the hotel on Independence Day in 1888, and sold 17 homes during the following year. Despite the success of the community, Vernam's good fortunes lasted less than a decade. By 1896 he was bogged down in lawsuits over the ownership of some of his properties, which finally pushed him to bankruptcy in 1898. He finally retired and moved to Oakland, New Jersey.
1863 saw the beginnings of development in the Rockaway area, and by 1864 a ferry line from Canarsie was bringing beachgoers and adventurers to the island. Trains, roads, and bridges followed, including the Marine Parkway Bridge of 1937, and the area became a fashionable and crowded summer getaway for city dwellers. Increased car ridership in the 1940s and ‘50s allowed New Yorkers to travel to beaches further east, and the popularity of the Rockaways diminished. Industry moved into the area to the detriment of marine life and the environment. By the end of the 20th century, Vernam Barbadoes was being used by a number of adjacent businesses as a dumping area.
Acquired from the City by Parks in three parcels between October of 1996 and October of 1999, Vernam Barbadoes became public property as the result of structural problems and contamination in the Brooklyn Navy Yard area. The peninsula was saved from both illegal dumping and plans to build a truck assembly and painting plant. Parks Commissioner Stern officially designated the park the “Terrapeninsula Preserve” at a flag-planting ceremony here on June 18, 1997.