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What’s in a Name? Howard Beach

 In the late 19th century, William J. Howard—a wealthy leather manufacturer sought to develop Hawthorne Creek, a sparsely populated but well-known fishing destination that flowed through the meadows north of Jamaica Bay. The land, under the jurisdiction of the town of Jamaica, was exchanged by the Canarsie people to settlers in the 17th century and later absorbed by the British Colonists.

Earnest residential development of Jamaica Bay followed the 1880 completion of the New York, Woodhaven, Rockaway Railroad, after which the remote fishing destinations on the far side of the farmland that served New York City were reconsidered for permanent living. In 1897, Howard bought 37 acres of land west of Hawthorne Creek to develop a new community. Within two years, a 1,750-foot-long pier adorned by a three-story Victorian-style Hotel Howard was completed. Then, in 1909, a fire consumed the grand hotel and pier. However, Howard stuck around. Committed to making his name stick, the speculator went on to dredge Hawthorne Creek, fill in its banks, and built the new Howard Estates. New York’s very own Venice was underway.

Recreation on the end of Howard Beach’s engineered peninsula grew with the community. In 1912, the completion of a clubhouse referred to affectionately as the “Casino” provided the namesake Casino Park, and a new fishing pier was extended into the Bay. Development along the canals grew steadily, along the way Hawthorne Creek became Hawtree Creek, and in 1916 Howard Estates became Howard Beach.

Today, at Old Howard Beach—the original location of Howard’s first pier and hotel—stands a vital feature of Gateway National Recreation Area. It is not the typical image that comes to mind when one thinks of a National Park. In fact, its level ground, concrete paths, and athletic facilities resemble a typical city park, but that is exactly why it is important. It is Frank M. Charles Park.

Named after Frank Charles who grew up in the Howard Beach community and attended Columbia University until 1917, when he was drafted by the U.S. Army into World War I. Tragically, within a year, Private Charles was killed on a mission to free prisoners of war from behind enemy lines. To honor Charles, the “Casino” was transformed into Pvt. Frank M. Charles Post #480 of the American Legion, and in the 1940s, the surrounding area was redeveloped into a community park.

When Gateway was created in 1972, the National Park Service absorbed Frank M. Charles Park. In addition to honoring the memory of Private Charles, the dynamic space offers a familiar setting of ballparks and jungle gyms establishing a gateway to the National Parks for nearby communities who might otherwise consider the typically remote NPS locations out of reach. A visit to Frank Charles Park can encourage the exploration of the neighboring Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, inspiring a new connection to the National Park Service, and, in turn, generate a greater sense of stewardship over the health of the Bay and the environment at large.

 By John C. Harris,
Ranger at Jamaica Bay Wildlife

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