FROM HISTORY by Chris Verga |

“Closing the inlet will make the Great South Bay a bay of death, we need an additional inlet.”

These were the words of Congressman Stuyvesant Wainwright in 1956. 

This same warning would destroy the Congressman’s career after he started questioning Robert Moses’s environmental policies.

The construction of historic Ocean Parkway some 20 years prior was marred in the disregard of summer cottages and seasonal residents that inhabited the barrier islands known as Oak Beach, Oak Island and Captree Island. Details that were publicly overlooked was Moses’s proposal to fill Cedar Inlet.

Concerned about what environmental implications it could have, Frank Gulden of Bay Shore, the head of Gulden Mustard Company, ran full-page ads in local newspapers to tell residents to vote no on any plan that would have changed the landscape.

Gulden argued that the priceless heritage of Long Island’s waterfront could face an uncertain environmental future if Babylon Town agreed on allowing the state to assume ownership of the barrier islands.

Despite Gulden’s efforts to warn about closing the inlet, Moses completed his Ocean Parkway in 1934.

Two decades later, development across the island was in full swing. Construction of housing developments with septic tanks near the waterfronts and the planned closing of additional inlets were starting to take an effect on the communities along the South Shore. 

But the already-closed inlet where the parkway now ran was inhibiting the Great South Bay’s ability to flush itself clean of the increased levels of pollutants. Moses, a resident of Thompson Avenue in Babylon village, witnessed the increased pollution in the creek behind his house.

Ignoring the environmental changes, Moses resurrected a proposal for a highway that would cut through Fire Island to Montauk. This proposed project not only threatened the destruction of 17 communities, but also demanded the filling of every inlet in the way.

With support of local fishermen and residents, Wainwright lobbied for the construction of an additional inlet on the east side of the Fire Island lighthouse, and preservation of Fire Island as a national park. 

It would take seven more years to completely get rid of the road proposal and turn Fire Island into a National Seashore, but the tenure of Wainwright would become shorter. 

Congressmen Otis Pike would defeat Wainwright in the 1960 election.  The defeat was linked to Moses; his supporters creating the image that Wainwright favored exclusiveness of rich estate owners over potential flood hazards.

In the decades to come, Wainwright’s “Bay of Death” warning became the reality of today.

Nitrogen from septic tanks and lack of flowing ocean currents in the bay has caused an epidemic of algal bloom, otherwise known as brown tide. In late October 2012, Superstorm Sandy cut an inlet south of Bellport. This breach now flushes out bay pollutants and has revived shellfish populations.

Co-founder of Save the Great South Bay, Marshall Brown said, “Life just flowed into the bay — fish, seal, and sea turtles. Its’ been an unqualified boon, which has shown us what the Great South Bay could be again.”

Witnessing the results of brown tide and the benefits of an inlet on wildlife and our way of life as Long Islanders, would the Wainwright plan of cutting an inlet east of the lighthouse gain support today?