What’s in a Name? Broad Channel


 I’ve long been enamored by the name of the Wildlife Refuge’s commensal home, Broad Channel. My curiosity stems from whether the development of the Broad Channel community altered the key characteristics of its nautical namesake.

An 1899 U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey reveals that the Broad Channel waterway provided a relatively wide route for fishermen amongst the meandering saltmarshes of Jamaica Bay. Emanating from Beach Channel, it extended northward between Big Egg Marsh and the former Winhole Hassock—where it was 22 feet at its deepest—and between Broad Creek Marsh and East High Meadow—where it was 15 feet at its deepest—into Grassy Bay. As the name implies, Broad Channel was a secure way to navigate the Bay.

Modern fishing maps report depths of 24 feet and 28 feet deep along roughly the same points. Certainly, the channel’s depths are still navigable. However, 20th century infrastructure projects did impinge upon the channel’s broadest points.

In 1881, Broad Channel became a stop on the New York, Woodhaven, and Rockaway Railroad, which ran across the middle of the Bay. The stop provided access to a renowned fishing destination and helped to cement Jamaica Bay’s identity as a recreational area. Permanent residential development soon followed. In 1915, the Broad Channel Corporation was created to construct a permanent community on Big Egg Marsh. Within thirty years, Big Egg Marsh, Goose Pond Marsh, Rulers Bar Hassock, and Goose Creek Marsh were filled in to create the singular island in the middle of the Bay, filling a small portion of the Channel from the west.

The largest loss of the Broad Channel’s breadth came in the 1950s when Subway Island was created. A small marsh known as Long Bar once supported the fire prone railway trestles that traversed the Bay. However, in 1950, after its more than seventieth fire, the track was sold to the City. Following the sale, the MTA constructed Subway Island atop the location of Long Bar in a mission to extend A train service to Rockaway. Upon which the new fireproof trestle was built. Subway Island’s extension into the channel from the east—as well as its low tracks—limited the once unfettered navigation of Broad Channel to boats of a certain size. But did these developments nullify the name of the waterway?

It is possible. However, the transformative nature of this landscape insists that we routinely adapt our understanding of its features. Today, unimpeded navigation of Broad Channel—now wider than ever as a result of saltmarsh loss to the north—is available east of Subway Island by way of Winhole Channel. Given the impermanence of saltmarsh topography and the century of transformative projects in Jamaica Bay, the elimination of its most identifiable features seems inevitable. However, these human modifications to the Broad Channel waterway help the Broad Channel community thrive, which in turn maintains the maritime legacy of New York City by paying homage to a key fishing resource in Jamaica Bay.

By John C. Harris

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