What’s In a Name? Plumb Beach

Plumb Beach

Is it Plumb Beach or Plum Beach? Both names appear used for centuries. But contemporary New York City and Gateway National Recreation Area records use “Plumb.” So, the name “Plum Beach,” emblazoned in white paint on the violet exterior of the beach’s concession stand, only adds to the confusion.

The south Brooklyn beach in question, like many along the Bay, was originally a barrier island. As early as 1779, the name appears on maps as “Plumb Island.” However, an 1873 map relays the name “Plum Island.” Today, it is “Plumb Beach.” And because plumb refers to the verticality of an object it can be deduced that, despite the erroneous spelling, the name likely refers to the beach plum. A plant that thrives on sand dunes and produce a smaller—yet equally edible—fruit than the plums typically found in the market.

In the 1890s, the federal government purchased Plum Island to create a mortar battery, however the island was never fortified due to the instability of its sand. In the absence of any development, squatters made homes on the island. Under the leadership of “Mayor” Frank Dotzler, the squatting community grew to include 95 families. But the property was contested. In 1907, Secretary of War William H. Taft leased the property to Winfield S. Overton, who failed to evict the island residents with a private security force before going on to operate an illicit recreational facility on the island. Overton, who secured the lease under the pretense of opening a rifle range instead hosted prize fights (boxing was illegal in New York at this point) and sold alcohol (prohibited on army property) at his outlaw sports club. On May 17, 1909, fed up with the transgressions, the Army deployed 30 fully armed soldiers from nearby Fort Hamilton to evict Overton and reinstall “Mayor” Dotzler. However, the island would not remain Dotzler’s forever.

Within two decades, the City of New York bought the island to convert it into parkland. Then, in 1938, the Belt Parkway was announced with plans to convert Plumb Island into one of its many “ribbon parks.” Shortly after, despite opposition from the community, Hog Creek—the waterway that separated Plum Island from mainland Brooklyn—was filled in to accommodate the construction of the parkway. Thus, Plumb Island became Plumb Beach. Three years later, a Department of Parks press release announced the completion of the development of “Plum [sic] Island” built by WPA labor. The facility boasted 50 picnic tables, 40 fireplaces, a concession building, a comfort station, and approximately 1,000 feet of boardwalk.

Today, the New York City Parks Department and Gateway coordinate the stewardship of Plumb Beach. That bright purple building is City Parks property, while the land and waters provide Gateway a critical stretch of coastal ecosystem, including tidal mudflats, low saltmarsh areas, a tidal lagoon, a dune system, and woodland thickets. Recreational opportunities at Plumb Beach include a kayak launch and wind-related activities such as windsurfing and kiteboarding for visitors with the equipment.

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