A Quick History of Fire Island
Fire Island has a long history predating its current status as a destination for vacationers and weekenders. Formed by glacial deposits, this barrier island protects Long Island’s Great South Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.
As should be expected of any coastal location, Fire Island is a landmass in constant flux. It wasn’t always an island, for instance, and inlets to the bay have opened and closed. Hurricanes and Nor’easters can and do swallow swaths of island into their swirling maws, and sometimes beaches get sand extensions: From one summer to the next it’s possible to tread familiar territory while feeling strangely unsettled.
Beginning in the 17th century Dutch colonists braved the uncertainty and the elements, using Fire Island as a whaling center. In 1826 and then again in 1857 the federal government completed construction of the Fire Island Lighthouse, which served as many immigrants’ first glimpse of America as they prepared to alight in New York City.
Fire Island as Vacationland
Fire Island is home to only a few hundred full-time residents, spread across more than 31 miles of beachfront in 17 residential communities. But their numbers swell into the hundreds of thousands come summertime, when renters, owners of second homes, daytrippers, and vacationers come to Fire Island -- primarily from New York, but hailing from all corners of the world.
Fire Island really took off as a vacationland in the 1950s. By 1969 the place was so firmly established as a holiday capital that Frank Perry could make the Evan Hunter novel Last Summer into the movie of the same name.
Consistently, observers as well as denizens have referred to Fire Island as the laidback alternative to the Hamptons scene. “Bohemian” comes up frequently, too. While the adjective is fitting, considering that private cars are not allowed on Fire Island, it can also be deemed a euphemism.
Which brings us to Fire Island’s gay inflection. Gay life predominantly centers around the communities of Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines. Cherry Grove’s gay cred dates farther back than the Pines’, with Oscar Wilde having stayed at the Perkinson Hotel, in the Grove, in 1882. The Pines was refashioned into a nucleus of the gay community after a key real estate purchase in 1959.