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The Life Saving Station of Manhattan Beach

By Cecily Dyer

Posted on January 12, 2021

J. S. Johnston, Life Saving Station, Manhattan Beach, Coney Island, N.Y., c. 1894, v1972.1.557; Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.

This week’s photo takes us to the lost eastern end of Manhattan Beach.

Manhattan Beach, on the eastern end of Coney Island, was the brainchild of robber baron Austin Corbin. In the 1870s, he bought 500 acres here and erected two luxury resort hotels for vacationing New Yorkers (not all New Yorkers, however, as Corbin was a notorious anti-semite who barred Jews from the resort). He also built the New York and Manhattan Beach Railway, which made the hotels just an hour’s ride from the city.

Coney Island stretched much further east at that time than it does today, and near that eastern end stood a dilapidated Life Saving Station. In 1879, Corbin helped fund a new structure in the carpenter gothic style, befitting his nearby investments. The new station held a large front room in which were stored a wooden surf boat on wheels, a metal life boat, ropes, carpenters’ tools, a medicine chest, and rubber suits that could be inflated to help keep a person buoyant. A kitchen and dining room completed the ground floor, while the second story held the keeper’s room and the crew’s sleeping quarters. During the active season, roughly September through April, the crew would patrol the beach, sending signals to boats who came too close to the shore and assisting wrecked ships or those in distress. During the inactive season, most had secondary work including fishing, boating, and planting oysters.

It’s possible that the image shows station keeper Richard H. Ryder and his family soon after the station was rebuilt in 1888, when his daughter Ina was 18 and his sons Frankie and Winfield were 8 and 5 respectively. Ryder published a memoir in 1891, The Village Color-Bearer, which recounts his time as Life Saving Service Keeper at Manhattan Beach, as well as his experience as a young soldier from Canarsie fighting for the Union Army in the Civil War.

Interested in seeing more photos from CBH’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. We look forward to inviting you back to CBH in the future to research in our entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections. In the meantime, please visit our digital collections, available here. Our reference staff are still available to help with your research! You can reach us at [email protected].

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