Bill Bleyer. Long Island and the Sea: A Maritime History. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2019. 320 pages, $21.99USD, ISBN: 9781467138628.
By Erin Becker
In Long Island and the Sea: A Maritime History, Long Island-based writer Bill Bleyer weaves together a compelling narrative of Long Island history. He argues the sea is a major force in Long Island’s history which cannot be ignored. According to Bleyer, “it was the waterways that allowed Long Island to be settled, and then fueled its economic development”, the water provided crucial employment opportunities (putting Long Islanders to work as fishermen, baymen, mariners, and shipbuilders), and the water provided pathways for enemies during wartime (Bleyer 15). In Long Island and the Sea, Bleyer adds balance to prevailing notions of Long Island history by shedding light on lesser-known events: the local connection to slave ships, Long Island’s impact on the early days of transatlantic commercial flight, the development of important marine technology on the East End, the rise of commuter yachts, and more. To construct his narrative, Bleyer utilized research by town historians, local museums and historical societies, news stories, shipyard records, the Coast guard, and Yacht Club records. Bleyer drew on the works of well-established Long Island historians- including John Strong, Andrew Lipmann, Gaynell Stone. With this book, he entered into a fascinating public history conversation with local museums, historical societies, historic sites, public fascination and perception, and more.
Bleyer organized his work into thematic chapters and uses these topics to move through history roughly chronologically. Chapters 1-2 cover Native American life on Long Island and the Age of Exploration; in this section, he establishes the vital importance of marine resources in both Native and early colonial life. In chapters 3-5, he delves deeper into Long Island industries developed to extract marine resources. He covers whaling (both shore and deep-sea whaling), fishing, and shellfishing. He demonstrates marine resources were essential for feeding Long Island’s growing population and for trade; local fishermen targeted striped bass, cod, and salmon for human consumption and utilized less prized fish for animal feed and fertilizer. He brings this section forward to the present day through commercial fishing and shellfishing, oyster depletion, the rise of recreational fishing, the rise of algal blooms, and the implementation of catch limits. Chapters 6-8 cover maritime trade, piracy, and boatyards/ shipbuilding. In this section, Bleyer charts the clustering of early Long Island settlements around the shorelines to facilitate easy access, seafood gathering, and trade; he also examines the proliferation of piracy. Chapters 9-12 cover the American Revolution, Culper Spy Ring, lighthouses, and the War of 1812. Bleyer demonstrates Long Island’s strategic importance during the American Revolution and connects local historical events to popular television series -such as AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies– while pointing out liberties taken with the historical record. He points out the need for navigation aids and the construction of lighthouses along Long Island. He charts the blockades and minor skirmishes which occurred around Long Island during the War of 1812. Chapters 13-15 cover the development of steamboats and ferries, peacetime shipwrecks, and slave ships. Steam-powered ferries were tremendously important as they proved more reliable than the previously used horse-powered ferries, but boilers introduced the risk of fire and explosions; these vessels were used to transport passengers and freight to and from Manhattan and the surrounding area. In this section, Bleyer also demonstrates the danger of Long Island’s waters- from 1878-1888, 250 vessels were stranded along Long Island’s coastline and between 1640-1915, more than 600 shipwrecks were recorded off Fire Island alone (Bleyer 144). Chapters 16-19 cover the development of the US Life Saving Service, skirmishes in Long Island waters during the Civil War, developing technology, and coastal defenses. As Bleyer demonstrates, the death toll from the shipwrecks, combined with the loss of property, resulted in a public outcry for government action. As a result, the US Life Saving Service was established and would go on to save countless lives along the Eastern seaboard. Chapter 20 outlines the role of Long Island in Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. Chapters 21 and 22 cover World War I and the dawn of transatlantic flight. Bleyer argues “Long Island boatyards mobilized during the war to build small craft for the military. The United States’ entry into World War I in 1917 brought a resurgence in American shipbuilding” (Bleyer 204-205). In Chapter 23, Bleyer tackles the dawn of competitive sailing and powerboating. In Chapter 24, Bleyer discusses Long Island rumrunning; in this chapter, he argues Long Island was particularly suited for rum running. Long Island is close to New York City, has 1180 miles of coastline with secluded spots along the waterways, was sparsely populated, had law enforcement willing to look the other way, and had a mobile population of workers familiar with maritime work. Chapters 24-28 cover the U-Boat activities in Long Island waters during World War II, the development of maritime colleges, the rise of Grumman, and ‘roadside assistance’ on the water. Chapter 29 covers historical preservation on Long Island and highlights local historical societies, museums, and historic vessels still in use.
In Long Island and the Sea, Bleyer skillfully brings together many different aspects of Long Island maritime history and weaves them together into a compelling, cohesive narrative for a general audience. With this work, Bleyer took on an ambitious task—covering Long Island maritime life from pre-colonization to the present day. His topical approach to such a wide temporal span of history strengthened his work. Bleyer’s attention to detail and eschewing of academic jargon strengthened his work. His book’s greatest value lies in its synthesis of information, its relatability, and its readability. He engages with local history and brings fresh light to lesser known topics while also placing local events into a broader, global context. Long Island and the Sea would work both as a companion text for a local history course or as a nonfiction read for a general reader looking to dip their toes into reading about Long Island’s fascinating maritime history. In Long Island and the Sea, Bill Bleyer has created an attractive and readable work for readers of all backgrounds.
Erin Becker is the Visitor Services & Volunteer Coordinator at the Long Island Maritime Museum in West Sayville, NY. Her research interests focus on the convergence of women, labor, and the environment through a global extractive maritime economy. Her work in museums grapples with investing local peoples in their resources (historical, archaeological, and environmental) as stakeholders through outreach, education, and the development of new public programming. She has written for Gotham Center for New York City History, New York History Blog, Read More Science, and Global Maritime History. She can be found at @ErinE_Becker on Twitter.