Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, Smith’s Inlet is back with us. Reopened during Superstorm Sandy after 175 years of lying dormant, Smith’s Inlet is Old Inlet’s original name, located directly south of Brookhaven hamlet on Fire Island about a mile west of Smith’s Point County Park.
Since its first recorded existence, Smith’s Inlet has had a long and fascinating history. During the early 1770s, shortly before the American Revolution, a storm created the inlet though Judge William Tangier Smith’s manorial property on Fire Island. Some early maps called it New Inlet or South Inlet as well as Smith's Inlet; other early maps had no name for it. However, in 1834, the New York State Legislature passed a law “to preserve the grass on a part of the south beach” and used the phrase “heretofore known and designated as Smith’s Inlet,” indicating that the inlet was already known by the name “Smith’s Inlet” at the time the law was passed.
This early inlet was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing for fishing and commercial vessels in the settlement of Fire Place, the colonial name of Bellport, Brookhaven and South Haven. A curse once the war started and the British blockaded the inlet, using it to supply their troops. They built Fort St. George adjacent to Judge Smith’s home across from the inlet to guard it. (The Tangier Smith’s Manor of St. George is a museum today and is open to the public.) During the War of 1812, the British once again blockaded Smith’s Inlet, and it is said there were many skirmishes there. When Smith’s Inlet first opened it may have been a mile or two east of where it ended some 60 years later (inlets move westward over time). In an 1827 storm, a Spanish ship loaded with millstones sank in the channel of the inlet. Then another ship, the Syracuse, loaded with a cargo of salt, became entangled with it and sank. Over the years sand built up around the hulks, and by 1836, the inlet was essentially closed to sailing vessels. The area where Smith’s Inlet was then became known as Old Inlet.
In 1912, a group of local residents formed a membership corporation and purchased 3.2 acres about three quarters of a mile to the east of the remnant of the closed inlet (still there) and SSW of Carmans River, directly south of Mott Lane in Brookhaven hamlet. They then formed the Old Inlet Beach Club and built a boardwalk, pavilion and bathing houses. In 1959, another beach club, the Fire Place Beach Club, was formed and purchased 1.2 acres adjacent to the Old Inlet Club.
In 1964, federal legislation was passed creating the Fire Island National Seashore, and the land of these two clubs was condemned and acquired. FINS let the Old Inlet Beach Club dock and boardwalk remain, and used the name Old Inlet to designate a free dock and access to the ocean beach. In 1980, the Old Inlet area became part of the National Seashore's Otis Pike Wilderness Area.
It is interesting to note that section 8 (b) of the federal legislation that created the National Seashore strongly recommended the construction of an inlet across Fire Island. One of the few benefits of Superstorm Sandy was to provide the funding and construction for this desired inlet, unfortunately washing away the Old Inlet boardwalk and dock in the process.
Concerns about the inlet causing flooding on the mainland have since been laid to rest, and we are now in awe of the beneficial things that have resulted from the inlet’s reopening. It is an astonishingly beautiful natural inlet fitting for a Wilderness Area.
But I urge caution to Squassux Landing boaters and bathers. Smith’s Inlet is a wilderness inlet, wild as a beast. Just remember that on Nov. 5, 1813, its first iteration killed eleven of our Fire Place fishermen.
--Martin Van Lith,