Friday, 02 December 2011 00:00
“The township of North Hempstead has 100 miles of macadam roads, constructed at a cost of $1,000,000. These were built for the use of the farmers of the township to enable them to get their produce to the New York markets. With good roads they are able to carry bigger loads and get bigger profits…the farmers of North Hempstead have been driven off their highways, which are now almost monopolized by millionaire automobilists…”
These are the opening words of Mr. M. Linn Bruce, speaking on behalf of the town and county governments of Nassau County before the State Senate Codes Committee in Albany early in 1902. His measured and persuasive testimony was published around the state. Many were impressed. Though he had never formally held a public or political position, he was elected Chairman of the Manhattan Republicans the next year. In 1904, he was elected New York’s Lieutenant Governor.
When a community loses access to something, it can very quickly lose even memory of that access. By the 1890s, with the mass consolidation of old farms and homesteads into new grand estates and villages growing up along the railroad lines, there was ample opportunity for misunderstandings, assumptions and poorly-planned actions that jammed up the old locals. A path through a property might be closed off by the new owner, a dock removed, access to clamming areas closed off. Over the course of 25 years, Matthew Linn Bruce was a special counsel to North Hempstead on town rights and built an incredible body of case law, rulings, opinions and judgements that rebuilt critical memory and restored to Long Islanders a trove of once-lost treasures that we still enjoy today.
These activities peaked during the years 1910 to 1917, when the new railroad tunnels to Manhattan threw a suburban boom into high gear. Bruce teamed again and again with Supervisor Philip J. Christ to take on some of the most connected and entrenched interests in North Hempstead, and in New York. Researching and resurrecting the town’s original patents from Dutch and English governors (issued in 1644, 1666 and 1685), Bruce and Christ raced to secure local control over harbors, bays, waterfronts and rights of way.
New York gave permission for an upland estate owner to use Manhasset Bay waterfront and bottomland for her own purposes, but North Hempstead v. Grace proved that only the people of the town and not the state could give away those valuable resources. The idea that a town could tell the state where to get off was like a bolt from the blue. Towns didn’t have “home rule” power to pass real laws on their own until 1965; towns didn’t have zoning laws in 1902.
Across that bay, for one-third of a mile above the Town Dock, now lies pretty Sunset Park, the Sousa Band Shell and a walking path along the harbor. There were buildings along there in 1912, including the offices of the Port Washington News, now part of this chain. The publisher and his brother, a former town officer, also built a big garage there, and were leaning on the oystermen for rent to work the beds. Bruce figured out that the town owned all that. There were private cabanas on Bar Beach, jutting into Hempstead Harbor, until Town of North Hempstead v. Oelsner. Don’t get me started on North Hempstead v. Leeds or North Hempstead v. Stern. On and on.
Long Island towns took new control. Bruce was a legal advisor in a case that saved 12 acres of prime beachfront in the sleepy Hempstead hamlet of Long Beach.
In 1902, they were still at the beginning of that journey. And Bruce wasn’t kidding about the automobiles. Farmers felt safer driving their wagons along the railroad tracks, because they could at least see and hear the train in the distance and react. When those large, roaring machines came up from behind or from around a curve at forty or fifty miles an hour, it was terrifying and dangerous for riders, horses and pedestrians.
“Our fight is not against the automobile,” explained Bruce, “We realize that they are here, and that they have come to stay.” It went deeper.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org