Places that Matter

Sheepshead Bay Footbridge

City Lore
City Lore
Pedestrian bridge connecting Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach
Place Details »

Place Matters Profile

First constructed in 1880, the footbridge over Sheepshead Bay is one of the rare bridges in New York that does not allow cars. The current bridge, built in the 1930s, is both a well-trodden thoroughfare connecting the neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay with Manhattan Beach, and a destination in itself, a place to stop, linger, and fish. A recreational outlet for the middle-class residential neighborhood that exists there today, it is also a remnant of the days when the area was a well-known resort community.

Austin Corbin, a railroad tycoon and banker, was responsible for the first Sheepshead Bay footbridge. "The Donald Trump of his time," according to Sheepshead Bay historian Brian Merlis, Corbin proposed a connection from his property on Manhattan Beach, where he operated the grand Manhattan Beach Hotel, to the mainland. Corbin's Manhattan Beach Company built a simple wooden drawbridge in 1880.

At the time, Sheepshead Bay and the Atlantic barrier that contains Coney Island, Brighton Beach, and Manhattan Beach made up a district of pure recreation and amusement outside New York’s urban bounds. Corbin's Manhattan Beach Railroad connected the seaside resort to Manhattan with an hour's ride. The area was filled with resort hotels, including Corbin's sprawling, opulent Manhattan Beach Hotel, the equally grand Oriental Hotel, as well a host of smaller ones. The same year the Oriental and the first footbridge were built, the mainland neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay came to life with a racetrack, and gambling became an important pastime in the area.

Corbin had proposed the bridge, but he changed his mind about it quickly. In 1879, he had begun to deny entry to his property to Jews, under pretenses of preserving what he characterized as an elite clientele. (New York changed its civil rights code in 1881 to make creed no more a basis for discrimination in public places than race.) After the bridge was built, Corbin found that it gave too-unrestricted access to Manhattan Beach, and sought to demolish it. But officials in the town of Gravesend (in what is now Sheepshead Bay) claimed that it was a public highway and had to be left intact. Corbin tore it down anyway. Others built it back, and a cycle of demolition and reconstruction ensued. In 1881, New York's Commission of Highways ruled that the bridge was a public highway, and the Supreme Court issued an injunction against tearing it down again. Once it was reconstructed for good, the bridge became an unquestionable landmark of the neighborhood.