Water Island, despite its name, is very much a part of Fire Island and has undergone perhaps the most interesting metamorphosis of any community on the island. Today it is known as a very quiet, very private community of about 40 houses situated on the narrowest part of Fire Island with a breathtakingly broad and open stretch of beach. Sixty years ago, however, it was something very different. It was the site of a famous hotel, boasting slot, not slob machines and other forms of gambling, and was the chief center for rumrunners importing illegal liquor into Prohibition-weary America.
This reversal of the expected pattern of development is not as unusual as it may seem, considering the history of the area. Long before the development of private housing was thought practical, some entrepreneurs believed in the future of the island for resort hotels. Water Island was the site of a hotel more than a century ago but the community really began with the opening of the White House Hotel in 1890. Water Island became a large and popular resort attracting no less a personage than Theodore Roosevelt as a frequent guest. The community sprang up around the hotel but its closing during World War I was nearly the death knell for the town; then the extralegal possibilities of Prohibition revived the hamlet spectacularly. Alcohol and gambling kept Water Island prosperous until the Depression ended the party once and for all. By the late 30s the community was again almost deserted, the White House long torn down.
Present-day Water Island began emerging in the 50s as a stable, peaceful retreat for homeowners seeking to get away from it all. Located a mile east of Barrett Beach and 1 1/2 miles west of Davis Park, Water Island offers plenty of solitude and relaxation for its residents. There are no commercial facilities, no ferry; Water Islanders feel it is quite enough of a concession to maintain a single public telephone at the bay. Many resisted the introduction of electricity into the community in the 1970s seeing one more barrier for too much civilization threatened.
The Water Island Association maintains the community’s dock and guards homeowners’ interests. Shopping can be found at Davis Park or F.I. Pines, via your own boat; the nearest ferry services are really too far to be practical.