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Great History: The long-forgotten West Lake summer spot in Patchogue

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Exactly 74 years ago today, Mount Carmel Beach celebrated its grand opening along West Lake’s sandy northeastern bank.

Photographs from the era showcase people swimming, children playing and dozens seeking shade under umbrellas.

But yesterday, a sunny Sunday afternoon, a raft of ducks were the only ones swimming in the murky water. The beach once teeming with sand and life has given way to overgrown greenery and a lone forest-colored garbage pail.

What happened to Mount Carmel Beach?

GreaterPatchogue sought assistance from members of the Greater Patchogue Historical Society and Gary Lutz, a reference librarian at the Patchogue-Medford Library, and interviewed locals familiar with the area and its history to piece together the story of Mount Carmel Beach, its founder and West Lake’s history through the decades.

construction and devastation

All sources point to the Rev. Cyrus E. Tortora as the founder of Mount Carmel Beach, which shared the name of his church, then on West Main Street.

While it remains unclear when the beach was first proposed and how long construction took, Long Island Advance articles from the late ’40s suggest the beach’s construction proceeded throughout June of 1947. The beach was visit-ready either that month or the following July.

Multiple outlets reported a drowning that happened at the beach on July 7. A 13 or 14-year-old named Ruth Williams, according to varying sources, suffered a cramp while swimming in less than four feet of water. After a half-hour search and various community members, including Tortora, attempting to revive Williams with artificial respiration for more than an hour, she was sent to a local funeral chapel.

The tragedy would foreshadow the beach’s short-lived future.

lighting up the sky

While Mount Carmel Beach’s grand opening was still two weeks away, the news coverage by the Advance of Ruth’s death said the beach, by that point, “has been visited by more than 10,000 people since it was officially opened several weeks ago.”

But it was 10 p.m. July 19, 1947, Mount Carmel Beach celebrated its grand opening with a bang.

Around 2,000 people attended the 45-minute fireworks display ignited across the beach on West Lake’s western bank.

The following Saturday boasted another fireworks display at the beach, according to reports. That evening, a television set was awarded to one of the people who purchased shares of it, an effort to finance the beach.

It’s unclear how many fireworks displays occurred at the beach, but they were a popular spectacle around Patchogue during that time. “There was always good fireworks around here cause the Grucci brothers lived in Bellport,” Peter Berman, 85, of Patchogue, said. “They were the only game in town.”

more than a beach

The sandy beach, according to residents, boasted plenty of amenities for guests. Patricia Rizzi recalls cement benches, tables, and badminton net, canvas lounge chairs and beautiful umbrellas that came from the Bee Hive department store up the road from the beach.

“It was a beautiful beach, it was something Father Tortora made for the community,” said Rizzi, 80, a longtime Patchogue resident. “I can’t tell you how nice it was.”

Joining the beach were two buildings: one a gymnasium, the other a community center.

“They had all sorts of good activities,” Rizzi said. “There was a very large room that had ping tables. Whoever saw ping pong tables when I was a kid?”

“They had a concrete pad there where we could play basketball.” Steve Busso, another lifelong Patchogue resident, recalled. He remembers frequenting the beach and West lake for fishing during his time as a Boy Scout, in which Tortora was also involved. “He did a lot for us kids when we were growing up with boy scouts.”

The area also boasted an outdoor skating rink, according to the Advance.

“Out on the beach there was a big raft you could swim out to, there were two of them out there,” said 85-year-old Busso. “The water was very, very cold.”

beach closed

It is difficult to say precisely when Mount Carmel Beach closed.

Some local history books suggest the beach did not survive past the ’40s but does not list a cause of death.

Many residents point to one — or rather many — probable causes. “It didn’t last very long because there was a drowning,” Rizzi said. “Father Tortora felt very very bad. That stuck in my mind and I was always afraid.”

An Advance obituary for Rev. Tortora, who died on May 26, 1953, explains that he closed the beach for swimming after two children drowned, one in 1947 and another in 1948.

While the beach may have officially closed for swimming and the amenities were removed, the sandy bank of what was still referred to as Mount Carmel Beach by locals was readily available.

“My parents met there,” said local Eva Tarantino.

On one sunny day in August of 1953, Rosemary Chiuchiolo, then Rosemary Musso, and her family were visiting the site of Mount Carmel Beach, up the road from their house, for a barbeque. Musso’s mother needed a hat to weather the blaring sun and blistering heat, so Alfred Chiuchiolo, whose family was friendly with the Mussos, accompanied her on her quest to retrieve a hat.

“And they got married nine months later, May ’54,” Tarantino, 63, of Patchogue, said

gone without a trace

No trace of Mount Carmel Beach itself and the buildings that accompanied the summer getaway exist today.

Photographs of the time and place are hard to come by. Local history books available at the Patchogue-Medford Library only contain two photos with captions indicating Mount Carmel Beach.

The sand has long been eroded and replaced with greenery. The gymnasium and the community center were demolished.

Although residents remember going to the beach in the ’50s, after Tortora officially closed it, it remains a mystery as to why people stopped frequenting the area.

An Advance article from 1963 explains that swimming was prohibited at West Lake because the village could not comply with Suffolk County and New York State regulations, which called for a comfort station, restrooms, showers and lifeguards.

Berman suggested the budding popularity of other summer spots, namely the Fire Island National Seashore’s opening in 1964, as a reason Mount Carmel Beach became old hat.

“I guess it just got kind of watery, not to make a pun of it,” Berman said. “But I guess there were just other places to go.”

Now, instead of swimming and soaking up the sun, residents say West Lake is used for trout fishing.

While Tortora’s summer spot may no longer be, there is a park that bears his name half a mile east of West Lake. His legacy continues in the village, as does the memory of Mount Carmel Beach. According to Tarantino, her mother and Rizzi reminisced about the beach over a recent dinner.

“As a kid, to experience that, it was really very nice,” Rizzi said. “It was the closest thing to a resort that I knew as a child.”