A dedicated reader of this column, who once lived at Roosevelt Beach in Wilson, asked for a brief history of that community, so here is some background on how it came to be developed.
Prior to 1923, the area that is now known as Roosevelt Beach consisted of farm land and orchards. It was purchased by Daniel Dwight in 1837 and remained in that family until the late 19th century. Owners after that included H. F. Giles, R. C. Foote and Alexander Gow. In 1908, the farm was described as having 107 acres, 13 in orchard, 12 in meadow and the remainder in a variety of grains, vegetables and a dairy operation. It contained a “commodious residence, basement barn, ground barn, corn and ice houses.” Water was provided by wells and the nearby Twelve-Mile Creek (sometimes called the Tuscarora River). It may well have stayed farm land for a longer time if an improved highway across the United States stretching from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, had not been constructed.
The Theodore Roosevelt International Highway was proposed in 1919, shortly after the ex-President’s death, and would run through 15 northern states with a short section through Canada connecting New York with Michigan. The highway would use already existing roads but improvements and amenities would be made to those roads to make them more appealing, especially to long distance travelers. The New York route would run through the northern part of the state and then along the Lake Ontario shoreline to Niagara Falls before crossing into Canada. Through Niagara County, it followed Lake Road (now Route 18).
It took a few years to make all the improvements and to post signage designating the new highway. As the roadway progressed, local communities and businesses took advantage of the publicity, and the projected increased traffic, to add facilities such as picnic areas, campgrounds and restaurants along the route.
In 1923, Marville Harwood, a former Newfane resident then living in Derby, purchased the former Dwight farm on Lake Road in the town of Wilson. Harwood, who was a real estate broker and a former supervisor of the town of Evans in Erie County, established the Roosevelt Beach Development Company and envisioned a “delightful summer home colony along the Ontario Beach.”
The cottage community was named for the new highway that ran through the middle of the development. Hundreds of lots, 2,000 square feet each, were available on either side of the Roosevelt Highway. Lakefront and riverside lots sold for $199.50 ($39.50 down and $13.33 a month for 12 months), while interior lots sold for $99.50 ($19.50 down and $6.66 a month for 12 months), roughly $3,000 and $1,500 in 2021 dollars. Each purchaser would have to build their own cottage on the lot and pay all taxes beginning in 1924.
Sales started on July 1, 1923 and were ongoing for the month as work continued on cutting roads, constructing docks, building stairways down to the beach, putting in spring water pumps at various locations and placing benches throughout the development. Lots were sold in different tracts each week during the month of July. The first tract contained 122 lots and sold out in a week. Of the second tract of 246 lots, 224 were sold in a week. The third tract had 214 lots. This had been part of the orchard and lots came with one or more peach trees. More than half of these lots were sold in a week. Additional lots were made available throughout the summer. By the following year, 900 lots had been sold and 50 cottages had been built.
In addition to an on-site sales office, Harwood had offices in Niagara Falls and Buffalo. His target audience were workers in professional, management or higher paying manufacturing jobs in those cities who had an automobile as well as the time and financial resources to escape to the lake during the summer.
By 1924, with many of the lots sold, special events were taking place at Roosevelt Beach to attract more possible buyers. In August, the “Great Water Carnival” featured demonstrations, contests and exhibitions. Local, state and national water sport champions participated in the event, including Ethel Lackie, winner of two gold medals for swimming competitions at the 1924 Paris Olympics.
Roosevelt Beach Development Company continued to sell lots through 1925, but the price for a waterfront lot rose to $299.50. As more cottages were built and some chose to reside there year round, a property owners’ organization was formed in 1936 “to advance the interests of the community.” In the coming decades, this group would bring attention to such issues as sandbar removal in Twelve-Mile Creek, sanitation and septic tank problems, and speed limit enforcement.
By the 1960s, with the opening of Wilson-Tuscarora State Park, complaints were being made about the condition of the cottages at Roosevelt Beach as well as sewage leaking into Twelve Mile Creek and affecting the new park. This was at a time when urban renewal funding was flowing and there were suggestions that a government entity should take over the development and use urban renewal money to clean up and improve the infrastructure at Roosevelt Beach. New waterlines installed in 1967 were just replaced this year.
In the 1970s, residents had to contend with high concentrations of bacteria in the lake and creek, preventing any swimming. Also, the level of Lake Ontario steadily rose during these years, eroding lakefront lots, eliminating the beach and destroying Ontario Street, the road closest to the lake. Erosion has been a constant problem for the past 50 years, with the latest shoreline bolstering project completed in 2020.
Brad Clark, a Roosevelt Beach resident since 1955, describes the community today as a “quiet neighborhood.” He stated that many improvements have been made over the past few decades including paved roads, town water replacing the pumps, and consolidation of lots to make larger lots. “There has been a big influx of younger people moving in, building new homes or enlarging existing ones,” he said.
Only about 10% of the occupants are now summer residents, with the majority residing there year round, maintaining their homes and property. Clark believes that the Roosevelt Beach community today “is the best it’s been in years.”
Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.