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Sheepshead Bay remained undiscovered by European settlers during much of Brooklyn’s early development. The Canarsee Indians inhabited the land for almost 150 years after nearby Gravesend was settled in 1643.

In the 18th century, the Wyckoff and Lotts families held land grants and built farms in the area, eventually drawing settlers to the shore. 

The neighborhood’s popularity began to increase during the early 19th century when wooden cottages were built along the rim of Sheepshead Bay inlet and a sheltered anchorage for small local boats was built. Local restaurants helped attract visitors with fresh seafood and two hotels were built to accommodate the incoming tourists.

Development quickened during the 1870s when New York railroad lines were extended into Sheepshead Bay and during the 1920s and 1930s, new residential and commercial development transformed the neighborhood.

Piers were built as a Works Progress Administration project, housing was constructed and modernized and Emmons Avenue was widened and paved.

New cars in Brooklyn during this period and the Belt Parkway reaching the area in 1941 brought even more traffic, turning the bay into the fastest growing community in Brooklyn by the 1960s.

How Sheepshead Bay Got Its Name

What is this sheepshead that gave its name to this neighborhood?

You might well ask. No, it is not the head of a sheep. And no, it is not a card game.

This sheepshead is a fish, an edible fish generally considered a southern species, its usual habitat running from the mid-Atlantic to Texas. It’s not found here much anymore, but was probably around in greater numbers when the Canarsies lived and fished here before the arrival of Europeans more than 400 years ago.

Separated from the eastern part of Coney Island by the bay that bears the name, the area was settled as part of the English town of Gravesend in 1643. It remained primarily a rural area — the Wycoff and Lotts families built farms in the area — until the beginning of the 19th century. 

Summer tourists came for the fishing and boating after Sam Leonard’s Hotel was built in 1843 and, two years later, Tappen’s Hotel went up. 

In the late 1870s and 1880s, the Manhattan Beach branch of the Long Island Rail Road, along with the Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island Railroad (today’s BMT Brighton Line), the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and Ocean Parkway, all helped make the neighborhood more accessible.

The Sheepshead Bay Race Track was opened by the Coney Island Jockey Club in Sheepshead Bay and gambling flourished. In 1915, horses gave way to cars with the building of the Sheepshead Speedway on the same site. (In 1919, it became a housing development.)

The Belt Parkway, on the southern edge, reached the area in 1941.

In the northern sections of Sheepshead Bay are the subdivisions of Homecrest and Madison.

Sheepshead Bay also encompasses Plumb Beach (named for its beach plums), now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.

Norm Goldstein

Brooklyn-born Norm Goldstein is retired, after working 44 years for the Associated Press, the global news agency, where he served as a reporter, feature writer, editor, author and administrator. He also worked for AP as director of Educational Services and editor of the AP Stylebook. He graduated from Brooklyn College and the Penn State Graduate School of Journalism. He currently lives in Brooklyn Heights.