Gus Plarr remembers when you could drive a boat trailer down Lake View Avenue over the sand onto Woodlawn Beach.
“We used to be able to drive cars down to the water and launch from there,” said the lifelong resident of the community of Woodlawn in Hamburg.
But you can’t do that today.
“There’s no way you would drive a car on the beach. You get to the entrance, and there’s a creek,” said Gloria Engler of Fourth Street.
Woodlawn residents are quick to say they don’t want to drive cars on the beach, but the fact that you can’t do that illustrates that Rush and Blasdell creeks have taken major curves toward each other, cutting up what used to be a wide beach behind the community. And instead of two creeks emptying into the lake, they have joined together as one outlet.
That, they say, interferes with their easements allowing them access to the beach. They blame the dumping of debris from the beach next to the creek for the change in the creek’s direction.
“Anyone who owns a lot in Woodlawn has access to the beach, but the beach doesn’t exist anymore,” said Engler’s husband, Paul. “They’ve destroyed it.”
When he says “they,” he means New York state.
The easement area is to the north of the public entrance to the park, and it is part of Woodlawn Beach State Park.
There is no doubt the paths of the creeks have changed over the years. Aerial photos from 1950, and a diagram of the beach in the state’s 1999 master plan, show the two creeks emptying into the lake hundreds of feet from one another, leaving a lengthy expanse of beach at the end of Woodlawn Avenue.
But is the movement of the streams the natural consequence of meandering waterways? Or was it caused by piling up organic debris that washed up on shore into a huge hill by the creek?
Either way, residents of the lakefront community of Woodlawn have lost easy access to the sandy beach they enjoyed for years, because Rush Creek and Blasdell Creek have joined together. And they are concerned about pollution coming from the creeks, particularly when it rains.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation maintains the creeks joined together through a natural progression, and in the last 10 years, meandered to the point they now form a single channel.
Town Supervisor Steven Walters said at a recent Town Board meeting that DEC and state parks officials “have all said that the movement of the creeks occurred naturally. It wasn’t a man-made movement.”
All agree the creeks have moved. And because the creek moved, the state moved the huge pile – more than 20,000 cubic yards – from the beach.
Woodlawn Beach, with its mile-long sandy beach, has been a popular gathering place for Western New Yorkers looking to enjoy the summer since the 1800s. It was a popular amusement park, with steamboat and trolley stops, before it was owned by Bethlehem Steel Corp. for many years and public access was denied. New York State acquired 93 acres from Gateway Trade Center for $6.3 million in 1996. The beach was reopened to the public later that year.
Improvements were made through the years, including the construction of a building with restaurant facilities that can be rented for parties. After the state discontinued swimming at the park in 2009 because of budget problems, the Town of Hamburg took over operation and maintenance of the park in late 2010.
Each day the beach is groomed, and in the spring and after large storms, Hamburg crews go further down the beach cleaning the debris than the state did. They used to dump the debris, consisting of small logs and branches, seaweed and other organic material, on the beach next to Rush Creek.
“State Parks began storing the organic beach material when we took over Woodlawn Beach 20 years ago,” Mark Thomas, regional parks director, said via email. “In an effort to maintain and clean the beach regularly for swimmers the organic beach material was stored away in a natural area of the park where it was allowed to decompose naturally.”
Hamburg continued the practice, and the hill of black mulch, dumped near the dunes and Rush Creek, grew taller. Then, a couple years ago, it was discovered that the creek had “started to redirect itself” closer to the storage area and was cutting into and eroding the debris pile that had been permitted by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
“Upon that discovery, a portion of the nutrient rich material was used at the Riverway project in Niagara Falls and the rest was moved to the parking lot for future use,” Thomas said.
The town moved the pile from the parking lot to a section at the northern end of the park that is rarely used. Moving it within the state park does not require a solid waste management permit, state and local officials said.
Plarr remembers Blasdell and Rush creeks used to flow next to First and Seventh streets, which is why locals call them First Street creek and Seventh Street creek.
“First Street creek went straight down,” he said. “The Seventh Street Creek went down and took a left turn straight into the lake.”
Joe Kilian of United Hamburg Taxpayers agrees.
“We swam there for years, the creeks went straight out,” he said. “They flew straight for all those years.”
Residents want them to fly straight again, and have started a petition calling for the creeks to be returned to their original path. They say their easements state that no material, structure, removal or changing of the beach shall hinder, prevent or inconvenience the people from accessing the beach.
Town Highway Superintendent Tom Best Sr. agreed that the pedestrian entrance to the beach on the northern end now has a creek running through it. But he said there is an alternative.
“We have a beautiful beach down there,” he said, “You people have to walk another 50 feet to get to it.”