Of Race Tracks and Fish Teeth: How Sheepshead Bay Got Its Name

The Astor Cup auto race at the Sheepshead Bay Race Track in 1915. Photo via the Library of Congress

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Brownstoner takes on Brooklyn history in Nabe Names, a series of briefs on the origins and surprising stories of neighborhood nomenclature.

The waterfront community Sheepshead Bay comprises the end of Brooklyn’s alphabetical grid, with Avenues W, X, Y and Z criss-crossing the former barrier island, which has since been artificially extended. 

For a time in the 19th century, the neighborhood was known as a lesser version of its southern counterparts Brighton and Manhattan Beach, as Sheepshead’s hotels and recreational offerings didn’t yet share those areas’ respectable reputations.

Still, the neighborhood was host to numerous pillars of local entertainment, including the Sheepshead Bay Race Track, a horse-racing facility opened in 1880 that sported, in addition to its dirt course, America’s first-ever turf course.

Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn

Sheepshead Bay in 2015. Photo by Jamie Bresseur Kula via Facebook

As for the name, the neighborhood took it from an eponymous hotel established in 1844, named for the adjacent bay’s formerly abundant population of sheepshead saltwater fish. In turn, the fish are so named for their disturbingly sheep-like teeth — click here for an image (warning: unsettling fish teeth).

Today, Sheepshead Bay is home to a dwindling bungalow community, the 43-year-old burger joint Roll-N-Roaster, Russian and Uzbek cuisine galore, and plenty of old-school Brooklyn character. While the namesake sheepshead fish are now hard to come by in the area, neighborhood seafood spots are still plentiful.

Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn

A map of Sheepshead Bay from 1984. Photo via Bruce Brodinsky

Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn Name Origins

1909 postcard from the Joseph Ditta collection, via Gravesend Gazette

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