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The Island In The Bay

July 2024
15min read

Staten Island still has muskrats, wild plums, and seventeenth-century houses. But wait— modern improvements are on the way!

The five-cent ferry ride across New York Harbor from Manhattan to Staten Island is still a popular excursion, but New Yorkers who take it almost invariably catch the next boat back. It is their general belief that “there’s nothing on Staten Island.” This wooded, hilly island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, does not possess a single fashionable restaurant, discothèque, or amusement of any kind more elaborate than a neighborhood tavern or bowling alley. Its 238,000 people live mostly in small, rather shabby “towns"—among them, Great Kills and Bull’s Head—or in monotonous rows of small homes in new developments. Here and there an odd Dutchiness shows in an old gambrel-roofed house, but too often buildings have been covered with an uninspiring surface of tar-paper imitation brick.

Yet there are things to see on Staten Island, if you know where they are—four excellent museums, more restored eighteenth-century houses than in any other part of greater New York, secluded parks, and breathtaking views. The Island has always had room for unusual people and odd things, such as the Tibetan museum built high on a hill by an Island couple who had become intensely interested in the occult. Here is the place to see yak-butter altar lamps, silver prayer wheels and trumpets.

Ever since 1860 Staten Island has had its own railroad, which belongs to the Baltimore & Ohio and calls itself, modestly enough, “the country train,” since it connects the thickly settled north of the Island with its rural southern end. ("You can’t help thinking that the toot of the absurd Staten Island Railroad is the yelping of the coyotes,” wrote a Manhattan reporter after its opening.) It still rattles a string of secondhand subway cars with tired straw seats twelve miles from the ferry landing to the old port of Tottenville, and here, as one walks the streets, the low-keyed charm of Staten Island begins to sink in. An early “carpenter Gothic” house sports swirls of wooden lace; on another’s roof a family canoe waits out the winter; a mellow, century-old Methodist church sends a hymn from its chimes into the bare woods, where a boy is throwing bricks at a rusty oil tin to amuse his dog.

This is nothing like the rest of New York City. There are muskrat trappers in the woods—Staten Island pelts command a premium—who can glimpse the lop of the Empire State Building on a clear day. Possums crawl into garbage pails, and rabbits and pheasants are so numerous as to be a nuisance. Staten Island men take illegal potshots at the wild ducks that fly over; their womenfolk gather wild plums for jelly. A do/en fresh-water ponds are stocked with fish. While there are 30,000 persons per square mile in the other boroughs, the average on Staten Island is only 3,500- and these live here for just this reason.

It was a hard place to get started. Giovanni da Verra/ano, an Italian navigator, discovered the island in 1524, and a century later Henry Hudson is said to have named it Staaten in honor of the Dutch parliament, or States-General. In 1639, the first of three unsuccessful settlements was made. It perished in a dispute with the Indians over livestock, known as the “Pig War.” (Thus early, Staten Island seems to show its special, homey quality.) After matters were patched up, a second settlement was extinguished in the “Whiskey War,” caused by settlers who had taken a nip too many and rashly turned on the Indians. A third settlement in 1650 perished in the “Peach War,” which broke out after the Dutch authorities shot a squaw who had stolen a peach on Manhattan.

For three hundred years, this has been an island of refuge. In 1661 a small group of French-speaking Walloons and Dutch moved over from Manhattan to make the first permanent settlement at Old Town, which is still a station on the Staten Island Railroad. Huguenots came also, escaping religious persecution, and have a town named for them too. So, in the following century, did the Moravians, who built several churches still in use.

Fishing, oystering, and shipbuilding were early industries. (A visitor in 1671 reported “oysters a foot long, some containing pearls.") By this time, the British had taken over. According to legend, the Duke of York had promised Christopher Billopp, whose mansion still stands near Tottenville, that if he could sail around Staten Island in twenty-four hours it would become part of New York. Billopp made it, with three minutes to spare, and Richmond County, New York, was established in 1683. At the county seat of Richmond town—then often called Cocclestown, after the shells, or, humorously, Cuckoldstown—a schoolliouse was built sometime before 1696. It is called the Voorlezer’s House, after the title of a Dutch official who both taught school and held church services, and it still stands, the oldest schoolliouse in the country. At this time there were more than seven hundred people, including Dutch, French, English, and about seventy Negro slaves, and no doubt the gentle, persistent Staten Island accent—faintly Dutch, like that of Brooklyn, but milder—had begun to form among them. Until the Revolution the Island remained a peaceful, quiet world of its own.

In 1776, Washington reconnoitered Staten Island, erecting a semaphore on the shore of the Narrows, which separates it from Brooklyn, to give warning if the British sailed up the Bay. This they shortly did, and Sir William Howe settled in the Rose and Crown Tavern at New Dorp to plan his invasion of Long Island and Manhattan.

After his victory, lie then met in the Billopp Mansion—called ever since the Conference House—with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge to discuss possible terms of peace. But the Americans, by this time, would have no terms but freedom.

During the Revolution, most Islanders seem to have been Tory in sympathy—or perhaps they just wanted to be left alone. Washington called them “our most inveterate enemies,” and apparently he never returned. On the other hand, the occupying British burned the old Dutch church at Richmondtown because of its rebel sympathies.

By 1800 there were more than 4,000 Staten Islanders, ^4lice ^Austens ^taten Island and the ferry service was expanded. A sixteen-year-old boy named Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose parents had given him a sailboat, charged eighteen cents a ride. By 1812, as Captain Vanderbilt, he commanded the largest and fastest of all the ferry barges, equipped with sails and sweeps, which plied the harbor. In 1829, he moved from New Jersey to settle on the Island, where his forebears had joined the Moravian Church.

Steam ferries were now running, too. A visiting Irish writer in that year was impressed by the “Gentleman’s cabin” in the paddle-wheeler, which offered “Bologna sausages, hung-beef, biscuits and confectionary, with wines, spirits, oranges, lemons, limes, lemonade and ice.” This is more than one can buy on the ferries now. This visitor also noticed that the shores of the Island were sprinkled with “the white, cleanlooking villas of his country.” It was the time of the Greek revival, and tar-paper brick had not yet been invented.

Despite the ferry, the Islanders by no means thought of themselves as an annex to New York. Through their shipping they were in touch with the whole world; in 1828, for example, the women of Richmondtown furnished 200 garments for the “suffering Greeks,” then engaged in their war for independence. Outbound vessels stopped here to take on fresh water for the voyage, the incoming paused at the government’s quarantine station, where sufferers from contagious diseases were disembarked and interned. After epidemics of cholera, smallpox, and yellow fever had spread among the Islanders, however, the citizens organized a posse which, after removing the inmates, burned down the station. The government thereafter promised that Quarantine —which still has its headquarters on the Island—would no longer be used as a detention point.

For sailors, this became a world-famous haven. The government established a marine hospital, and in the late eighteenth century Captain Robert Richard Ran- dall, who had prospered as a privateer, drafted in his will a provision for a “Home for Aged, Decrepit and Worn-Out Sailors.” Randall had meant for them to live on his Manhattan property, a mansion with twenty-one acres of farm land near Broadway and Tenth Street. But by the time he died, Manhattan was rapidly filling up, and his executors wisely persuaded the court that the home should be built, under the happier name of Sailors’ Snug Harbor, on Staten Island, where land was cheap. There it could be supported by the income from the valuable Manhattan property. This now amounts to several million dollars a year, enough to maintain a relatively small number of old salts in a very snug harbor indeed. Herman Melville used to come here to visit his brother Tom, the then governor of Sailors’ Snug Harbor, and to 0dd to his knowledge of whaling and the sea. Another home was soon built on the Island for Aged Widows of the Sea and another for Destitute Children of Seamen, who dressed in little sailor suits.

Possibly it was sailors who spread the word abroad that on the big island in New York Harbor there was room, and safety, for all. Somehow the word did spread, for in mid-nineteenth century the political refugees began to come. The first was the defeated Mexican President, Santa Anna, the villain of the Alamo, who after the Mexican War was as unpopular at home as he was in Texas. Some Islanders were unkind enough to say that this former enemy of the United States spent all his time “cock-fighting and playing three-card monte.” Others reported that he was constantly watched by hostile Mexican agents. When he decided at last to return to Mexico, the Islanders smuggled him out in a piano box.

Lajos Kossuth, Hungary’s liberator, was given a civic reception when he arrived in 1851. Gustav Struve, German revolutionary, and Joseph Kargé, a Polish patriot, were also in exile here about this time. So was Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of the world’s masters of revolution, who fled to Staten Island after being pushed out of Italy by the armies of four nations. He stayed two years, in a hous: that has been made a museum, before he returned to achieve the unification of Italy. The last of the famous foreign refugees, Maxim Gorky, came in 1906 after escaping the clubs of czarist police and the snubs of New York society, which disapproved of his travelling with a mistress (see “Innocents at Home” in the February, 1965, AMERICAN HERITAGE). Like Santa Anna, it is remembered, Gorky feared hostile agents and would not walk the country roads at night.

Before the Civil War, oyster schooners were sailing as far south as Chesapeake Bay in search of seedling oysters to replenish the beds, and groups of free Negroes from Maryland began to come to the Island, where they built a strange little southern village. Many of their descendants remain, somewhat impoverished by the disappearance of the oystering, but still tending their gardens and crumbling graveyards. Among these, a remarkable eighty-seven-year-old man named George T. Hunter described the old days in an interview a few years ago. “If it was a good huckleberry year, they’d put up enough huckleberries to make deep-dish pies all winter. And when they killed their hogs, they made link sausages and liver pudding and lard. Some of the old women even made soap. People looked after things in those days.”

During the Civil War, southern planters sent their wives and children to the Island for safekeeping. Nobody bothered them; one house even displayed a Confederate flag. Yet Richmond County was the home of such well-known antislavery crusaders as George William Curds, editor of Harper’s Weekly and a man with many acquaintances among New England’s Transcendentalists. In fact, Judge William Emerson, Ralph Waldo’s older brother, also lived on Staten Island, and this brought Henry Thoreau there in 1843 to tutor the Judge’s children. He was much excited by the swarms of locusts and by the Island’s tulip trees, a species he had not seen before. The whole island was like a garden, said Thoreau, and he liked to watch “ships afar going about their business,” as Islanders still do today. On a bright Sunday morning, listening to a minister, he thought that “the fine prospect over the Bay and Narrows preached louder than he.”

The last half of the nineteenth century was the Golden Age, in which New York society crossed the bay to spend the summer in cottages and grand, manycolumned hotels. For a while, the swells even had their own luxuriously furnished ferryboat, which had eventually to be abandoned because ordinary commuters insisted on climbing aboard. The Island drew inter- national society, too. In 1850, Sir Edward Cunard, American manager of the steamship line his father had started ten years before, built an estate on a hilltop from which he could watch the Cunarders come and go. The most famous governess of the century, Anna Leonowens, arrived to open a school for small children. There she also wrote her popular book about her amazing experiences with her former employer, the King of Siam. Jenny Lind was a guest in the wintertime, when some of the hotels stayed open for ice skating and gay sleighing parties. When a snowstorm stopped the ferries and kept her from a concert engagement on Manhattan, she sang anyway, in the railroad station, for the crowd of Islanders who had planned to accompany her to Castle Garden.

In the winter of 1874, Miss Mary E. Outerbridge, of the Island family for which Outerbridge Crossing is named, saw a new game being played in Bermuda. She brought back to her own island a net, rackets, and balls, obtained from British regimental officers, and probably a diagram, too, for next summer she laid out the first American tennis courts at the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club. “Long nets, like seines,” said the fascinated New York Times . In 1880, the first national tennis tournament was held here, and in subsequent years the Misses Grace and Ellen Roosevelt, first cousins of F. D. R., took the doubles titles. The club cricket team in those days played international matches. The Island’s bicycle club produced a national champion. There were yacht clubs and canoe clubs, fox hunts, picnics, croquet, and house parties—a gay, well-ordered existence.

It might all have been forgotten, had it not been for a remarkable woman who made a record of it all. She was Alice Austen, who grew up in her family’s eighteenth-century manor house, Clear Comfort, overlooking the Narrows. She was born the year after the Civil War. When she was ten years old, an uncle gave her one of the cumbersome cameras of the time, with tripod, and before long he was taking lessons from his niece, for Alice was a born photographer. She grew into an attractive girl, and witty, but she never married. Her camera may have been partly to blame: the boys groaned at her approach, realizing that they would have to carry her heavy equipment or pose at length for her perfectionist’s art. She photographed everything—the immigrants arriving to work in the new factories, three-masted schooners and great liners, lawn parties, street scenes, and high-jinks at the rectory. The Austens were not in need of money. It never occurred to her to sell or publish her pictures. Yet she took them—some 7,000, on glass plates—with a sense of urgency, as if she keenly realized that this charming, civilized, happy life might not last forever.

It ended abruptly, for Miss Austen, after the stockmarket crash of 1929. With a friend, she tried to operate a restaurant at Clear Comfort, but she was too hospitable by nature, and second helpings devoured her profits. After the house was sold, she went eventually, crippled and in a wheelchair, to the Staten Island poorhouse, and here, when she was eighty-five, she and her pictures were discovered. Their publication at least made it possible for her to end her days in peace.

But the Staten Island that she photographed had already disappeared.

Even during the Golden Age, the Island was beginning to fall a victim to what nowadays is known as urban sprawl. Beyond the railroad line, stagecoaches served such new industrial centers as Linoleumville. Gaslights were installed after the Civil War, not without some objections. Two old ladies were deeply upset when the gas company proposed erecting a gas tank on their land. “How about it if it looks like a church?” the company suggested. The ladies had no objection to a church. Part of the dummy church, with its pious stained-glass windows, still conceals the impious gas apparatus.

An energetic promoter, Erastus Wiman, probably did most to develop—and, from one point of view, to ruin—Staten Island. In the i88o’s he built a large, electrically lit amusement park on the north shore, and ran ferries to it from across the bay. Professional baseball was played at St. George under arc lights; the first Staten Island team was called the Mets. At the end of a hot day, the tired businessman from Manhattan could take his family there to dine, in half the time it took to reach Coney Island; afterward they could enjoy spectacles which, according to the Richmond County Advance , were “more pleasing than ancient Roman or Greek sports.” Opera stars sang, an illuminated fountain spurted a hundred feet in the air, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, in one season, drew a million visitors.

Mr. Wiman was bursting with ideas. He was not concerned with society people, writers, antique Dutch families, or political refugees. He saw the Island as a logical home for “the salaried man of small income, forced to see his wife restricted to the cramped accommodations of a city apartment house, and his children depending for a playground on the sidewalks or streets.” In effect, he anticipated some of the worst housing reforms of the New Deal and after. For $500 down and $2,000 additional payable in installments (with the mortgage insured), he offered to build homes on tree-bordered streets with parks.

And as the Island began to fill with small holders, society began to drift away. (Only the Vanderbilts still returned, and that solely to be buried in the family vault in the old Moravian cemetery.) Fox hunts gave way to excursions by open trolley car to beer gardens and beaches. A respectable middle-class culture grew. The Island opened its own hospitals, for which churches took up collections and to which the public brought such appropriate gifts as fruit, flypaper, and whiskey. From upstate, the Island persuaded a Lutheran institution, Wagner College, to come and settle on the Cunard estate, which was up for sale. Wagner was strong on the classics (its students used to sing, “Latin’s a dead language, as dead as it can be,/It killed off all the Romans, and now it’s killing me"). Now it could boast that its new campus held the soil of thrt countries, for Cunarders had brought over British anu. Dutch turf as ship’s ballast.

In 1898, after Albany enacted a new charter for New York City, the county of Richmond became one of its boroughs, and henceforth it was bound to be overrun. The wonder is that for so many years it has kept some of its rural air. Its last herd of cattle was sold just five years ago, and it has been only a decade since the Island’s farms supplied New York markets with a million dollars’ worth of fresh produce annually. With the aid of greenhouses the rich, mucky soil could be made to produce four crops a year.

There are still two or three farms, although years ago farmers began to be discouraged by the acid fumes drifting across from industrial plants in New Jersey. Pollution from neighboring boroughs, which closed down the oyster beds, has now stopped the clam diggers too, and made most of the beaches unsafe for swimming. But there are still traces of the old sporting life—for example, a group that likes to call itself the Sheriff’s Posse and gallop about the South Shore in cowboy chaps and spurs. There is even a practicing blacksmith. But by and large the Island is now another bedroom for Manhattan.

The commuters who make up its population are nearly all middle-income people, living in one-family houses, and singularly peaceful. The crime rate is much the lowest per capita of any of the five boroughs, with an average of only one murder a year.

The old independent spirit is not quite dead. In the state legislature some ten years ago, a Staten Island representative tried unsuccessfully to introduce a bill divorcing the Island from New York City. The Island could not exist without the rest of New York City- even its water is piped under the harbor from Manhattan. And the City spends far more on the borough of Richmond than it receives in taxes. The preposterous five-cent ferry ride is possible only because of a generous subsidy.

And in any case, the handwriting on the wall was far too clear, for by 1965 a vast Verrazano-Narrows bridge—named jointly for the Island’s discoverer and for the body of water it crosses—joined Staten Island directly to Brooklyn and the roar and smell of traffic. It is not what the Islanders need—either no bridge at all, or at most a railroad bridge to speed commuters to work by connecting into the city subways—but an automobile bridge, which will probably ruin what is left of any rural charm. Land speculation has broken out, tall apartment buildings are beginning to cut off the views from the hillsides. Before the end of the century the Island may hold millions of people living under the expressways along which other millions hasten on noisy journeys. It has become part of the general American nightmare of the exploding city.

In a community thus threatened, there are two possible kinds of defensive action. Citizens can work through official channels, for instance, for better zoning, more parks, or less pollution. But even individual action—unofficial, sometimes amateurish—can show astonishing success in saving what no one thought could be saved. At least, it has been so on Staten Island.

In 1929, for example, a young telephone company engineer, Loring McMillen, had already begun to worry about the loss of the Island’s individuality and especially its historic treasures. He had been born there, the son of a schoolteacher, and had grown up digging for its clams and swimming on its beaches. His local patriotism was highly aroused by the news that agents of Henry Ford had already hauled away two truckloads of interesting relics from Island attics to Ford’s museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

His determination to halt further depredations took him all over the Island, and his telephone company colleagues helped him. In their spare time they called on the families in all the old houses, begging objects from the past for the Staten Island Historical Society. In return for pulling her goat out of a well, for example, one lady gave them an old plow and an ice marker, once used to mark blocks of ice in a pond for cutting. Altogether, the Society now has 25,000 items preserved, including Alice Austen’s glass negatives.

The seat of borough government had long since been moved to St. George, and the old capital of Richmondtown was falling into decay when McMillen persuaded the authorities to let the society use two of the old, abandoned buildings for its activities, including its museum. He was made the official, although unpaid, historian of the borough. Once he had studied architectural history, and he began to make drawings of many old houses before they burned or were bulldozed away. Since then, the amateur historians have managed to save several seventeenth-century buildings, includ-

ing the school, or Voorlezer’s House, which has been completely restored. They have begun to raise funds for a complete restoration of Richmondtown, somewhat on the order of Williamsburg, Virginia. It will be the only such major reconstruction in New York City —most of which seems to be intent on destroying all traces of the past as rapidly as possible. The city has given the Richmondtown Restoration two hundred acres of land, and will match dollar for dollar any funds that can be raised. The Island historians would like to preserve, to rebuild, or to move from other parts of the Island some fifty structures, including an old tide mill, a blacksmith’s shop, a store, farmhouses, and the Dutch church that the British partially burned.

If these plans succeed, there will still be a place of refuge on Staten Island. But the rest of the borough, before very long, will look just like any other place. Clear Comfort, Alice Austen’s ancient home, still stands, as of now, overlooking the Narrows, but it is empty and decaying. The beach is littered, the lawn ragged, and the last occupants appear to have gone off in a hurry, leaving a comic book lying on an unmade bed. Miss Austen’s pictures remain, to ask us quietly what we are doing to our country.

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