Sandy Ground: A Brief Look Back

Sandy Ground: A Brief Look Back

From 1985 to 1993 I worked as a naturalist at Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve in Charleston. Not only was the park a nature lover’s oasis, it was a location where history was obvious at every turn of the trail. Farming, clay mining, recreation in the form of horse-back riding, rodeos, target shooting, nature studies, and more were relative subjects to the history of both Charleston and neighboring Rossville.

One nearby location that bordered the Park property was Sandy Ground. This community spoke to my “small town” childhood in Bulls Head before the invasion of mother/daughter houses in the mid-1960’s.

Sandy Ground of the 1980’s was truly a look back in time. Farms, a nineteenth century church and cemetery, oystermen cottages, and even the remnants of the Joseph Bishop blacksmith shop were still visible. Quaintly named streets included Clay Pit Road, Crabtree Avenue and Harris Lane. The latter street was actually named after a prominent family of the community. The area went by several names during its more than one-hundred-and-seventy-five-year existence including Harrisville, Little Africa, Africa, and Bogardus Corners.

Fragaria sp. Strawberry late 1700s nypl cropped

Fragaria sp., late 1700’s. New York Public Library.

Initially settled by free African-Americans who established a farming community in 1828, the Sandy Ground soil was “poor.” It was sandy and dry in some locations, and bogged down with clay in other locations. A difficult terrain to grow crops, the residents persevered and soon determined which produce would best succeed. Hence blueberry, peanut, yam, asparagus, and strawberry plantings prospered. (I should note that the best strawberries I have ever tasted came from this region. Luscious sweet goodness with juices that left one’s hand with a reddish stain, these strawberries were a hearty-red throughout, unlike the waxy-white dead specimens offered in supermarkets today.)

Detail Coltons Map of SI 1889 Ross to PB nypl

Detail of Colton’s Staten Island Map, 1889, showing Rossville south to the Raritan Bay.

Oystermen from Snow Hill, Maryland arrived in Sandy Ground during the late 1840s. They too were free African-Americans. Unfortunately, they lived in a slave state that was enacting laws to restrict both their lives and their freedom. Proximity to the Raritan Bay and its oyster beds made Sandy Ground the chosen site of their new home. While the Raritan Bay was not too far, it was still a lengthy three-mile march to reach their skiffs at Princes Bay each morning. (Of course that walk had to be repeated each evening to get home.) The Bishop, Henman, Landin, Purnell, Robbins, and Stevens families were all from Snowhill, Maryland.

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A Rossville house consumed by fire on April 20, 1963. Courtesy of the Staten Island Advance.

Pollution killed the oyster-beds, thus destroying the livelihood of many Sandy Ground residents. A 1930’s fire along with the horrific fire of April 20, 1963 (“Black Saturday”), further devastated the community and its members. Finally, with land prices soaring in southern Staten Island during the 1990’s, many of the residents sold their valuable properties to developers who replicated the devastating building activities of central Staten Island during the 1960’s.

One individual who lived in Sandy Ground was William “Pop” Pedro. Mr. Pedro was known throughout Staten Island. When he passed in 1988, at the age of 106, he was missed for many reasons including his historical memory for the events and people that comprised this unique community. Roots author Alex Haley even visited Sandy Ground to meet with Mr. Pedro. Not nearly as famous as Mr. Haley, my father was the Prudential insurance representative of the Pedro family.

Researchers have verified that individuals using the Underground Railroad passed through Staten Island. It is further believed that the original Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Sandy Ground was a meeting location for those escaping slavery.

Today, the Sandy Ground Historical Society, the Rossville AME Zion Church and Cemetery, two landmarked oystermen cottages, and a scattering of residents are still found in the community. The Historical Society is located at 1538 Woodrow Road. More can be gleaned about the community at the museum and at: sandygroundhistoricalsociety.org

Sandy Ground Memories by L Mosely Book CoverThe wonderful book “Sandy Ground Memories” by Lois Mosley was published several years ago. It contains ample information on the community and can be purchased at the Gift Shop of Historic Richmond Town. For further information visit: historicrichmondtown.org

For details on the 1963 fire that afflicted Sandy Ground see “Black Saturday’ Scorched Staten Island 50 Years Ago” at silive.com

Sincere thanks to Barb Hemedinger and Gina Sacco for their assistance with this blog. Copyright 2016 by Patricia M. Salmon

21 Comments

  1. Roy
    Aug 15, 2016

    On a recent visit to Staten Island where I grew up in Annadale, I went to the Historical Society but it was closed. Our house in Annadale had railings and a chimney strap made by Joe Bishop in his black smith shop in the 50’s.

    • Patricia Salmon
      Aug 15, 2016

      That is awesome Roy. Is there any chance that you still have pictures of the house that you can share?

  2. Donna Dzubay Jacobsen
    Aug 16, 2016

    My grandmother, who passed away in 1969, lived on Claypit Road. I have many fond childhood memories of the pond, the sandy grounds, picking blackberries behind her house, and the families who lived there. I’m just sad to see how that area has changed with all the development.

    • Patricia Salmon
      Aug 16, 2016

      I am too Donna. Thank goodness Clay Pit Pond State Park Preserve was established and we can still see what is left of the sandy barrens, woodlands, and ponds. It is such a special location especially with the fence lizards. I loved hearing them scampering through the woods 🙂 I am also grateful for the preserved and landmarked treasures in Sandy Ground. The landmark reports are a treasure trove of history. The church and cemetery reports can be read at the website of the Neighborhood Preservation Center:

      http://www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/designation_reports/index.php?action=list

      They are listed under Rossville. Staten Island neighborhoods are chock full of history that is for sure! Thank you for writing Donna. Pat

    • Tara Yalango
      Aug 16, 2016

      My grandparents lived on claypit Rd. My dad and his brother and sister were born there and grew up there… I as the granddaughter remember being at my grandmother’s house the day of the fire and we had to be evacuated to st Louis academy.. luckily her home was one of the few untouched by the fire..- Tara O’Shea Yalango

      • Patricia Salmon
        Aug 17, 2016

        Thanks so much for sharing this information Tara. It must have been a scary day. I was too young to remember so I am always interested in pictures of that sad event, if you or anyone else has them. I should note too that two other fires burned that day. One was in Tottenville and the other was in Mariners Harbor. Both caused unprecedented damage and resulted in improvements in water pressure. I have read one account where firefighters and homeowners were horrified as hoses literally dripped because the water pressure on the island was so bad. What a horror and of course the threat of fires is still very real on Staten Island. Thank you for writing and for sharing your memory Tara. Pat

  3. Elaine Stein
    Aug 16, 2016

    Pat, I wish you would do a walking tour of Sandy Ground. I’ve been interested in that area and its African American history for a while now. I took a few S.I. walking tours with you in the past and wish you would consider doing them again. You were so interesting and knowledgeable.

    • Patricia Salmon
      Aug 17, 2016

      You are very kind Elaine. Thank you. Development of new walking tours are included in my future plans. Currently, I am working on “The History of Staten Island Part II.” I presented Part I at Wagner College, the College of Staten Island, and at the Staten Island Museum. The classes were very successful. People have been asking for Part II for a few years now. Tentatively, I am planning classes on castastrophes that have affected the island (LNG explosion, plane collision of 1960, “Northfield” ferry accident, etc.), the Vanderbilt family, murders that have not been covered in my books, “Business and Industry Part II” (Ostwald, Dejonge, the linoleum factory, etc.), abandoned and derelict locations on Staten Island (Farm Colony, US Gypsum site, Hoffmann and Swinburne Islands, etc.), several neighborhood histories including South Beach, Midland Beach, Rossville, Graniteville, Elm Park, and New Brighton (these are communities I have not covered in the past), and influential women of Staten Island. This is still a work in progress so this listing is not exact. As a matter of fact feedback on the upcoming course topics is always welcome. I am hoping to schedule this series in the spring. Who is interested and what day of the week/times work best? Please let me know folks. Thank you for commenting Elaine and have a great day! – Pat

  4. Edward Estrada
    Aug 17, 2016

    Great History & Information, I did Not know about . Having Grown up in Stapleton, from 1962, and Coming from Manhattan, I Remember it being like Another World, & So Country-ish ? , on My many Excursions & Childhood Adventures, in & out of Stapleton ? Thank You & Keep Up The Great Work, All .

    • Patricia Salmon
      Aug 17, 2016

      Thank you for writing Edward. I have to say that Stapleton is one of those top five communities I am asked about. This goes back to the exhibit I did for the Staten Island Museum in 2002. It was called “Stapleton: A Community of Contrast and Change.” Between the industry, architecture, various ethnic groups, waterfront and so much more I have been intrigued about the area ever since. The Mud Lane Society for the Renaissance of Stapleton is having their annual walking tour on Sunday, November 6, 2016, from 1pm to 4pm. For details “like” the group’s Facebook page. More information will be posted. It is a great organization that is devoted to the Stapleton community. Thanks again Edward and thank you for the compliments Pat 🙂

  5. Mary Gagliotti
    Aug 17, 2016

    A few years back I drove up Woodrow Rd, hoping to get an idea where the Presentation mother house had been. I used to visit in my later Moore days, spending some lovely quiet afternoons. I, of course, was very taken aback by the changes in the area, and by constrast, how the Historical Society stood out. Terrible loss of natural resources, and of history. Love your reportage!

    • Patricia Salmon
      Aug 17, 2016

      Thank you Mary. It is quite a shock to drive along Bloomingdale Road and Woodrow Road isn’t it? I can still see the remnants of the Bishop forge and I will always savor the memory of the Sleepy Hollow Inn. Quaint place to visit with great food. I just remembered the crows that used to roost by the restaurant’s parking lot. Thousands would fly over from New Jersey on winter evenings. At the park one night I counted over 10,000! I stopped after that. They were still coming! From what I understand that has stopped or more likely since the crow population was devastated by West Nile Virus there aren’t many to make the trip. Interestingly, Mr. Davis wrote about this crow phenomena. It made me feel good to witness something that he also observed. Anyway I have gone on. Thank you for writing Mary! – Pat

  6. Mary Gagliotti
    Aug 17, 2016

    Someone noted on Staten Island Outdoors a few days ago that she had seen 50+(not sure exactly where). Most she has seen since West Nile. Not anywhere near your 10,000+, though!

    • Patricia Salmon
      Aug 17, 2016

      I don’t know whether that makes me happy or sad? It is good that the crows returned, but disappointing that there were so few as compared to the historical numbers. Okay I will go with the good 🙂

      BTW – I love that Facebook page 🙂

  7. Mary Gagliotti
    Aug 17, 2016

    Maybe they are coming back slowly!
    I’m very glad so many people are enjoying SIO!

  8. Mary Staalsen
    Aug 17, 2016

    Hi Patricia, I knew Joe Bishop and his sister Helen. Helen lived across the street from us in Tottenville on Aspinwall St. I lived there from 1943 (when I was born) until 1972. Helen moved I think a few years later then that but not sure. Joe used to come over quite a lot back in those days. He was one of the nicest man I knew. So polite and friendly. It saddens me as well as to what happen to Sandy Ground. It looks like just over built development. I miss the friendly people that used to live there. Also the old houses. It is such a shame. I want the old Staten Island back but, I know that will never happen.

    • Patricia Salmon
      Aug 18, 2016

      Hello Mary. Yes, it was a very friendly community. When I worked at Clay Pit Ponds I often documented the surrounding area for historical purposes by taking photos of the structures. When I would be out and about in Sandy Ground everyone would wave or smile and say hello. A few people were suspicious, but once I told them why I was taking pictures they were very supportive. Thanks so much for writing and sharing. I hope we hear from you again. All the best. Pat 🙂

  9. Dotty
    Aug 19, 2016

    Hi Pat, Have you not met my neighbor and friend Sylvia D’Allesandro, founder and director of the amazing little Sandy Ground Museum? She is a fantastic source for all things Sandy Ground. The museum is to be recommended to all and the history quilts, many changing/touring exhibits are also available. I will be happy to put you in touch. Sincerely, Dotty MyhreDonahue

    • Patricia Salmon
      Aug 19, 2016

      Hello Dotty. Always good to hear from you. Yes, I have met Sylvia on several occasions and I agree she has done an amazing job with the historical society and preserving Sandy Ground’s past. As a matter of fact tell Sylvia I said hello and if she would like to add to this blog that would be fabulous. Regarding the quilts… I see there is an exhibit focusing on them at Borough Hall. Here is a link for further info:

      http://www.statenislandusa.com/news/history-of-sandy-ground-exhibit-at-borough-hall-to-be-on-display-all-summer

      All the best Dotty!

      Pat

      • Patricia Salmon
        Aug 19, 2016

        Nix that last statement about the exhibit. It was last summer. You can still read the article to learn more about Sandy Ground and the quilts.

  10. Mary Louise Bullock
    Nov 8, 2016

    It is my understanding that after Joseph H. Seguine’s unexpected death in 1856 at age 55, the first thing his widow Ellen did was to sell their anchorages to the owners of oyster skiffs.

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