The Islands of Staten Island

As a child I was told the standard story about how Staten Island was named. I am sure many of you have heard this same silly tale. It went like this… When Henry Hudson came into the New York Harbor in 1609 one of his sailors spotted what would eventually be called Staten Island from afar and so he called out “Is that an island?” With the “Is that an” supposedly sounding to his mates like “Staten.” Of course it is not true, but the story continues to circulate today. Staten Island was really named after the Estates General, the seventeenth century governing body of Holland—Hudson’s sponsor for his trans-Atlantic voyage.

Staten Island is one of many islands within the boundaries of the City of New York. Many have fascinating stories. Bedloe’s Island, Riker’s Island, Blackwell Island… but Staten Island has several satellite islands each with their own distinct histories. They include Hoffmann, Prall’s, Shooter’s, and Swinburne Islands, as well as the beautifully named Isle of Meadows. There were, and are, other islands associated with Staten Island, more in name then in landform as several were nothing more than hummocks of salt hay or odd shaped land-spits. Obviously they meant something to someone as they were eventually immersed into our local histories.

On the shoreline northeast of New Dorp Beach, Poppy Joe’s Island, was referred to as “Poppa Goes Island” on a late 1700s map of Staten Island. According to William T. Davis and Charles W. Leng it was a meadow-island that hosted many Cedar trees. They wrote in 1896 that “the sandy beach is approaching this island quite rapidly” so one might assume it eventually bonded with the island.

Louse Island was just off the shoreline of the Quarantine Station that operated. It was adjacent to what is now Bay Street Landing at Tompkinsville. Individuals entering the New York Harbor aboard ship who were suspected or observed as having infectious diseases were sequestered at the site. A “wash house” for the immigrant’s clothing, oftentimes replete with vermin, was at this location hence the descriptive title. The land between the shore and the island was eventually filled in and it is today part of the mainland.

Following the burning of the Quarantine Station by neighbors (who turned arsonist by evening since they feared the infectious diseases present at the site) on September 1 and 2, 1858, two artificial islands were constructed on individual sand bars in the Lower Bay. Visible today from the east bound lane of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and from South Beach, Staten Island, Hoffmann and Swinburne ultimately held facilities to accommodate the immigrants who harbored contagious diseases.

Owing to the many Quarantine deaths a crematorium was constructed on Swinburne Island (the tinier of the two little islands). It is also believed that a cemetery was established at Swinburne, but owing to the island’s size not many uncremated bodies could have been accommodated. The immigrants who appeared to be afflicted by an infectious disease were first placed on Hoffman Island for observation. If a disease progressed they were further isolated by removal to Swinburne Island where they either recovered or passed on. By the 1930s the isolated islands in the bay were holding imported wildlife that was quarantined so as not to spread contagious diseases to other fauna. Hoffman Island would be used as a training base for merchant marines in the early 1940s and by the 1950s plans that never came to fruition, suggested building an airport on Hoffman Island. It is hard to believe but in the 1960s a formulated plan called for land-filling the two islands with trash in order to make one neat and tidy singular island. In visiting these land masses during the 1960s, naturalists established that they had become breeding grounds for Herring Gulls. In the 1970s Black-backed Gulls began their nesting activities. In addition, naturalists Norma and Bill Siebenheller found hundreds of balls—of all imaginable types including whiffed, rubber, tennis and others—on the islands. They knew the gulls brought them but they were never able to determine why the birds were so interested in hording them.

Today’s Isle of Meadows is part of the New York City Fresh Kills Landfill. In 1778, it was known as Burnt Island. By 1797, it was referred to as the Island of Salt Meadow. Fisherman of the late 1800s called it Noah’s Island or the more descriptive Dead Man’s Island.

Historically known as Schutter’s, Shuttor’s, Suter’s, Shuter’s, (take your pick) today’s Shooter’s Island in the Kill Van Kull opposite Mariner’s Harbor is first mentioned in early Staten Island land papers dating to 1676. The island was part of a 126-acre land grant given to Scotsman James Graham in 1680. An article in the November 18, 1863 edition of the Richmond County Gazette announced that the island was for sale. David Decker was selling it to the highest bidder. Measuring between ten and eleven acres, of which six were “above common water” the island held several improvements including a dock, a joiner’s shop and a two story brick house. It was mentioned that ideally the island could be used for manufacturing or as a ship-yard, while others might consider it to be the perfect locale to play Robinson Crusoe.

Standard Shipbuilding Shooters ISLAND 3dpi Postcard cropped

Standard Shipbuilding, no date. Detail of a postcard. Courtesy of Mary Weber.

In the early 1900s Townsend-Downey Shipbuilding Company opened on the island. In 1917, Standard Shipbuilding Corporation had commenced business and would operate for the next four years on Shooter’s Island. Thereafter the quietude of the island evolved allowing wading birds to establish nests to raise their young. Observed bird species include Snowy Egret, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, and Glossy Ibis. Shooter’s Island is now under the care of the New York City Department of Parks as is Prall’s Island. Owing to the presence of breeding birds the Audubon Society has been studying both islands since the 1980s. A recent decline of these breeding birds has been of concern to scientists and naturalists alike with some believing that lack of food from the closed Fresh Kills Landfill might be partially to blame.

It is interesting to note that Shooter’s Island is partially owned by both New York and New Jersey. Furthermore, a plan was announced in 1966 that called for the elimination of Shooter’s Island. This suggestion came from the Army Corps of Engineers. It seems the little landmass would interfere with the containerships of American Export Isbrandtsen Lines as they made their way to Holland Hook for unloading. For this reason the engineers suggested blowing it up. The company then bought Shooter’s Island for the sole purpose of removing it to ease ship navigation. Fortunately, this never occurred.

One unsubstantiated rumor involving Shooter’s Island is that staff members under General George Washington used the island as a drop-off location for secret messages. In turn it evolved into a haven for spies during that time period. Information on this claim is requested so please comment on this blog if you have any details.

Soon to come Prall’s Island and the Great Garbage War

Sincere thanks to Barbara Hemedinger and Gina Sacco.

Bibliography

Leng, Charles W. and William T. Davis. “Staten Island and Its People.” New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1930-1933.

Leng, Charles W. and William T. Davis. “Staten Island Names. Ye Old Names and Nicknames.” 1896.

Staten Island Advance. “Terminal to Erase Shooter’s Island.” October 29, 1966.

Quarantine buildings on Swinburn Island, 1902 LOC

Swinburne Island, circa 1902.

5 Comments

  1. Harry R. White
    Oct 20, 2015

    I was born on Staten Island in 1937 and lived in Grant City until 1955 when to joined the Navy, I never returned. I have fond memories of growing up on Staten Island and enjoy reading about the Island’s history. There is a park near Ft. Wadsworth dedicated to an Uncle, John White the first Staten Islander killed in WWI

    Thank you for sharing this and thank you for your blog. Now that I know of you I plan frequent visits.

    Harry

    • Patricia Salmon
      Oct 20, 2015

      Thank you so much for stopping in and sending a comment Harry. How did you find out about the blog? You will find numerous articles relative to Staten Island under Pat’s Articles so click away for further reading. Have a great day! Pat

      • Harry R. White
        Oct 20, 2015

        Found on FaceBook posted today by
        Kim Raymond Kowalczyk 3 hrs
        Here is an interesting blog from Pat Salmon.

        • Patricia Salmon
          Oct 21, 2015

          Ok. Kim is a great guy. Thanks Harry.

    • Martha D'Arbanville
      Oct 20, 2015

      I would love to know more about John White. It is possible he was a cousin to my father, Frederick Jacobs.

Leave a Reply to Martha D'Arbanville Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Share This