Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A Brief History of City Island Published in a Book by Stephen Jenkins in 1912

As I have noted so many times on the Historic Pelham Blog, City Island once was part of the Town of Pelham until its annexation by New York City, effective in 1896. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, City Island was the political and population center of the Town of Pelham. Thus, today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog will provide the text of a brief history of City Island included in the book "The Story of The Bronx from the Purchase Made by the Dutch from the Indians in 1639 to the Present Day" by Stephen Jenkins published in 1913.

"City Island may be reached by train on the Suburban branch of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad to Bartow station. Until within a year, a one-horse, bob-tailed car, a relic of former days, used to connect with each train, and, for a fare of five cents, the passenger was taken to Marshall's Corners at the end of Rodman's Neck; for an additional fare, he was carried to the end of the island. In 1910, a monorail electric line was inaugurated; but its first day of business was an unfortunate one, for the car met with an accident and several people were killed. [sic] The road has been run since with more or less success; but at this writing, the rolling stock has decreased to one car; and that is uncertain in its operation when the weather is bad, or windy -- the very time when one most wants to use the line.

City Island was originally called Minnewits, or Great Minnefords, Island. The origin of the name is doubtful, it being ascribed to Peter Minuits, the Dutch Governor and purchaser of the island of Manhattan, and also to Minnefords, Minifers, or Minnewies, the original Indian proprietors. It was within Thomas Pell's purchase of 1654, and also within his manor-grant of Pelham. It received its name of City Island from a scheme of inhabitants of 1761-62 to establish upon the island a city that was to outrival New York. General Heath uses the name 'New City Island' in his Memoirs, so that the name must have been well established in Revolutionary days.

On May 10, 1763, a ferry was established 'acroost from Mr. Samuel Rodman's Neck to said Island.' The same year a ferry was established from the north end of the island and leased to Mrs. Deborah Hicks, 'the best and fairest [sic] bidder.' On May 13, 1766, a ferry was established between the south end of the island across the Sound to Long Island; it was leased to John Barnes for five years.

The first purchaser from Thomas Pell, the manor-lord, was John Smith of the town of Bruckland [Brooklyn]. The island, on June 19, 1761, came into possession of Benjamin Palmer, the builder of the free bridge at Spuyten Duyvil, for £2730. He appears to have suffered considerable loss during the war; for, in 1788, he sent a petition to 'His Excellency, George Clinton, Esq., Governor in and over the State of New York, and Vice-Admiral of the Navy of the same,' for relief. This failing, he again petitioned for redress of grievances in 1789, this time to 'His Excellency, George Washington, President of the United States.' His distress was mitigated by a subscription, as told elsewhere.

The Revolution prevented the accomplishment of the plan of building a city upon the island, though it was revived in 1790. The island was cut up into 4500 lots, each twenty-five feet front and one hundred feet in depth, besides two squares of thirty lots each, reserved for churches, meeting-houses, schools, etc. Ten pounds was the stated price of the lots, and many were brought and sold at that price. In 1818, Nicholas Haight and Joshua Husted owned nearly all of the island, as well as Rodman's Neck and what became later the Marshall estate. In the year following, forty-two acres passed into the possession of George W. Horton.

In 1804, the State Legislature passed an act allowing the construction of a bridge between the island and the mainland and subscriptions were started for its erection; but the attempt failed for want of support. On December 1, 1873, a toll bridge, erected by a stock company, was thrown open to the public. It occupied the site of the bridge laid down on the map of 1761. It was one thousand feet long with a draw of one hundred and twenty feet; the draw being that of the original Coles, or Harlem Bridge, at Third Avenue. A large part of the materials used in its construction came from the old United States frigate North Carolina, which had been condemned and sold by the National Government. This bridge was made a free bridge in 1895, at the time of annexation, and was replaced by the present fine steel structure, constructed at a cost of $200,000, not including approaches, which was opened for public use on July 4, 1901. Work had begun upon it in December, 1898.

Notwithstanding the ferry and the bridge, City Island had been more or less isolated before the opening of Pelham Bay Park, in 1888, and the advent of the bicycle. The inhabitants were engaged chiefly in fishing, piloting, and oyster culture. The fishing was formerly very fine, and upon a Sunday or other holiday the old bridge was lined with ardent anglers. The demolition of the old wooden bridge has driven many of the anglers to the wharf at the south end of the island, at the end of the island's one long thoroughfare. In 1762, the owners of the island petitioned for four hundred feet under water, and the land was granted to them by Lieutenant-Governor Cadwallader Colden, May 27, 1763. When the new wharf was built at the lower end of the island in 1901, we find Mrs. De Lancey asserting her claims to the land under water as an inheritrix of the ancient grant, but the case was decided against her. The nearest railroad station is at Bartow, about two miles distant from the business activities of the island, so the people have had to depend to a great extent upon water communication.

There are several yacht clubs located here, and the activities connected with the water constitute the principal business of the island. Several shipyards build and repair pleasure vessels, and in the winter season many of the crack yachts are laid up and housed here. Upon several occasions the defenders of the America's Cup have been so laid up. The yachting industry is principally with sailing vessels; in stormy weather, many sailing vessels from the Sound find safe anchorage near the island until the weather moderates.

There are numerous bathing pavilions, and the bathing is considered healthful, as the island extends so far into the Sound, and the great water-front of Pelham Bay Park with its lack of villages and towns prevents the contamination of the water by sewage. Row-boats, sail-boats, and small launches are plentiful; and there are dozens of places at which they can be hired for sailing and fishing, while several of the hotels and restaurants have more than a local fame. The fishing has always been famous, though fallen off within the past quarter of a century, according to the local anglers. Bolton gives some marvellous stories of successful catches, both as to individual sizes of fish and to quantity, and as he was a clergyman we are, perforce, obliged to believe him.

So self-contained and isolated were the population that when, after annexation, so the story goes, one of the assistant superintendents of schools of the city visited the local school for purposes of inspection, the population waited upon him en masse and notified him that they had been able to get along for over a century without supervision, and that they did not propose to have their teachers and children bothered by superintendents from the city. They have, however, conformed to the inevitable, and now have a fine, modern building, in which the city provides not only instruction for the children, but once a week, from October to May, also furnishes a free lecture in the evening. The colonial entrance to the school building seems peculiarly fitting to the locality.

Probably, the greatest object of interest on the island is the 'Macedonian Hotel.' It bears the following legend:

This House is the remains of the the English Frigate 'Macedonian,' captured on Sunday, October 25th, 1812, by the United States Frigate 'United States,' commanded by Capt. Stephen Decatur, U. S. N. The action was fought in Lat. 24° N., Long. 29°30' W., that is about 600 miles N. W. of the Cape De Verde Islands off the W. coast of Africa and towed to Cowbay in 1874.

All of which is true, if we omit the first words of the statement: 'This House is the Remains of'; thought I do not accuse the owner of the hotel of intentionally misleading the public. Besides, the house is the remains of the Macedonian, but not of the one captured in Decatur's gallant action. The original British Macedonian was a new ship at the time of her capture, and was afterward repaired and taken into the United States Navy. She was blockaded in the Thames River, Connecticut, until the close of the War of 1812, and then served as a cruiser until 1828, after which she did nothing. In 1835, she was broken up at the Norfolk, Virginia, navy yard. Meanwhile, Congress appropriated funds to build a new ship of the same name, which was commenced in 1832 and launched at Gosport, Virginia, in 1836. She was rebuilt at Brooklyn in 1852, and broken up in 1874 at Cow Bay, Long Island, that graveyard of condemned and obsolete vessels. For a time, this second, American-built Macedonia was used as a practice ship at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, where the figure-head of the original British frigate is still preserved as a relic of the heroic days of our infant navy. I

I From The United States Naval Academy, by Park Benjamin; with some slight changes and additions by the author."

Source: Jenkins, Stephen, The Story of The Bronx From the Purchase Made by the Dutch from the Indians in 1639 to the Present Day, pp. 427-32 (NY and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons The Knickerbocker Press 1912).

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