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.

Monday, January 07, 2008

1878 Article Describing the "Attractions of Little-Known City Island" in the Town of Pelham

On August 25, 1878, The New York Times published an interesting article describing the "Attractions of Little-Known City Island" in the Town of Pelham. The article provides a lovely snapshot of an important part of the Town of Pelham at the time -- a part of the Town that New York City annexed about two decades later. Below is the text of the article, followed by a citation to its source:


About a dozen miles from the City, on the Shore Line branch of the Harlem and New-Haven Railway, is a small station called Bartow. It is where one gets off the train to go to City Island. The ride to that little station is a very pleasant one; past long gleaming arms from the Sound, that at high tide reach far up in the land among the meadows of tall, rank, dark green grass; past brooks and mills and hamlets, while the cool salt air comes breezily from the shimmering bosom of the watery expanse gleaming in the distance. It is just after the train's hollow rumble over a long, low bridge that a forest is entered, and there, beneath the shadows of the trees, nestles Bartow. Opposite the station is a pretty little house, where, through a widely-opened door, one may see a table set out with bright service on a cloth of snowy whiteness for a dinner, for which the dinner never seems to come, though alluring signs on the dwelling's front invite the public. A little back in the woods, beside the New-Rochelle road, stands the 'Bartow Hotel,' which appears to do a composite business in beer and horse-shoeing. And those houses, with the depot, of course, are all there is of Bartow.

From the station a road extends, nearly all the way through a shady lane, over to City Island, one of the most delightful short drives -- little over a mile and a half -- that can be found anywhere along the shore. Overhead arch oaks, hickories, maples, and elms. On either side are rough stone walls. Cresting those walls with foliage and snowy bloom lie tangled masses of the flowering vine that people hereabouts call 'Aaron's beard.' Modest yellow and blue flowers nestle at the bases of the rocky piles. Here and there the golden rod uprears its yellow sprays, and on the little knolls beside the road the sumac's crimson tufts flare brilliantly. The sweet breath of the new-mown hay floats up from low meadows, and at the next turning of the road gives place to the saline scent of the still lower lands, where tall grasses leave their roots in the salt tides. Inlets from the Sound flash like burnished silver in the distance, losing themselves amid masses of heavy foliage, and seem little lakes, as they appear from the road. Now and then one catches, among the grasses nourished by those waters, the ruddy glow of the marshmallow's flower. The stubble on a far-off hill appears a sheet of dead gold. In the roadway are strewn forest leaves, already tinted by the frosty breath of Autumn, and from amid the boughs above the songs of birds make sweetest melody. Now and then one gets a glimpse of a stately mansion, far back from the road, to which, from massive iron gateways, run shell or pebble walks and carriage-ways. One of the handsomest of those is the residence of ex-Judge Steers, formerly of New-York, father of Henry Steers, the famous shipbuilder.

And so this charming road continues to the long, low, broad bridge which connects the mainland with City Island. At the mainland end of that bridge is a small hostelry, known as 'Flynn's,' if a curiously-contrived sign made up of oyster-shells is to be accepted as evidence, where anglers come from the City, and small parties of excursionists occasionally from Mount Vernon, Yonkers, and smaller places near by. Facing the other end of the bridge, on the island, is a handsome hotel, erected by Harry Cunningham, the once popular actor, who left the stage and became a still more popular restaurateur in the Bowery. He had great hope of making this a favorite road house; but hardly was it completed when he died, and now it is kept by his brother, who is an invalid and does not wish to be bothered with guests. From the bridge one can enjoy a delightful view of this arm of the Sound which cuts off City, High, and Rat Islands from the mainland. Below the bridge, far as one can see them, stakes mark out the boundaries of allotments of space on the bottom, where different owners have millions of oysters and clams stored away waiting for the New-York market, for this neighborhood is where the finest, fairest, and fattest of East River oysters and the sweetest of small clams are found. Upon the water, and half submerged, are ponderous 'oyster floats,' enormous boxes wherein the shell-fish are heaped by the ton for convenient transfer to the smacks. The tapering masts of scores of shapely little sloops and schooners, riding at anchor further down the stream, are sharply outlined against the sky, while here and there one with snowy wings outspread is to be seen, darting swiftly away, or returning home. Above the bridge can be seen, mostly in the forenoons, many small boats, in which men are going through strange pantomimic action. They seem to be making many obeisances, and waving their arms in fantastic fashion. Upon closer investigation, they prove to be fishermen, operating long tongs and rakes that clutch oysters and clams from the bottom, 20 feet below. The water is so clear that it reflects another sky, as varied and beautiful in its ever-changing tints as that above. The quiet is so profound that one hears the rattle of a few clams dropped from a rake into the bottom of a boat far away, and the ripple of a girl's laughter from another boat beneath the bridge wakes echoes on the shores.

The nearest island to City Island is that denominated High by reason of the attitude of a mass of rugged rocks on its eastern front. Upon those rocks stands a house, once the Summer head-quarters of the now defunct 'Multum in Parvo Club,' an association of journalists and actors, which flourished here some years ago. They leased the island for a term of 10 years -- not yeet expired -- from Mr. Peter V. King, a rich Wall-street merchant. Boyhood's associations have endeared the lonely island to him, and he has been heard to say that 'There is not money enough in New-York to buy it.' There is an excellent spring of cold and pure water upon it, and the western half of it might, with some little trouble, be made productive. A man of means could establish here a most enjoyable Summer residence. Rat Island is simply a mass of rocks. There are said to be numbers of rats on it, but why rats should choose to live there, where they find shelter, and what they get to live on, are all questions which nobody answers definitely, and which must cast a shadow of doubt over the reality of the rodents there. Away, over to the eastward lies Hart's Island, and farther up the Sound is David's Island, from both of which at times one hears, distinct but mellowed by the distance, the music of drum and fife, for on both soldiers are quartered.

City Island is peculiar in many things, but in none more so than in that its men, leaving out of the count a very few professional persons, are all Captains, except two or three, who are Commodores. Mr. Belden, Jay Gould's partner, who owns a magnificent mansion on the lower end of the island, is one of the uncounted ones, and so are D. J. Bacon and a brace of parsons. But, inasmuch as the business of the place is entirely connected with the water either directly or indirectly, everybody nearly has at least one more or less pretenious bouat, and he who owns a boat -- that is, a boat with a sail to it -- is by consequence, a Captain. They seem to draw the line at the possession of a sail. Proprietorship of a row-boat does not invest one with the dignity of a Captaincy, but bore a hole in the front seat of the row-boat, step a little mast in it and fly a small leg-o'-mutton sail therefrom, and the rank is won. When a man gets a lot of sailing boats, like Pell, the famous oysterman -- who is building a great house here, and is said to be worth $1,000,000 -- they call him Commodore. Buty they have no Admirals as yet. A more thoroughly enjoyable place than this in the Summer season cannot be found in the vicinity of New-York, for those who want quiet, coolness, pure health-giving air, and that balmy indefinable sense of rest which is so grateful after the heat, noise, and turmoil of the City. There is absolutely nothing here to remind one that there is a great City within two hours sail, nothing, that is, which recalls the disagreeable features of town-life. No milkman's demoniac yell, no postman's piercing whistle; no rattling carts and rumbling trains and ragmen's clanging bells disturb the Sabbath-like peace that is over all. The avocations of the people are almost entirely pursued out on the water, and on shore the sounds one hears most are the merry voices of children playing on the grass beneath the shade of the elms and poplars along the bank. Sometimes a party of excursionists or picnickers drive over from Yonkers, White Plains, New Rochelle, or some other town on the mainland, and cross the island to Capt. Charley McLenon's place, where they revel in clam chowder -- for the making of which that place is famous -- roast clams, oysters, and fish. The steamboat Seawanhaka takes some excursionists up there every Sunday, but they are all quiet people, who look for calm pleasures, not the sort of tough citizens who afflict decent folks going to Rockaway and Coney Island. About this season of the year the anglers begin to constitute themselves the principal visiting population of City Island, and long before daylight every morning when the tide serves, numbers of earnest men, laden with fishing-tackle, pocket flasks, and hope, may be seen clustering about Capt. Stringham's place near the bridge, getting boats and informaiton, and setting out to ensnare bass or black-fish. Capt. Stringham knows all about the fish in these waters, just as muh as if he were personally acquainted with them. He can tell when to find the bass at home down in the inlet that runs up to Pelham Bridge, and, by the way, the bass there are now commencing to bite well. He knows, too, just where to place the man who wants blackfish, whether off the big reef above High Island or over the old schooner wreck near Hart's Island, or in any other of 50 places where those excellent fish are just at this season so crowded together that they are popularly supposed to be rubbing the scales off each other. The ways and resorts of the frost-fish, the flounder, and the young bluefish are alike known unto him, and not to him only, but to many City men, for whom this has been a favorite haunt for sport since their boyhood days. By the middle of next month, when there will be frosty mornings, the reefs, and inlets, and shoals in this neighborhood will be a very paradise for skillful anglers, but as yet the water is too warm for much sport with the big fish. Many persons make excellent catches of blackfish with hand-lines from the bridge on frosty mornings at flood tide, but just now the main captures effected there are toadfish, sea-spiders, and begalls -- and it may be casually remarked that, if there is anything more exasperating than a creditor, it is that abominable and useless little begall. When the time comes, say in a fortnight from now, for using the information, anglers who propose trying those waters for the first time may be interested to know that they need not load themselves with bait in the City. At low tide they can pick up on the beach any desired quantity of 'fiddlers;' with little trouble can dig for themslves all the soft clams and sand-worms they may want, and 'shedders' are almost as easily got.

Malarial fever and dyspepsia are unknown on City Island. Dr. Bacon, a resident there, says that he never expects any other practice than births and accidents, and the latter are very scarce. Taken all in all this is surely the choicest spot near the City for residence, and were it better known, and the facilities for reaching it so extended that it would not be practically cut off from the rest of the world after the 6 o'clock train, it would certainly ere long be covered with villas and gardens."

Source: The Pearl of the Sound. Attractions of Little-Known City Island, N.Y. Times, Aug. 25, 1878, p. 12.

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