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, December 15, 2014

Brief History of City Island Including the Legend of the Macedonia Hotel with Photographs Published in 1906

Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog transcribes a lovely, brief history of City Island published as a chapter in a book released in 1906.  The fascinating history conveys, among other things, the legend of the Macedonia Hotel and demonstrates the perils of oral traditions and local history.  

City Island legend once claimed that parts of the Macedonia Hotel that stood at the east end of Ditmars Street was constructed from part of the famed English frigate Macedonian.  United States Commodore Stephen Decatur (at the time, a Captain) captured that frigate during the War of 1812 to wide acclaim.  

A 19th century City Island boatyard owner named Charles McClennan salvaged old timbers and the captain's cabin from a decommissioned frigate named the U.S.S. Macedonian at Cow Bay across Long Island Sound from City Island.  City Islander Jacob Smith bought the timbers and cabin and used them to build a small hotel on City Island.  Smith told all who would listen that the hotel was built from the remains of the famous English Frigate captured by Stephen Decatur during the War of 1812.  

This legend attracted curious visitors from far and near to the little hotel on City Island. However, the information turned out to be entirely wrong. It turns out that the structure included material that is not from the original remains of the Macedonian captured during the War of 1812.  It was constructed in part from the remains of a second ship (a United States frigate) also named "Macedonian" that launched at Gosport, Virginia, in 1836, was rebuilt in Brooklyn in 1852 and was broken up in 1874 at Cow Bay, Long Island.

By 1922, the Macedonia Hotel had been re-purposed as the City Island Casino.  It was destroyed in a fire that year.  

The article below includes a number of wonderful photographs of City Island including a lovely photograph of the Macedonia Hotel before the legend painted on its side was over-painted in the early 20th century.  

Ancient Horse Cars - Marshall Mansion - City Island Bridge - General History of the Island - Macedonia Hotel

'A gem of the Ocean.'  Thus is City Island described by the same person who goes on to state his experiences on a trip to the island from Bartow Station.  

'All aboard!'  The cry struck my car, and looking at what there was to board, I spied what I took to be a pet plaything left by Noah on Mt. Ararat after the Flood -- sort of box on wheels with tin geegees to pull it.  This then was the car, and I swung aboard.  We made magnificent progress, at the rate of at least sixteen miles in seventeen hours.  About half way to the bridge, I was astonished to see the driver leave his horses to jog along by themselves and walk into the car.  I thought he was sick and needed a rest, but no.  He sang out:  'Fares, please,' and proceeded to collect them.'

If the same man had seen the older cars, with their single horse, that jogged painfully at a snail's pace, he would have been more than ever surprised.  

"Old City Island Bridge"
Source:  "Chapter XX:  City Island" in History of Bronx Borough City Of New York
Compiled for The North Side News By Randall Comfort, p. 59 (NY, NY:  North Side
News Press:  1906).  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

But City Island ought indeed to be thankful.  It has now a bridge to connect it with the main land.  In early days there was only a ferry, nay, even so recently as 1868.  Close to the bridge stands the immense 'Colonial Inn,' the fine old Marshall Mansion, surrounded by beautifully graded lawns and shade trees.  The old bridge, which was so narrow that even one of the tiny bob-tailed horsecars could scarcely pass a team, has been removed to make way for the much more roomy structure that now spans the waters.  A lingering remnant of the old creation still remains, as if loath to leave the spot to which it was brought after serving as the original Harlem Bridge.

Go down City Island's 'Main Street,' and you will find yourself transported as if to an isle in the midst of the ocean.  Yachting and fishing are the main, indeed we might say the only, pursuits.  Boats of every kind are drawn up on all sides.  Almost every one you meet wears the same nautical air.  You imagine you are miles away from the great City of New York instead of being practically in its northernmost corner.

It is said that City Island was so named because a colony was settled there intended to rival the present City of New York, then a tiny group of houses.  Now what a wonderful difference there is!

If we try to seek the first inhabitants of this 'Peal of the Sound' we have to turn to the Sewanoe tribe of Indians, who occupied the shore from Hell Gate on the south as far as Norwalk on the north.  They are also quoted as dwelling in the whole country, now the eastern part of old Westchester County, from the source of the Croton down to the Bronx.

Even to-day the seafaring inhabitants support themselves partly on what they find in the countless shells that line the coast.  In the very same manner the Indians of old made their living, thus giving to the spot the name of the 'Islands of Shells.'  Before the name city Island was given to this place, it was styled Minneford's or Minnefor's Island, a title supposed to have been derived from an old Indian Sachem who once held sway there.

When witchcraft was ranked among the list of crimes, two unfortunate persons  had sought City Island's shores as a supposedly safe refuge.  But, as we are told, the wave of fanaticism which had swept through New England, reached this spot and on October 2, 1665, Ralph Hall and Mary, his wife, were arraigned for trial at the Court of Assizes in New York, upon suspicion of witchcraft.'  We learn that they were brought to trial for 'murder by means of witchcraft.'  As a result both pleaded not guilty, but the jury found that there was something 'suspicious by the evidence of what the woman is charged with, but nothing considerable of value to take away her life.  But in reference to the man we find nothing considerable to charge him with.'

For three dreary years the two lived in a little hut on the lonely shores of 'Minneford's Island.'  Then, finally they were acquitted, 'there having been no direct proof of witchcraft.'  According to the records, this was the first case of witchcraft to come before the authorities in the Province of New York.

Then gradually developed the idea of founding a city on these shores to equal the far distant City of New York.  This latter place seemed all very well in its way, but its location was far down on the lower end of Manhattan Island.  Such were the dreams of Philip and Benjamin Palmer, who had spent their life from childhood's days on Throgg's Neck, opposite the island.  Here was a spot that would completely solve the perplexing problem.  No more risks to run in passing through the whirling maelstrom and dangerous rocks of Hell Gate.  There was plenty of safe anchorage and refuge from storms.  Even a plan, or map, was gooten out and an advertisement prepared, showing forth in glowing terms the advantages of the place.  Real estate began to boom.  A broad avenue -- now Main Street -- was laid out and about four thousand lots were planned.  Mr. Palmer himself was offered as high as 300 and even 1,000 pounds for the most desirable portions.

"Macedonian Hotel"
Source:  "Chapter XX:  City Island" in History of Bronx Borough City Of New York
Compiled for The North Side News By Randall Comfort, p. 61 (NY, NY:  North Side
News Press:  1906).  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Then the sky darkened.  In 1776 the British fleet had arrived in New York harbor, and the island residents realized their extreme danger, so far away from the rest of the world.  As for Palmer and his wife, they waited there a few days too long, and were all taken prisoners by the enemy, where he was 'badly treated and continually refused permission to leave.'  Finally he obtained this permission, going to New York, where he remained until the close of the war.  

During the Revolution, although the place was closely guarded by British warships, we learn with pride that the American whaleboats did not hesitate for a moment to dart out and attack the enemy, no matter what size their ships were.  

After the war, Palmer's troubles were by no means over.  Because he had obeyed orders from some one in the King's service, he discovered that his land had been seized and his petitions for the return of his possessions proved unsuccessful.  

The money for building a bridge to the mainland could not be raised and at last the project for building a city to rival New York was abandoned.  As for Palmer, his circumstances became so reduced that Aaron Burr started a subscription which resulted in keeping him from abject poverty until his death.

After the completion of the iron Harlem Bridge, the original structure was removed to City Island, about 1873, and the old-fashioned ferry was at last abandoned.

Minneford Avenue is one of the most prominent thoroughfares of this little island kingdom.  On a side street, fronting the waters of the Sound, is a quaint relic of one of the prizes of the gallant Stephen Decatur.  When I visited the spot last, the house had been newly painted, thus obliterating a sign which proclaimed in large letters the unique history of the spot.

In the first place are the large characters 'MACEDONIA HOTEL.'  On the north side is, or perhaps we had better say, was, this inscription:

'This house is the remains of the English Frigate Macedonia, captured on Sunday, October 25, by the United States Frigate United States Commanded by Cap't 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 West Coast of Africa, and Towed to Cow Bay in 1874.'

Thus we have a striking example of a ship on dry land.  Nay, it is not only a ship, but half ship and half house.  Ninety odd years ago, when the old 'Macedonia' was in the full glory of its youth as a frigate-of-war in the English Navy, sailing near the Canary Islands, it became a prize of war of the daring and intrepid Decatur.  In this way one of the finest warships of the British Navy became the property of the United States, in more senses than one.

Without even a change of name, this almost new frigate began a most remarkable career under the stars and stripes.  She did splendid work in battling with the Algerian pirates in the far distant Mediterranean.  In the Mexican War she helped capture the stronghold of Vera Cruz, and in 1847 she aided to carry a most welcome cargo of food to the starving people of Ireland.  When the Civil War broke out, the Macedonia performed noble service as a transport of troops.  

Finally in 1874 she was condemned by the government and towed to Cow Bay, Long Island, where an enterprising City Islander bought her, took her across the Sound on her last cruise, and erected the best part of her where she now stands.  The inscription on her sides is said to have been obtained from the War Department, so it may be taken as authentic.

A visit to the old ship is full of interest.  On all sides can be seen the immense stanchions, bristling with the massive iron rings to which the ancient cannon were once fastened.  The roof, being the old cabin, is curved, and opening from the sides, like tiny cubby-holes, are the officers' staterooms.  These are neatly furnished with beds, giving the place a most homelike and occupied air.  The hooks from which the British tars and their American successors hung their hammocks are plainly in evidence, while in the roof can be seen the great round opening through which the giant mast once passed.

Around the corner from the 'Macdeonia Hotel' is City Island's burying ground.  This is said to have given the hotel the name of the 'Dead Quiet.'"

"City Island Car"
Source:  "Chapter XX:  City Island" in History of Bronx Borough City Of New York
Compiled for The North Side News By Randall Comfort, p. 62 (NY, NY:  North Side
News Press:  1906).  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Source:  "Chapter XX:  City Island" in History of Bronx Borough City of New York Compiled for The North Side News by Randall Comfort, pp. 59-62 (NY, NY:  North Side News Press:  1906).  

*          *          *          *          *

I have written about various aspects of the history of City Island, once part of the Town of Pelham.  For merely a few such examples, see:

Fri., Jan. 23, 2009:  Biography of Jacob Smith of City Island, Proprietor of the Macedonia Hotel.  

Tue., Nov. 07, 2006:  Tour of City Island and Portions of Pelham Published in 1909.

Wed., Jul. 12, 2006:  A Brief History of City Island Published in a Book by Stephen Jenkins in 1912.

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