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.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"Fifty Years Behind the Times" - City Island After its Annexation by New York City

In the mid-1890s, New York City annexed a large part of the Town of Pelham including City Island.  At the time, the City Island oyster industry was waning.  The remainder of the maritime traditions of City Island were holding on, barely.  The tourism industry, however, still looked like a growing market.

At the time, City Island remained a quaint New England-style fishing village.  New Yorkers and those who visited New York traveled to City Island via ferry and the Branch Line for fishing, boating, and to enjoy the quaint village.  Articles were beginning to appear in newspapers and publications throughout the United States portraying City Island as a quaint backwater fishing village that time had forgotten.

One such article appeared in The St. Louis Republic.  It described City Island as the place "where New York City is fifty years behind the times."  The article described City Island as it existed for much of the latter half of the 19th century with its horse railroad, its clam diggers, its "Pelham Cemetery," its old hotels, and its yacht-building tradition.  The article further included a couple of engravings of the City Island horse railroad and the tiny City Island fire house which still had a "hand fire engine."  The article includes a brief history of the island and provides a fascinating glimpse of its past at about the time the island left the possession of the Town of Pelham to join the behemoth Gotham nearby.

Citizens Use a Hand Fire Engine, Ride on Horse Cars and Dig Clams for a Living at City Island, the Historic Shellfishing District of Manhattan.

"Antiquated Railroad Car, Connecting City Island City With the Outside World"
The St. Louis Republic (St. Louis, MO), Mar. 30, 1902, Part II, p. 12, cols. 3-4.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.  

Antiquated Railroad Car, Connecting City Island City With the Outside World.

The Republic Bureau.
146 Times Building.

New York, March 29. -- New York city's absorption of its suburbs has been fatal to the race of hardshell, brine-incrusted clam diggers that has for three hundred years or more peopled the little dot of sand in Long Island Sound known as City Island, which has recently been swallowed up by the great metropolis.  One by one the hunters for the bivalve are being laid away in the little cemetery overlooking the quiet waters of the Sound.  Those who have not yet succumbed to the hand of time are gradually drifting away, seeking other field, or are accepting the gold of associated capitalists who have within a month past seleccted the island as a fruitful field for speculation, or see in it golden returns for investment.

These 'clammers' have been really a race in themselves.  For more than a century the intrusion of the urban resident of the man of commerce was resented.  The native City Islander was content with his little world, measuring a half mile in width by a mile in length, and he hoped, as his ancestors had hoped before him, that the invasion, now at flood tide, would never come.  Within sight, and almost within sound of the nightly glare and daily tumult of a great city, the 'clammer' had lived from generation to generation, happy and undisturbed.

Market for His Wares.

His only use for the city was the fact that it was a market for his wares and a supply depot for his rum and his apparel.  He lived in dories or smacks most of the time, and his family dwelt in the little cottage in the queer, solemn streets of the island.  Until New York moved up beyond the Harlem River he believed that there would be eternal solitude in the little village where his forbears had settled and where he hoped to die.

The history of City Island has been the history of the shellfishing district of the East.  It has been as interesting as it has been lacking in excitement.  When New York was still little more than a village, City Island was settled by a coterie of hardy followers of the sea who bestowed upon it the name of Great Minnefords, the name by which the tribes which had peopled the place before the advent of the white race had been known, and the official records of the State of New York and of Westchester County contain many references to transactions at Minneford, or 'Minnifer,' a corruption of the Indian title.

In 1866 [sic, 1666], Thomas Pell, it is recorded, 'applied for letters patent from the Crown creating the Manor of Pelham, embracing all that territory between the Bronx and the Connecticut River, and the islands lying upon the tract before the mainland.'

City Island's Genesis.

That marked the beginning of City Island, and it remained very much the same as it was from the beginning of the Eighteenth Century till a very short time ago.  The master of Pelham, to be sure, sold it for 'five shillings and one pepper corn, if the same shall be lawfully demanded.'  Whether the payment was made has not been recorded.  Official statistics show that Samuel Rodman, early in the Eighteenth Century, paid £2,300 for the island.

Half a dozen changes in ownership were made within the next three or four generations, until one Benjamin Palmer, in May 1763, as then proprietor, divided the little sandheap in the Sound into thirty equal parts, twenty-six of which he sold to a stock company, reserving for himself the other four.  Four thousand five hundred building lots were laid out, and the new owners announced their intention of creating a great trading center, to be equal to New York, and to be known as City Island.

City Island the name has since remained, but the city has never had any existence.  The squatters who had made a living in fishing, seining and raking for oysters and clams acquired title to such 'city' lots as they desired at £10 each, and they and their successors have since remained in possession.  The dream of creating a new metropolis died away, more than a century ago, with those who had been responsible for it, and the colony lapsed into the staid old fishing village that it remained until the beginning of the present year.

British Ruled During Daytime.

No more patriotic Americans swore allegiance to the flag of freedom than the fishermen of City Island, and it is tradition there to-day that while the British held the island by daylight, the Yankees were in possession by night.  Raids were frequently made by the fishermen to all the adjoining points where the soldiers of the King were in possession.  In one of these John Dibble, one of the stoutest of the City Islanders, with a party of neighbors swooped down upon the British warship Schuldan, then anchored in Long Island Sound, and made her a captive, as well as six supply vessels containing stores and ammunition intended for the forces of the King.

With the Revolutionary War fought and won, City Islanders returned to their nets, their trawlers and their clams.  The same families who figured in its history then are in possession to-day, or, at least, were in possession until the tales of syndicates and fortunes in real estate resulted in a great boom which dazzled most of the natives and sent those who were not dazzled to other districts in quest of new clam beds and more solitude.

Practically all of the southerly end of the island at that time was owned by George W. Horton.  Much of it is still in possession of his descendants, Stephen Decatur Horton and George Washington Horton and their heirs, though within the memory of many at present living in the southerly end, jutting out toward the Stepping Stone Lighthouse, and Forts Schuyler and Willets Point, that guard the New York harbor entrance, was sold to a New York banker and came to be known as Belden point.  The Horton property was officially described in a contemporary record as 'overlooking Hutchinson's Bay, Throgmorton's Neck, the Stepping Stones Lighthouse and the Great Necks upon Long Island.'  This meant the jutland know [sic] to-day as Throg's Neck and Great and Little Neck.

Old Tavern Still Thrives.

The clam digger of City Island still remains, the old volunteer fireman's hook and ladder company in the main street of the quaint old village is still there, the old village tavern continues to thrive, albeit usurped by Tammany, and the Macedonian Hotel, built from the timbers of the British [sic] frigate and prison ship Macedonia, captured in the War of 1812, still stands, despite the ravages of storm and wind on the lonely shore of 'Dead Quiet,' in close proximity to the graveyard in which repose the bodies of the City Islanders who have passed away during many decades.

Every morning as soon as the tide begins to fall the clam digger goes to the sandy beach on the shore of the island, and with his clam hook scratches away the sand and exposes and captures the elusive bivalve which forms the nucleus of many a good dinner, both on the island and in New York.

The clam diggers are a peaceful race.  No one encroaches upon the territory claimed by another.  The first comer has the selection of the ground upon which he will work, and the second does not presume to interfere with him or to step upon the section over which he is fishing for the clam.

Groups of these clam diggers can be seen at all times when the tide is out, bent almost double on the sand and digging with their hooks or shovels, stopping every now and then to lift the clams from their resting place and put them in the basket which they set upon the ground just beside them.  Many of those who visit the island during the summer -- and there are many, for City Island is a favorite haunt of the angler as well as a resort for those who enjoy a truly rural place for passing a day of quiet enjoyment -- walk to the sandy shore and watch the clam digger at his work.

"Fire Headquarters Building, Ten Feet Wide."
The St. Louis Republic (St. Louis, MO), Mar. 30, 1902, Part II, p. 12, col. 4.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Many Old-Time Hotels.

Then they visit one of the oldtime hotels and partake of a clambake or shore dinner, with the clams just fresh from their sandy bed and cooked as only the native City Islander can cook them.  

Only a few steps from the sandy shore where the clam digger pursues his vocation, and in the loneliest part of the island, stands the Macedonian Hotel.  When the wreck of the famous British frigate [sic] and prison ship Macedonia was bleaching her hulk on the shores of Hart's Island, directly across the water from City Island, a native conceived the idea of putting the solid and age-protected timbers to good use.  With boats and assistants he made many trips to the old hulk, gathering the timbers and towing them to the beach in front of a piece of property which he owned close beside the shore.

From the wreckage he erected what has ever since been known as the Macedonian Hotel, and on its side are inscribed these words, which tell of the history of the famous old house:

This House is the remains of the English frigate Macedonian, captured on Sunday, October 5, 1812, by the United States frigate United States, commanded by Captain Stephen Decatur, U. S. N.

This action was fought in latitude 24 deg. north, longitude 29 det. 30 min. west.  That is about 600 miles northwest of the Cape de Verde Islands, off the west coast of Africa, and towed to Cow Bay in 1874.

Used as a Bar.

The main room used as a bar, on the first floor, is framed of the heaviest timbers from the old ship.  To many of them are still fastened the old hooks to which the sailors of the British fighting ship hung their hammocks.  An old cupboard from the galley of the ship serves as a bar, and the cabin used by the petty officers is used as the place wherein mine host of the Macedonian keeps his stock of ripe old liquor for dispensation among his customers and the clam diggers who work along the beach in his neighborhood.

On the second floor is the 'music room' that is none other than the main cabin of the Macedonian.  In removing the lumber from the ship those who did the work took pains to preserve each piece and place it in its proper place in the Macedonian Hotel.  The old 18 and 24 inch iron barred windows on the man-of-war were carefully preserved, and these now let in the light to the music room in this unique hotel.  

Timbers of Britain's vanquished war ship also form part of the northerly fence line of the quaint village burying ground.  This resting place for the dead is small, but interesting in its solitude.  Its eastern limit is the beach on which fretful Long Island Sound beats incessantly, claiming more and more of the bluff in which generations of the natives are buried.

Waves Have Washed Away Land.

The dashing of the waves has already eaten away much of the headland, and the old picket fence has partly disappeared, carried off on the bosom of the tide.  No pretentious monuments have been erected there.  Most of the graves are marked only by little mounds or slabs of marble, many of which have crumbled and are held in place only by iron clamps placed in position by the descendants of those who sleep beneath.  A wooden segment over the little picket swinging gate bears the legend: -- 


Lanes, avenues or walks there are none.  This hamlet of the dead, though in the City of New York, seems like a bit of quaintest Europe transplanted.  The plots, nevertheless, are not neglected, for here and there are flower beds or artificial funeral offerings, while newly-made graves, alas, are plentiful.  It is still the burial place of the native, who gives never a thought of the grand cemeteries of the metropolis, with their mausoleums, monuments and vaults.

Graveyard of Famous Racers.

Just beyond and in plain sight of this last resting place for this fraction of the human race is the graveyard of the proudest craft that ever floated.  Famous yachts, winners of great contests, defenders of the America's Cup and playthings of the wealthiest men in the mightiest of nations have ended their careers there.  To-day the famous sloop yacht Columbia is hauled out upon the shore, shedded, wind swept, weather beaten and lonely, on the very spot where but a few years ago her predecessor in the affections of the American yachting world, the game old Defender, last rested her bones and was torn into junk after as a great a struggle for the blue ribbon of the sea as had ever been fought.

Whether the Columbia is to end her days as have those that preceded her in the marine graveyard is still a moot question.  At any rate, there she is to-day, upon the very beach that saw the last of earlier champions of the sea.  Keeping her company at present, is Mr. August Belmont's famous 70-footer Mineola.  Captain 'Charlie' Barr, skipper of the Columbia, lives in a cottage within a stone's throw of the shipyard, and frequently strolls down to the beach to admire the lines of the fleet racer that twice carried the hopes of the American people and vanquished the most formidable craft that ever crossed the seas to test the supremacy of American yachts and yachtsmen.

As if mindful of the supremacy in the yachting world and still aware of the last resting palce of native pleasure craft, Thomas Ratsey, Britain's foremost designer of racing sails, is erecting an establishment that is to equal any in Europe or America."

Source:  WHERE NEW YORK CITY IS FIFTY YEARS BEHIND THE TIMES, The St. Louis Republic (St. Louis, MO), Mar. 30, 1902, Part II, p. 12, cols. 3-4.

*          *          *          *          *

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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