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.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Article About Hunter's Island Published in 1903

During the 19th century, when wealthy New Yorkers built some of the region's most beautiful mansions along the shore of the Long Island Sound in the Town of Pelham, the mansion of one wealthy New Yorker stood out among all others.  It was the home of John Hunter on Hunter's Island in Long Island Sound.  The mansion since has been razed.  The "island" on which it once stood is now attached to the mainland due to landfill used to create Orchard Beach Park.  In its heyday, however, the mansion stood on a beautifully-landscaped island and contained the nation's finest private collection of old master art.

John Hunter was born August 4, 1778 and died in his home on Hunter's Island on September 12, 1852.  He was a son of Robert Hunter (born ca. 1735, died 1800) and Ruth Hunter (born ca. 1757, died 1840).  He graduated from Columbia College in 1799 and married a wealthy heiress, Elizabeth Desbrosses who died in 1839.  He was a New York City businessman and a politician who served for eight years in the New York State Senate representing the Second District.  He also served as a member of the Constitutional Convention that revised the New York State Constitution in 1846.  Before 1812, Hunter bought an island in the Town of Pelham known as "Appleby's Island," afterward known as Hunter's Island.  His mansion became an historic showplace in the Town of Pelham.

Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog transcribes the text of an article that detailed the "Attractions of Hunter's Island" published in 1903.  The text is followed by a citation and a link to the source.

Beautiful Part of Pelham Bay Park -- Good Fishing.

ONE of the loveliest bits of Pelham Bay Park is that part known for more than a century as Hunter's Island.  Facing the Shore Road a few hundred feet from the entrance to the New York Athletic Club's Summer quarters at Travers Island are two tall granite gate-posts bearing the chiseled name 'Hunter's Island.'  Through this imposing gateway runs the road that leads to the island paradise of the old Hunter family.  The road leads past a tiny porter's lodge that looks as if it might once have been a chapel or a schoolhouse.  Three or four fine old mansions of the kind that made Westchester famous for suburban residences before this part of it was taken into the city are in sight from the causeway and bridge that lead to the island, and opposite the gateway is the lovely old Bolton Priory, the home of the American Boltons, descendants of a wealthy Southerner, who built his house on the plan of the old homestead of his family in England.  The house is beautiful in itself and its surroundings, and is filled with objects of historic interest, literary curiosities, antique furniture, and old portraits.  

Hunter's Island, with its dependent, Twin Island, is about 250 acres in area.  It has been called at various times Henderson's Island and Appleby's Island.  The island, with twenty acres on the neighboring mainland, belonged in 1743 to Joshua Pell, grandson of John, Lord Pell, a great landowner of these parts.  Later it came to the Hunts and to the Hendersons, and at length to John Hunter.  Peter Jay Munro levied a fine and recovery long ago for the whole island in behalf of John Hunter.  The Hunters were of an ancient Scottish stock, but John Hunter's father,, Robert, was of County Armagh, Ireland,, whither his ancestors had gone early in the seventeenth century.  John Hunter himself was long a State Senator of New York.

Hunter's Island was described by a Scottish traveler of nearly seventy-five years ago as 'not only a fine country seat in the English style, but well worth a visit on account of its peculiar and attractive beauties.'  Mr. Hunter was then reputed to own 30,000 acres of land in the Catskills.  He was a considerable collector of Italian paintings, which the Scottish traveler, however, thought to be of no very high merit.  Perhaps he improved the quality of his pictures, for twenty years later he was supposed to have one of the finest collections in America.  It included examples of Raphael, Salvator Rosa, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyke, Paul Veronese, Vandervelde, Domenchino, Albrecht Durer, Andreo del Sarte, and our own Gilbert Stuart.

Elias des Brosses Hunter, who died in 1865, inherited the island, and his eldest daughter, Mrs. Elizabeth De Lancery [sic], occupied one of the charming old mansions on the mainland hard by, now included in Pelham Bay Park.  Alvah Higgins was a subsequent proprietor of the island, and it was finally bought of Columbus [sic] Iselin when the city obtained possession of it and the other 1,500 acres of the great park.

Plain as the old Hunter house now seems, those who see it amid its own little island world can easily believe the tradition that Joseph Bonaparte offered Mr. Hunter a great price for the tiny kingdom before making his exile home at Bordentown, N. J.  The great rectangular stone house, with a top story of brick, presents an Ionic portico to the Sound.  Facing inland is the main entrance, a wide doorway wedged  in a recess, and flanked by ingeniously ugly columns of brick running to the eaves.  As the mansion stands on the highest point on the island, it commands a wide view of sea and shore.  The ground slopes from the house in all directions.  The lawns seem to occupy the whole island save a few acres given over to stables, a great garden, and a little tenant house.  A bit of woodland screens the stables and gardens from the mansion.  The city now makes hay on the lawns.  

Skirting the shore of Hunter's Island toward the main land is the road leading to Twin Island, which is connected with the larger island by a bridge and a causeway.  Here amid a grove of tall trees and only a few yards from the rock-edged Sound rises the great house of stone and shingle built by James D. fish before his dealings with the firm of Grant & Ward brought him to ruin and the penetentiary.  The house has Twin Island to itself.  From the windows of the somewhat gaunt Fish house the seaward outlook is almost as fije as that of the Hunter house.  Picnic parties now make merry in the leafy solitude which Fish prepared for himself and his friends.  

Hunter's Island was once a famous fishing shore.  Quite a thousand poinds of fish were sometimes taken here in fyke nets in a single morning.  There is still excellent fishing in these waters, and bass are caught with hook and line from the rocks in front of the Fish house, while clamdiggers are always busy at low tide on the flats about the island.  The great Indian rock called 'Mishow' is on the southeastern end of the island, and on the east is the boulder called 'The Gray Mare,,' Jack's Rock, a local resort set amid a noble grove of oaks within the limits of the park, is visible across an arm of the Sound to the south, and from that point Hunter's Island seems a great peaceful hayfield.  Twin Island is a favorite resort for hundreds of songbirds.  The Hunter house is occupied every Summer by a city charity, and the Fish house is sometimes rented, but oftener left tenantless, its great fireplaces black and empty, its polished floors thick with dust."

Source:  ATTRACTIONS OF HUNTER'S ISLAND -- Beautiful Part of Pelham Bay Park -- Good FishingN.Y. Times, May 10, 1903, p. 34, cols. 2-3 (NOTE:  Paid subscription required to access link).  

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I have written about John Hunter, his mansion, and Hunter's Island on many occasions.  Below are a few examples.

Fri., Dec. 2, 2005:  John Hunter of Hunter's Island in Pelham, New York.

Wed., Dec. 14, 2005:  New Information About John Hunter's Acquisition of Hunter's Island in the Manor of Pelham.

Thu., Apr. 27, 2006:  Burial Place of John Hunter (1778 - 1852) of Hunter's Island.

Mon., Aug. 14, 2006:  An Early Account of a Visit to Hunter's Island and John Hunter's Mansion in Pelham.

Mon., Aug. 28, 2006:  John Hunter of Hunter's Island in Pelham Obtained Special Tax Relief in 1826.

Tue., Nov. 21, 2006:  John Hunter Loses a Debate in the State Senate During the Winter of 1841.

Fri., Dec. 15, 2006:  References to John Hunter of Pelham Manor in the Papers of President Martin Van Buren.  

Thu., Jan. 17, 2008:  A Little More Information About John Hunter of Hunter's Island.

Mon., Nov. 10, 2014:  Obituaries And Notice of Art Auction Published Upon the Death of John Hunter of Hunter's Island in 1852.

Wed., Jan. 28, 2015:  Pelham Manor Resident Pushed for Removal of the Causeway from Shore Road to Hunter's Island in 1902.

Detail from 1905 Map Showing Area Addressed in Frederick H. Allen's
Statement Including the Stone Causeway Leading to Hunter's Island.
of the Bronx Easterly of the Bronx River" (1905) (Lionel Pincus and Princess
Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library).
NOTE: Click on Image to Enlarge.

Order a Copy of "Thomas Pell and the Legend of the Pell Treaty Oak." 

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