The Dark Spirit of the Devil and His Stepping Stones: A Pelham Legend
Home Page of the Historic Pelham Blog.
Order a Copy of "Thomas Pell and the Legend of the Pell Treaty Oak."
A legend has been told around Pelham for eons. It dates to ancient times when Native Americans populated the region. Famed American author Washington Irving referenced the legend in his book he published in 1824 entitled "Tales of a Traveller." Although the legend seems dark and foreboding, it is actually a story of triumph over the darkest evil spirit that ever has existed in Pelham: the devil.
The legend has many, many versions, some involving Connecticut which is nowhere near The Devil's Stepping Stones area south of City Island, once part of the Town of Pelham. Only one version of the legend makes sense, geographically, circumstantially, and otherwise. Only one version can possibly be true based on all the evidence. That version, of course, is the Pelham version of the legend of The Devil's Stepping Stones, recounted here. All other versions, most certainly, are corrupted versions of the "true" story.
Long, long ago when Native Americans roamed our region, things turned bad for them; very, very bad. Local Native Americans suffered many misfortunes including failed crops, poor fishing, brutal snows, and raging storms. It was time for action.
The Native Americans knew that the wicked giant devil, known as Habboamoko, long had roamed the region including today's Pelham Bay Park, Westchester County, and portions of southeastern Connecticut. His giant footprints may still be found in some of the rock outcroppings in places throughout Westchester County and Connecticut. The giant devil was known to create mayhem and to bring periodic misfortune on the Native peoples.
Concluding that Habboamoko was, once again, the source of their misfortune, warriors gathered from throughout the region to use strength, medicine, and magic to chase Habboamoko out of the region across the Long Island Sound onto Long Island where he would be left to torment others. The warriors located and rousted Habboamoko and began to battle him.
Because Habboamoko was a giant, the battle was difficult and raged for a long time. Slowly, though, the warriors gained the upper hand. As the Habboamoko began his retreat, he gathered every glacial boulder he could find in the countryside, loading his long, menacing arms with many such boulders. He retreated to Pelham Neck and then onto City Island. When he reached the southern tip of City Island with the Native American warriors in pursuit, however, he was not big enough to hop across the waters to the shores of Long Island (where today's Steppingstone Park stands).
Though Habboamoko was a giant, Long Island Sound was deep. This the giant devil knew. As the warriors closed in, Habboamoko began tossing the boulders he had collected into the Sound, using them as stepping stones to make his escape across the deep waters. Once he had crossed the deep waters, he stood on the shores of Long Island and looked back. Native American warriors lined the shores of today's City Island, Pelham Bay Park and Pelham laughing and taunting him. Angrily, Habboamoko took every last boulder still cradled in his arms and, one at a time, threw them across Long Island Sound at the warriors.
The giant boulders thrown by Habboamoko landed throughout the countryside, though each missed the warriors. Occasionally Habboamoko threw the boulders with such anger that he flung them great distances, covering much of today's Pelham Bay Park, Westchester County, and lower Connecticut.
One giant boulder flung by Habboamoko broke in half when it landed. We know that boulder today as the famous Pelham landmark "Split Rock." Many others of the boulders likewise have become famous. They became known as Glover's Rock, the Kemble House Rocking Stone, the Priory Rocking Stone, The Grey Mare, and Mishow, to name a few. Many of the boulders were never given names. Nevertheless, they still stand throughout the countryside as silent reminders of the blind anger of the giant devil as he vengefully tried one last time to bring more misery on the Native American lands in and around what later became Pelham.
The many boulders that the Habboamoko threw into Long Island Sound to use as stepping stones to make his escape became known as "The Devil's Stepping Stones." As the centuries passed, The Devil's Stepping Stones became the bane of mariners who navigated Long Island Sound. Countless ships were lost trying unsuccessfully to maneuver around these rocky reefs that skipped across Long Island Sound.
During the 1850s, the Army Corps of Engineers began blasting away many of The Devil's Stepping Stones. Not all were removed, however. Thus, the area remained treacherous for mariners. In 1876 and 1877, authorities built the Stepping Stones Light on one of the few remaining Devil's Stepping Stones. The square-shaped Second Empire-style lighthouse is built of red brick and is one-and-a-half stories high. The lighthouse continues to operate and stands many hundreds of yards off the southern tip of City Island. It is operated by the United States Coast Guard and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Thankfully the Army Corps of Engineers blasted away most of The Devil's Stepping Stones beginning in the 1850s with a second wave of blasting beginning in 1885. As a consequence, Habboamoko can never return to Pelham. Instead, the devil has had to remain on Long Island ever since. This likely explains a lot about Long Island, including its hellish traffic. . . . . . . .
* * * * *
"In fact, the whole of this neighborhood [the neighborhood of Hell Gate and beyond], was like the straits of Pelorus of yore, a region of fable and romance to me. From the strait to the Manhattoes, the borders of the Sound are greatly diversified, being broken and indented by rocky nooks overhung with trees, which give them a wild and romantic look. In the time of my boyhood, they abounded with traditions about pirates, ghosts, smugglers, and buried money which had a wonderful effect upon the young minds of my companions and myself.
As I grew to more mature years, I made diligent research after the truth of these strange traditions; for I have always been a curious investigator of the valuable but obscure branches of the history of my native province. I found infinite difficulty, however, in arriving at any precise information. In seeking to dig up one fact, it is incredible the number of fables that I unearthed. I will say nothing of the devil's stepping-stones, by which the arch-fiend made his retreat from Connecticut [sic] to Long Island, across the Sound; seeing the subject is likely to be learnedly treated by a worthy friend and contemporary historian, whom I have furnished with particulars thereof.* [Footnote "*" reads as follows: "* For a very interesting and authentic account of the devil and his stepping-stones, see the valuable Memoir read before the New York Historical Society, since the death of Mr. Knickerbocker, by his friend, an eminent jurist of the place."
Source: Irving, Washington, Tales of a Traveller, pp. 186-87 (NY, NY and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1824) (from reprint by The Knickerbocker Press, New Rochelle, NY: 1895).
"THE DEVIL'S STEPPING-STONES
When the devil set a claim to the fair lands at the north of Long Island Sound, his claim was disputed by the Indians, who prepared to fight for their homes should he attempt to serve his writ of ejectment. Parley resulted in nothing, so the bad one tried force, but he was routed in open fight and found it desirable to get away from the scene of action as soon as possible. He retreated across the Sound near the head of East River. The tide was out, so he stepped from island to island, without trouble, and those reefs and islands are to this day the Devil's Stepping-Stones. On reaching Throgg's Neck he sat down in a despairing attitude and brooded on his defeat, until, roused to a frenzy at the thought of it, he resolved to renew the war on terms advantageous entirely to himself. In that day Connecticut was free from rocks, but Long Island was covered with them; so he gathered all he could lay his hands on and tossed them at the Indians that he could see across the Sound near Cold Spring until the supply had given out. The red men who last inhabited Connecticut used to show white men where the missiles landed and where the devil struck his heel into the ground as he sprang from the shore in his haste to reach Long Island. At Cold Spring other footprints and one of his toes are shown. Establishing himself at Coram, he troubled the people of the country for many years, so that between the devil on the west and the Montauks on the east they were plagued indeed; for though their guard at Watch Hill, Rhode Island, and other places often apprised them of the coming of the Montauks, they never knew which way to look for the devil."
Source: Skinner, Charles Montgomery, Myths and Legends of Our Own Land, Vol. I, pp. 122-23 (4th ed., Philadelphia & London: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1896).
"STEPPING STONES LIGHTHOUSE
An old Native American legend tells of how the Siwanoy Indians duked it out with Habboamoko, the devil, for possession of Connecticut [sic; as has always been said, Stepping Stones were south of City Island, far from Connecticut]. While Habboamoko had many tricks, the Siwanoy, through their own potions and wizardry were able to back the old devil up against Long Island Sound. Things looked rather bleak for Habboamoko, when he happened to look over his shoulder at low tide toward Long Island and noticed a trail of stepping stones. He danced across the rocks and fled to Long Island. So angry at the Siwanoy was he, that he flung every boulder he could find back across the sound. His aim was not true, but his power was strong and the boulders were flung as far as Maine, littering New England with rock formations.
Perhaps due to the legend, or the deadly nor'easters which sneak up on the sound, Colonial maps of the area named Long Island Sound, “Devil’s Belt,” and the reefs skipping across it, “Devil’s Stepping Stones.”
During the 1860s, shipping commerce through Long Island Sound greatly increased, and with it, the need for a lighthouse to define a clear channel. Congress appropriated $6,000 in 1866 for a light station to replace a buoy on Hart Island, about 1 mile north of Stepping Stones. Difficulties arose in obtaining land on Hart Island, and in 1874, the Lighthouse Board opted instead to build the light station at Stepping Stones, which lies about 1600 yards offshore.
Construction of the Second Empire style lighthouse, a sister to the Hudson-Athens lighthouse on the Hudson River, began in 1875. Under the direction of A. D. Cook, the Stepping Stones Lighthouse was constructed by Irish bargemen and stonemasons from Throggs Neck. The red brick keeper's dwelling is topped by a mansard roof and attached to a square tower. Every outside corner of the structure is decorated with quoins. 900 tons of boulders were barged to the site to form the foundation on the reef, which lies just below the water's surface. The riprap foundation, encased in rough-hewn blocks, has a base diameter of 48 feet, and the lighthouse rises to a height of 49 feet above sea level.
On March 1, 1877, Findlay Fraser lit the fifth-order Fresnel lens for the first time. The original characteristic of the light was fixed red, an appropriate choice for the Devil's Stepping Stones. In 1932, the light was changed to a fourth order-Fresnel lens with a fixed green light. A modern optic, which produces a flashing green light, was placed in the lantern room when the lighthouse was automated in 1964.
A ship approaching New York City’s East River can take a clear channel by keeping south of the Great Captain Island and Execution Rocks lighthouses and then staying north of Stepping Stones Lighthouse.
A couple of notable keepers served at the Stepping Stones Lighthouse over the years. Ernest Bloom, who started his service at the station on April 20, 1910, was awarded the Lighthouse Service's efficiency pennant for the meticulous manner in which he maintained the lighthouse. The pennant was flown next to the Stars and Stripes at the lighthouse to honor Bloom. Keeper Stephen Holm served at Stepping Stones in the early 1920s and during his time rescued several unfortunate mariners. One example of his lifesaving skills occurred on July 18, 1923 when two men ran the sailboat Mistral onto the rocks just east of the lighthouse. Holm hurried to rescue the two men, and later towed their damaged boat to Long Island.
Devil’s Belt has a tricky way of stirring up unexpected storms. On the morning of February 9, 1934, the mercury at Stepping Stones Lighthouse hit 14 degrees below zero. With the Sound frozen, Keeper Charles A. Rogers, could not row ashore for supplies. The weather only got worse. On February 20, the wind blew in a blizzard, which dumped 17 inches of snow overnight, the worst storm since 1888. Trapped and with only two days worth of food for his small family, Rogers hung the flag upside down on March 1 hoping someone would notice the distress signal. Captain Sioss of the tug Muxpet spotted the signal and gradually broke the Muxpet through the ice to the lighthouse. The captain offered Rogers food, but Rogers refused stating that it was the Lighthouse Service’s responsibility, and asked that the depot at St. George, Staten Island be notified of the situation. Shortly after being apprised of the situation, the depot dispatched the lighthouse tender Hickory to the station with supplies.
Today, wicked storms still race across the Sound and mariners continue to be safely guided through a clear channel, past the hidden reef, by the faithful beam of the lighthouse.
In 2006, the lighthouse, deemed excess by the Coast Guard, was offered at no cost to eligible entities, including federal, state, and local agencies, non-profit corporations, and educational organizations. The Town of North Hempstead submitted a letter of interest along with five non-profit organizations: Asian Americans for Equality in Manhattan; Beacon Preservation Inc. of Ansonia, Conn.; Crabber Cup of Greenwich, Conn.; Historic Preservation Society of America of Washington, D.C.; and Korstad Marine Preservation Society of Brooking, Conn. Eventually all suitors save North Hempstead withdrew their applications, deciding it was too big an undertaking. The the National Park Service has yet to announce if the town will gain ownership of the lighthouse.
1. Lights & Legends, A Historical Guide to Lighthouses of Long Island Sound, Fishers Island Sound, and Block Island Sound, Harlan Hamilton, 1987.
2. Northeast Lights: Lighthouses and Lightships, Rhode Island to Cape Mary, New Jersey, Robert Bachand, 1989.
3. Lighthouses of New York, Greater New York Harbor, Hudson River & Long Island, Jim Cowley, 2000."
Source: United States Coast Guard, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, "Stepping Stones Lighthouse" in ANT NY Lighthouses (visited Aug. 27, 2016).
Home Page of the Historic Pelham Blog.
Order a Copy of "Thomas Pell and the Legend of the Pell Treaty Oak."