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.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Origins of Ship Repair and Shipbuilding on City Island in the Town of Pelham

Even before the Revolutionary War, people such as Benjamin Palmer recognized that the island known today as City Island was ideally situated to attract and service vessels sailing to and from nearby New York City.  Indeed, Palmer devised a grandiose plan to rename the island (then known as Minneford Island) as "City Island" and to develop it as a deep water harbor town intended to rival, and compete with, New York City's port of New York Harbor.  That plan, of course, ended ignominiously with the onset of the Revolutionary War.

Nevertheless, during the nineteenth century, City Island became an important ship repair, shipbuilding, and yachting center.  Famed City Island resident George Washington Horton seems to have played an instrumental role in the birth of the ship repair and shipbuilding industry on the island.

During the mid-1850s, George Washington Horton and members of his family owned a large swath of City Island including a tract at the foot of the eastern end of what is known today as "Pilot Street."  Horton was a maritime entrepreneur, of sorts, involved in a host of money-making ventures on the island.  

In 1856, Horton or members of his family apparently sensed an entrepreneurial opportunity to repair and service the many local sloops, skiffs, ships, boats, and all manner of local vessels that frequented the island not far from the notoriously-treacherous rocks of Hell Gate.  They arranged for a New Rochelle man named Underhill, under the supervision of George Washington Horton, Jr., to construct and oversee a short marine railway at the east foot of what was known then as Pilot Avenue (today's Pilot Street). Typically, at the time, a "marine railway" was a railway with a rolling cradle for hauling ships out of water onto land and returning them into the water. 

The marine railway was intended to permit short-hauling, servicing, and maintenance of local water craft -- or vessels from elsewhere that suffered distress locally. Underhill, however, seems to have operated this early shipyard (or simple marine railway) for only a brief time since a man named Samuel Hart replaced Underhill within a short time. Significantly, it now seems, Samuel Hart was from Northport, Long Island, New York. 

According to City Island shipyard specialist Tom Nye of UK Sailmakers LLC at 175 City Island Avenue in City Island, Bronx, New York: 

"Hart at that time operated a shipyard in the Northport area and was in the middle of a lease dispute with the town of Huntington and during the long litigation found the opportunity to take over the railway at City Island. Sam Hart along with another Northport shipbuilder James Ketcham ran a small business advertising for the repairing, painting, cleaning, caulking, and building of vessels of a limited size on their railway." 

Source:  Nye, Tom, Subject Re: RONDEL PAINTING: City Island, email from Tom Nye to Jorge Santiago, Oct. 23, 2013, 9:48:37 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time (copy in files of the author). 

Thereafter, Samuel Hart (according to an account published in 1900) began to do a "large business in repairing vessels injured by striking the rocks in Hell Gate or getting ashore around Hart's Island."  

At about this time, or at least by 1859, David Carll and his brother, Jesse, were operating a shipyard in Northport. (According to a letter written by David Carll in 1875, he began working as a shipbuilder in 1854, although it is not yet known by this author if he began his work at that time with his brother in Northport.)  Be it sibling rivalry, business differences or something else, in 1859 David Carll decided to leave the shipyard in Northport and explore an opportunity with two friends on City Island: Samuel Hart and Northport shipbuilder James Ketcham who were operating the marine railway and tiny shipyard at the foot of Pilot Avenue. Id. 

That year, David Carll built the 37-foot sloop Bell for James Sackett using the Pilot Street railway on City Island. Shortly afterward, Carll bought the business and established David Carll's Shipyard. Id. David Carll remained partners with his brother, Jesse, in the Northport shipyard venture until the pair settled on a buyout of David's interest in 1865. Id.  For more about the early success of the David Carll shipyard, see Mon., Nov. 16, 2015:  David Carll's Shipyard in the Town of Pelham on City Island.

"View of City Island" by Frederick Rondel, 1872. Oil on Canvas
Painting, 20.25 inches x 30 inches. This Painting Depicts the
Marine Railway at David Carll's Shipyard in 1872. NOTE:  Click
on Image to Enlarge.

Given City Island's strategic location, it should come as no surprise that the island was used for ship repair many years before the first marine railway was established on the island in the 1850s.  Indeed, as early as 1821, a sloop from Newport, Rhode Island was hauled out at City Island for repairs.  So far, this is the earliest reference to City Island ship repair or shipbuilding research has revealed to this author.  The brief reference is quoted in full immediately below:


The sloop Agent, Blisen, from Newport, hauled ashore yesterday at City Island, to stop a leak. . . ."

Source:  MARINE LIST, The Evening Post [NY, NY], Feb. 14, 1821, No. 5818, p. 3, col. 1 (Note:  Paid subscription required to access via this link). 

In short, Pelham's long tradition of ship repair and shipbuilding is nearly two centuries old -- at least!

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