New York Icons: Staten Island

History

Inhabited by the Raritan band of the Unami division of the Lenape natives, the island was called Aquehonga Manacknong (“as far as the place of the bad woods”) or Eghquhous (“the bad woods”). Arrowheads have been found near the old Rossville Post Office building that date back to around 1500 to 100 BC.

In 1520, Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed on the ship La Dauphine and anchored for one night — the first European contact. From 1639 to 1655, the Dutch made three separate attempts to establish settlements, but destroyed each time in conflicts with the local tribe. In 1661, the first permanent Oude Dorp (Dutch for “Old Village” and current-day Old Town neighborhood) by Dutch and French Huguenots (at one point nearly a third of the island spoke French). In 1641–42, Old Town attacked during Kieft’s War. In 1667, England took control and New Netherlands and the Dutch Staaten Eylandt was anglicized as “Staten Island.” In 1670, natives ceded all claims to the island. In 1671, Dutch settlement expansion known as Nieuwe Dorp (“New Village”), which later became anglicized as “New Dorp.” In 1688, island divided into four areas.

According to (a likely untrue) myth, Captain Christopher Billopp secured Staten Island for New York rather than New Jersey by circumnavigate the island in one day as a challenge. Richmond County is named after the first Duke of Richmond, illegitimate son of King Charles II.

General George Washington once called Islanders “our most inveterate enemies” for their support (the only county not to send a representative to the First Continental Congress, for which it received boycotts) of the British during the American Revolution. In 1776, Sir William Howe anchored 140 Births ships off the island and established headquarters in New Dorp — where he reportedly received their first notification of the Declaration of Independence. The British forces then crossed the Narrows to Brooklyn and outflanked the American forces at the Battle of Long Island, resulting in the capture of New York City. Three weeks later, a delegation of Americans (including Benjamin Franklin, Edward Rutledge and John Adams) traveled to the Conference House where they refused a peace offer to withdraw the Declaration of Independence.

In 1777, the inconclusive Battle of Staten Island resulting in both sides surrendering over a hundred troops as prisoners before the Americans withdrew. In 1780, while the Kill Van Kull was frozen over, Lord Stirling led an unsuccessful Patriot raid from New Jersey. In 1780, the British led a full assault into New Jersey from Staten Island with the aim of defeating George Washington — which was halted at the Battle of Springfield. British forces remained on the island, causing deforestation and destroying many buildings, until Evacuation Day 1783; after which Loyalists fled to Canada and their estates sold.

In 1827, abolishment of slavery in New York state was celebrated (speeches, pageants and fireworks) at the Swan Hotel, West Brighton. From 1800 to 1858, location of the largest quarantine facility in the US; until the hospital was burned down by angry residents in the Staten Island Quarantine War! In 1898 joined New York City — and referred to as the Borough of Richmond until 1975! In 1973, a pipeline gas explosion killing 40 workers. In 1993, 65% of residents voted to secede from New York — but blocked in the State Assembly. In 1994, two Navy bases closed.

About

Islanders live in the “Forgotten Borough” — the third-largest but least-populated (around 475,000) with the highest percentage of Italian Americans of any US county, one of the largest communities outside Sri Lanka, and the only borough that does not share a land border (although it does have a land border with New Jersey). Three bridges to New Jersey, and one to Brooklyn (cars only).

Known as the “Borough of Parks,” it contains thousands of acres of parks including the “greenbelt” and “blue belt.” Not connected to the New York subway, but contains MTA buses and isolated Staten Island Railway (SIR). The Staten Island Cricket Club, founded in 1872, is the oldest continuously operating cricket club in the US.

Notable residents include the Vanderbilt family, Frankie Genaro (boxing gold medal), Paul Newman, Henry David Thoreau (lived), Frederick Law Olmstead (senior and junior), John A. Noble, Thomas Adams (inventor of modern chewing gum), Joan Baez, Richard Biegenwald (serial killer), Paul Castellano (Gambino crime boss, lived on Todt Hill in a house resembling the White House), Frank Cali (Gambino crime boss, killed outside his Todt Hill home in 2019), Frank Matthews (1970s drug kingpin), John Franco (Mets pitcher), Hall of Fame bowlers (Mark Roth, Johnny Petraglia, Joseph Berardi), Pete Davidson, Emilio Estevez, Colin Jost, Alyssa Milano, Steven Seagal (lived), Martin Sheen, George Harrison (lived), Gene Simmons, and the Wu-Tang Clan.

George R. R. Martin based King’s Landing (Game of Thrones) on his view of Staten Island. The TV series What We Do in the Shadows centers around vampires who live on the island. Featured in the films The Godfather (Corleone family compound filmed on Todt Hill), Analyze This, A Beautiful Mind, Big Daddy, Donnie Brasco, Easy Money, Goodfellas, The Irishman, Nerve, Scent of a Woman, School of Rock, Staten Island Summer, The Toxic Avenger, and War of the Worlds. Referenced in the song NEW DORP. NEW YORK. by SBTRKT.

Annual events include the New York Marathon, which starts on Fort Wadsworth, and the Five Boro Bike Tour, which ends at the same fort.

Map

* Note: An asterisk denotes a place I have yet to visit properly.

Conference House & Park (circa 1680)

Built by Captain Christopher Billop on what became known as “Billop’s Point” (today Ward’s Point) in 1776 the site of the unsuccessful Staten Island Peace Conference to end the American Revolutionary War — where British commander Lord Howe met with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Edward Rutledge who rowed from New Jersey; after three hours the Americans politely declined leading to another seven years of conflict!

In 1779, an attack by John Simcoe (Queen’s Rangers leader, founder of Toronto) launched on New Jersey from the house resulted in the burning of supplies and capture of John Simcoe. After the revolution Billops fled to Canada. House later used as a hotel, rat poison factory, abandoned and almost demolished until saved in 1929. Restored 1937.

Conference House Park is located in Ward’s Point (formerly Billop’s Point) — the southernmost point of New York that also features a beach. Site of a Lenape burial ground (and subsequent Museum of Natural History dig site), Ward House (circa 1930), Biddle House (1853) and Rutan-Beckett House (1848, tours by appointment).

In 2002, a pavilion opened overlooking New Jersey (great for sunset). Site of Independence Day fireworks.

Alice Austen House Museum (house 1690, museum 2002)

American photographer working in Staten Island and one of America’s first female photographers to work outside of the studio. As a lesbian (53-year relationship with a woman 37 years younger), her photos provide rare documentation of relationships between Victorian women.

Evicted in 1945 after losing her wealth in the 1929 stock market crash and later moved to the Farm Colony. In 1951, her photos rediscovered and published. Alice died a year later.

Richmond Town (1695)

Original settlement site with fifteen restored buildings creating a museum village. Occupied by the British troops during the American Revolution. Living history museum during the 1980s.

Notable buildings include Voorlezer’s House (1695, oldest surviving elementary school in the US), Christopher House (1720, only functional jambless fireplace in NYC), and Guyon-Lake-Tysen House (1740). Two churches are located just outside the museum site — St. Patrick’s (1862) and St. Andrew’s (1872). Featured in Boardwalk Empire.

Moravian Cemetery* (1740)

The largest (113 acres) and oldest active cemetery on the island. Notable burials include Alice Austen, John Faber (pencils), father of Martin Scorsese, Union general (Stephen Weed) who died in the Battle of Gettysburg, members of the Gambino crime family (Thomas Bilotti, Frank Cali, Paul Castellano, Frank DeCicco), and Vanderbilt family (Carter Cooper, Wyatt Cooper, Gloria, Alfred, Cornelius, Reginald). Featured in the novel It’s Superman: A Novel (Lex Luthor’s mother burial) and films Friday the 13th (1980 and 2009 reboot).

Fort Wadsworth (1815)

The longest continually (since a 1663 Dutch blockhouse) garrisoned military installation in the US comprising Fort Tompkins and Battery Weed. Known as Flagstaff Fort during the American Revolution and later (1865) named after a Civil War general. During the War of 1812, 900 cannons were amassed in the area but unused as New York was never attacked. Turned over to the Navy in 1979 and closed in 1994. Guided tours* only. Featured in the G.I. Joe comic book and film Nerve.

Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden (1833)

Collection of architecturally significant 19th-century buildings in an 83-acre park founded as the first US retirement home for sailors (relocated 1976).

Includes 19th century cast iron fence, chapel (1856), sailor’s cemetery (across the road), botanical gardens (White Garden, Secret Garden with maze), Art Lab (1975), Children’s Museum (1976, Francis the Praying Mantis sculpture out front), Music Hall* (1892, second-oldest music hall in New York), Neptune fountain (replica of 1893 original), bronze statue (by Augustus Saint-Gaudens) and walled Chinese Scholar’s Garden* (1998, only authentic classical Chinese garden in the US, no nails, materials imported from Suzhou). Museums include the Staten Island Museum, Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art* (1977, gallery focused on Islander art), and Noble Maritime Collection* (2000, art and houseboat studio of John A. Noble).

From 1867 to 1884, governed by retired sea captain and brother of Moby-Dick author Herman Melville. Written about by Theodore Dreiser and featured in Boardwalk Empire and Lady Gaga’s Marry The Night.

Seguine Mansion* (1838)

Also known as The Seguine-Burke Mansion, a Greek Revival house and one of the few surviving examples of 19th century life on Staten Island. In 1981, renovated over five years. In 1989, donated to the City of New York. Features peacocks and an equestrian center. Tours by appointment only.

Garibaldi-Meucci Museum* (1840)

Home to inventor and candle maker Antonio Meucci and Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, who lived there from 1851 to 1853! In 1884, a plaque commemorating Garibaldi’s stay was placed on the building. In 1907, on Garibaldi’s 100th birthday the house was moved from its original nearby location and memorial dedicated. In 1923, memorial erected in the front yard. In 1956, opened as a museum. In 2009, a major restoration.

Site of a number of protests and celebrations on the anniversary of Garibaldi’s birth.

Killmeyer’s Old Bavarian Inn (1855)

With roots dating back to the 1700s and sold to the Killmeyer family around 1855. Mahogany bar installed in 1890. Known as Rube’s until the 1950s, then The Century Inn until 1995.

Gustave A. Mayer House* (1855)

Site of the 1665 Rose and Crown Tavern owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt where future King William stayed during the 1781 occupation. British headquarters where General Howe read the Declaration of Independence and the Battle of Brooklyn was planned. Demolished in 1854, commemorated with a nearby plaque.

The Mayer house was built in 1855 on the site of the tavern. In 1889, purchased by German-born confectioner and inventor, Gustave A. Mayer — a pioneer of the industry who created the Nilla wafer (sold to Nabisco), birch beer, patented a room humidifier, and sparkling Christmas tree reflectors. The house is considered haunted.

Hoffman and Swinburne Islands (1873)

11 and 4-acre artificial islands (respectively) containing a hospital and crematorium used for cholera quarantine of immigrants throughout the early 20th century. Marine training station during WWII, currently popular with seals. Off limits to the public.

New York City Farm Colony (1898, founded 1830)

A poorhouse and asylum where residents grew their own vegetables (Alice Austen a resident in the 1950s). In 1915, Farm Colony merged with Seaview Hospital to become Seaview Farms. In 1975, closed due to the aging of the patients (most over 70). In 1981, fire at the colony. In 1982, 25 acres annexed to the Greenbelt. In 1983, the Babe Ruth baseball diamond was built on Farm Colony land.

The highest concentration of abandoned buildings in New York and covered in graffiti, trespassing access via a small hole in the fence near Walcott Ave and Brielle Ave. Associated with the Cropsey serial killer, a bank robber (Willie Sutton worked on site), missing children (the killer Andre Rand was rumored to live on site), and satanic worship. Featured in the films Cropsey and Freedomland.

Liedy’s Shore Inn* (1905)

Operated a bar across the street for seven years before moving to the present location in 1905. Popular with sailors from nearby Snug Harbor. In 2005, for its centennial a street sign was added.

Current owner, Larry Liedy, made it to Major League baseball, was the person in the stands to catch Yogi Bera’s last home-run, and has won a multitude of Elvis Presley impersonation contests!

Range Lighthouse (1912)

Also known as the Staten Island Light and Ambrose Channel Range Light stands amongst residential houses 141 feet above sea level. Still operates with original lens and glass reflector. Also has the Swash Channel Rear Light, which shines a white light 24/7.

St. George Theatre* (1929)

Originally a film theatre (until 1978), dinner theatre, nightclub, antiques showroom and currently a performing arts venue.

Notable performers include Ringo Starr, Tony Bennett, Judy Collins, k.d. lang, Chris Daughtry, Cyndi Lauper, Air Supply, The B-52’s, Don McLean, Art Garfunkel, Wayne Newton, Liza Minnelli, Yes, Melissa Etheridge, Bret Michaels, Donny Osmond, Diana Ross, the Jonas Brothers, Jerry Seinfeld, Kevin James, Rosie O’Donnell, Colin Jost, Michael Che, Louis C.K., Jerry Lewis, John Mulaney, Joan Rivers, Chris Rock, Pete Davidson, Jim Belushi, Steve Martin, and Bill Cosby.

Holtermann’s Bakery (1930, founded 1878)

Third location. An idle 1949 Divco truck bearing the business’s name is still present on-site.

Egger’s Ice Cream (founded 1932)

First opened at Castleton Avenue and Broadway before moving to Forest Avenue and Barrett Street in 1950. In 2014, sold to a longtime employee. In 2018, opened a third store in Historic Richmond Town.

Uses the original recipes (two dozen flavors) since the 1930s, and even the same band of vanilla extract. The only original flavor to be retired is tutti-frutti, but the store makes a batch every year for the parlor’s anniversary in March.

Staten Island Zoo* (1936)

Eight-acre zoo with over 1,500 animals known for an extensive reptile collection including one of the largest (39) rattlesnake collections. Home to Staten Island Chuck, the official Groundhog Day forecaster for New York City, and Grandpa, a spider monkey that in 2012 made local newspapers after accurately “predicting” six out of nine U.S. Open tennis matches.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Boardwalk* (1937)

The fourth-longest (2.5-mile / 4 km) boardwalk in the world, spanning South and Midland beaches on the East Shore. Restored in the 1990s, it receives only 5% of the visitors compared to the Coney Island Boardwalk.

In 1882, the shore was developed into a resort with and amusements such as theaters, hotels, bathing pavilions, and casinos. In 1884, the South Beach Branch of the Staten Island Railway opened, allowing easy access from Manhattan and Brooklyn. In 1896, much of the area destroyed by fire.

In the 1890s, Midland Beach resort opened featuring a 1,700-foot pier (so long that the Midland Beach Railway Company operated a miniature railroad, steamboat port for the William Story), theater performances, beach, picnicking areas, snack kiosks, numerous hotels and bungalows, boardwalk, and several amusement attractions and roller coasters. In 1906, Happyland Amusement Park opened featuring an enclosed park, 1,000-foot beachfront, 1,500-foot pier, 30-foot-wide boardwalk, a system of over 10,000 lights, and numerous attractions and roller coasters.

During World War I, fears of German attacks discouraged tourists. In 1923, record number (150,000) of visitors in a single day. In 1919, fire destroyed many of the South Beach amusements. In 1924, pair of fires destroyed part of the Midland Beach amusement area; both areas were rebuilt only to burn down in 1929! A one-acre remnant operated on South Beach until it was destroyed in 1955.

Features along the boardwalk include two main beaches (South, Midland), sports facilities (eight baseball fields, rugby, basketball, handball, shuffleboard, bocce, checkers, volleyball, and roller hockey), Detective Russel Timoshenko Soccer Field (named after a police officer killed in 2007), Ben Soto Skate Park (named after a Marine officer), Ocean Breeze Fishing Pier, playgrounds, memorials (Father Vincent R. Capodanno, War Memorial) and the Fountain of the Dolphins (1998) statue by Steven Dickey.

Clove Lakes Park (1930s)

Home to Staten Island’s largest living thing, a 119-foot-tall (36 m) tulip tree. Contains trails, baseball diamonds, soccer field, basketball court, football field, ice-skating rink, three lakes, boating and Stone House at Clove Lakes restaurant (1930s park “Field House” nicknamed “Stonehenge”).

In 1825, dam and grist mill built — the body of water created by the dam was called Clove Lake, from the Dutch word kloven meaning “cleft.” In 1863, another dam built creating Brooks Pond. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, The Staten Island Water Company used water from this dam. The two other ponds were created — Martling’s Pond was the site of an ice house in the mid-19th century; and Schoenian’s Pond is no longer in existence.

In 1921 and 1923 the land around and including Crystal Lake and Brooks Dam was acquired as a city park. Major construction did not get underway until the early 1930s. In 1987, Staten Island War Memorial Skating Rink opened.

Staten Island Boat Graveyard* (1930s)

The Donjon Iron and Metal Scrap Processing Facility is an official dumping ground for old wrecked tugboats, barges and decommissioned ferries — containing about 100 boats. Also known as the Witte Marine Scrap Yard, the Arthur Kill Boat Yard, and the Tugboat Graveyard. Off limits to the public, but popular with trespassers who take “a makeshift path of street signs and wood planks into muddy marshland and to the edge of the water where the boats are visible.” Featured in the films Graves of Arthur Kill and Salt.

The Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art* (1947)

Built to resemble a rustic Himalayan monastery, with extensive terraced gardens and lotus pondone, is one of the most extensive collections of Himalayan artifacts in the US. Founded by Jacqueline Klauber, under her professional name, who never visited Tibet or the Himalayas!

No dedicated parking lot.

Staten Island Ferry (1955)

The busiest (24 million) ferry route in the US, busiest passenger-only ferry system in the world, and only direct mass-transit between two boroughs offers a 25 minute 5.2 miles (8.4 km) ride through New York Harbor that operates 24/7 and has been free since 1997. Started in 1817 as a steamboat service. Current ferries range from 1955 to 2005. Popular with tourists due to the no-cost and views of the New York Harbor and Statue of Liberty.

In 1910, ran aground on Governors Island. In 1921, ran aground in the middle of the harbor due to heavy fog; in 1929, the same boat ran into a ferry slip injuring three people; a year later the same boat collided with the same spot injuring seven people! In 1953, heavy fog caused four accidents injuring 13 people. In 1958, hit by a tanker injuring 15 people. By 1967, the only commuter ferry in the city. In 1978, crashed into a seawall injuring 173. In 1981, crash injured 71. In 1986, a mentally ill man attacked passengers with a sword killing two and injuring nine.

In 1995, rammed the terminal due to a mechanical malfunction injuring several people. In 1997, car plunged off causing injuries to the driver. From 1997 to 1998, offered a fast ferry route. In 2003, the city’s deadliest mass-transit incident when a ferry collided with a terminal killing eleven, seriously injuring many others, and tearing a huge gash in the lower three passenger decks! In 2009 and 2010, two ramming incidents injuring 15 and 37 passengers.

William Cass House “The Crimson Beech” (1959)

The only residence designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in NYC and one of eleven Prefab #1 houses built (kit shipped from Wisconsin). Features a sunken living room , mahogany walls and outdoor sculpture art. Private home.

Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge (1959)

The Narrows is a split-level bridge named after the first European explorer to sail into New York Harbor and up the Hudson River. Nicknamed the “Guinea Gangplank” after Italian-Americans who moved from Brooklyn, it’s the 14th-longest main span in the world (longest in the Americas).

Misspelled “Verraz[z]ano-Narrows Bridge” in 1960 due to an error in the construction contract — and not officially corrected until 2018! In 1963, pressure to rename the bridge after JFK following his assassination. $19 toll heading into Staten Island, free the other way. No pedestrian or bike walkway — except for the start of the New York Marathon (since 1976) and finish of the Five Boro Bike Tour.

Staten Island Greenbelt (1965)

2,800 acres of contiguous public parkland and second-largest New York government park. Todt Hill comes from the German word “dead” (reference to the nearby cemetery) and features the highest elevation (401ft / 122m) in New York and south of Maine along the Eastern Seaboard.

Comprises of High Rock Park, LaTourette Park, William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge, and Willowbrook Park. In 2004, the Greenbelt Nature Center opened. Mostly hiking with a small walk/ride path.

Moses’ Mountain (1960s)

Obscured panoramic views from a 260-foot-high rubble mound destined to become the Richmond Parkway before being defeated. Earned the ironic nickname “Moses Mountain” after Robert Moses, who fought for the parkway.

Richmond County Bank Ballpark* (2001)

Baseball stadium and home to the Staten Island Yankees. The current parking lot was the site of MLB St. George Grounds in the 1880s where the New York Metropolitans played in 1886–1887 and the New York Giants played while awaiting the construction of the second Polo Grounds.

During 9/11, staging area for emergency workers. In 2004, home to a pro cricket team. In 2017, Impact Wrestling event. In 2018 (and part of 2019), fan voting renamed the team to the Staten Island Pizza Rats for the season! A replica of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge is located on top of the main scoreboard.

Stunning views of New York.

September 11th Memorial (2004)

Named Postcards, it is a memorial honoring the 274 Staten Island residents killed and one during the 1993 WTC bombing. The space between the two walls points directly at Ground Zero.

Freshkills Park (2008)

Site of the Fresh Kills (Dutch for “water channel”) Landfill along an estuary of the same name, which opened temporarily in 1948 but became the world’s largest in 1955.

Closed in 2001 as “among the largest man-made structures in the history of the world” (as big as Lower Manhattan south of 23rd Street). Popular with birdwatchers after they were introduced to tame the rat population! In 2001, temporarily reopened to receive 9/11 debris.

Under development to become New York City’s second largest public park that include a bird-nesting island, boardwalks, soccer and baseball fields, bridle paths, and a 5,000-seat stadium.

Staten Island Museum* (2015, founded 1881)

The oldest cultural institution on the island with over half a million items — the only remaining general interest museum in NYC. Features Egyptian and African sculpture, Greek and Roman antiquities, Japanese prints, Native American artifacts, Renaissance paintings, abstract art, and photography. The only museum actively collecting works by contemporary local artists. Highlights include Rembrandt, Goya, Moran, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Hiroshige, Hokusai, George Bellows, Chagall, and Warhol.

National Lighthouse Museum* (2015)

Located in the former Foundry Building of the United States Lighthouse Service and later the Staten Island Coast Guard Station.

Ocean Breeze Athletic Complex* (2015)

World-class indoor track.

Eat

  • Bruno’s Bakery (2004). First establishment opened in 1973 in NYC.
  • Enoteca Maria. Since 2015, “Nonnas of the World” program showcases a different grandmother’s cooking every night.

Drink

  • Flagship Brewing* (2014)
  • Craft House. Site of the Kills Boro Brewery.
  • The Hop Shoppe

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