The Island In The Bay

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The five-cent ferry ride across New York Harbor from Manhattan to Staten Island is still a popular excursion, but New Yorkers who take it almost invariably catch the next boat back. It is their general belief that “there’s nothing on Staten Island.” This wooded, hilly island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, does not possess a single fashionable restaurant, discothèque, or amusement of any kind more elaborate than a neighborhood tavern or bowling alley. Its 238,000 people live mostly in small, rather shabby “towns"—among them, Great Kills and Bull’s Head—or in monotonous rows of small homes in new developments. Here and there an odd Dutchiness shows in an old gambrel-roofed house, but too often buildings have been covered with an uninspiring surface of tar-paper imitation brick.

Yet there are things to see on Staten Island, if you know where they are—four excellent museums, more restored eighteenth-century houses than in any other part of greater New York, secluded parks, and breathtaking views. The Island has always had room for unusual people and odd things, such as the Tibetan museum built high on a hill by an Island couple who had become intensely interested in the occult. Here is the place to see yak-butter altar lamps, silver prayer wheels and trumpets.

Ever since 1860 Staten Island has had its own railroad, which belongs to the Baltimore & Ohio and calls itself, modestly enough, “the country train,” since it connects the thickly settled north of the Island with its rural southern end. ("You can’t help thinking that the toot of the absurd Staten Island Railroad is the yelping of the coyotes,” wrote a Manhattan reporter after its opening.) It still rattles a string of secondhand subway cars with tired straw seats twelve miles from the ferry landing to the old port of Tottenville, and here, as one walks the streets, the low-keyed charm of Staten Island begins to sink in. An early “carpenter Gothic” house sports swirls of wooden lace; on another’s roof a family canoe waits out the winter; a mellow, century-old Methodist church sends a hymn from its chimes into the bare woods, where a boy is throwing bricks at a rusty oil tin to amuse his dog.

This is nothing like the rest of New York City. There are muskrat trappers in the woods—Staten Island pelts command a premium—who can glimpse the lop of the Empire State Building on a clear day. Possums crawl into garbage pails, and rabbits and pheasants are so numerous as to be a nuisance. Staten Island men take illegal potshots at the wild ducks that fly over; their womenfolk gather wild plums for jelly. A do/en fresh-water ponds are stocked with fish. While there are 30,000 persons per square mile in the other boroughs, the average on Staten Island is only 3,500- and these live here for just this reason.

It was a hard place to get started. Giovanni da Verra/ano, an Italian navigator, discovered the island in 1524, and a century later Henry Hudson is said to have named it Staaten in honor of the Dutch parliament, or States-General. In 1639, the first of three unsuccessful settlements was made. It perished in a dispute with the Indians over livestock, known as the “Pig War.” (Thus early, Staten Island seems to show its special, homey quality.) After matters were patched up, a second settlement was extinguished in the “Whiskey War,” caused by settlers who had taken a nip too many and rashly turned on the Indians. A third settlement in 1650 perished in the “Peach War,” which broke out after the Dutch authorities shot a squaw who had stolen a peach on Manhattan.

For three hundred years, this has been an island of refuge. In 1661 a small group of French-speaking Walloons and Dutch moved over from Manhattan to make the first permanent settlement at Old Town, which is still a station on the Staten Island Railroad. Huguenots came also, escaping religious persecution, and have a town named for them too. So, in the following century, did the Moravians, who built several churches still in use.

Fishing, oystering, and shipbuilding were early industries. (A visitor in 1671 reported “oysters a foot long, some containing pearls.") By this time, the British had taken over. According to legend, the Duke of York had promised Christopher Billopp, whose mansion still stands near Tottenville, that if he could sail around Staten Island in twenty-four hours it would become part of New York. Billopp made it, with three minutes to spare, and Richmond County, New York, was established in 1683. At the county seat of Richmond town—then often called Cocclestown, after the shells, or, humorously, Cuckoldstown—a schoolliouse was built sometime before 1696. It is called the Voorlezer’s House, after the title of a Dutch official who both taught school and held church services, and it still stands, the oldest schoolliouse in the country. At this time there were more than seven hundred people, including Dutch, French, English, and about seventy Negro slaves, and no doubt the gentle, persistent Staten Island accent—faintly Dutch, like that of Brooklyn, but milder—had begun to form among them. Until the Revolution the Island remained a peaceful, quiet world of its own.

In 1776, Washington reconnoitered Staten Island, erecting a semaphore on the shore of the Narrows, which separates it from Brooklyn, to give warning if the British sailed up the Bay. This they shortly did, and Sir William Howe settled in the Rose and Crown Tavern at New Dorp to plan his invasion of Long Island and Manhattan.

After his victory, lie then met in the Billopp Mansion—called ever since the Conference House—with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge to discuss possible terms of peace. But the Americans, by this time, would have no terms but freedom.