The Island In The Bay


During the Revolution, most Islanders seem to have been Tory in sympathy—or perhaps they just wanted to be left alone. Washington called them “our most inveterate enemies,” and apparently he never returned. On the other hand, the occupying British burned the old Dutch church at Richmondtown because of its rebel sympathies.

By 1800 there were more than 4,000 Staten Islanders, ^4lice ^Austens ^taten Island and the ferry service was expanded. A sixteen-year-old boy named Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose parents had given him a sailboat, charged eighteen cents a ride. By 1812, as Captain Vanderbilt, he commanded the largest and fastest of all the ferry barges, equipped with sails and sweeps, which plied the harbor. In 1829, he moved from New Jersey to settle on the Island, where his forebears had joined the Moravian Church.

Steam ferries were now running, too. A visiting Irish writer in that year was impressed by the “Gentleman’s cabin” in the paddle-wheeler, which offered “Bologna sausages, hung-beef, biscuits and confectionary, with wines, spirits, oranges, lemons, limes, lemonade and ice.” This is more than one can buy on the ferries now. This visitor also noticed that the shores of the Island were sprinkled with “the white, cleanlooking villas of his country.” It was the time of the Greek revival, and tar-paper brick had not yet been invented.

Despite the ferry, the Islanders by no means thought of themselves as an annex to New York. Through their shipping they were in touch with the whole world; in 1828, for example, the women of Richmondtown furnished 200 garments for the “suffering Greeks,” then engaged in their war for independence. Outbound vessels stopped here to take on fresh water for the voyage, the incoming paused at the government’s quarantine station, where sufferers from contagious diseases were disembarked and interned. After epidemics of cholera, smallpox, and yellow fever had spread among the Islanders, however, the citizens organized a posse which, after removing the inmates, burned down the station. The government thereafter promised that Quarantine —which still has its headquarters on the Island—would no longer be used as a detention point.

For sailors, this became a world-famous haven. The government established a marine hospital, and in the late eighteenth century Captain Robert Richard Ran- dall, who had prospered as a privateer, drafted in his will a provision for a “Home for Aged, Decrepit and Worn-Out Sailors.” Randall had meant for them to live on his Manhattan property, a mansion with twenty-one acres of farm land near Broadway and Tenth Street. But by the time he died, Manhattan was rapidly filling up, and his executors wisely persuaded the court that the home should be built, under the happier name of Sailors’ Snug Harbor, on Staten Island, where land was cheap. There it could be supported by the income from the valuable Manhattan property. This now amounts to several million dollars a year, enough to maintain a relatively small number of old salts in a very snug harbor indeed. Herman Melville used to come here to visit his brother Tom, the then governor of Sailors’ Snug Harbor, and to 0dd to his knowledge of whaling and the sea. Another home was soon built on the Island for Aged Widows of the Sea and another for Destitute Children of Seamen, who dressed in little sailor suits.

Possibly it was sailors who spread the word abroad that on the big island in New York Harbor there was room, and safety, for all. Somehow the word did spread, for in mid-nineteenth century the political refugees began to come. The first was the defeated Mexican President, Santa Anna, the villain of the Alamo, who after the Mexican War was as unpopular at home as he was in Texas. Some Islanders were unkind enough to say that this former enemy of the United States spent all his time “cock-fighting and playing three-card monte.” Others reported that he was constantly watched by hostile Mexican agents. When he decided at last to return to Mexico, the Islanders smuggled him out in a piano box.

Lajos Kossuth, Hungary’s liberator, was given a civic reception when he arrived in 1851. Gustav Struve, German revolutionary, and Joseph Kargé, a Polish patriot, were also in exile here about this time. So was Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of the world’s masters of revolution, who fled to Staten Island after being pushed out of Italy by the armies of four nations. He stayed two years, in a hous: that has been made a museum, before he returned to achieve the unification of Italy. The last of the famous foreign refugees, Maxim Gorky, came in 1906 after escaping the clubs of czarist police and the snubs of New York society, which disapproved of his travelling with a mistress (see “Innocents at Home” in the February, 1965, AMERICAN HERITAGE). Like Santa Anna, it is remembered, Gorky feared hostile agents and would not walk the country roads at night.

Before the Civil War, oyster schooners were sailing as far south as Chesapeake Bay in search of seedling oysters to replenish the beds, and groups of free Negroes from Maryland began to come to the Island, where they built a strange little southern village. Many of their descendants remain, somewhat impoverished by the disappearance of the oystering, but still tending their gardens and crumbling graveyards. Among these, a remarkable eighty-seven-year-old man named George T. Hunter described the old days in an interview a few years ago. “If it was a good huckleberry year, they’d put up enough huckleberries to make deep-dish pies all winter. And when they killed their hogs, they made link sausages and liver pudding and lard. Some of the old women even made soap. People looked after things in those days.”