The Island In The Bay

PrintPrintEmailEmail

During the Civil War, southern planters sent their wives and children to the Island for safekeeping. Nobody bothered them; one house even displayed a Confederate flag. Yet Richmond County was the home of such well-known antislavery crusaders as George William Curds, editor of Harper’s Weekly and a man with many acquaintances among New England’s Transcendentalists. In fact, Judge William Emerson, Ralph Waldo’s older brother, also lived on Staten Island, and this brought Henry Thoreau there in 1843 to tutor the Judge’s children. He was much excited by the swarms of locusts and by the Island’s tulip trees, a species he had not seen before. The whole island was like a garden, said Thoreau, and he liked to watch “ships afar going about their business,” as Islanders still do today. On a bright Sunday morning, listening to a minister, he thought that “the fine prospect over the Bay and Narrows preached louder than he.”

The last half of the nineteenth century was the Golden Age, in which New York society crossed the bay to spend the summer in cottages and grand, manycolumned hotels. For a while, the swells even had their own luxuriously furnished ferryboat, which had eventually to be abandoned because ordinary commuters insisted on climbing aboard. The Island drew inter- national society, too. In 1850, Sir Edward Cunard, American manager of the steamship line his father had started ten years before, built an estate on a hilltop from which he could watch the Cunarders come and go. The most famous governess of the century, Anna Leonowens, arrived to open a school for small children. There she also wrote her popular book about her amazing experiences with her former employer, the King of Siam. Jenny Lind was a guest in the wintertime, when some of the hotels stayed open for ice skating and gay sleighing parties. When a snowstorm stopped the ferries and kept her from a concert engagement on Manhattan, she sang anyway, in the railroad station, for the crowd of Islanders who had planned to accompany her to Castle Garden.

In the winter of 1874, Miss Mary E. Outerbridge, of the Island family for which Outerbridge Crossing is named, saw a new game being played in Bermuda. She brought back to her own island a net, rackets, and balls, obtained from British regimental officers, and probably a diagram, too, for next summer she laid out the first American tennis courts at the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club. “Long nets, like seines,” said the fascinated New York Times . In 1880, the first national tennis tournament was held here, and in subsequent years the Misses Grace and Ellen Roosevelt, first cousins of F. D. R., took the doubles titles. The club cricket team in those days played international matches. The Island’s bicycle club produced a national champion. There were yacht clubs and canoe clubs, fox hunts, picnics, croquet, and house parties—a gay, well-ordered existence.

It might all have been forgotten, had it not been for a remarkable woman who made a record of it all. She was Alice Austen, who grew up in her family’s eighteenth-century manor house, Clear Comfort, overlooking the Narrows. She was born the year after the Civil War. When she was ten years old, an uncle gave her one of the cumbersome cameras of the time, with tripod, and before long he was taking lessons from his niece, for Alice was a born photographer. She grew into an attractive girl, and witty, but she never married. Her camera may have been partly to blame: the boys groaned at her approach, realizing that they would have to carry her heavy equipment or pose at length for her perfectionist’s art. She photographed everything—the immigrants arriving to work in the new factories, three-masted schooners and great liners, lawn parties, street scenes, and high-jinks at the rectory. The Austens were not in need of money. It never occurred to her to sell or publish her pictures. Yet she took them—some 7,000, on glass plates—with a sense of urgency, as if she keenly realized that this charming, civilized, happy life might not last forever.

It ended abruptly, for Miss Austen, after the stockmarket crash of 1929. With a friend, she tried to operate a restaurant at Clear Comfort, but she was too hospitable by nature, and second helpings devoured her profits. After the house was sold, she went eventually, crippled and in a wheelchair, to the Staten Island poorhouse, and here, when she was eighty-five, she and her pictures were discovered. Their publication at least made it possible for her to end her days in peace.

But the Staten Island that she photographed had already disappeared.

Even during the Golden Age, the Island was beginning to fall a victim to what nowadays is known as urban sprawl. Beyond the railroad line, stagecoaches served such new industrial centers as Linoleumville. Gaslights were installed after the Civil War, not without some objections. Two old ladies were deeply upset when the gas company proposed erecting a gas tank on their land. “How about it if it looks like a church?” the company suggested. The ladies had no objection to a church. Part of the dummy church, with its pious stained-glass windows, still conceals the impious gas apparatus.