Island : A  tract of land surrounded by water, and
smaller than a continent. -- Webster 1913

There are upwards of 70 islands in the waters surrounding New York City. The Hudson River, spewing sand and silt onto the Atlantic shoreline for thousands of years, created many of them. They form an impressive harbor. In 1939 it was estimated that New York Bay could hold the entire U.S. Navy without obstructing the normal flow of merchant marine traffic.

Such an anchorage for the U.S. military fleet might not be possible today, but the harbor is still there with its miles of shipping berths. Protected from ocean-borne storms, entirely open throughout the year, it is a deep draft harbor for the largest of cargo ships.

Without the harbor and the river joining it to the interior of the country, New York would never be what it is today. The commercial advantage of water-borne commerce contributed immensely to the growth of the city in early, colonial days. And without its islands, New York would be an entirely different city.

New York has islands, and New York is islands. Four of the five boroughs of the city are built on three large islands. Additionally, many of the administrative, social and commercial activities of the city are situated on the smaller islands.

The waters in which these islands lie come under The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, a body governing all navigable waterways within a radius of 25 miles from the Statue of Liberty. This includes seven bays, four rivers, four estuaries and several creeks.

It is hard to count exactly how many islands there are because they are difficult to define. Some, particularly in Jamaica Bay, are really islets, reefs, or bars. Many are artificial, created by landfill. Some have been joined to other bodies of land and have lost their individual identity. The largest are home to hundreds of thousands of people. Others are no more than a rocky scrap of land scarcely above water. Some have eroded, some have grown, several have disappeared, others are even now being built.

During nearly 400 years of colonial, federal and state government, the smaller islands have had their names, usages, and physical dimensions changed according to the fashion and needs of the times. Several have been covered by individual, definitive nodes posted earlier. The purpose of this node is to give an overview, showing the contribution of these islands to the history of New York City and the roles they play today.


Before continuing, imagine a slightly lopsided square superimposed on a map of New York State.

  • The left-hand side, carved out of New Jersey, leans in an easterly direction.

  • The bottom of the square is almost entirely in the Atlantic Ocean.
  • The lower right-hand corner is anchored in the Atlantic due south of JFK airport.
  • On the top edge, starting on the left in New Jersey, the line cuts across the State of New York and ends not far from the Connecticut border.
  • Dropping down the right-hand side, the fourth side of the square crosses Long Island Sound, then Long Island itself, ending in the Atlantic.
  • Inside this square is the eastern-most slice of New Jersey and the parcels of land that form the city of New York.
  • (If you are familiar with the layout of New York's islands and the harbor, skip down to the first subhead below.)

    Staten Island is in the bottom left-hand corner, nestled into the curve of New Jersey. Shaped like an upside-down pear, it is almost 14 miles long and roughly seven miles broad at its widest point. One of the five boroughs of New York City, it is defined on the west and north by the salt water estuaries of Arthur Kill and Kill van Kull and by Upper New York Bay. The Atlantic washes its south-southeast shoreline, while the mile-wide tidal strait know as "The Narrows" separates it from the borough of Brooklyn. There are several islands on the Atlantic shore of Staten Island, and several in the waters between Staten Island and New Jersey.

    Manhattan, another borough, is crowded onto the tip of a peninsula jutting south from the New York State mainland into Upper New York Bay. The Hudson River, separating the west side of Manhattan from New Jersey, is a true river. The East River, flowing between the east side of Manhattan and the borough of Queens, is actually another salt water estuary, or tidal strait, which varies in depth and narrowness by tidal fluctuations. The third waterway defining Manhattan is the Harlem River. The Harlem is also an estuary. It became a ship canal when Spuyten Duyvil Creek, a non-navigable stream in the northern section of what is now Manhattan, was filled in and a channel created to connect the Hudson River and Long Island Sound.

    Five hundred yards off the tip of Manhattan is Governors Island, the colonial watchdog of New York Harbor. Rich in history, it belongs to the U.S. government and was used for military purposes until the mid-1990’s. Roosevelt Island, a former sandbar in the lower East River, 147 acres of residential and commercial use, adds another 8,000 people to the population of Manhattan.

    Further north, where the East River joins the Long Island Sound, are the islands of North Brother, South Brother and Rikers. There, also, at the juncture of Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx, under the Triborough Bridge, are Randalls Island and Wards Island.

    The borough of the Bronx is north and east of Manhattan, separated from it by the Harlem River. The widest parts of the East River are at the southern edge of the Bronx while Long Island Sound touches its eastern shoreline. Although not an island, the Bronx has as much, if not more shoreline than any borough except Staten Island. In the Sound itself are Hart Island and City Island, plus smaller islands such as High Island, Twin Islands, Rat Island, Green Flats, Hog Island and several rocky islets.

    South of Long Island Sound, covering the western end of Long Island, are Queens and Brooklyn. The twenty square miles of Jamaica Bay and its sprawl of islands are surrounded by Brooklyn, South Queens, and the narrow peninsula of the Rockaways with an entrance to the Lower New York Bay. Here, too, are several islands near Sheephead's Bay.

    Brooklyn occupies the tip of Long Island. Governors Island, so close to Manhattan, is even closer to Brooklyn. They are divided by the Buttermilk Channel. The peninsula of Coney Island, protruding into the Lower New York Bay from the southwest corner of Brooklyn, was once an island.

    On the other side of Manhattan, near the New Jersey shore, are Ellis Island of immigration fame and Liberty Island with its welcoming statue. These are in Upper New York Bay just north of Staten Island.


    Islands as a food source

    The first Europeans to establish a community in what is now New York City found the local inhabitants using several islands for various types of food production.

    • Ellis Island ( previous names: Gull, Oyster, Bucking and Gibbett) had an original surface of only three acres but, situated as it was on an offshore slope in Upper Bay, it provided concentrated lengths of shoreline for mollusk harvesting.
    • Another early source of food was found on the larger (170 acres) Governors Island (previous names: Nutten or Nut Island), which was covered with walnut and chestnut trees.

    Islands are often used to raise animals for slaughter. The shoreline forms a natural barrier for the stock. Predators, once eradicated, do not quickly reappear.

    • Governors Island, purchased by the Dutch Governor Wouter Van Twiller who built a summer residence there, supported sheep farming for a number of years. The abundant mast from the nut trees on the island lent itself to hog raising.
    • Governor Van Twiller purchased another island to be used as a pasture for swine. In Van Twiller's day it was known as Hog Island or Long Island; today it is Roosevelt Island (other previous names: Blackwell and Welfare).
    • Later owned by the Blackwell family for over 150 years, it supported fruit orchards and farm lands as well as stone quarries.

    Fishing was another food source. The islands of Jamaica Bay could have been ideal for fishing settlements but they were marshy and mostly underwater during high tide. Permanent fishing villages, finally established there late in the 19th century, were short-lived.

    Hunting for the larder was an important part of colonial life.

    • Governors Island was once used as a game preserve.
    • Coney Island, was most likely named for the vast numbers of rabbits found there when it was truly an island. At the time of the Dutch occupancy the sand bar was divided from the mainland by a creek that has partially disappeared. Confined and protected by natural barriers, the "coneys" multiplied rapidly and provided rabbit stew for colonial families.

    Islands have always been popular for farming. As they are isolated, the crop on an island is protected from herbivorous wildlife. Transportation by water in the early days of the 17th century was often the only practical way of moving bulky cargo. Hay that had been mowed and cured on an island could easily be transported by barge.

    Islands for defense

    Traditionally used for defense, islands - like mountain tops - are difficult to conquer and easier to defend than other topographical features such as river valleys and flood plains. Islands are often located in a stratigic spot to defend a harbor or waterway.

    • While both the Dutch and the British utilized the area now known as Battery Park in lower Manhattan to guard the tip of the peninsula as well as the approaches to both the Hudson River and the East River, the first defense north of the Narrows was Governors Island.
    • During the American Revolution the colonists tried to stop the British from coming into the Upper Bay by setting up a battery on Governors Island. The British, marching overland through Brooklyn, captured the island by overcoming the battery from behind. Nevertheless, it was still considered an ideal site and Fort Jay and then Castle William were built there in later years. During the War of 1812 these two forts played a prominent role in the defense of New York City.

    Further south, bracketing the entrance to The Narrows, were Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island and Fort Hamilton on Long Island in what is now South Brooklyn. Offshore of Fort Hamilton is a one-acre reef on which was built a circular brick structure in 1822. This served as a U.S. Naval Magazine for Fort Hamilton, was later the site of a lighthouse, and was finally demolished when the Verrazano Narrows Bridge was built to link Brooklyn and Staten Island.

    Ellis Island, best known as the doorway to the New World for hundreds of thousands of immigrants, passed from private hands to public ownership early in the 19th century.

    • From 1808 until 1814 it was a Federal arsenal.
    • At the end of the War of 1812 the U.S. government felt it prudent to establish a watchdog at the mouth of the Hudson River; Fort Gibson was built on Ellis Island and remained a military outpost for nearly 80 years.

    During the same era, Fort Wood was built on Liberty Island (previous name: Bedloe), now part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. The physical structure of Fort Wood, a star-shaped rampart, became the base for the statue.

    A number of the New York City islands have been used as military bases : Rikers Island (previous name: Hulet’s) served in this capacity during the American Civil War and Governors Island has been a military post in one way or another since 1794.

    Hart Island (previous names: Lesser Minneford and Spectacle), part of a large tract of land purchased in 1654 by Thomas Pell, served in 1863-64 as a mustering site for Union recruits during the Civil War. In more recent time, it was an active Nike missile base (1955-63).

    Islands for confinement, detention, incarceration and internment

    Mankind historically has used islands to confine and isolate members of its own race for one reason or another. Most of the habitable islands of New York City have served in this way.

    Rikers Island in Bronx County immediately comes to mind.

    • It is the headquarters of the New York City Department of Correction and has ten jails with a daily combined population of 17,560 inmates.
    • The first jail was built on Rikers in the 1930's.
    • Like many of the islands, Rikers has grown in surface due to being used as a dump for garbage and for dirt removed in digging subway lines. Originally only 87 acres in size, it now measures 415 acres.

    Before Rikers was enlarged, Roosevelt Island held the New York Penitentiary as well as "welfare" institutions : a small-pox hospital, a charity hospital, an almshouse, a hospital for incurables, a workhouse.

    When public outcry fueled a raid on the Roosevelt Island institutions, prisoners were removed to Rikers in the East River and Hart Island, part of Bronx County in Long Island Sound.

    • Hart Island was used to hold prisoners during the American Civil War (1864-65).
    • In the early 1900's, buildings on Hart Island that had formerly housed an insane asylum were converted to a reform school for boys.
    • During World War II, the island was used as a disciplinary barracks for Navy personnel.
    • Governors Island was also used as a military prison during both World Wars.

    Hospital facilities sequestered on islands

    • Rikers Island has a 500-bed infirmary for prisoners, special facilities for inmates with AIDS, maternity wards for mothers and their newborn, and air-controlled housing units reserved for inmates with contagious diseases such as tuberculosis.
    • As early as 1895, a workhouse was established on Hart Island for drug addicts and aged or infirm inmates. It remained in use until the island was immobilized in World War II.
    • In 1966 Phoenix House was established on Hart Island for the rehabilitation of drug addicts; the program was discontinued in 1976.

    Cigar-shaped Roosevelt Island is in the East River. It parallels Manhattan's shoreline from the East 50's to the East 80's. In addition to mixed-income housing, it is the site of two city hospitals.

    Islands as quarantine stations

    Islands are ideal for quarantine, the isolation of those with contagious diseases. Since the early days of the colonial period, various islands have been set aside for this purpose.

    • Governors Island was used for quarantine for a time in its history, as well as Roosevelt Island, and North Brother Island in the East River.
    • City Island in Long Island Sound was a quarantine station during the two World Wars.

    Until 1921, New York State rather than the Federal Government was in charge of examining persons on vessels from foreign ports for typhus, leprosy, cholera, plague, yellow fever, anthrax and parrot fever.

    • Any questionable case was sent to the main Quarantine Station on Staten Island, then much more isolated than it is today.
    • In addition to this 8-acre site at Nautilus and Bay Streets overlooking The Narrows, two artificial islands off the Atlantic shore of Staten Island, Hoffman and Swinburne, were created in 1872 to serve as additional quarantine stations. They were abandoned in the 1920's, following the curb on immigration.
    • When the yellow fever epidemic hit New York in 1870, the southern part of Hart Island was used as an isolation area for those infected.

    Hart Island - a final resting place for nearly one million unknown

    Located in Long Island Sound, Hart Island is the graveyard for some 800,000 unclaimed bodies, buried here since 1869. Although a part of the Bronx, Hart Island serves all of New York City. Bodies are transported by barge; burial parties are furnished by work details from the prison population of Riker's Island.

    Ellis Island - Possibly the world's biggest administration center

    Ellis Island merits an individual comprehensive writeup. It was the principal federal immigration station in the United States from 1892 to 1954.

    • It has been estimated that over 40 percent of all U.S. citizens have forbearers who were processed through Ellis Island.
    • During its entire history, approximately 12 million persons were admitted to the United States through this station.
    • After the passage of strict immigration laws in 1924, the center was used mainly for "assembly, detainment, and deporting aliens", generally for medical or legal reasons.
    • Ellis Island closed as an immigration station in 1954 and remained unused until 1965 when it became part of the National Park Service. Restoration began in 1983 and the immigration museum, restored to the period of 1918-1920, was opened in 1990.

    The original island, greatly enlarged with landfill during the years of peak activity, and Liberty Island, site of the Statue of Liberty, now constitute the Statue of Liberty National Monument, the historical tribute to one of the greatest growth periods in the population of the United States.

    Boatyards and birds

    In the northeast end of Long Island Sound, just a bridge away from Pelham Bay Park, is pint-size City Island. Established as an English settlement in 1685, it served first as a supply stop for ships during the days of sail, and then became an important boatyard for schooners and yachts.

    • At the onset of the 20th century and the beginning of the two World Wars, the boatyard was converted to small vessels used in naval warfare : submarine chasers, minesweepers, landing craft, and tugs.
    • Today the island is mainly residential. It is the home of an impressive Historical Society and Museum.

    Another island, Shooter's, situated between Staten Island and New Jersey at the entrance to Newark Bay, was the site of several shipyards as early as the 1860's.

    • The Townsend-Downey Shipbuilding Company built cruising and racing yachts there. The epitome of its production was a luxurious racing yacht, the Meteor, built for Kaiser Wilhelm II, emperor of Germany. This boat was launched in 1902 with President Theodore Roosevelt and two thousand other guests at the ceremonies.
    • During World War I (1914-1918), the island's industry employed 9,000 workers in the production of steel cargo ships. After the war effort, shipbuilding operations were transferred to nearby Staten Island and Shooter's was turned into a dumping ground for derelict vessels.
    • The waters around Shooter's Island became so badly polluted that it was impossible for birds to wade. However, with The Clean Water Act of 1972, the situation was reversed and the island is now a closed sanctuary for shore birds such as glossy ibis, black- and yellow-crowned night herons, and various sub-species of egrets once hunted to near extinction.

    Islands for fun and recreation

    From the earliest days when the Dutch used Governors Island for picnics, these tiny bits of land offered rest and relaxation to those living in the crowded neighborhoods of the city.

    • Coney Island in Brooklyn, with its six miles of Atlantic Ocean beach, became the "world’s largest playground". With its boardwalk, amusement and food booths, carnival rides and other attractions, it reached its zenith of popularity during the first half of the 20th century.
    • In Long Island Sound, off the shore of the Bronx, is Pelham Bay Park, now a peninsula joined to yet another peninsula, formerly one and possibly two separate islands (Rodman’s Neck-Orchard Beach-Hunter’s Island peninsula). The Twin Islands are also a part of this recreation complex. Picnic facilities, golfing, swimming beaches and fishing piers, a municipal stadium and nature study collections are gathered in this nearly 2,000 acre site.
    • Randalls Island and Wards Island, stepping stones for the massive Triborough Bridge, a three-armed structure connecting Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens, were once the site of various hospital and corrective institutions. These were evacuated and demolished at the time of the bridge-building in the 1930's. The islands are now under the administration of the Department of Parks and Recreation, featuring parks, playgrounds, and Downey Stadium on Randalls Island. Although still referred to individually, for all practical purposes the two islands, joined with landfill, appear as one island.

    Jamaica Bay – a quiet world within a busy city

    The next time you fly in or out of JFK airport in New York, look down at this little enclave which has scarcely changed since the island of Manhattan became the City and County of New York in 1683.

    It is still a place where land and water mix and mingle. The very names given to the bits of land above high tide tell the story: Duck Point Marshes, Yellow Bar Hassock, Ruffle Bar, Silver Hole Marsh, Jo Co's Marsh, Little Egg Marsh. The names given to stretches of water repeat this: Grassy Bay, Grass Hassock Channel.

    This is a peaceful place. The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is a major migratory haven for waterfowl, land and shore birds. It is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, one of largest urban parks in the country. All of it is part of the borough of Queens, as is the John F. Kennedy airport which makes up most of the eastern shoreline of Jamaica Bay. The flight paths of the airport extend over the bay.

    It wasn't always calm and peaceful. The few islands above high tide were not permanently settled until the 1880's. At that time the Long Island Railroad built a five-mile trestle from Queens to the Rockaways, with a stop at Big Egg Marsh (now known as Broad Channel). Big Egg Marsh was used as base for the trestle, just as Randalls and Wards Islands served for the Triborough Bridge in the East River.

    At that time Big Egg Marsh was a sand island surrounded with marsh. Development landfill was needed for the trestle. Once this was done, a fishing settlement sprang up and fluke and flounder, oysters and clams were harvested before the city of New York started pumping its open sewerage into Jamaica Bay.

    With the fishing ruined, there were plans to make Jamaica Bay into a great port. Nothing came of this, but an enterprising real estate man leased Broad Channel acreage from the city of New York and developed it with summer cottages. He was just in time for Prohibition. Because the island was accessible mainly by boat, it became a mecca for rumrunners. A hotel, yacht clubs and night clubs were opened and Broad Channel became known as "Little Cuba". Later, when Broad Channel was linked to the mainland, many of the bootleggers transferred their operations to two clusters of islands known as The Raunt and Goose Creek.

    The Cross Bay Boulevard was built in 1925, linking Broad Channel to Howard Beach in South Queens and the Rockaways peninsula to the south. From then until the period of the second World War, about four thousand people were permanent residents of the islands in Jamaica Bay, with about 98% living on Broad Channel. Many of these families were rugged individualists. Homes were often ramshackle structures on stilts, with no city gas or fresh water.

    The railway trestle burned down in 1950, but in 1956 a subway line between Queens and the Rockaways was opened, with a station at Broad Channel.

    Today Broad Channel resembles an average suburban community with the exception of the occasional house on stilts. The City began selling the leased land in the 1980's. There has been further developmental landfill and many homes are now year-around residental dwellings. It has just under 3,000 permanent residents and most of the usual services of a small community: a variety of retail businesses, two schools, a library, various clubs and volunteer organizations. But it has a very unique character. Although it is in Queens and on the water, it is not the twin of Astoria.


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