City Island is a quaint islet and seaside neighborhood that is approximately 1-1/2 miles long by 1/2 mile wide that once was incorporated within the boundaries of Pelham Westchester County, NY and is now part of the New York City borough of the Bronx. It is located at the far western end of Long Island Sound, south of Pelham Bay and east of Eastchester Bay. The body of water that lay between City Island and the smaller and uninhabited Hart Island to the east is identified as City Island Harbor. Another island adjacent and to the northeast is High Island.
The Stepping Stones Lighthouse marks the main shipping channel into New York Harbor from the Sound and it lies off the southern tip of City Island near the Long Island shoreline. Stepping Stones Light was built in 1877 and automated in 1997 and is a Victorian-style lighthouse, is square-shaped, constructed of red brick and it stands one-and-a-half stories or 46 feet high. It has a 12” dia. fifth-order Fresnel lens with a green light occulting every 4 seconds with the visibility range of 8 nautical miles. The light is in current operation and under the management of the United States Coast Guard. Therefore, it is not open to the public.
City Island has a population of approximately 4,362, and its land area is 0.395 sq. mi. It was initially inhabited by the Siwanoy tribe of Lenape Indians that were a tribe of the Wappinger Confederacy and spoke the Delaware language of the Algonquian language family. By the mid-17th century, when their territory became fiercely contested between Dutch and English colonial interests, the Siwanoy were settled along the East River and Long Island Sound between Hell Gate and Norwalk, Connecticut, a territory that included eastern parts of what became the Bronx and Westchester County in New York and southwestern Fairfield County in Connecticut. City Island later was settled by Europeans as part of the property and the estate bought by English nobleman Thomas Pell in 1654. And, prior to those English settlers led by Anne Hutchinson who was a Puritan spiritual adviser and mother of 15 who settled with her younger children in 1642 near a river and ancient landmark called Split Rock. The river is now known as the Hutchinson River.
Subsequently, after changing hands several times and being called Minnewit, Mulberry, or Great Minneford’ s Island, and finally Minefer’s Island in 1761, it was bought by Benjamin Palmer of New York. It had only a few homes and farms on it then and had a population of only 1000 people who tended the farms and livestock. Palmer had envisioned developing the island into a seaport to rival that of New York City because he had observed that many ships heading north and south through Long Island Sound and using it as a safe inshore waterway passed by City Island. So, he imagined shipyards and stores that could cater to the ships and their passengers and crews. And so, he went as far as to have the island mapped out into individual plots and designated as shipyards, docks, business, farms, homes, schools, etc., along with streets, paths, and access routes. Then, Palmer appealed to the British Crown for and was granted “letters patent” that are a type of legal instrument in the form of a published written order issued by a monarch, president, or other head of state, generally granting an office, right, monopoly, title, or status to a person or corporation. His granted the ownership of all waterfront properties 400 feet out from the high tide mark underwater and around the perimeter of the Island. This patent, known as the “Palmer Grant” is unique to City Island. And, although it has since been contested in the courts, has always been upheld.
Palmer also is credited for changing the island’s name from Minefer’s Island to City Island in anticipation of future development. Nevertheless, his vision never fully materialized due to the onset of the American Revolution that froze all development, and the war depleted Palmer’s and his associates’ investment capital. Consequently, it would be sixty more years until City Island again began to be developed when oystermen, ship pilots of Hell’s Gate, and later shipbuilders arrived and introduced those types of industries and commerce to the island. Its first commercial enterprise was a solar salt works that produced salt from evaporated seawater in the 1820s but it failed to flourish because of the difficulty in shipping to the mainland, as there wasn’t a bridge available. Later on, however, City Island did become connected with the mainland by a toll bridge in 1873, which became a free bridge when the eastern Bronx was annexed by New York City in 1895. But still, the limited access to the island discouraged dense development, and as a result, the island has retained its small-town aura to today. Though, numerous yacht clubs, marinas, and popular seafood restaurants continue to play a role in the island’s economy.
In 1830, Orrin Fordham a shipbuilder from Connecticut devised a system of “planting” oysters that increased their harvest and that revolutionized the industry. Oysters were very popular seafood and a staple in the second half of the 19th century and nearly 100 City Island families earned a substantial living by harvesting them. Therefore, many small yards serviced the oyster boats throughout the 19th century, but as the oyster industry began to fail the City Island yards turned to boat building for their survival. And, the first major boat builder was the David Carl Shipyard established in 1862 on the site of what is now Consolidated Yachts on Pilot St. Subsequently the yards became renowned for the construction and rebuilding of ships, and luxury and racing yachts leading to additional commercial boatyards being established.
And, because City Island was ideally situated to service sailing schooners traveling between New York and points north and south, it became an important shipbuilding and yachting center during the 19th and 20th centuries. Thus, Hell’s Gate pilots from City Island escorted ships down the East River to the port of New York and back, and many wealthy New Yorkers kept their yachts on City Island as well.
The shipbuilding industry on City Island continued to prosper and during the First and Second World Wars City Island, it morphed to producing mainly minesweepers and tugboats, as well as many of the landing craft employed in beach invasions. Then In the post-war period yacht production reemerged and City Island has produced seven Americas Cup-winning yachts including Columbia US 12 #16 in 1958, Constellation US 12 #20 in 1964, Intrepid US 12 #22 in 1967 and 1970, Courageous US 12 #26 in 1974 and 1977, and Freedom US 12 #30 in 1980.
Today, most businesses are clustered along the central street of City Island Avenue. Among them are two small supermarkets, a gas station, a pharmacy, a bank, a hardware store, and a variety of other small shops. The island is most renowned for its plentiful seafood restaurants and antique stores that line both sides of the avenue and are mostly frequented by summertime weekenders. And, although a few of the restaurants close down during the winter months, most are open year-round. Interestingly, according to local tradition, anyone actually born on the island is known as a “clamdigger.” And, a City Island resident not born on the island is known as a “musselsucker.”
The City Island Nautical Museum displays maritime artifacts and antiques. It is located at 190 Fordham Street and is open on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and other times by appointment only; the building was PS17 in its prior life.
The island has three yacht clubs located on the Eastchester Bay side of the island; they are, from north to south, the Harlem Yacht Club, the City Island Yacht Club, and the Morris Yacht and Beach Club. The Touring Kayak Club is on the west side of the island and Barron’s Boatyard, the North Minneford Yacht Club and the South Minneford Yacht Club are on the east side of the island. There are two active sail lofts UK-Halsey and Doyle, and the island also has several commercial marinas. As well, there are what are called “special anchorages” where boats of all sizes are freely moored or anchored, and there are many docks with boat slips available. Too, there are many large piers around the island that can accommodate larger ships. A small fleet of head boats that takes parties of paying passengers on fishing trips to Long Island Sound and smaller boats are also available for rent by the day. However, the private sail and power boating industry has been declining in recent years as boatyards are being sold and being converted into condominiums.
The rich seafaring history of the City island has been chronicled in the books; Tales of The Clamdiggers by Alice Payne, and in City Island and Orchard Beach (Images of America) by Catherine A. Scott.
In other literature, James Gregory Kingston’s novel, The City Island Messenger, uses City Island as the backdrop for a story about a young boy delivering Western Union telegrams that break the sad news of soldiers’ deaths to families. And, in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Bluebeard, the character Dan Gregory states that his 80-foot yacht, the Ararat, was dry-docked on City Island.
Also, City Island has an impressive collection of Hollywood movie credits, including the very early film shot in a City Island studio, Richard III in 1912, it is the oldest surviving American feature-length film.
Other notable films include; City Island, starring Andy García and Julianna Margulies, and is set on City Island and was shot there. Also, Butterfield 8 starring Elizabeth Taylor; Long Day’s Journey into Night with Katharine Hepburn; Awakenings with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams; A Bronx Tale with De Niro and Chazz Palminteri, which featured the City Island Bridge and one scene filmed in the parking lot of Johnny’s Reef Restaurant; The Royal Tenenbaums was filmed at Delmar’s Point, which is the mansion where Long Day’s Journey into Night was filmed. Louis Lombardi shot many scenes from Dough Boys on the island. And, Michael Douglas came to City Island with actor Danny DeVito to film Solitary Man in the City Island Diner.
As well, numerous television shows have featured or been shot on City Island. For example, Car 54, Where Are You? Comedian Jerry Seinfeld visited City Island Diner on the island with Ricky Gervais in one of the webisodes of his Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Coronet Blue, the Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode “Sound Bodies”, which was based on a real-life story of several local teenagers who drowned in Long Island Sound near City Island. The Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode “Melancholy Pursuit” partially takes place on City Island. And, the fictional city of Hyde in the series finale of the US version of Life on Mars was filmed on City Island.
Although City Island is located adjacent to the densely populated U.S. mainland of the Bronx NY it has maintained a unique small-town atmosphere comparable to that of a New England fishing village. However, its ambiance is paradoxically sustained and endangered by the crowds that flock to the island on weekends. So, like many of their fellow maritime towns farther up the coast, City Island residents are endeavoring to strike a balance that will permit the community to flourish risking of its uniqueness and charm.