City Island is a neighborhood in the northeastern Bronx in New York City, located on an island of the same name approximately 1.5 miles (2.4 km) long by 0.5 miles (0.80 km) wide.
City Island is located at the extreme western end of Long Island Sound, south of Pelham Bay and east of Eastchester Bay. At one time the island was incorporated within the boundaries of Pelham, Westchester County, New York, but the island is now part of the City of New York.
City Island is part of the Pelham Islands, a group of islands that once belonged to Thomas Pell. The body of water between City Island and the even smaller, uninhabited Hart Island to the east is known as City Island Harbor. The small island adjacent to the northeast is High Island.
The Stepping Stones Light, marking the main shipping channel into New York, is off the southern tip of City Island, near the Long Island shore.
Originally inhabited by the Siwanoy band of Lenape Indians, City Island later was settled by Europeans as part of property and estate bought by English nobleman Thomas Pell in 1654. Prior to that, English settlers led by Anne Hutchinson (seeking religious freedom) settled in an area nearby on the river (now known as the Hutchinson River) in 1642.
After changing hands several times, in 1761 the island (at that time known as Minefer’s Island), was bought by Benjamin Palmer of New York. Up to this point the island had been inhabited by only a few homes and farms. It had a population of about 1,000 people, who tended farms and livestock.
Palmer had the vision of developing the island into a port, which could rival that of New York. He knew that ships heading north and south passed City Island using Long Island Sound as a safe inshore waterway. He envisioned shipyards, and stores that could cater to the ships. He went as far as to have the island mapped out in different plots designated as shipyards, docks, business, farms, homes, schools, and houses of worship, along with streets, paths, and access routes.
Benjamin Palmer appealed to the British Crown and received letters patent that covered the ownership of waterfront properties 400 feet out from the high tide mark under water and around the perimeter of the Island. This patent, known as the “Palmer Grant” is unique to City Island; it has been contested in courts since, but has always been upheld Palmer also is responsible for changing the name from Minefer’s Island to City Island in anticipation of things to come. Palmer’s vision never fully materialized, however, as the timing just before the American Revolution halted all progress, and the war depleted the capital of Palmer and his investors
It would be another sixty years before the island again started to be developed when oystermen, pilots of Hell Gate, a set of nearby narrows, and eventually shipbuilders arrived and introduced these industries.
In 1819, City Island was annexed to the town of Pelham, Westchester County. It narrowly voted to become a part of the City of New York in 1895, in exchange for a new bridge to the mainland, and was consolidated as part of the Bronx in 1898.
The island continued to host harbor defenses through the early 20th century. In the mid-20th century, City Island developed as a shipbuilding community, before becoming a day-trippers’ destination.
City Island has generally remained sparsely developed with a suburban feel. A 43-unit condo complex called On the Sound, built in 2015, was the first major residential project on the island since around 2000.
According to local tradition, anyone actually born on the island is known as a “clam-digger.” A City Island resident not born on the island is known as a “mussel-sucker.”
In 1891 The Rudder magazine published in its “On Long Island Sound” column a remarkable preview of yachting history:
“There is, perhaps, no place in this country better situated, or in possession of more advantages and facilities for yacht building, hauling out for repairs, and storing for the winter, than City Island. It is virtually the yachting center of New York. No yachtsman in this vicinity will dispute the fact that the Sound has superior advantages over any other place in New York City for yachting, which alone proves that someday City Island will be the great building place of these waters. Already three or four more or less prominent builders have located there, and the boats built by them are familiar to all interested yachtsmen. . . . When the march of improvements reaches City Island, look out for wonderful developments.”
City Island and the America’s Cup
The America’s Cup is the oldest international sporting trophy. In 1851, the yacht America beat the best of the British fleet during the World’s Fair and won a sterling silver trophy that would become known as the America’s Cup (named after the yacht, not the country).
The first official challenge took place in 1870 in New York Harbor and was won by the American yacht Magic (the aging America finished fourth). Originally built in 1857 in Philadelphia, Magic had been completely rebuilt by David Carll in 1869 (lengthened and widened with increased draft) and converted to a centerboard schooner before winning the first defense of the America’s Cup.
And thus began the longest winning streak in the history of sport, a 132-year stretch of domination that saw boats representing the United States successfully defend the trophy 23 more times through 1980 — until 1983, when Australia II became the first successful challenger to win the trophy.
During the 1890s, many of the America’s Cup defenders, contenders, and challengers, including Vigilant, Defender, and Columbia, plus Shamrock I and Shamrock II, were serviced and stored at City Island by both the Hawkins and Piepgras yards. During the first half of the 1900s, the America’s Cup defender Reliance was serviced, stored, and ultimately broken up at the Robert Jacob Shipyard. Defiance and Vanitie were serviced at City Island yards, and the challengers Shamrock III and Shamrock IV were also serviced and stored at the Jacob yard.
From 1903 to 1958, every America’s Cup defender carried an inventory of Ratsey & Lapthorn sails, including Reliance (1903), Resolute (1920), Enterprise (1930), Rainbow (1934), Ranger (1937), and Columbia (1958). In addition, between the 1890s and 1980, alterations, rigging work, and new spars were provided for the contenders by many City Island concerns, including Hawkins, Piepgras, B. F. Wood, Robert Jacob, Ratsey & Lapthorn, Henry B. Nevins, Charles Ulmer, and Kretzer Boat Works.
Between the years 1935 and 1980, twenty 12-meter yachts were built in America, twelve of them at City Island. Eight were contenders for America’s Cup defense (Vim 12 US/15, Columbia 12 US/16, Constellation 12 US/20, Intrepid 12 US/22, Courageous 12 US/26, Enterprise 12 US/27, Independence 12 US/28, and Freedom 12 US/30). Of these, five were defenders in seven America’s Cup campaigns, Columbia in 1958, Constellation in 1964, Intrepid in 1967 and again in 1970, Courageous in 1974 and again in 1977, and Freedom in 1980.
The 110-year string of 24 successful campaigns to defend the Cup began with Magic, completely rebuilt on City Island in 1870, and ended with Freedom, built on City Island in 1980. Ironically, in 1983, when City Island had no connection with the defender, America suffered her first loss.
This story is courtesy the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, founded in 1977 to recover, maintain and disseminate the record of Roosevelt Island’s heritage from colonial times to the present. Visit their website at www.rihs.us.
Images, from above: Map showing City Island; Map showing City Island Harbor; Belden’s Point on City Island in 1910; illustration of Henry B. Nevin’s Yacht Builders; and America’s Cup.