City Island History
City Island is a small community at the edge of New York City located just beyond Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx and surrounded by the waters of western Long Island Sound and Eastchester Bay. With Execution Light to the northeast and Stepping Stones Lighthouse to the south, City Island has a rich nautical history, much of it preserved by the Historical Society and Nautical Museum. The island, variously called Minnewit, Mulberry, or Great Minnefords Island, was part of the 50,000-acre tract that Thomas Pell (1613–1669) purchased in 1654 from the Lenape Indians, who frequented the island to fish and hunt. In 1685 Sir John Pell, Thomas Pell’s heir, sold Great Minnefords Island to John Smith of Bruckland (Brooklyn), and from 1700 to 1761, the island changed hands several times. In 1761 Benjamin Palmer purchased the island for a syndicate whose intention was to transform it into a commercial center that would rival Manhattan. The island was renamed New City Island in honor of this development project, and a ferry was established to the mainland in 1763. The project was abandoned during the Revolutionary War, when the British occupied the island; it was revived in the 1790s but ultimately failed to materialize.
In 1807 most of the island, which was part of the town of Pelham, belonged to Nicholas Haight, who sold 42 acres at the island’s southernmost tip to George Horton in 1819. Horton, superintendent of highways for the Town of Pelham, promoted the building of the five streets, including Pilot, Pell, and Schofield, as well as Main Street (now City Island Avenue). The original Horton house, although much changed, still exists as the Lobster Box Restaurant. During the first half of the 19th century, parts of the island changed hands many times as they were subdivided and sold.
Many of the first English settlers of City Island were farmers and fishermen. Its first commercial enterprise was a solar salt works that produced salt from evaporated seawater in the 1820s but it did not succeed because of difficulty in shipping to the mainland, as there was no bridge. Around 1830, Orrin Fordham, a shipbuilder from Connecticut, devised a system of “planting” oysters to increase the yield, and he revolutionized the business. Oysters were the most popular seafood in the second half of the 19th century, and nearly 100 City Island families earned a considerable living harvesting them. There were many small yards serving the oyster boats throughout the 19th century, but as the oyster industry began to fail, Island yards turned to boat building. The first major boat builder, the David Carll Shipyard, was established in 1862 on the site of what is now Consolidated Yachts, and after the Civil War, became known for the construction and rebuilding of ships and luxury and racing yachts, and other commercial boatyards were soon established.
Because City Island was ideally situated to service schooners traveling between New York and points north and south, it became an important shipbuilding and yachting center during the 19th and 20th centuries. Hell 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.
The two world wars brought about the conversion from yacht building to the construction of subchasers, tugs, Vosper-style P.T. boats, landing craft, and minesweepers for the U. S. government. After World War II, yachting returned and with it the building of several 12-meter sloops that successfully defended the America’s Cup, 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 the presence of yacht clubs, sailing schools, marinas, sailmakers, fishing and lobster boats, plus marine supply and repair shops, reflect City Island’s role as a nautical community.
Until its residents voted in 1895 to become part of New York City, City Island remained part of the town of Pelham in Westchester County. David Carll build a wooden toll bridge (from timbers of the decommissioned battleship North Carolina) in 1873, but in 1901, New York City constructed a new steel bridge, which opened in 1901 (see photo above) and was demolished in 2016. Limited access to the island has discouraged dense development (though it encourages dense traffic on weekends in spring and summer), and as a result the island has retained its small-town atmosphere. Boats are no longer built here, but yacht clubs, marinas, and popular seafood restaurants continue to play a role in the island’s economy.