Pelham Bay Park

The Islands of Pelham Bay

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

There are many important islands dotting Pelham Bay as it expands towards Long Island Sound. From this spot on Orchard Beach, one can see Hart Island in the distance, and High Island and the Chimney Sweeps in the foreground.

Hart Island’s 101 acres hold a unique place in Bronx history. The Siwanoy Native American tribe sold the island to Thomas Pell (1613-1699) in 1654, a landowner whose estate encompassed the eastern half of the Bronx and Westchester County. The island was first called Hart Island for a possible game preserve, as “hart” is the middle English word for deer. Oliver Delancey purchased the island in 1774 and named it Spectacle Island for its resemblance to a pair of spectacles. Samuel Rodman (1716-1780) of Rodman’s Neck, John Hunter of Hunter Island, and architect Charles C. Haight all owned Hart Island. Many boxing matches were held on the island, such as the 24-round fight between Irishman James “Yankee” Sullivan and Englishman Bell in 1842.

During the Civil War the island served as training ground and barracks for the federal government. Several soldiers died and were buried on Hart Island until they were interred at the Cypress Hills National Cemetery in 1941. Haight sold the island to the City of New York in 1869 and an industrial school, an almshouse, a mental hospital, and a traffic school were opened soon after. Louisa Van Slyke was the first civilian buried in the Potter’s Field in 1869. Since that time there have been over 500,000 burials. A jail was set up by the Department of Corrections in 1895, and during World War II the prisoners were moved to Riker’s Island so the Navy could use Hart Island for barracks. Hart Island still holds a Potter’s Field for the city.

The 8-acre High Island was part of the Pell Manor purchase in 1654. Siwanoy artifacts have been found on the shore of High Island. A 1713 map refers to the island as Lesser Minniford, with the adjacent City Island as Great Minniford. Captain John Wooley purchased the island in 1762, and he then named the site High Island for its elevated center. The island may have been called Haai Eylandt, or Shark Island, by Dutch settlers. During the Revolutionary War, rock from High Island was used for the construction of L.R. Marshall’s “Hawkswood” estate mansion, the future Colonial Inn, on the tip of Rodman’s Neck. The island then changed ownership many times until 1925 when the Miller family purchased the island and set up 20 bungalows. By 1929, a footbridge connected High Island and City Island. A radio broadcasting company bought the island in 1962, took down the bungalows, and built an automobile bridge to City Island. WCBS and WFAN operate the 529-foot antenna tower.

The Chimney Sweeps are two small islands located north of High Island and west of Hart Island. The origin of the name for the islands is uncertain. Some believe the Chimney Sweeps were named for their similarity to the cleaning implement, while others believe the small isles look like soot-covered bumps. The Chimney Sweeps were owned at different times by Thomas Pell, Oliver Delancey, and John Hunter. Henry D. Carey acquired them in 1896, and Charles Swan purchased them from Carey’s widow in 1914. A German family lived on the Chimney Sweeps in the early 1900s, operating a tavern for local boaters. The Chimney Sweeps were acquired by the City of New York on April 29, 1939, and are now part of Pelham Bay Park.

Directions to Pelham Bay Park

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