Pelham Bay Park

Hunter Island

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

This island is named for John Hunter (d. 1852), whose family owned the land for nearly 50 years. It is located in the northeast corner of Pelham Bay Park, near the popular Orchard Beach.

The Siwanoy Indians, who originally occupied the island, called it Lap-Haa-Waach King, meaning “place of stringing beads,” after the shells they strung together and used for ceremony and currency. In 1654, they sold the land to Thomas Pell (c.1610-1669), for whom Pelham Bay Park is named, and it was called Pell’s Island, and then Pelican Island, until 1804 when John Hunter bought the island for $40,000. He cultivated the land, creating a magnificent garden and mansion. Built in the English Georgian style, the Hunter Mansion held a large collection of fine wines and valuable art. Hunter entertained guests from around the world, including Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, Joseph of Spain, and President Martin Van Buren (1782-1862). Hunter served in the New York State Senate and started the Leather Manufacturer’s National Bank, which became part of Chase National Bank in 1926.

Hunter died in 1852 and left his entire estate to his son Elias. When Elias died in 1865, his son, John III, inherited the land. However, Hunter required in his will that John III inherit the land only if he lived on the island. John III chose to live on Bayard’s Farm in Throgs Neck, and sold Hunter Island to former New York City Mayor Ambrose Kingsland (1804-1878) for $127,501. Ownership then passed through Alvin Higgins, Gardiner Jorden, and Oliver Iselin until 1889, when the City of New York purchased the land for $324,000. Once the city acquired the land, the Society of Little Mothers used the Hunter Mansion as a children’s welfare house.

Originally, Hunter Island was about 215 acres. In 1937, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (1888-1981) decided to dredge the sand of the Rockaways to fill LeRoy’s Bay during the construction of Orchard Beach. The Hunter Mansion, which had fallen into disrepair, was also destroyed during construction. When the $8 million project was finished, Hunter Island was connected to Rodman’s Neck, becoming part of Pelham Bay Park, originally designated parkland in 1888. The newly created land mass resulted in a one-mile crescent beach, a 6,800-car parking lot, a pavilion, bathhouse complex, and promenade.

In 1967, Hunter Island was declared the Hunter Island Marine Zoology and Geology Sanctuary by local law. The land holds the largest continuous oak forest in Pelham Bay Park, including white oaks (Quercus alba), red oaks (Quercus rubra), and black oaks (Quercus velutinaPopulus alba), black cherry (Prunus serotina), white pines (Pinus strobus), Norway spruce (Picea abies), and black locust () trees, as well as traces of John Hunter’s estate garden, which held grape hyacinth (Muscari spp.), periwinkle, daylily (Hemerocallis), and Tartarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tartarica). Within the park are also tidal wetlands and woodlands, the highest point in the park (90 feet above sea level), and the park’s oldest oaks, which tower over a great number of rare native plants such as alumroot, stargrass, wood-betony, and wild geraniums (geranium maculatum). Much of Hunter Island’s natural features are found along the Kazimiroff Nature Trail, named in 1985 for Dr. Theodore Kazimiroff, a Bronx historian and champion of wetlands preservation.

Directions to Pelham Bay Park

Know Before You Go

Nature Centers
Pelham Bay Nature Center

Pelham Bay Nature Center is currently closed to the public.

Nature Centers
Orchard Beach Nature Center

Orchard Beach Nature Center is closed to the public.

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