In colonial times Shooter’s Island was used as a hunting preserve. Its role changed during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), as George Washington used the island as a drop-off point for messages, and the place became a haven for spies. Following the Revolutionary War, the island’s large oyster beds were harvested so frequently that they were soon exhausted from over harvesting. In the late 1800s the island saw human interest on a large scale.
In the 1860s David Decker established a small shipyard on the island. Other companies soon followed, such as the Shooter’s Island Petroleum Refining and Storage Company, and the Townsend-Downey Shipbuilding Company, which built cruising and racing yachts, including a lavish racing yacht for Kaiser Wilhelm II, emperor of Germany. The 1902 launch of this great boat attracted President Theodore Roosevelt and two thousand other guests.
During World War I (1914-1918), the island’s industries were turned to more utilitarian goals. The Standard Shipbuilding Company employed nine thousand men to produce steel cargo ships; the massive size of the shipyards eventually required thirty acres of fill to accommodate the expanding business. After the war, operations came to a halt, and the island became a dump for derelict vessels; the surrounding waters became too polluted for even birds to wade. The island was ignored until the 1960s when a local politician proposed to obliterate Shooter’s Island to make ship navigation easier.
Luckily the proposal was discredited and with the Clean Water Act of 1972 it was only a matter of time before the island became a bird’s paradise. At least seven species of wading birds breed here, and forty-three species have been seen on the island. Because of its importance as a habitat and breeding ground for birds, Shooter’s Island was assigned to Parks on March 3, 1994 as a bird sanctuary. Nine of the island’s 43 acres belong to New Jersey (Bayonne owns 7.5 acres, Elizabeth owns 1.5 acres). New York State paid New Jersey $30,000 for the right to manage the whole of the island in perpetuity. The island is closed to the public and is only visited by scientists and government employees. The New York Audubon Society is responsible for wildlife research on the island.
Some of Shooter’s Island beautiful avian guests include glossy ibis, black-crowned night herons, yellow-crowned night herons, snowy egrets, great egrets, and cattle egrets. Although cattle egrets come from Africa, snowy egrets and great egrets are native to America and were once hunted to near extinction. Fortunately, legislation protecting egrets and their breeding grounds-such as Shooter’s Island-has effectively fought extinction and their numbers are increasing.