In the 1840s and 1850s wealthy oyster fishing boat captains lived in an eccentric group of homes that faced the Kill Van Kull on Richmond Terrace west of the Bayonne Bridge on the north shore where oyster sloops were moored. A couple of them are still there between DeHart and Union Aves. One, The Stephen Barnes House, is a landmarked 1853 Italianate/Gothic residence, and an amazing survivor.
Mariners Marsh is a nature preserve in the far western corner of the island at the west end of Richmond Terrace. It’s a marsh and a wooded swamp and, while nature-lovers can glimpse dozens of species of flora and fauna, there’s something here for the urban artifact aficionado as well. Mariners Marsh had a former life as an iron foundry and Downey Shipyard between 1907 and 1931. The wooden parts of the buildings are long departed, but the concrete sections are still lying around like animal carcasses. Monument Swamp is cleverly named for the concrete hulks of the old foundries. It’s been closed to the public the past decade or so.
New Brighton was originally envisaged in 1834 by a group of wealthy businessmen headed at first by entrepreneur Thomas Davis. The street pattern, curving around the high hills fronting Staten Island’s waterfront, survives to the present; the organization’s name, the New Brighton Association (named in honor of Brighton, a British resort town), became the name of the entire region, which stretches from St. George on the east to Hamilton Park on the west. West Brighton, meanwhile, is further west, with the neighborhood a wedge defined by Clove Rd. on the west and Forest Ave. on the north.
There was a time when Staten Island had separate towns, as Brooklyn and Queens had before consolidation into Greater New York in 1898. The island was divided into four separate towns beginning in the 1680s: Westfield, Northfield, Southfield, and Castleton, and in 1860, Middletown was created from portions of Castleton and Southfield, and the village of Edgewater was created within Middletown in 1866. Only a few street names are reminders of the existence of these former towns, including the most prominent, Castleton Ave., seen here.
Castleton, on the NE part of the island including New Brighton and St. George, was named in the 1680s for the manor of Governor Thomas Dongan, who named it for his home Castletown, in the town Kildrought (now Celbridge) in County Kildare, Ireland.
New Dorp is a transliteration of Dutch nieuw dorp, or “new town,” so called because it was settled in 1670, 10 years after nearby “oude dorp,” a name remembered in the street name Old Town Rd. The town grew up around the junction of Richmond and Amboy Rds., where there were a proliferation of taverns serving stagecoaches and horse-drawn carriages. The Vanderbilt family was prominent and owned several racing and trotting tracks. The family helped found the New Dorp Moravian Church and Cemetery along Richmond and Todt Hill Rds.; the Vanderbilt Mausoleum, built for $1 million and designed by Richard Morris Hunt, can be found at the cemetery’s rear section.
Nearby on Richmond Rd. between New Dorp La. and Amboy Rd. is the Gustav Mayer House, pictured above, an ornate, suburban “villa,” built in 1857 in the Italianate style, set on a knoll and boasting a cupola that offers views of Raritan Bay and a full-width front veranda. For more than a century, until 1990, it was occupied by family members of Gustav Mayer, a wealthy, German-born businessman who was a major innovator in the cookie industry, as the inventor of the Nabisco Sugar Wafer. Much of its Italianate features have remained intact, but a paint job would help.
After the Revolutionary War ended, New York City virtually divested itself of royal place names, though Prince St. in Manhattan and Kings Highway in Brooklyn are still there. This small neighborhood in southeastern Staten Island, according to tradition, is so-called because before the War, a British prince, the Duke of Nassau, who later became William III, once anchored a vessel in the bay at the foot of today’s Seguine Ave. The name of the area is properly spelled with an apostrophe, though variants due to mispronunciation like “Princess Bay” have appeared in print. The French Huguenot Seguine family were early settlers in the area: Seguine Ave., Prince’s Bay’s major north-south thoroughfare, is lined south of Hylan Boulevard with craggy osage orange trees, planted by the Seguines at the encouragement of family friend Frederick Law Olmsted, the co-creator of Central and Prospect Parks, who lived nearby in Eltingville.
Chief attractions in the area are Wolfe’s Pond Park and Joseph H. Seguine’s grand Greek revival mansion, seen here, built in 1840, reminiscent of Southern plantation houses. Joseph Seguine was a prosperous oyster trader, entrepreneur, farmer, and first president of Staten Island Railroad, which still has a Prince’s Bay stop.
Joseph Seguine (1801-1856) was also the president of the Staten Island Oil and Candle Company. He could walk to his place of business, since it was located in a large complex on Purdy Place just a couple of blocks away from the mansion. In 1981, George Burke purchased the house and magnificently rehabilitated it. He donated it to the NYC Parks Department in 1989; the city will use the mansion as a museum after Burke’s decease. The house is open to the public on limited occasions such as Open House New York weekend in October.
Formerly Peterstown, in the 1880s, the neighborhood along Staten Island’s north shore came to be called Rosebank presumably for an abundance of rose bushes and its location on the shore. It has always been known for its Italian population; immigrants began arriving here as early as the 1880s. The present population numbers about 16,000. A substantial part of the shorefront east of Bay St. was taken up by a maritime quarantine station from 1873-1971; the site is now occupied by Coast Guard housing. Rosebank is nationally famed for the presence of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto on Amity Place as well as the Alice Austen House, seen here, the longtime residence of the famed amateur photographer.
Under its placid veneer of suburban life, there’s over 300 years of history in Rossville on the south shore. The British arrived as early as 1684 and in the early days the area was called Smoking Point and later, Blazing Star, for a long-lost tavern (a separate Staten Island locale was called Bull’s Head, after another such tavern).
By the 1830s the southwest Staten Island area was named for a local wealthy landowner, William Ross (who built a replica of Windsor Castle near the Blazing Star tavern). The small town was known before the Revolution by the picturesque name Blazing Star. Ferries, and later steamships whose wrecks are still sinking in the Arthur Kill, connected it with New Jersey. After the West Shore Expressway was built in the 1970s, it spurred development south of the highway, with street after street filled with nearly-identical houses. North of the expressway are shipwrecks (the Witte scrap metal business, featuring dozens of sinking vessels in the Arthur Kill, is pictured here), auto repair shops, abandoned cemeteries, and assorted detritus that’s been there for decades and may last decades more. Today Rossville is fairly compact and can be defined by the Arthur Kill waterway, the West Shore Expressway, the South Shore Golf Course and Woodrow Rd.
—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013)