This was the first time I had been to City Island since 2008 when I visited the island for research for my third book “Dinner at Midnight” in which one of the main characters is a witch that moves to City Island. I had walked every street on the island trying to get a feel for what it might be like to live on the island and what the character may experience. There is a very important scene in the book where her boss comes to the island to search for her and notes to close proximity to Hart Island, New York City’s ‘Potters Field’.
He comes searching for the truth about his unusual employee and finds out too much. I will just leave this as a spoiler as I have not…
The City Island Nautical Museum at 190 Fordham Street
The City Island Nautical Museum
I recently took a trip to City Island, a small community just off the coast off the mainland of The Bronx (which is part of The Bronx) to visit the City Island Nautical Museum. This tiny museum located in the heart of the island is noted for its collection of ship building artifacts and items that are native to a community that once built the vessels for the America’s Cup.
City Island has a rich history in ship building, sail making and fishing it is reflected in the collection of materials in the museum and its archives. The museum really details the growth and history of the boating industry on the island and its importance in the local economy. What I found interesting was the rich history of the creation of the sailing ships for the America’s Cup tournament and how all the winning boats up until the 1980’s were built on the island and the one that lost the cup for us against Australia was the first one not built on the island.
Even Ted Turner’s boat “Courageous” was built on the island. There was a picture of the reunion of the boat winning twice at the museum with the crew’s signatures (The tour guide even said how he ‘freaked out’ members of the New York Yacht Club who did not consider him one of their own). All the sailing vessels lined the walls of the hallway of the museum.
Each room of the museum was dedicated to a different theme. When I toured the Community Room in the back of the museum, it held the records of a lot of old businesses of City Island with pictures and items that were once part of the businesses. There was a small FDNY display, a small WWII display about local residents who fought in the war, wedding garments, maps of the island and a small display of arrowheads.
In the School Room, the concentration was on PS 17, which the museum is now housed in and its history with all the classroom group shot pictures, graduation pictures and a small classroom set up. There were more records and event items of the current PS 175, which is the K-8 school that the residents attend. There were also records and pictures of St. Mary, Star of the Sea School, the former Catholic school that used to be on the island as well.
The Nautical Room needed an overall as there was too much going on in the room with pictures all over the walls, equipment for navigation and for fishing and records of the ship building companies that used to dot the island. There were boats in various shapes and sizes on display and the companies that built them like Wood Yacht, Nevins Yacht and Minneford Yacht. There was also the history of shipbuilding and sail making on the island. The tour guide told me there were no more ship builders on the island, but one sail maker left.
The Library where all the research is done on the island and on the families and businesses that were once here was dominated by yachting pictures and nautical photography. It held all the City Island records and even the ship building plans.
The museum has a lot to see but it needs to be a bit more organized to really showcase the collections properly. Still, it is one of the best museums I have seen with a nautical history theme. The best part is that you can see the whole museum in about an hour and this leaves you time to tour the island and see how the museum better explains why the island is the way it is right now.
The History and set up of the City Island Nautical Museum:
(From the Museum pamphlet)
History of the Museum:
(From the Museum Pamphlet)
The City Island Nautical Museum is located in one of the island’s most picturesque and historic buildings, the former Public School 17, built in 1897 on one of the highest points on the island. When the residents of City Island voted in 1895 to separate from the town of Pelham in Westchester County and to become part of New York City, the City administration built the school, which continued in use until 1975. When the building was sold in 1986, the City reserved space for use by the City Island Historical Society and the Community Center and several old classrooms now serve as galleries for the museum.
The Main Hall and Gallery:
The Main Hall is lined with photographic essays featuring maps, the America’s Cup, City Island’s most beautiful boats, the City Island Bridges and historic buildings as well as a history timeline, models of a minesweeper and several rum runners, built during Prohibition and a handsome wooden kayak built in the 1930’s. The foyer contains the museum’s gift shop, featuring articles for sale such as books, t-shirts, photographs, postcards and nautical gifts and the desk where the docents greet visitors.
The Gallery features display cases with antique shipbuilding and sailmaking tools and the walls are covered with photographs of yachts built or serviced here and portraits of legendary City Islanders who contributed so much to the life and work on the island.
The Walsh Library:
The recently refurbished library features a collection of books devoted to maritime history and many binders and scrapbooks featuring newspaper clippings, postcards and articles about City Island, Pelham Bay Park and Hart Island. There is an extensive selection of nautical magazines, including Yachting, Rudder, Wooden Boat and Classic Yacht, a data base of all boats built on City Island since 1848 and an impressive display of ship models. Special exhibitions regularly mounted in the library feature the work of local artists and photographs documenting aspects of City Island history.
The Nautical Room:
Shipyards, sail lofts, yachts and the people behind them are all honored here. Historical photographs, memorabilia and artifacts fill the room and tell the story of City Island’s rich nautical past. Also on display are tools used by sailmakers and shipbuilders, several ship models and some vintage outboard motors. Of particular interest in the room are several skiffs, a partially completed boat and a Buchman sailing canoe from the early 1930’s (all built on City Island).
Ship building on City Island
The Community Room:
Celebrating City Island from its earliest days, the Community Room displays photographs, maps and memorabilia, including Native American arrowheads found in the area. The walls are covered with images of street scenes, stores, restaurants, private houses, and the waterfront then and now. Displays include a large relief map of City Island in about 1867, a diorama of the Battle of Pell’s Point that took place in October 1776, a niche devoted to City Island’s religious institutions and many antique home furnishings, including sewing machines, an ice box, and a 100-year-old typewriter. A large counter from Gilbert’s Pharmacy serves as a display case in the center of the room.
The School Room:
Student registers, graduation pictures, autograph books, report cards, the old school bell, and the other artifacts tell the story of City Island’s schools from the first schoolhouse built in 1838 to the present school, P.S. 175, built in 1975 and St. Mary, Star of the Sea RC School, which served the island for over 75 years. A section of the room is set up like a traditional school room, and a unique map of the naval training station that was located in Pelham Bay Park from 1917 to 1918 hangs on the wall.