Murder in Mariner’s Marsh

Abandoned car in a pit

Mariner’s Marsh, on Staten Island’s North Shore.

At a bend in Staten Island’s North Shore where the Arthur Kill gives way to the Kill van Kull, there’s a strange, desolate landscape that’s equal parts industrial wasteland and pristine wilderness.  Here, an array of factories and freight lines are enveloped by a network of streams, swamps, ponds, and salt marshes, with place names like “Howland Hook” and “Old Place Creek” that wouldn’t feel out of place in a pirate story.

Mariner’s Marsh makes up 107 acres of the area, buffering a dense residential neighborhood from the sprawling New York Container Terminal with a wide expanse of green. Having endured a brief period of industrial use followed by 75 years of abandonment, the resulting wilderness is characterized by the vine-covered relics of factories that thrived on the spot 100 years ago. Even the Parks Department’s official signage describes the landscape as “eerie.” But the text rightfully avoids its darkest chapter, when in 1976 the tragic final act of a forbidden teenage love affair played out among the ruins of Mariner’s Marsh.

Ruin Bridge

A trail leads walkers under an old concrete structure.

The ruins date back to the early 20th century, when the land was occupied by the Milliken Brother’s Structural Iron Works.  Later, the foundry was converted to Downey’s Shipyard, which manufactured war ships, among other vessels.  The factories closed down in the 1940s and have sat abandoned to this day. Wood components of the buildings have completely rotted away, but concrete pylons, pits, and passages remain.  As the buildings deteriorated, the landscape transformed. Today, the former shipyard’s ten man-made basins function as reedy freshwater ponds. Elsewhere, the topography varies from pine and poplar forests to vine-gnarled swamps where wildlife and rare plants thrive.

Bird Blind

A weathered birdwatching blind.

Doll Head

The requisite creepy doll head.

Mariner’s Marsh was acquired by the Parks Department in 1997, but it’s been “closed to the public during environmental investigation” for nearly a decade.  The investigation in question took place in 2006 under the direction of the EPA, which found that a small area of the park contained a high concentration of hazardous materials stemming from its industrial age. Though it appears that some work has been done on the spot, it’s not clear when the park will reopen.  In the meantime, warning signs haven’t stopped neighbors and dedicated bird watchers from enjoying it.  Trails are well-defined and the area is relatively free of garbage, despite the presence of some larger debris.  The east side of Downey Pond is dotted with abandoned hot rods from another era.

Vine Car

One of the park’s many abandoned cars.

Marooned in the marsh

An overturned vehicle marooned in a swamp east of Downey Pond.

Long before Staten Island’s industrial boom, the Lenape Indians camped here to take advantage of the nearby wetlands, where shellfish were plentiful.  Remnants of the wetlands are still visible across Forest Avenue in Arlington Marsh, which is home to some of the last stretches of healthy salt marsh in New York City.  Acquiring it was a major coup for the Parks Department, which plans to keep the 55 acres wild. Here, ghostly remnants of long-forgotten piers and burned out vessels seem oddly in sync with the tidal rhythms of the natural world. At low tide, a boat graveyard comes to the surface in an adjacent cove, where native cordgrass and mussel beds take root in the old hulls of 19th century sailing ships.

Arlington Marsh

An expanse of pilings that once supported massive factory docks.

Oyster Beds

Oyster beds in the hull of a long-abandoned ship.

Old Ship

Fragment of a sailboat at Arlington Marsh.

This post would’ve ended there if I hadn’t come upon a mention of the 1976 murder of Susan Jacobson in connection with the area. Though the scene of the crime is never referred to as Mariner’s Marsh, the description is unmistakable in a New York Times article published in 2011, which begins:

“The 16-year-old boy had settled on a plan on how to kill his girlfriend. There was a blighted section on the north shore of Staten Island called Port Ivory, overgrown coastline facing the industrial banks of New Jersey. The land was pocked with holes leading to small underground rooms, like bunkers.

This abandoned lot was the last thing a 14-year-old girl named Susan Jacobson ever saw as she climbed down into one of those holes with her boyfriend, Dempsey Hawkins, on May 15, 1976. “

In the ruins

Ruins of a system of rails that closely match a description of the murder site.

Included in the article is a scan of a handwritten letter from Hawkins to the reporter in which he details an idyllic romance with Jacobson that ends abruptly following an abortion. In the final paragraph, he goes on, “In came 1976 and the insanity and the whole painful mess I am about to relate succinctly simply because it’s disturbing.  I strangled Susan and concealed her body in a metal barrel in a wooded area across from a Proctor and Gamble factory on Staten Island.

Two years passed before her remains were discovered by a boy playing in the tunnels. He had assumed they were dog bones until a friend spotted Susan’s tennis shoes. Hawkins, now 55, was denied parole for the eighth time in 2012 despite a history of good behavior behind bars. Parole commissioners have repeatedly taken issue with what occurred immediately after the crime. On multiple occasions, Hawkins himself participated in search parties for the missing girl, knowing all the while precisely where the body was hidden.


Icicles stretch into the darkness of the tunnel as vines spiral toward the light.

The tunnel

An arched passageway near the scene of the crime.

Book-Related Events Coming Up:

  • Brooklyn Brainery, April 15th 8:30-10:00, $7 (Sold Out)
  • Dead Horse Bay, May 2nd, @ 12:45 I’ll be leading a walking tour of one of my favorite places in NYC with Untapped Cities
  • Mid-Manhattan Library, May 7th, 6:30-8:00 PM, Free!


9 thoughts on “Murder in Mariner’s Marsh

  1. Fantastic post, Will. I grew up on Staten Island and always enjoy seeing SI pieces. I grew up on the South Shore, so not all that familiar with this location. Does Port Ivory have anything to do with the P & G plant that produced Ivory Soap on Staten Island/ Hope all is well.


    Posted by Frank Brennan | 4-7-15., 8:03 pm
  2. I used to live down the road from there back in the mid 60’s and my friends and I would play there. We knew it was the old Proctor and Gamble factories but those of us in the neighborhood just called it ” the seven hills”, don’t remember why though. We hang out at the smokestack and dare each other to climb it. Those underground rooms filled with water and they had turtles, frogs and small fish. One year some of the kids opened one of the rail cars parked on the tracks and found a box of flares. We thought it was really amazing how you lit the flare and threw it in the water and watched as it burned in the water all the way to the bottom, Little did we know that when we did that it depleted the water of oxygen and the next day when we went back out there we were shocked to see all that was floating on top of the water.


    Posted by Jacob | 11-11-15., 1:54 pm
  3. Is this spot easy to take pictures and explore today?


    Posted by Eric | 5-26-16., 9:27 pm
  4. This is amazing – considering it’s location within an industrialised area. I’m English; looking at your site from across The Pond in dear old Blighty, this ‘abandoned’ area is a prime example of just how hard Mother Nature has to work, in order to recover from our lack of humanity towards her.
    I simply want to thank you for drawing attention to this wondrous area, with some fascinating photographs.


    Posted by dieselestate | 1-29-17., 8:51 pm
  5. I am a Brooklyn native having moved to Staten Island 29 years ago, thus being labeled by native Staten Islanders as a ” transplant “. I live & work in the area close to here . I have spoken to several native Staten Islanders who have told me this area was fenced off for several reasons. One is the deer population out here is out of control. They are out 2-4-7 just marching around scouring for food. Many are hit & killed by traffic as the deer enter the roadways with no rhyme or reason. Along Richmond Terrace & Western Ave they roam freely with heavy truck traffic. They have become quite a hazard for all motorists. The fences do help somewhat to keep them off the roads but they do jump the fences to wander. The woods & especially at the pond in the park was being frequented by transients who were honestly, dangerously aggressive approaching people demanding cash from those just walking through or fishing, enjoying the solitude of the park. A few people were robbed. It was reported that the homeless were living there in the woods posing a great threat to random citizens brave enough to visit the area. I have never walked through the woods as I value my safety though I always wanted to see the beauty of this place, The old buildings , many have been demolished & sites erected for the U.S. Borders & Custom Dept. to store the shipping containers delivered from the Shipping Terminal for searches & some seizures. Homeland Security also has been spotted using part of the old P &G property for some activities. Several stories regarding crime in the woods attribute the area to being fenced off. In the surrounding area other wooded properties are all sold for development with much of the natural wildlife which is thriving being forced into the streets where they mostly get run over. No inch of property out here is sacred to the greedy developers here. A once beautiful safe spacious Island is now a congested drug & crime ridden setting where the natural beauty is so sadly being destroyed for profit. For news about Staten Island which is VERY selectively reported & greatly influenced by law enforcement agencies, one can go online to silive.com. Much that goes on out here is kept quiet by the police & district attorneys office who choose only to make spectacles of those they have a personal agenda/ issue with. Nothing that goes on out here is cut & dry & always is somehow manipulated by those with power & connections. Criminally, a natural beautiful place is being destroyed with development, traffic, drugs, no affordable housing, too few schools & city/state government is at the helm.


    Posted by chris | 2-10-18., 11:15 am


  1. Pingback: Links: Eerie Marshes, Abandoned Power Plants and More! | Historic NYC - 4-8-15.

  2. Pingback: The Eerie Landscape of Abandoned Mariner’s Marsh on Staten Island | Untapped Cities - 4-28-15.

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