From St. George, ride the Staten Island Railroad to the end of the line and you’re only a short walk from the southernmost point in New York State, at the mouth of the Arthur Kill. The name of the waterway stirs the imagination, but its Dutch origins are benign. Achter kill means back river or channel, in reference to its location at the “back” of Staten Island. Intriguingly, the route was carved out by an ancestral iteration of the Hudson River. Glacial activity altered the course to its current position, but the vestigial strait remained, isolating a sneaker-shaped land mass. Staten Island was born.
A stone’s throw from the so-called “south pole” of New York State, there’s an impressive bit of Revolutionary War history known as The Conference House. The name refers to a peace conference held there on September 11, 1776 between British commander Lord Howe and representatives of the Continental Congress, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams among them. Over the course of the three hour meeting, Howe urged the men to put aside their little rebellion. (They declined to do so.)
True to its contrarian nature even in revolutionary times, the borough was a loyalist stronghold, warmly greeting British troops upon their arrival. Hundreds of islanders enlisted in the British army as the conflict escalated. George Washington himself called the Staten Islanders “our most inveterate enemies.” John Adams was less generous, labeling them “an ignorant, cowardly pack of scoundrels, whose numbers are small, and their spirit less.”
Tracing the Arthur Kill past the quaint historic houses of Tottenville, we enter into wilder territory and arrive at the base of Outerbridge Crossing, which spans the Arthur Kill between Charleston, SI and Perth Amboy, NJ. New Yorkers could be forgiven for assuming the name refers to its status as the most remote bridge in New York City, but it’s actually named for Eugenius Harvey Outerbridge, the first chairman of the Port Authority of New York and a resident of the borough. “Outerbridge Bridge” wouldn’t do, so they deemed it a “Crossing.”
Wandering these regions can be treacherous if you don’t plan ahead. As the tide ebbs and flows, open shoreline gives way to mud and water, leaving you with no way out but the head-high reeds of the marsh. In nesting season, geese are liable to attack (speaking from experience here). But for those willing to brave the wilderness, there are rewards. The fabric of the city dissolves on the outermost edges of Staten Island, and the ground is a layer cake of archaeological finds.
One area of interest at the foot of Ellis Street marks the site of The Atlantic Terra Cotta Company, which made colorful architectural ornaments for many notable city buildings, including the Flatiron and the Woolworth. It closed down in the 1940s and was demolished soon after, but much of the old factory is still there in the form of rubble. Enterprising beachcombers can still find Atlantic Terra Cotta tiles if they hunt long enough. (The old adage “leave no stone unturned” applies here, as many of the most intricate pieces are one-sided.) I managed to find a beautiful acorn-themed tile with an ATLANTIC stamp, but plain bricks were more readily available.
Many of them are inscribed with the names of long-gone manufacturers, resembling fragments of time-worn tombstones. Thanks to these markings and a devoted online community of brick collectors, it’s a simple matter to pinpoint their origins. The “RICHMOND” and “ATLANTIC” bricks were made in Staten Island, but others trace their ancestry to Brooklyn or New Jersey. Some are from much farther afield—“RELIANCE” Bricks hail from Texas; “MO REX” from a town called Mexico, Missouri. How all of them ended up here is a bit of a masonry mystery.
Just inland, marshes give way to roving woodlands that hold secrets of their own. If you look into any patch of untended forest, and many of the front yards, you’ll find a wealth of rusty relics of the one man’s treasure variety. While there isn’t much history to glean from them, they are fascinating to look at. A natural area known as Sharrot’s Shoreline was once filled with mountains of scrap metal and scores of abandoned cars. Only a few remain today after cleanup efforts by the city. What’s left is a serene nature reserve that would thrill most bird-watchers, though they might have a hard time finding a way in.
Nearby, a deserted graveyard of auto parts marked one of my most surprising finds to date. Chief among the relics was a group of corroded buses, apparently from the 1960’s. While the scene has an ancient air, the plot was the site of a multi-generational family business until quite recently, according to a neighbor who gave me a stern warning for trespassing on private property. (For that reason, I wouldn’t advise seeking them out for yourself.)
This has been the second installment of a series of posts on the edges of Staten Island. Next up, we’ll continue our trip down Arthur Kill Road, delving deeper into the history of Charleston and the “haunted” Kreischer Mansion. See more photos from the project here.
At Kreischer Street, Arthur Kill Road verges sharply right and branches into a tangle of dead-ends, hemmed in by woods and wetlands. The route winds into the heart of Charleston, Staten Island, a sensible industrial district given to sudden flights of fancy. Out here, stables and shooting ranges rub elbows with haunted mansions and sunken ships. It’s equal parts Wild West and Gothic Horror.
In this corner of the borough, street names and gravestones echo with the same few family names, but one name—Kreischer—rises above the rest. It’s written on the very building blocks of the oldest structures, etched into the walls of the local tavern and stamped into the sidewalks. Because the town was built of Kreisher bricks, by Kreischer bricks, and for Kreischer bricks. And before it was Charleston, it was Kreischerville.
Born in a small Bavarian village, Balthasar Kreischer emigrated to New York City in 1836, a year after a great fire destroyed much of Lower Manhattan. He quickly found employment rebuilding the burned district, taking a special interest in the construction of baker’s ovens. With a business partner he opened a brick works on the Lower East Side in 1845. His fire-proof bricks were made to withstand high temperatures in chimneys and furnaces, and required a specific type of raw material known as “fire clay.” Following the discovery of rich clay deposits in southwest Staten Island in the 1850s, he relocated his business to be close to the source.
The new location was a secluded section of the borough called Androvetteville, after a prominent local family. Balthasar bought up the clay pits and the waterfront on which to build his factory, and within a few decades the sleepy community of oystermen and mariners grew into an industrial boomtown, producing 20,000 bricks a day. As the brick works prospered, the neighborhood came to be known as Kreischerville.
Kreischer took a paternalistic approach to leadership, providing housing for his workers and monetary aid during periods of sickness or financial distress. In return, he expected his employees to maintain appearances, keeping their yards and houses tidy for the benefit of all. Four of the original worker’s houses are still standing today, designated New York City landmarks in 1994. Some appear to be unoccupied, with rusted out cars from a bygone era parked in the driveway. The scene is startlingly out of step with the present, right down to the sidewalks. (They were paved with Kreischer bricks over a century ago.)
Kreischer retired in 1878, ceding control of the company to his three sons. Edward and Charles stayed in Staten Island and a third brother took the helm of the company’s headquarters in Manhattan. Shortly before his death in 1886, Balthasar gifted the town a new church edifice, which is still in existence, and commissioned a pair of mirror-image Victorian mansions on a hilltop overlooking the factory, intended as residences for Charles and Edward. Only Charles’ house remains today—a fire claimed Edward’s in the 1930s.
Edward himself met a tragic end in 1894, when he was found dead not far from the factory of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Publicly, his brother George was at a loss for what had led to Edward’s decision. But friends of the deceased told a different story, pointing to friction between the two brothers. After Balthasar’s death, the business was divided equally between his five children, but Charles had moved quickly to acquire a controlling stake in the company by purchasing the interest of his two sisters.
Diminishing returns at Kreischer and Sons may have been another factor. The factory was sold in foreclosure in 1899 and closed in 1906. (Many workers found employment at the nearby Atlantic Terra Cotta Works, outlined in a previous post.) As time wore on, “Kreischerville” was renamed “Charleston” in response to anti-German sentiment during World War I. Nature gradually reclaimed the old clay quarries, transforming them into small ponds which became the namesake of Clay Pit Ponds State Park. Meanwhile, Kreischer House stood watch on Kreischer Hill, becoming a New York City landmark in 1968.
As the building aged and a gulf of time distanced Edward’s untimely end, the house gradually ripened into the “haunted mansion” it was always destined to be. But it wasn’t until 2005 that its status was cemented into the public consciousness. That year, Kreischer Mansion gained notoriety as the setting of a real-life horror story—a gruesome mob murder perpetrated by none other than the house’s caretaker.
The man was paid $8000 to carry out a Sopranos-style hit of a Bannano crime family associate who’d run afoul of the group. The New York Times reported the grisly details in 2006: “The victim was lured to a secluded landmark, a Victorian mansion on a hilltop on Staten Island, but he proved hard to kill. When an effort to strangle him failed, he was stabbed, then dragged to a nearby pond and drowned. His body was dismembered with hacksaws and incinerated in the mansion’s furnace.”
The drowning actually occurred not in a pond, but in a small reflecting pool in front of the mansion, lined with yellow Kreischer bricks.
Unaware of the incident, the estate’s owner moved forward with renovations that were already underway at the time of the murder. By the time the F.B.I. got wind of the killing and moved to search the mansion for evidence, the furnace had been replaced. The Ohio-based developer had planned to build a community for the elderly called “Kreischerville” with the mansion as its centerpiece. But the plans were scrapped in 2012 and the property was put on the market for $11.5 million, with the house accounting for $1.6 million of the overall value. The 5-acre property is currently back on the market for $12 million.
For now, the house sits empty as ghost stories swirl around it, concentrating on Edward’s grieving widow, despite the fact that she never actually lived in the house. There are signs that the mansion is starting to embrace its reputation. In 2015, it opened its doors on Halloween night for an interactive theater piece. Last year, the house closed out the first season of a ghost hunting show called “Paranormal Lockdown”. The claims are dubious, but ultimately harmless. After all, a sordid history is a remembered history. Kreischer Mansion may stand for another hundred years, or longer, as one of Staten Island’s most compelling links to its 19th century past.
Hello friends, its been a while. I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus from poking around abandoned buildings, but I’m back now with something a little different. This is the first installment of a series on Staten Island—an area of the city that tends to go unnoticed, but is very much worth exploring.
For the unfamiliar, Staten Island stands with Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens as one of the five boroughs that make up the city of New York. It is the third largest and least populated of the five. Its identity has always been somewhat distinct from the city at large, due in part to its geographical isolation. Prior to the construction of the Verrazano Bridge in 1964, no crossing existed between Staten Island and any other borough. It remains something of an outlier today, with a suburban nature and right-leaning political tilt. A record of neglect from city government has earned it the oft-repeated title “the forgotten borough,” and the name has stuck.
From a Manhattan-centric point of view, a trip to Staten Island begins with a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. Over 21 million passengers embark on the 25-minute journey from Lower Manhattan to St. George each year. With dramatic views of the Statue of Liberty and the surrounding harbor, it’s a well-known attraction for New York City tourists. The ride is offered free of charge by the city’s Department of Transportation, but that hasn’t always been the case.
Back in the 18th century, sailboats manned by private individuals competed for fares between Manhattan and Staten Island. In 1817, the first mechanically powered ferry service went into operation, under the direction of Captain John de Forest of the Richmond Turnpike Company. His brother-in-law Cornelius Vanderbilt took over in 1838. Existing ferry service proved inadequate as Staten Island developed, and accidents were common.
In 1871, a boiler explosion on one of the ferries claimed the lives of more than 85 passengers. Jacob Vanderbilt, the president of the Staten Island Railway at the time, was charged with murder, but never convicted. In 1901, a ferry operated by the Staten Island Rapid Transit Company collided with a Jersey Central ferry and sank into the harbor soon after departing the port at Whitehall. Though the disaster was far less deadly than the 1871 episode, city authorities used it as justification to seize control of the service by 1905.
A nickel fare was the rule through most of the 20th century, but was increased in 1975 to a quarter, and in 1990 to 50 cents, causing an uproar among borough residents. Coupled with mounting grievances over the Fresh Kills Landfill on the island’s west shore, the fare hike gave rise to a secession movement, which culminated in the passage of a non-binding referendum to make Staten Island an independent city in 1993.
Efforts to secede were subdued by the election of Mayor Rudy Guiliani, who rode to power due in part to overwhelming support from Staten Island voters, many of whom had been won over by his promises to close the landfill and do away with the fare. He followed through on both, abolishing the fare in 1997 and closing the landfill in 2001.
While the ferry has played a significant role in the history of Staten Island, the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge has arguably had the greatest impact on its development. The story of Staten Island can generally be understood in terms of two epochs—before and after November 21, 1964, the day the bridge first opened to traffic.
Long-time residents speak longingly of Staten Island before the bridge—when country roads meandered through sweeping forests, quiet beach communities, and open expanses of farmland crawling with nanny goats. In the 19th century, full-time islanders lived side by side with some of the city’s wealthiest residents. As the industrialized city minted new millionaires, many of them looked to the rolling green hills of Staten Island as a scenic escape.
The nature of the borough was permanently altered as the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge prompted a mass migration of newcomers from overpopulated Brooklyn. The influx covered farms and forests with mile upon mile of tract housing, plaguing the island with traffic problems that persist to this day.
As much as the borough has transformed over the years, it has retained its essential otherness. Crossing the harbor by ferry or bridge signals a psychological detachment from the urban environment of New York as we know it. In the hum of traffic, or the roar of surf, the city melts away and you enter a new frontier. Beyond and in-between the strip malls and cookie-cutter houses, scattered remnants of an older, more pastoral Staten Island await. There, Times Square feels a million miles away.
Over a series of upcoming posts, I’ll be examining the many artifacts and oddities that litter the far-flung edges of the borough, and sharing the history behind them. In the meantime, you can visit my website to see more photos from the project, “Arthur Kill Road.”