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.
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.
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.
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.
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. “
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.
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Do you know how to get to Staten Island’s most remarkable graveyard? First pass through a centuries-old roadside cemetery, (consisting of a handful of horribly eroded grave markers). Follow a barely there garbage-strewn path down to the marshy Arthur Kill (kill is the Dutch word for creek, which explains why creepy names like “Fresh Kills” abound in the Dutch-settled Hudson River Valley.) Once your feet are sinking a few inches into the mud with every step, you’ll start seeing the boats. Some over a century old, steam vessels, warships, ferries, fireboats, the final vestiges of New York’s shipping era, doomed to die here in a catastrophically polluted Staten Island waterway. Welcome to the Arthur Kill Boat Graveyard.
Operational since the 1930s, Witte’s Marine Equipment company in Rossville served to dredge, salvage, and resell materials from the wrecked and disused vessels of the New York and New Jersey waterways. Eccentric owner John J. Witte refused to dismantle the majority of the ships that came to rest in the yard, amassing a prodigious collection of over 400 historic watercraft. As the ships slowly decomposed and the area gained a reputation as a mecca for artists and photographers, Witte gained his own reputation as a ferocious defender of his property, known for scaring off unsolicited visitors personally until he passed away in 1980. The yard is now controlled by the Donjon Marine Company, which seems to be taking a more proactive approach to actually salvaging materials from the wrecks and keeping the curious out, erecting 12-foot metal walls around the perimeter of the yard with signs prohibiting any and all photography.
The walls presented an obstacle, but after several muddy minutes I made it to the Arthur Kill Shore. Though the shipyard had lost most of its former glory, the remaining 20-40 wrecks were still an eldritch sight to behold—half submerged in years of muck, leaning at odd angles, corroded in streaks of rust, putrefying elbow to elbow with massive skeleton hulls. These wade out their final days in the boneyard before being stripped and recycled into automobiles and refrigerators. So see them while you can, if you dare, what was once the city’s premiere collection of nautical artifacts is sinking fast.