Tottenville, which is located on the shore of the Arthur Kill near Ward’s Point, “the southwestern tip of Staten Island and the southernmost point in New York City and New York State”, came into being around 1840. Originally known as Bentley, Tottenville was a fishing village, and from 1840 to around 1900, everything in Tottenville centered around oysters – their cultivation, harvesting, shipment and sale, and all the services needed to keep the industry alive. It was the “town the oyster built”, where the “oyster [was] king”. However, while oysters heavily impacted Tottenville, regional pollution caused the closing of the oyster beds turning the economy to new industries from clay to copper. By the early 1900s, Tottenville had become the “leading community of the South Shore” (Shepherd 2008, 17).
There were many industries that resided in Tottenville. One of the most popular jobs to have was being an oysterman. In 1850, 150 families on Staten Island depended on theoyster trade for living. (Dickenson 2002 118) Because of the booming oyster business, Shipyards were all around Tottenville and creating a booming business for them also.
There were multiple Shipyards located in Tottenville. One was the Cossey’s Shipyard.Itstarted in 1905 by Harry D.Cossey. He had three lots along the Arthur Kill Waterfront. (Shepherd 2008 128) It specialized in theconstruction of barges and dry docks.Heemployed over 300 men and was worth over$300,000 dollars. (Shepherd 2008 128)
Another popular shipyard was the Ellis Shipyard. It was started by the son of the Captain Cornelius and Bealy (Butler) Ellis of Huguenot, Jacob Ellis. It was on the end of MainStreet. This shipyard built large schooners, pilot boats, yachts, tugs, and barges.This business employed ship Carpenters, Iron Workers, Sail markers and other artisans.
Last but not least, there was the Brown Shipyard. They built many famous boats like the “Cyclops,” many tug boats for the Moran Towing Companyand the “J.J. Cluett” for the Doctor Grenfell’s Labrador Mission.
Atlantic Terra Cotta
Terra cotta, meaning “cooked earth” in Italian, is a “high-heat-fired”, porous natural claythat can be molded into anything from construction material to ornamental structures such as garden ornaments and gargoyles (Shepherd 2008, 125-128). While this clay was found in areas of Staten Island, the Atlantic Terra Cotta Works, which opened in Tottenville in 1898, used “a mixture of New Jersey clays” that was better suited formaking terra cotta.
Founded by former craftsmen and officers of the Perth Amboy Terra Cotta Company in 1897, the Atlantic Terra Cotta Works expanded quickly, nearly tripling the number of kilns in use by1906 (from three to eight), and employing nearly 500 men. They were one of the most prestigious terra cotta companies in New York at the time, designing and manufacturing architectural ornament, sculpture, and garden pottery that was placed in almost every major American city and even in Japan. They also produced ornaments for projects such as the first New York City subway stations, the upper stories of the Flatiron Building, and the Plaza Hotel.
In 1907, they merged with the Perth Amboy Terra Cotta Company and the Excelsior Company of Rocky Hill, New Jersey to become incorporated as the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company (Sachs 1997,
80-83). Unfortunately, the Great Depression as well as the “changing technologies” and “waning interest in historical styles” took its toll on the company, shutting them down in 1935. A few factory buildings are still standing on Ellis Street today, reminders of the once great company of Tottenville (Shepherd 2008, 131).
Tottenville Copper Company
In 1900, another company opened in Tottenville that would last for nearly a century until changing technologies caused it to shut down in 2000. Called the Tottenville Copper Company, it was founded by Benjamin Lowenstein, a Manhattan metals merchant who brought his scrap metal business to Staten Island. It started out as a small company that only dealt with buying and selling metals, however, by 1920, the company expanded into the business of smelting and refining metals as well. Lead and copper were the two leading metals that were refined in Tottenville at this time. In 1931, the company was sold to the Western Electric Company, and was renamed the Nassau Smelting and Refining Company, which soon became the “leading salvage unit of Bell Telephone Company”, employing approximately 650 people. By this time, lead, copper, and other metals were refined by the company from recycled telephone wires. Forty years later, the Tottenville facility once again changed hands, and was renamed the Nassau Recycle Corporation, where they refined lead, white metals such as solder, and precious metals, including gold. In 2000, however, the use of “fiberoptics in telephone communication” decreased the need for these metals, and Nassau shut down (Shepherd 2008, 131-133).
From the information collected, it can be concluded that the industry for Tottenville was centered around the oysters for a majority of its history. Many who came to Tottenville became wealthy by taking part in the planting and harvesting of oysters. However, once pollution struck, Tottenville became a place where various entrepreneurs came to start up different businesses, such as the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company, and the Tottenville Copper Company. The economy may have shifted, but Tottenville still had the best industries in New York, with many relying on their terra cotta ornaments, and refined metals.
Dickenson, Richard. 2003. Holden’s Staten Island: The History of Richmond County. New York: Center for Migration Studies.
Shepherd, Barnett. Tottenville: The Town the Oyster Built – A Staten Island Community: Its People, Industry and Architecture. Ashland, Ohio: Book Masters, Inc., 2008.