Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, can be classified into a few locations. St. George is one among these locations. St. George can be located on the northeastern tip of Staten Island. It is at this location that the Kill Van Kull (The Narrows) enters the Upper New York Bay. St. George has been overlooked by many of its inhabitants, despite the importance it has had in the shaping of Staten Island and New York.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, St. George has been the official capital of Staten Island. The location serves as the administrative center of the Island, encompassing the Borough Hall, the Courthouse, the Police Precinct, the Chamber of Commerce and many other piers that serve as a major point in the New York Trade and Commerce Industry. In addition to this, St. George is referred to as the most densely populated area in Staten Island and also the most cultural area on the Island, “housing the only museum that has been able to capture the history and culture of the land as it is.” (Pat Salmon, Curator of History, S.I Museum)
This essay serves the purpose of understanding the physical geography (topography) of St. George, Staten Island. In addition to analyzing the present geography of St. George, this paper will also compare the changes made to the topography of the location, and the circumstances that led to these drastic changes. It will also investigate how these geographical changes have changed the overall role of St. George.
In 1524, when Giovanni de Verrazano discovered Staten Island, he did not expect that a part of it would turn into a transportation hub of the island. “St. George was the first location on Staten Island that was exposed to immigrants.” (Pat Salmon, Curator of History, S.I Museum)
St. George can be divided into two main portions, “the bay and the shore.” While the bay was characterized by the presence of salt water, the shore was characterized by the presence of a temperate deciduous forest and hilly areas.
When first discovered, St. George had an entirely different physical geography. It was distinguished by its wet swamps, and and ecosystem that was supported by the shore. The ecosystem was dominated by the thriving presence of ducks, geese, salamanders, shrimps and oysters.
Edward Johnson, the Director of Science in the Staten Island Museum, has been studying the physical geography of Staten Island, and St. George in particular for the past fifteen years. “Before it was inhabited by people, St. George was a temperate deciduous forest.” Temperate deciduous forests are dominated by trees that lose their leaves each year. They are found in areas where warm moist summers alternate with mild winters. Although the weather/climate in St. George (New York) would not seem to be a place that supported this habitat, geologists have been able to gather enough proof to support their claim.
While scavenging through St. George for traces of initial geology, Edward Johnson and his research assistants came across old hickory and oak tree stumps. “Both hickory and oak trees require a hilly area with wet swamps.” Since both of these conditions could be fulfilled by the geology of St. George, hickory and oak trees flourished in St. George.
In addition to its forest ecosystem, St. George was also characterized by the presence of hills. Although the origin of these hills is still vague, it can be said that they might be a “result of convergent plate tectonics.” (Pat Salmon, Curator of History, S.I Museum)
Similar to the bay, the geology on the shore was also capable of supporting a very diverse ecosystem. The animals that were mostly supported by the forest habitat were the White-Tailed Deer, Eastern Chipmunk and the European Red Squirrel. But, these geological aspects did not last for long.
When the Lenni Lenape Indians took control over the land in the late 16th century, they altered the land for their own benefit. “When they first arrived, they (Lenni Lenape) did not know anything about the cultivation methods. So, they began fishing from the bay. A practice that started out as a means of survival lasted to be something that they had become acquainted to.” (Pat Salmon, Curator of History, S.I Museum) After a few years, fishing had been an integratal part of their lives. This lead to the dwindling of the marine ecosystem.This situation worsened with the addition of new inhabitants to the location.
In 1661, St. George observed its first European settlement. The Europeans had different survival techniques than the Lenni Lenape. They began clearing the forests to cultivate and to set-up industrial and residential areas. In addition to this, they also harvested wood for timber and charcoal; tree ashes were also exported back to Europe as fertilizer. By the end of the 17th century, the forest and the marine ecosystem of St. George was exhausted by its inhabitants. (Pat Salmon, Curator of History, S.I Museum)
Although St. George was now completely devoid of its once flourishing ecosystem, it began grabbing the attention of other prominent figures, who would later become important in the shaping of St. George. During the early 18th century, New York ports began establishing good connections, with other areas and states around the world. This lead to consistent trade, and it also helped establish new trade patterns. An example of the new trade pattern would be the fur and wheat trade between the New York and the Europe. In addition to the new international trade links, parts of Staten Island provided the New York trade market with food items that mainly included oysters that were uncommon in Europe (New York Times, September 10, 1897). The oyster trade established new connections with Europe and new commodities were imported, such as fine silk, kettles and cleaning products that mainly included soaps (Howey, Meghan September 2011).
These products were first dropped off at the southern tip of the present day Manhattan. Since the Dutch were settled in parts of Manhattan and Staten Island, it led to a rise in the intrastate trade. “The first intrastate trade took place with the aid of periaquas, which were flat boats that were in complete physical contact with the water.” (Pat Salmon, Curator of History, S.I Museum).
The periaqua that was first used to transport goods between St. George and the southern tips of Manhattan, slowly began transforming into a shuttle boat. A shuttle boat, now not only transported goods, but it also aided people with transportation (Pat Salmon, Curator of History, Staten Island Museum). It later led to the rise of the ferry system that connected St. George and Manhattan.
During the 1800s, many people who lived in Staten Island worked in Manhattan, but there was a lack of regular and reliable transportation system. Erastus Wiman, an entrepreneur, used this weakness to his advantage, and set up a ferry system in St. George since that was the only location on Staten Island that was well-integrated with the waterfront. The ferry traversed the harbor providing faster service more often and more reliably. In addition to giving a regular and timely transportation system, it also led to a sharp increase in the cost of the commute. The price, that was initially only 5 cents, saw a rapid increase to 12.5 cents (New York Times, March 19, 1897). One outcome of this fare increase was that only the wealthy were able to afford it. This impacted settlement patterns dramatically. The wealthy became the primary settlers of the upgraded area of Staten Island: St. George.
This influx of money that was supported by the advantage that the physical geology provided, motivated manual changes to the natural landscape that would further benefit the economy of St. George. The first sign of geographical development was the establishment of the ferry terminal in 1886, which was another contribution for St. George by Wiman. In addition to the terminal, Wiman also added a stadium that served as the home for the NY Metropolitans, a casino, an electrified fountain, a bed and breakfast. With the erection of the first ferry terminal and other attractions, the tourism industry of St. George boomed (Buckley, Cara. 2009).
The upgraded area of St. George was not only inhabited by the wealthy, but it also began exhibiting new types of housing structures. During the early 19th century, new Church buildings were being introduced around the area. In addition to the introduction of Churches, new types of building structures were also being introduced. Some examples would be the Greek Revival Housing and the Victorian Housing. These were the first type of “foreign structures introduced on the Island” (Pat Salmon, Staten Island Museum Curator of History).
With the introduction of new house structures and ferry industries, there were other issues that had adverse effects on St. George. Prior to the 1960s, the St. George waterfront was known to be ‘disgusting’. It much resembled the modern day condition of the Gowanus Canal. The waterfront used to be the harbor where sewage and industrial wastes came together. Most of these materials would simply float on the water surface. But with the introduction of the Clean Water Act, 1972, the condition saw a little difference. The act “establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters.” Due to this, “a new sewage treatment plant was opened in St. George to ensure the maintenance of the waterfront. The water has gotten clean only in the past 50 years.” (Pat Salmon, Curator of History, Staten Island Museum)
The land of St. George has gone through massive transition since the early years of its discovery. These transition periods can be broken down into three main categories: Pre-18th century, 18th and 19th century, and finally the present. The land in 18th century can be classified as one with great biodiversity, which supported the new Lenape and Dutch immigrants. St. George, during the 18th and 19th century, went through a period of dramatic and profound human development that altered the native landscape forever. During this time period, the area experienced economic and population growth sparked by this development that not only provided for its existing settlements and community, but also for new types of traffic, that of tourists and visitors. The period post 19th century, St. George has been an area in constant flux, while it remains to be a historical and a civic administrative site, the landscape developments had molded it into a very modern and appealing place to visit.
Today, St. George is considered to be a very unique location in Staten Island. The reputation it has earned over the years was made possible only by the early landscape and how it has been molded over the years of human development. The physical landscape of St. George and its integration with waterfront development inspired an economic and social growth to all residents in that area.
Buckley, Cara. Across the Harbor, A Historic Gem. New York Times. August 2009.
Gold, Kenneth M., and Lori R. Weintrob. Discovering Staten Island: A 350th Anniversary Commemorative History, Charleston, SC: The History Press. 2011.
Salmon, Pat. Interview by Varghese, Reshma. Informational Interview. Staten Island Museum Archive, May 5, 2012.
Varghese, Reshma. E-mail to Johnson, Edward, May 10, 2012.
Walsh, Kevin. Forgotten New York: Views of a Lost Metropolis. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
June 19, 1994. St. George Historic District, Staten Island. New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
2011. Downtown Staten Island: Waterfront at St. George Terminal. New York City Economic Development Corporation.