Staten Island is a bedroom community within one of the largest cities in the world. It is the least populated borough, and often considered a stepchild of its larger siblings. As a result, Staten Island’s history has been largely overlooked; nevertheless, it has played proximately in both the affairs of New York City and our country. The Island is shaped like a triangle and is 13.9 miles long and 7.3 miles wide, a total of 60.9 square miles, the third largest borough. Physically, Staten Island is closer to New Jersey than New York, separated by the narrow Arthur Kill (The word kill is Dutch for river or channel). There are three bridges that connect Staten Island to New Jersey and only one connecting the Island to New York. While most of Staten Island is flat, there are seven hills that run from St. George to Latourette. Todt Hill is the highest point on the Atlantic coast south of Maine (410 feet above sea level).
First sighted by Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524, the Island remained mostly populated by the Raritans and Unamis Indians until about 1630 when the Dutch attempted to establish settlements there. Called Staaten Eylandt by the Dutch, they failed to maintain settlements as the Indians, feeling threatened by the settlers, drove each attempt from the Island. Many of these wars were instigated by the Dutch; in all blood was spilled on both side in three wars, the Pig War (1641), the Whisky War (1642) and the Peach War (1655). The disputes were finally settled and, in 1661 the Dutch established a lasting colony called Oude Dorp, or Old Town, near South Beach. In 1664, when the English seized the city for the King of England, they renamed the Island in honor of the Duke of Richmond, son of King Charles II. At the close of the 17th century, Staten Island’s population was only 1,063.
New Jersey claimed control of Staten Island based on the original land grant which extended to the middle of the Narrows, and therefore owned Staten Island. New York claimed jurisdiction over the waters as far as low water mark on the Jersey shore sitting long ownership. The dispute continued for nearly 200 years until 1833 when both states mutually agreed on their borders. New York obtained the right to Staten Island, the Lower New York Bay down to Sandy Hook while New Jersey obtained the rights over the water on the west side of the island as far as Woodbridge creek (near Rossville).
Under the English, Richmond began to flourish and by 1700 the population had grown to a thousand, mostly English, French and Dutch. During its early days, Richmond remained a rural community, supporting many farms, mills and a growing fisherman’s industry, mostly shell fishing.
The Island played a prominent role during the Revolutionary War. Before the British arrived in New York, George Washington spent two days surveying Staten Island and established a look-out at the Narrows (now Fort Wadsworth) to give him advanced warning of the British arrival. General Howe arrived in New York City in the summer of 1776 after evacuating Boston, intending to land his army at Gravesend Bay. When he discovered George Washington was “dug in” where he intended to land, he decided to wait for reinforcements. On July 2nd, 1776, he began landing his troops at the Watering Place (Tompkinsville) on Staten Island to make preparations for the coming battle. Eventually, as many as 30,000 troops occupied Staten Island waiting for what would become the Battle of Long Island. On July 12th, his brother Admiral Lord Howe arrived with his fleet followed on August 14th by Generals Henry Clinton and Lord Cornwallis. Finally, on August 27th, Sir Howe attacked George Washington’s army on Long Island (Brooklyn). Later that year, Admiral Lord Howe sought to end the war by driving a wedge between the provisional government and George Washington. He met secretly with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Edward Rutledge, but Americans refused to give up George Washington and the meeting failed to bring an early end to the war. The meeting took place on September 11, 1776 at the home of a British loyalist, Christopher Billopp. Since that meeting, the house has been called the Conference House and is open to the public. The final shot of the American Revolution was fired on Fort Wadsworth by a departing British warship on November 25, 1783. After the war, many of the Island’s wealthiest and most influential citizens, who had remained loyal to the Crown, fled to Canada. Their estates were confiscated by New York State, subdivided and sold.
On March 7th, 1788, the New York State Legislature divided the island into four towns: Castleton, Northfield, Southfield and Westfield; a fifth (Middletown) was added in 1860. Each town had its own elected and appointed officials. Basically an agriculture and fishing community, the Island’s population grew slowly, and with little funds to invest in capital improvements, its roads and sewage system were the worst among surrounding counties that now make up the City of New York; more schools were needed as well as better police and fire protection. Many residents believed that an idea proposed by Andrew Greene in 1868 for a unified city, would be the answer. As conditions grew worse, support for “consolidation” grew stronger. However, not every Islander supported the idea. Many believed consolidation would bring New York City’s blight to Staten Island and opposed consolidation. A dissident group even went so far as to propose the idea of forming a separate city independent of New York City. Nevertheless, a non-binding referendum in 1894 was overwhelmingly supported by Islanders 5 – 1 (5,531 to 1,505). Support among the other potential boroughs, however, was not as strong. Brooklyn for instance, approved the measure 64,744 to 64,467, a winning margin of only 277. Consolidation was finally approved by the Legislature in 1897 over the strong objections of New York’s (Manhattan) mayor.
Since consolidation, roads and sewer systems have improved; but the Island still remains to this day far behind the other boroughs. Consolidation turned out to be something less than the miracle it was expected to be. Many parts of the borough still have septic systems and most of the roads were built by developers with only a few inches of asphalt over dirt and a rail link to Brooklyn or Manhattan was never constructed. It was not until the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was opened in 1964 that the Island had a direct link to the other boroughs.
Islander feelings galvanized when the city planned to open a garbage dump at Fresh Kills in 1948. Assemblyman Edmund Radigan introduced a secession bill in the Legislature in 1947. While the dump was the impetus for the legislation, there where other grievances driving the movement. Even as early as 1799, Staten Island has not been able to control its own fate. New York State and had taken some 30 acres of land by eminent domain to build the Quarantine Station. After decades of protest, Islanders finally took matters into their own hands by burning it down. Assemblyman Radigan expressed Islander feelings that home rule would protect the Island from the city administration and other interests from interfering with “our progress” and gain back local control of their future. The measure was defeated and it was not until the 1980s that another issue would give momentum to a renewed effort to secede from New York City.
Each of the five borough presidents had one vote regardless of population on the Board of Estimate. Although this scheme had been in existence for many years, it was challenged for violating the one person, one vote principle of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, and as a result the city Charter was revised eliminating the Board of Estimate in 1989, leaving the entire representation of the Island in the hands of 3 members of a 51-member City Council. This “loss” in representation convinced some that they only way they could have control over their future was to secede. On the final day of the 1989 session, the State Legislature passed a measure and signed by then Governor Mario Cuomo authorizing a study and initiating the process of secession. In November 1990 the voters of Staten Island overwhelmingly (83%) approved a study of secession and the legal procedures for separation and in 1991, Governor Mario M. Cuomo swore in the 13 member New York State Charter Commission for Staten Island.
If approved by the State Legislature, it would be the largest municipal separation in the United States since the Civil War. The City of Staten Island would be the second largest city in New York State, and the 36th largest city in the country. With approximately 400,000 people, it would be larger than Miami, Pittsburgh and Buffalo. In 1993, a proposed charter for the City of Staten Island was presented to the voters and in November 1993, a non-binding referendum to secede from New York City was approved by the voters of Staten Island by a margin of 2-1 (65%). Subsequently, the state Senate passed a bill approving secession, however, Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver, has not allowed a similar measure to be voted on in the Assembly without a “home rule message” (permission) from New York City, which has not been forthcoming.