Richard Mather Bayles.

History of Richmond County (Staten Island), New York from its discovery to the present time online

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Online LibraryRichard Mather BaylesHistory of Richmond County (Staten Island), New York from its discovery to the present time → online text (page 3 of 72)
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to those found so abundantly on Bergen neck, occur along the
edges of the salt meadows on the western side of the island,
from Mariner's Harbor to near Chelsea landing, sometimes ex-
tending to a distance of one-half to three-quarters of a mile on
the upland, and thus occupying a position between the trap-
dyke and the salt meadows. The material is a fine, yellowish,
loamy sand, containing nu gravel or pebbles, but rests on the
glacial drift, and is hence of post glacial age. This sand was once
the western beach of the extensive body of salt water which
formerly occupied the basin now filled with the salt-marsh de-
posits, and which extended over all the Newark and Hacken-
sack meadows, but has now been reduced to the area of New-
ark bay. The sands of this old beach were blown inland, and
formed into dunes by the generally prevailing westerly winds.
On a windy day the manner of the formation of these dunes
may slill be plainly seen. A number of pine barren plants
have been found lodging in this sandy soil, both on the island
and on Bergen neck, and it is probable that others may be
found when more exhaustive explorations are made.

Modern Epoch. Under this head are included deposits whose
formation began at a comparatively recent period, and whose
growth still continues.

Deposits of marine alluvium or salt meadows extend over an
area of about nine and one-half square miles of the island. The
material composing them consists for the most part of partially
decomposed vegetable matter mixed with a little clay and sand.
These salt meadow areas have once been shallow bays, which have
gradually been filled up, first by the deposit of silt from their
waters and the growth of marine plants, and ultimately by the
growth and decay of grasses and rushes. This latter process is
yet in operation, and thus the salt meadows keep at about the
level of the highest tides. Their most abundant grass is the
Xpartina juncea (Willd.), while the rush is Juncus Gerardi
(Lam.), commonly known as "black grass.'' A number of
other plants contribute small amounts to the vegetable growth,
making the salt-meadow Horn quite a varied one. The most
extensive areas covered by these deposits are along New creek
and the Great kills, on the eastern shore, and from Rossville



northward along Arthur kill. The thickness of the marshes is
exceedingly variable, probably as much as thirty feet in some
places and but a few inches in others. The dried material con-
sists of decaying fibres mixed with a little clay, sand and oxide
of iron. The latter substance produces the irridescent film com-
monly seen in the marshes, and popularly supposed to be oil.

Sand beaches occur along all the shores that are directly ex-
posed to the waves. The greatest accumulations of sand are
on the shore of the Lower bay. from Clifton southward to the
so-called Point of the Beach, near Gifford's, at Seguine's point,
near Prince's bay, and at Ward's point. The point near Gif-
ford's is slowly lengthening and curving in toward the shore,
and a similar point is in process of formation at the mouth of
New creek. The accumulation of sand at Ward's point, below
Tjttenville, is also quite great. These points are produced by
the combined action of the currents of the Lower bay and the
streams flowing into it, which carry the sand along the coast
until finally it is driven up on the beaches by the waves.

Sands composed of magnetic iron ore occur with the quartz
sand, a*nd are generally found in layers of a fraction of an inch
in thickness, but an accumulation of this material to a depth
of four inches has recently been found at low water on the
beach near the Elm Tree light-house, but it contains titanium
and is not likely to be of much economic importance. All the
sands originally resulted from the disintegration of rocks, and
have been carried by water down the rivers emptying into the
bays, and have also resulted in part from the direct disintegra-
tion of the coasts.

True peat occurs in but few places on Staten Island. Some
is found in the Clove Lake swamps, in several swamps near
Richmond and Gifford's, and toward Tottenville. In one lo-
cality near Richmond the peat deposit is at least ten feet thick.

The entire southeastern shore of Staten Island is gradually
being washed away. In some places the loss is very apparent.
At the foot of New Dorp lane, near where the Elm Tree light-
house now stands, a large American elm was standing not longer
ago than 1840. The place where it grew is now beyond the end
of a dock which extends some four hundred feet into the water.
This indicates an average wasting of at least ten feet per year
from the shore. At Cedar Grove, half a mile south of this
point, there has been a loss of about three hundred and fifty


feet since 1850, which shows about the same average. At
Prince's bay the government has been obliged to build a heavy
sea wall in front of the bluff on which the light house is placed,
and a like precaution has been taken at the forts on the

The two causes operating to effect the wasting of the coast are
the constant abrading action of the waves and currents, and
the gradual depression of the coasts. By the course of the
prevailing currents in the Lower bay the eroded material, to-
gether with part of that brought down by the rivers, is carried
southwardly along the coast, the sands being deposited as
beaches, bars and points, while the finer, muddy part is carried
farther, and finally deposited in the deeper waters of the bay, or
out into the ocean. The land on the shore is sometimes pro-
tected by building bulkheads of stone or other substantial ma
terial, running out some hundreds of feet against the southern
part of the shore to be protected. Such bulkheads break the
force of the sand-bearing currents and cause them to drop their
burdens of sand on the north side of the obstruction, and the
waves drive it up on the shore, thus actually making land. The
other cause of the decadence of the coast is found in its gradual
depression. Prof. George H. Cook has estimated that the shores
of New Jersey and Long Island are suffering a depression of
about two feet every hundred years. Others vary this estimate
slightly, but it is agreed by all that there is a sinking of the
shores slowly but continually going on. It will be seen that if
this coast settles down to ten feet below its present level, the
greater part of the plains extending south of the moraine from
Giffords to Clifton, now the most valuable land in the county,
will be covered with salt meadows within a few hundred year>.
provided they are not sooner washed away by the action of the

We must close this interesting subject with a few words on
the economic uses to which the geological products of the island
have been applied. The limonite ore of Todt hill. Four Cor-
ners, and other places, has been used in blast furnaces in con-
nection with other more refractory ores, or has been screened,
ground and washed, to produce red ochre paint. The total
amount hitherto mined may be as great as 300.000 tons. Fire
clay is employed in the production of refractory ware, at
Kreischerville, of which mention has alreadv been made. Clavs


of glacial drift origin are used in the manufacture of common
brick near Richmond and Linoleumville. Quarries of trap rock
have been worked at Graniteville and near Port Richmond for
many years. The rock is either cut into blocks and shipped to
New York to be used for street pavements, or crushed into
small pieces and employed in Mac Adam or Telford pavements
on Staten Island. Some edifices have been constructed of this
rock, but it is not well suited for building purposes. The fibrous
serpentine rock, erroneously called asbestos, has been mined near
Tompkinsville landing, to the extent of perhaps twenty-five or
thirty tons, and used fur the purposes for which asbestos is em-
ployed. Thousands of tons of beach sand are annually taken
from the southeastern coast, and used in New York and Brook-
lyn for building purposes. In some places so much sand has
been removed that property along the shore has been seriously
damaged, by exposing roads and meadows to the action of the

The variety in the geological formation, already described,
exerts a powerful influence over the occurrence and distri-
bution of the vegetation, which is surprisingly rich in its
number of species. In 1879 Messrs. N. L. Britton and Arthur
Hollick. to whom we are indebted for the facts which we give
under this head, after three years of careful search aud study,
compiled and published a catalogue of the flowering plants
with the ferns and their allies, known to grow on Staten
Island independent of cultivation. This catalogue enumerated
1,050 species and varieties. The following year an appendix
was issued enumerating forty-six more. In 1882 the second
appendix was published containing sixty-seven additions.
A third appendix, showing forty-six more, was issued in
1885, and now the fourth appendix is found necessary, con-
taining a farther list of thirty-six species. In other words
there are at the present time 1,245 species and varieties of
wild plants known on Staten Island, which has an area of
only about fifty-nine square miles, while the entire flora
of New York state, covering an area of about 45,000
square miles, numbers only about 1,800. So that little
Richmond county is the possessor of two-thirds of the state
flora as known at the present time. About fifty of the species
were not known in the state until discovered and reported from
this county. The surprising richness, as previously stated, is


due in part to the fact that the cretaceous sands and clays
in the region around Tottenville and Kreischerville carry with
them a large number of the plants characteristic of that for-
mation in New Jersey known as the "Pine Barren" flora;
while the drift, which covers the rest of the island with a
mantle of sand, loam, gravel and " hard pan," affords a home
for many of the plants which occur to the north and up the
Hudson river valley. There are also several species which are
confined entirely to the ridge of serpentine or soapstone rock r
which forms the backbone of the island, extending from St.
George to Richmond.

The physiographic conditions are also of importance, as the
island occupies a position surrounded by salt water, besides
having several large ponds of fresh water, running streams and
perpetual springs. There are also high and dry hills, low and
wet swamps, and some artificially-made ground. The latter has
mostly been filled in with refuse, and ballast from vessels, and
through this agency about thirty of the species have been intro-
duced. The inevitable march of progress, while it has intro-
duced a few plants, mostly troublesome weeds, such as the
"pig-weed," " worm-seed," stramonium, amaranthus, and other
pests of our fields and gardens, has destroyed and crowded
out many of our native species, or completely destroyed
them in certain localities where they were formerly abundant.
The forest trees were the first to suffer, as they are in all com-
munities in which immediate gain is counted higher than ulti-
mate utility. The entire island, except on the salt marshes,
was, it is said, originally covered with a thick growth, in which
oak and chestnut predominated. In the time of the revolution,
most of this forest was cut down, and there are now but com-
paratively few trees that have seen one hundred years of growth.
The mass of the forest growth at the present time is probably
about half that age, or a little more, although there are a few
isolated examples which are noteworthy. One of the most con-
spicuous objects near Garretson's station is a huge white oak.
standing alone in the middle of a field, on the south side of the
track. In a little secluded valley t,j the north of the station is
a chestnut whose trunk measure* eighteen feet in circumference.
Tt is, so far as known, the largest tree on the island, in regard
to girth. The next largest is probably a white oak which
stands in a field at Green Ridge. Its circumference is fifteen


feet two inches, and it is a remarkable object, but its existence
is known by but few people, on account of its distance from
any road.

The willow trees at the Billop house. Tottenville, follow
next, the largest one showing a circumference of thirteen
feet seven inches. Near Court House station are two of the
finest examples of perfect symmetry in tree development to be
found anywhere. They are both white oaks. One of them,
with a circumference of eleven feet, is in a field close by the
station, and the other is in a patch of woods about a quarter of
a mile away. The latter one has a girth of eleven feet six inches,
with branches that spread for a distance of thirty or forty feet,
often almost touching the ground. A magnificent grove of
white pine formerly flourished on the hill back of Clove lake,
but within a few years it has 'been cut down. There are a few
scattered groves of these trees in other parts of the island,
notably in Westfield, and many fine specimens may still be seen
there. In a swamp at the rear of the school house at Green
Ridge are a number of elms, each averaging over eleven feet in
circumference, and there are many beautiful specimens of this
tree which have been planted, notably at New Springville.
The sycamore is undoubtedly dying out for some reason, and
probably the present generation will see its almost entire ex-
termination. Almost the only really fine example of this tree
now to be seen here is in front of a cottage on the north side of
the road between Rossville and Kreischerville. Among the
tallest trees the tulip tree will probably bear the palm. It is
seldom very large in circumference, the greatest thus far meas-
ured being under ten feet, but no tree can present a finer spec-
tacle when it is in full bloom.

The list of notable forest trees found here would not be com-
plete without the sweet gum, which was the source of a gigantic
hoax some ten years since. Its peculiar corky bark is familiar
to most people, yet certain individuals found a ready sale for
the branches in the streets of New York under the name of
" alligator wood/' A market was even found for it among the
citizens of the island, many of whom brought it back with
them as a great curiosity. The beech is abundant, and often
conspicuous for its size. Several fine examples are to be seen
standing isolated in the partially cleared land back of Clove
lake. In one limited locality the sugar maple grows, in com-


pany with the slippery elm, but fortunately they have thus far
escaped notice. Magnolias flourish in three widely separated
localities Tottenville, Cliffords and Watchogue. The trees
have been sadly mutilated by parties who gather the flowers
for sale in Xew York, but as they grow in thick swamps they
are not likely to be entirely exterminated until the swamps are
drained and cleared. The red maple is one of the commonest
trees in the lowlands, and is very conspicuous in the autumn,
owing to the endless change in color which its foliage assumes.
They often reach a considerable size, one in a swamp at Totten-
ville being twelve feet three inches in circumference, and hol-
low, so that a person can readily get entirely within the trunk.
There are five species of dog-woods known here, but only one is
familiar to any extent as a tree. This is the Cornus ftorida (L. ),
with large conspicuous white blossoms. The others hardly ever
rise above the dignity of large shrubs or bushes. The well
known evergreen holly (Ilex opaca, Ait.) was formerly far more
abundant than it now is, although it still grows in considerable
quantity in the vicinity of Richmond and Eltingville, and small
scattered individual specimens are to be met with in nearly
every part of the island. Not far from Cliffords is a most beau-
tiful example of this tree. The main trunk is four feet six inches
in circumference, and each main branch measures two feet, ten
inches. Its height is about twenty-five feet, and' the symmetry
would be perfect except that some vandals have hacked oil'
branches on one side, presumably for Christmas greens.

The catalpu, paulownia, and locust (liobinia, Pseudaca<-< <.
L.) have all more or less escaped from cultivation and are
thoroughly established in a wild state in many places; in fart
the latter, there is good reason to believe, is native here. The
ailanthus is likewise seeding itself quite extensively and seems
likely to become a permanent feature. The two species of ash
(Fruxinus pubescens, and Fraj'iiiioi Americana) are found
sparingly throughout the island, but are mostly represented by
isolated trees. The wild cherry is every where abundant and the
cultivated one has been extensively plavted in woods and copies
through the agency of birds. Peac'a, pear and apple trees are
also frequently met with in the woods and along old fence lines
and hedge rows, where the seeds have been accidentally
dropped. The sassafras is common and well known every-
where. The hackberry, or sugarberry (Celt is o<:<:i<h nialia,


L.) is plentiful in restricted localities, notably on Kiclmiond
hill and at Tottenville. Its peculiar warty bark and insect
bitten branches always attract attention wherever seen. The
white and red mulberry may now be found in nearly all parts
of the island, distributed by birds from trees, a large part of
which were planted during the silk worm craze some years ago.
The remains of some of these plantations may yet be seen, being
all that is left of the visions of silk culture that prevailed at
the time they were planted. Many black walnut trees may yet
be seen, some of them very imposing specimens. Their near
relatives, the hickories, number five different species, common
everywhere. (Carya alba, Nutt., C. tomentosa, Nutt., C. por-
cina, Nutt,, C. amara, Nutt., and C. microcarpa, Nutt.) The
first mentioned, which is commonly known as the "shag" or
" shell bark," yields the hickory nuts of the markets. This
species is plentiful enough in certain places on the south side to
be of some economical importance. The oaks number ten dif-
ferent species. The chestnut, swamps, white and red oaks are
known everywhere, forming the bulk of the woods, but the post
oak (Quercus obtustloba, Michx. ) and black oak (Q. nigra, L. )
occur only in a few places, notably Tottenville and Watchogne.
The dwarf oak (Q., Willd. ) is also restricted to the
same localities. It seldom grows more than six feet high and
appears like a thick bush. The willow oak, (Q. Pkellos, L. ), so
far as known, is represented bv a single tree, growing in ;i
swamp at Tottenville. The chestnut was formerly very abund-
ant, and is yet along Ocean terrace, but it has been laid under
such heavy contribution for fence posts and rails, telegraph and
telephone poles, railroad ties, etc., that its complete extermina-
tion in the near future seems inevitable. Hornbeam or " iron
wood" is plentiful, especially in wet places. There are three
species of birch, two of which are common and well known,
namely the black and white. The third, which is known as the red
or " river birch " (Betulanigra, L.), is very rare, only a few trees
being known, and they are on the borders of a pond near Bull's
Head. These are likel" to be destroyed very shortly, on ac-
count of certain changes now being made by the Crystal
Water Company. There are Tine willows, all common, in addi-
tion to the " weeping willow." which is so well known in culti-
vation. With the exception of the white (>'"//> aJba, L., rar.
vitelliua, Ofr. ) and the black (S. n <ra, L.), they are shrubs


mostly confined to low or swampy situations. Botanically they
are known as SalLr tristis, Ait., 8. humilis, Marshall, 8. dis-
color, Muhl., S. sericea, Marshall., S.lucida, Muhl., S.fragiUs,
L., and 8. cordata, Muhl. The poplars include, besides the
well known cultivated species, the white, Lombardy, and "balm
of Gilead," three wild ones, viz.: Poptilus tremuloides, Michx.,
commonly called "aspen," P. grandidentata, Michx., and P.
JieteropJiylla, L.

There are four species of pines, all comparatively plentiful.
The pitch pine is found everywhere. The white and yellow
pines are not so common, and the "scrub," or New Jersey pine,
is found only in the neighborhood around Tottenville and
Kreischerville, excepting for a few isolated trees near Four
Corners. The cedar is very common, forming many beautiful
groves at different parts of the island. Very large specimens
are to be seen near the Billop house at Tottenville, and at
Kreischerville. Two of these trees measure respectively 5 ft.
10 in. and 5 ft. 4A in. in circumference. Only one specimen of
the juniper is known to be in existence in the county. This is
in the cedar grove at New Dorp, near the beach. Persimmons
are very common at Tottenville and Kreischerville, although
rarely met with elsewhere.

Among the shrubs and bushes are many highly ornamental
species, besides some of economic importance. The common
barberry is spreading quite rapidly, especially in the vicinity of
Tottenville, where it is a conspicuous object in the autumn, on
account of the drooping racemes of bright scarlet berries. Near
the same locality the "burning bush" (Euonymus atfajuu
pureus, Jacq.) has escaped from cultivation. The black-cap
raspberry, high bush and trailing blackberries, are in some lo-
calities abundant enough to pick for market. The English
ha \vthorne has become established in several localities, notably
along a brook at New Dorp, where there are a number of very
large bushes. Three varieties of the " shad bush " have been
found here (AmelancJiicr Canadensis, T. & G., var. But ft/
apiitm, car. oblong if olium, and var. rotundifolium.) It some-
times grows large enough to be called a tree, as is the case at
Totfenville, where there is one measuring 3 ft. 4i- in. in cir-
cumference. When in blossom this tree is a sight to behold,
appearing in the distance like a bank of snow. Unfortunately
some vandal has hacked off one of the main branches, thus


ruining its former symmetry. Small hushes are plentiful every-
where, and have attracted such attention that the florists have
introduced them successfully for shrubbery. The witch hazel
is plentifully distributed along nearly all the watercourses and
in wet locations generally. Probably the best known of all the
bushes is the "nanny berry" ( Viburnum prunlfolium, L.)
which is so abundant in a certain place near West New Brighton
that it is called " nanny berry hill." It is used successfully for
hedges, not only in rough places, but in cultivated gardens, and
should be a favorite, as it is never winter-killed like so many of
the introduced hedge plants. The "huckleberries" number six
species, besides several varieties. The one which produces the
huckleberry of the market is known as the " high " or "swamp
huckleberry," although the others are all used more or less. In
the vicinity of \Vatchogue they are abundant enough to be of
some economical importance. Kalmia Intifolia, L., better
known as the "laurel," is still quite common, especially at
Tottenville, but is too conspicuous and handsome a bush to
stand long near a thickly settled community. The Rhododen-
dron nuLi'tiitum, L., has already suffered for its beauty and has
become completely exterminated on the island, within the
memory of people now living here. The azalea seems destined
to share the same fate, although not so rapidly. It has already
disappeared from hundreds of acres where it was abundant a
few years ago. Benzoin (Lindera Benzoin. Meisner) is com-
mon along nearly all water courses. The filbert nut forms a
considerable part of the underbrush in certain places, and is
scattered along hedge rows and the borders of woods in others.
Mi/rica cerifera, L., the "wax myrtle" or "sweet bay," is
common throughout, and was formerly the source from which
the early settlers derived considerable of their tallow for candles
and other purposes by boiling the berries. The alder (Alnus
serrulata, Ait.) forms the bulk of the thick underbrush in
swamps and along the borders of fresh water. Rosa Carolina,
L., the swamp wild rose, is common in low places, and JR.

Online LibraryRichard Mather BaylesHistory of Richmond County (Staten Island), New York from its discovery to the present time → online text (page 3 of 72)