The Big Apple’s Little Apple – Part 2

Captain John Manning’s step-daughter, Mary Manningham, married Robert Blackwell in 1676 and they inherited the island in 1686 and changed the name to Blackwell’s Island.  It kept this family name until 1921, an impressive 235 years.  In 1776, the then-current owner, Jacob Blackwell, was very loyal to the American Revolution, which was not a good thing when the British occupied NY.  They confiscated the island during their occupation but the island’s name was not changed and the family got it back when the British were run out of town. 

The Blackwell family farmed the island.  I have always heard that the Blackwell family actually lived in the Queens area but they spent their summers farming on the island.  While the wealthy of NYC went to the mountains, it seems the Blackwell family went to the island.  It apparently was much cooler there with the breeze over the water.  But in 1782, the family tried to sell the island and listed a cider mill, a large orchard containing 450 fruit trees and a number of stone quarries in the ad.  Nobody wanted it.  The family tried again in 1794 but, again, nobody wanted that island.  I guess either it wasn’t that cool in the summer or no one wanted to take care of all those trees!  In 1796, the Blackwell house was built and it is the oldest structure on the island today.  I was a little shocked to see a 2-story, baby blue wooden house still standing but it was so great to be able to touch this home that my dad’s ancestors had built so long ago. 

Blackwell House 1999


In 1823, the Blackwell’s sold the island to James Bell for $30,000.  That was great but the man died, apparently without heirs, and the island reverted BACK to the Blackwell family in 1825.  Personally, I think this was a sign and the Blackwell family should have held on to the island, but in 1828, the City of New York bought it and the Blackwell family was finally out of the fruit business. 

NYC erected a penitentiary in 1832, the New York Lunatic Asylum in 1839, the lighthouse in 1872, the Chapel of the Good Shepherd in 1889, and many hospitals and charity institutions.   By the way, when you are standing by the lighthouse, facing north, to your right is Hallett’s Cove.  Well, it’s Astoria now but it was originally named Hallet’s Cove, named for William Hallet and his family who settled there in 1659, and in the 1800’s, Hallet’s Cove was a resort for the wealthy of Manhattan.  The Blackwells and Hallets are connected by marriage through several generations and, in one case, were double-connected.  Ok, that’s a totally different and very interesting story, but I digress. 



 To say that Blackwell’s Island gained a bad reputation would probably be an understatement.  There were many scandals surrounding the prison and the Lunatic Asylum, including one I particularly love.  The journalist Nellie Bly faked being insane and had herself committed to the asylum for 10 days so that she could see what really went on in there.  She did quite a series of articles for the New York World newspaper, calling the asylum a “human rat-pack” and making a name for herself in the journalism world.  After reading Around the World in Eighty Days in 1889, she even convinced the owner of the newspaper to finance an attempt to break that record.  She returned in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds and was met by a massive crowd on her return.  I wonder how long that trip around the world, with a stop in each major destination in the book, would take today? 

How do Welfare, gangs, and West fit together on this island all at the same time?  Can you guess?  While there were many charity cases on the island, this is not the welfare I’m referring to.  West is not a direction in this case.  Gangs?  You may get that one right , seeing as I’ve already told you about the prison but I think there’s a twist you might not expect.  We’ll see.  Til next time!


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