By Victoria Hallerman
Roughly 100,000 years ago in the Pleistocene Epoch (the Ice Age) a mile-high glacier carved out a channel that would become what we know as the Hudson River. At the same time, this same glacier created a terminal moraine, depositing some of the richest top soil in New York State, along with clay, sand and rocks, to create a twelve-mile-long mound we now call Staten Island.
90,000 years later – while most of North America was still covered in deep ice – the glacier began to recede, revealing Staten Island’s northerly coastline. About that time, three tribes of the Lenape came to live on the shores of Staten Island, the surrounding areas, and on the hill now known as Fort Hill Park.
Tappans, Hackensacks and Raritan Lenape hunted mastodons, as well as other large mammals and fish. Their descendants came to call the island “Aquehonga” (“high sandy banks, or “Enchanted Woods”), and enchanted they are, to this very day.
In the era of the native tribes, many native plant species flourished on the north shore, where Fort Hill Park is situated. Among them: Oak (various), Black Walnut, Black Locust, Hackberry, Lynden, Slippery Elm, Sugar Maple, Silver Maple, White Mulberry, Horse Chestnut, Red Bud, Aronia, Silky Dogwood, American Strawberry Bush, Wild Strawberry, American Hornbeam, Spice Bush, Spirea Alba, Viburnum (various), Rudbeckia, Witch Hazel, Spicebush, Button Bush, Red Maple, Sugar Maple, Fern (various), Aster (various), Low Bush Blueberry, Black Raspberry Common and Orange Milkweeds, Foxglove, Goldenrod, and Columbine.
Of these listings, only the first ten, all trees, survived to the twenty-first century. Because ecosystems are delicate, many native animals that lived in symbiotic harmony with this plant life vanished as well.
Henry Hudson arrived, to sail up the river that would bear his name. Dutch settlers claimed the island at the harbor’s mouth, naming it “Staaten Eylandt” (City Island), and founding a colony in Old Town, “Oude Dorp,” near South Beach. Others would arrive, French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution, led by Daniel Perrin, (1642–1719) who settled in the area during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The French, the English and the Dutch mingled freely.
These settlers farmed the land, completely clearing away large forests to create arable earth, while constructing wooden homes, barns, shops and churches. Though many native species survived for a time, shading porches and small manicured gardens, intrusive species, reminiscent of homelands left behind – or “exotics” originating in farther parts of the world, including the far east – gradually crowded out the once-lush native vegetation..
Numerous invasive plants flourish in Fort Hill Park to this day. They include: Norway Maple, English Ivy, Multi-flora Rose, Ailanthus (Tree of Heaven), Burning Bush, Ginko, Garlic Mustard, Privet, Japanese Honeysuckle (vine and bush), Japanese Barberry, Myrtle, Bedstraw, Chickweed, Lesser Celandine (poisonous, aka pilewort). These plants often outmatch natives in competing for light, water, and nutrients, leaving them at a disadvantage to grow fully and healthfully. Norway Maple, for example buds out early – before native plants, creating a canopy of darkness below which smaller plants struggle to find light all season long.
The American Revolution increased deforestation. During the course of the war, the British Army used Fort Hill as an encampment (hence the park’s name, which it shares with local streets such as Fort Hill Park, Fort Hill Circle and Fort Place). The British built an earthwork fort on the hilltop, and used the surrounding areas for camp. One story about the fort tells of an attempted American raid in wintertime. The snow made progress up the hill difficult, so the Americans settled for burning the British stores of firewood as they retreated.
After the American Revolution cut colonial ties with Europe, descendants of all original resident groups, with the exception of the Lenape, stayed on.
One notable Dutch descendant, “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), bought his first boat when he was just 16. He started a nautical and railroad empire, including, at the start, what would eventually become the Staten Island Ferry. Service, provided by NYC, continues to this day. Vanderbilt, who spent his life as a citizen of Staten Island, is buried in the island’s Moravian Cemetery.
St George and West New Brighton, the neighborhoods that border Fort Hill Park, were prosperous residential areas in the nineteenth century. The land nearest the ferry developed increasingly as a resort area, where Manhattan residents might journey to eat oysters and catch the harbor breezes in summertime.
Fort Hill Park has always had a certain mystique. Local residents, aided by the Staten Island Historical Society recalled Fort Hill’s historic significance and, in 1923, made an effort to save the land from development.
That initial effort failed, and rapid real estate development continued. By the 1960’s, many original private residences and seaside hotels had been razed in response to demands for increased development. The Daniel Low mansion, for example, left its name on Daniel Low Terrace, a local street of some length.
A large home known as the August Stumpp residence once stood at the lower corner of Fort Hill Park itself, though it was destroyed after fewer than 75 years. Sad as the loss of historic buildings may be, these estates were responsible for the proliferation of many invasive species of popular garden plants.
Fort Hill Park is once again becoming a vital sanctuary for native plant and animal life. Restoring a healthy native forest ecosystem has begun to increase bird activity and butterfly sightings. The community agrees with the Lenape sense that we are indeed an “enchanted woods.”
We hope you’ll come to Fort Hill Park and enjoy our pocket of tranquility in the busy urban setting of Staten Island’s north shore. If by chance you have a garden of your own, perhaps you’ll join us by encouraging the growth of native species in your own backyard, and see how nature responds!