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Iona Island: A History of Bear Mountain State Park’s Most Mysterious Isle in Rockland County, NY

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On a rainy weekend this past May, a few dozen hardy and curious hikers gathered at the kiosk by the railroad station near Route 9W in Bear Mountain State Park. There they met Donald “Doc” Bayne, an environmental educator and historian at Sterling Forest State Park. Bayne was about to lead them onto a spot of land in the Hudson River that has intrigued him since he was a teenager.

“I always wondered, ‘What is Iona Island?’ ” says Bayne, who turns 65 this month. “I mean, what is it? I drove out there onto the causeway when I was 17 — and got thrown out.” The causeway, which still exists, connects the island to Route 9W.

Bayne surely isn’t the only local to wonder about Iona, which actually is a small archipelago of three islands located near Doodletown, a former hamlet in Stony Point that was purchased in the 1960s by the Palisades Interstate Parks Commission to become part of Bear Mountain State Park. But Bayne now knows as much as anyone about the land’s colorful history, and leads occasional hikes for like-minded naturalists through the otherwise closed-to-the-public preserve.

That history begins at least 3,500 years ago, when Native Americans spent the summers fishing from the island’s shores. (“There were seven-pound oysters back then,” Bayne claims.) Native rock shelters still dot what came to be called Rock Island, which joined Salisbury and Round islands, tidal marshes, and mud flats to make up the bedrock spit of land.

In 1683, members of the Van Cortlandt family purchased the land from the natives. Dutch ancestors lived there for nearly 200 years, during which time Salisbury Island was also known as Weygant’s Island (for a local family named Weygant or Weiant). In 1849, a man named John Beveridge bought property for his great-son-in-law, Dr. E.W. Grant. “When he got the land, he told people, ‘I own a island,’ ” Bayne says. “That’s how it got the name.”

 

iona islandThe island in its current natural state (with Anthony’s Nose in the background)

Grant used the site to grow a type of grape he called Iona grapes. “Turns out they weren’t very good grapes,” Bayne admits. Grant also planted fruit trees and supplied the Union army with produce during the Civil War. That didn’t work out so well, either, and in 1868 his creditors foreclosed on him. The next year the island was sold to a group of investors and turned into a summer resort. Grant’s mansion home became a hotel, and the investors gradually added a carousel, a dance floor, and a pavilion. Steam ships — up to 25 a day, some carrying as many as 2,500 people — came up from New York and New Jersey and deposited weekenders. And in 1882, the West Shore railroad opened, bringing even more visitors. “It was said that during the resort’s heyday you couldn’t walk 10 feet without stepping on a blanket,” Bayne says.

The fun ended in 1899, when the owners sold out to the U.S. Navy, which needed an ammunitions depot. “It supplied most of the munitions for both World War I and II,” Bayne says. At the time, it was one of the largest ammunition facilities in the nation. A 1903 explosion at the site killed six workers, and blew out windows in towns as far away as Peekskill. Approximately five of the original 164 arsenal buildings remain, which the park now uses for storage.

iona island naval depotThe naval depot located on the site, circa 1911-1919

The fun almost returned in the ’60s, when the state bought Iona to become a part of the Palisades Interstate Park system. Governor Nelson Rockefeller envisioned new boat docks, man-made beaches, and swimming areas. The old buildings were torn down, the island cleaned up. “Then Rocky left office and there was no money,” Bayne says.

To naturalists like Bayne, that may have been the best thing to happen to the island and its wetlands since the Natives sold it to the patroons. In 1974, Pete Seeger drew attention to the island by holding a concert for Clearwater there, and in 1974 it became a registered National Natural Landmark. In the 1980s it was closed to the public, and today looks much like it did before the Europeans arrived.

In recent years, Iona Island has come to be considered a bald eagle sanctuary. As many as 40 eagles have been spotted along the river in its vicinity, and it has become a prime nesting spot for these majestic (and formerly endangered) birds. Dozens of other avian species — including belted kingfishers, osprey, mute swans, and warbling vireos — draw birders and their binoculars to the area, who view them from the marsh edge along the road and the railroad causeway. Native animals, along with more than 400 varieties of plants, have returned as well. “It’s being reborn, going back to what it was,” Bayne says.

And to keep it that way, Iona Island is currently closed to the public. The Bear Mountain Zoo’s Executive Director Ed McGowan and other conservationists are tracking plant and animal species and are investigating ways to control invasive plants. What these researchers learn will help those stewarding other protected areas to preserve their natural environments.

“It’s really cool,” says Bayne, who has spotted deer, fox, and “all kinds of birds” during his summertime excursions. “It’s a great thing that the park is doing all this research, and keeping people off the island is important for that reason. It’s really a gorgeous place, and people always ask me, ‘Why can’t we go there?’ But after they see it, they understand.”

WILD WALK
Want to tour Iona Island? Three-hour guide hikes are given five to six times each year between May and October; contact Bear Mountain State Park at 845-786-2701 to find out when the next one is scheduled.