Native Americans spent thousands of summers fishing from an island they called Wa-na-ka-wagh-kin, which is roughly translated to “good land.” That land was good enough for members of the Van Cortlandt patroon family, who bought the tiny island (near what is now Bear Mountain) on August 14, 1683. For almost two centuries, their descendants and then English settlers lived there, variously calling it Salisbury Island and Weygant’s Island. In 1847, a man named John Beveridge bought it for his son-in-law, Dr. E. W. Grant, who, legend has it, told people, “I own a island.” And that’s how it got its current name: Iona Island.
Grant used the land to grow a type of grape he called Iona grapes, which were substandard. He also planted fruit trees and, during the Civil War, he supplied the Union army with his produce. His business skills were apparently as good as his grapes, and in 1868, his creditors forced him into foreclosure.
The next year the island was sold to investors, who turned into a very popular summer resort and gradually added a carousel, a dance floor, and a pavilion. As many as 25 steamships a day, some carrying upwards of 2,500 people, brought weekenders from New York and New Jersey. And in 1882, the West Shore railroad opened, bringing even more interested vacationers.
But the fun stopped in 1899, when the owners sold the island to the U.S. Navy to use as an ammunitions depot that supplied troops in both World Wars. In the 1950s, Iona became a storage facility for the Defense Department. The fun almost returned in the 1960s, when the state bought it as part of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission. Governor Nelson Rockefeller envisioned new boat docks, man-made beaches, and swimming areas. The old buildings were torn down and the island was cleaned up. Then Rockefeller left office, and the idea—and the potential money to fund it—left with him. To environmentalists, that was the best thing to happen to Iona Island and its wetlands.
In 1974, folk singer and environmental activist Pete Seeger held a concert for Sloop Clearwater on the island, and that same year it became a registered National Landmark. It was closed to the public in the 1980s and today looks much like it did before the Europeans arrived. The wetlands have become a prime spot for bald eagles to nest. They, and dozens of other species, draw birders from all around. Native animals and plants have returned as well, and conservationists track plant and animal species in order to study ways to control invasive plants.
The best place to view the island and its wildlife is the overlook on Route 6/202, which has a small parking lot. Overlooks within Bear Mountain State Park also afford lovely views. The Iona Island property is owned by New York State Parks and Palisades Interstate Park Commission and co-managed by DEC’s Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve. To preserve the marsh and to protect the natural resource, the DEC has limited public use of the overlook and parking lot at the end of the road. The property is primarily used for bird watching and organized paddling trips; when the paddling trips become available, they will be posted to the DEC event’s calendar, with information on how to sign up, at dec.ny.gov/calendar.
David Levine is the author of The Hudson Valley: The First 250 Million Years, now in paperback.