One of the many well-known locations you can see on a Skyline Cruise of New York Harbor is Randall’s Island. Currently home to several famous music festivals, the island has a rich history that’s pure New York.
The Hidden History of Randall’s Island
Did you know that what we today call Randall’s Island actually began as two separate islands? That’s why even though it’s commonly referred to as “Randall’s Island” its official name is “Randalls and Wards Islands.”
Located in NY Harbor, Randall’s Island has the Harlem River on the west and the East River, obviously, on its east side. In 1637, Dutch Governor Wouter Van Twiller convinced the Lenape tribe to sell Randall’s Island, which they called Minnahanonck, and its sister island, Tenkenas (later renamed Wards Island). The Dutch then renamed them Little Barent Island and Great Barent Island, which later became Little Barn Island and Big Barn Island, and used them for farmland. The rock quarry mined to create the original Old Trinity Church in 1696 is also based there.
In 1772, a captain in the British military, John Montresor, bought Little Barn Island and renamed it Montresor’s Island after himself. Montresor was a successful engineer and lived there quietly until the Revolutionary War. George Washington set up a smallpox quarantine until it was seized by British officers. Montresor then began using the island as a hospital for British officers. The British military also used the island as a base for attacks during the Revolutionary War until the British were expelled from it in 1783, and it was seized.
In 1784 Jonathan Randel, a farmer, purchased the island and renamed it after himself. However, a spelling error turned its official name into “Randall’s Island” instead of “Randel’s Island” as intended. Around that same time, Jaspar and Bartholomew Ward, sons of Judge Stephen Ward, bought and renamed the other island. The two islands were divided by a strait known as Hell’s Gate.
In 1835, the City of New York bought Randall’s Island from Randel’s descendants for $60,000. The same happened with Wards Island in 1851. New York soon put the islands to use housing “undesirables.” Randall’s Island became home to an orphanage, a potters field (a place where deceased without money for a grave were buried), an almshouse (a place for the destitute), children’s hospital, and something called the “Idiot Asylum.” Its worst institution there was a reform school called the House of Refuge, which began in 1854. The Society for Reformation of the Juvenile Delinquents ran the institution, which became known for its brutality. It mixed real criminals and street urchins, the latter mostly made of Irish teens. House of Refuge inmates was used as unpaid workers until 1887.
Meanwhile, Ward Island received hundreds of thousands of bodies moved from potters fields in Madison Square Park and Bryant Park. The State Emigrant Refuge Hospital was also based there for sick and poor immigrants as well as a nursing home for Civil War veterans, an “Inebriate Asylum” for alcoholics, and The New York Asylum for the Insane.
Modern Day Randall’s Island
In 1917, Little Hell Gate Bridge connected the two islands. At the time, it was the longest steel arch bridge in the world.
In the 1930s, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses pushed a bill through the NY State legislature that removed the hospitals and asylums from the two islands, even though that made overcrowded conditions in other facilities far worse. Moses had a vision to connect Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens by bridge and connect to his new parkway system. The Triborough Bridge, now called the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, uses Randall’s Island as a junction point for it to connect the three boroughs.
In 1936, a 21,000-seat stadium opened with the Olympic trials that featured Jesse Owens. First known as the Triborough and later renamed Downing, it also featured the first outdoor jazz festival, the 1938 Carnival of Swing.
Randall’s Island has gone on to hold many major concerts over the years, including the 1970 New York Rock Festival featuring Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker, and Steppenwolf and, for several years in the 1990s, the alternative music fest Lollapalooza. Icahn Stadium replaced Downing Stadium in 2005. The islands now include a golf center, tennis academy, athletic fields, the Governor’s Ball music festival, and other music festivals. The NYC Fire Department training academy is also there, simulating various environments.
In 1951, Manhattan residents gained easier access to Wards Island through the opening of the Wards Island Pedestrian Bridge. Around this period, the strait between Randall’s and Ward’s islands began to be filled with debris from Manhattan construction, gradually merging the two islands. That’s when the previously separate landmasses began to be called “Randall’s Island” despite its official name acknowledging its origin as two separate islands.
Today, Randall’s Island is best known for its sports facilities and the entertainment complexes frequently used by music and art festivals. The one-time farmland, military base, and refuge for the sick, immigrants, and poor has been transformed into a green space and recreational hub for the City of New York.
Whether you’re interested in a cozy lunch or dinner cruise for two, or if you are planning a special milestone party, a wedding, or a black tie corporate event, holding it aboard the Skyline Princess will guarantee a unique celebration. Reach out and speak with our experienced event planners to discuss options and itineraries by calling (718) 446-1100. We look forward to cruising with you!