How Manhattan Island Banished Marble Hill to the Mainland (but not to the Bronx)

Monday, September 26, 2016 - 10:00am

Is Marble Hill part of the Bronx or Manhattan? Read the fascinating history behind one of New York's most important infrastructure projects, and how it caused a dispute that's lasted over 100 years.

If you look at a contemporary map, modern day Marble Hill is quite nicely nestled into the Bronx and looks like it has always been so:

You could never tell from looking at this map that Marble Hill was once a part of Manhattan Island.

But politically and officially, it's still a part of New York County and is Manhattan's only neighborhood in mainland North America - that's because it actually was a part of Manhattan Island, once upon a time.

But things got complicated.

This geographic curiosity was caused by a massive and influential infrastructure project at the end of the 19th century and is the source of continued controversy about the neighborhood's proper borough.


The Original Marble Hill

Marble Hill has been occupied since Dutch colonial times. During the American Revolution, it served as an important strategic lookout, where observers could use its elevation to keep an eye on tactically important bridges of northern Manhattan (George Washington and his troops retreated across these bridges after The Battle of Harlem Heights).

This 18th-century map shows the original geography of northern Manhattan - notably less straightforward than it is today:

This 18th-century map shows Spuyten Duyvil Creek in its original state.

Here, Marble Hill is a part of Manhattan - the body of water wrapping around it is the Spuyten Duyvil Creek. Spuyten Duyvil Creek is a small estuary that connects the Hudson River to the northernmost portion of the Harlem River.

The creek is shallow, rocky and not navigable for large ships, even at high tide. Though work was undertaken to make it easier for small and medium-sized ships to move through, it was simply not possible for large steam ships to traverse.

As the Erie Canal opened up the shipping industry for upstate New York and beyond, more ships needed to get from the Hudson River out to the Long Island Sound (and vice versa) - if only they could fit through the Spuyten Duyvil Creek, valuable time and money wouldn't be lost by sending them around the southern tip of Manhattan.


The Lonely Island

In 1895, New York finally took action - the construction of the Harlem Ship Canal would separate Marble Hill from Manhattan by creating a new waterway along the neighborhood's southern border. The project, like many in the area at the time, drew German and Irish immigrants, many of which settled around Marble Hill.

This map from an 1896 issue of the New York Times shows how it looked right after the Canal's construction:

This map portion originally appeared in a
May 17th, 1896 article in the New York Times.

The portion of Spuyten Duyvil Creek north of Marble Hill remained, and the canal on its newly-created southern shore worked wonders for the shipping industry by significantly shortening the route between the Hudson River and the Long Island Sound.

Marble Hill was now an island, but only for a brief time - in 1914, the water on the north side of the hill was filled in, permanently connecting it to the Bronx.

If you're curious to see the location of the old waterway, head over to St. Stephen's Church - located at the base of the hill, it used to overlook the Spuyten Duyvil Creek.


Borough Envy

One thing that has not changed about Marble Hill is its status as a part of New York County, though it has been the subject of debate ever since it was physically linked with the Bronx over 100 years ago.

In 1939, Bronx Borough President James J, Lyons "annexed" Marble Hill in a poorly thought-out publicity stunt.

This photo appeared in a 1939
New York Times article

He drove over the border and planted both the flag of the United States and of Bronx County firmly on a neighborhood rock formation, declaring "In the name of the Bronx, of which I am the President, I hereby proclaim this territory of Marble Hill to be part of my borough."

Local residents were not amused, and the New York Times compared Lyons to another public figure who had been making headlines for brash, unilateral land-grabs in 1939.

The issue was finally laid to rest in 1984 after a controversial court decision that confused the neighborhood's standing caused the issue to come back into focus.

It was eventually settled when the New York Legislature voted to permanently include Marble Hill as a part of Manhattan.

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