Trenton’s River Islands, with Dan Aubrey

Joe Teti called us to order at 12:15, and George, our Treasurer, reported a balance of $1534.  He asked that people please remember to pay their annual dues of $35.

Dan Aubrey, who spoke in 2018 about his research on Trenton area stained glass, returned for this meeting to talk about the Islands in the Delaware along the length of our city.  Rob Bullington once again supported the presentation with great A/V. 

Brave Carol Rogers, who had stepped in to take minutes in February, didn’t have a report, so we moved on to a report from the Joe Teti Prize committee.  Mike Zuckerman reported that the committee had agreed to give the inaugural prize to the Trenton Free Public Library.  A formal presentation will be arranged for our September meeting, and she will speak at that symposium.

Dan is arts editor for U.S.1 and the general editor and columnist for Trenton Downtowner.  He has worked at the State Museum and at Foundation Theatre and Passage Theatre.  He came to the Trenton area in the 1970s.

The islands are in the river across from Glen Afton and The Island neighborhood.  The largest is Rotary Island, named because the local Rotary Clubs had possession of it for many years, and ran a quarantine hospital there for kids with tuberculosis.

It’s dangerous to get to the islands thanks to the strong current of the Delaware and the occasional sink holes left by digging and dredging.  Easy to fall in and find yourself held under by the current, so don’t everybody just try to go tramping out there!

After trying to put in a kayak at various locations (the flood dam by the State House, spots along the seawall, Dan discovered that there was water access from the northern end of Stacy Park.  Once launched, he felt the water reminded him of Maine, so clear and lively was it.

Getting onto Rotary Island was no easy thing either, as its shore is tangled with brush.  At 31 acres, it’s the largest of the islands, and was used as a fishing spot by Native Americans and as a pasture by early European settlers.

In 1889, 20 guys created a canoeing club based on Rotary Island, which was supported in season by a tented encampment, with picnics and parties.  Edmund Hill and Fred Donnelly, two notable Trentonians, were the anchor personalities of the canoe enterprise.  Hill was the developer for Berkeley Square, and instrumental in bringing Frederick Law Olmsted to Trenton to design Cadwalader Park.   The canoeists left a legacy of a bumpout at the river end of Gouverneur St, where it is sometimes possible to enter the river.

Eventually, the canoeists sold the island to the Rotary and, in partnership with the women of the Mercer County Health League, the TB hospital was born.  Rotary Island also hosted 2 week summer camps for Trenton’s kids in these years.  As more and more successful and reliable TB treatments developed, isolation in an island hospital no longer attracted support or patients, so the institution closed down.  The buildings were turned over to the Rescue Mission, while church groups continued to run summer camps.

It’s very hard to locate the remains of the buildings today, thanks to the undergrowth.  Would be easiest in the winter, when the outlines of foundations would show through the snow, but it’s so cold and dangerous to be on the river in winter that Dan himself has no intention of trying this.

The Rescue Mission arranged with Roebling Wire to string up a barge cable, so that supplies and people could safely cross to and from the Island.  They ran an electrical line, took insurance on the property and hired Arthur Pope, a local upholsterer, as resident manager, to live on the island with his wife, Grace, and son, Leonard.  Sadly, Arthur Pope was killed one stormy night returning from his winter job on the mainland.  (December 5, 1950) Even as Grace watched him cross in the barge, the barge cable snapped and the recoil killed him instantly, also knocking his body into the river.  The body later came ashore in Bordentown. 

Grace Pope had a sighting that she thought was her deceased husband at the hospital that night, which has given rise to speculation about paranormal presences on Rotary.  The bereaved Pope family moved away from the island, though, and five years later floods carried away almost all of their home, save for some materials neighbors on land were able to salvage. 

Apparently, you can also find shotguns shells on Rotary Island from people hunting ducks and geese, who follow the River as a migration route.  Those migratory water birds should be encouraged to feed heavily on the invasive clams in the river, too.

In 1960, Rotary Island looked poised to host an apartment development, but the city refused to run water and sewage lines out to it, killing that idea.  Rotary sold the island to the state under the Green Acres program, founding a scholarship program with the proceeds.  Ultimately, Rotary Island was incorporated into Washington Crossing State Park.  As small section of the original island, cut off by a change in the river’s course, was refused by the state and dumped on an unwilling city of Trenton.

The next island, moving south, is called Blackguard Island, so named for the criminal gentlemen who used to gather there.  It is an unsupervised space, so rafters, kayakers, boaters, tube-riders, etc. frequently put in onto Blackguard.  Families living across from Blackguard have reported parties out of control.  Too much reporting, though, seems to have gotten one neighbor a “stray” shot through her window … (Ah, Trenton … Ed Note)

The island below the Calhoun St. Bridge is called Yards Island or Fishing Island.  It is noted for interesting rock formations and meadows and burbling brooks in the interior.

Dan answered questions about paranormal studies on the islands, the shotgun shells, and the fact that New Jersey claimed the islands because the passage channel at that point is far over toward the PA side of the river.

With thanks and acknowledgement to both Dan and Rob, we adjourned at 1:10 pm

         We will meet next on April 22, at Blooming Grove Inn.

Respectfully submitted,

Shan Holt, secretary