SHOOTER’S ISLAND: Rediscovering an Urban Oasis

By Lauren Otis

Published in New Jersey Monthly magazine, March 2002

What two New Jersey cities have a land border with New York City, and where? It’s a trivia question sure to stump even those who profess intimate knowledge of the most arcane bits of Jerseyana. The answer: Bayonne and Elizabeth, at little Shooter’s Island, a 43-acre uninhabited patch of land just off the northern coast of Staten Island.

Shooter’s Island with the Bayonne Bridge in the distance

The New York-New Jersey border runs along the middle of the Kill Van Kull, bisecting Shooter’s Island. And the Bayonne-Elizabeth border, which runs down the middle of Newark Bay from the north, runs smack into Shooter’s Island, splitting it three ways. The lion’s share, 34 acres, sits on Staten Island, but 7 ½ acres land in Bayonne, and a 1 ½ -acre sliver belongs to Elizabeth. This geographical oddity, a major shipbuilding center at the turn of the century but abandoned in the 1920s, is now a wildlife preserve, an urban sanctuary for migrating and nesting birds of all kinds. The minute my friend Jordan mentions this quirky place to me, I know another urban adventure is at hand.

So on a balmy December day, we push our kayak off a dilapidated mooring on the Staten Island waterfront and into the charcoal-gray waters of the Kill Van Kull, paddling past tugboats and oil barges to the wooded and desolate island a few hundred yards away. Our tiny craft is dwarfed by the huge container ships heading under the Bayonne Bridge toward the giant loading cranes at the nearby Port of Elizabeth. Spotting a piece of shore relatively free of the old pier pilings that march out into the water around most of the island, we land. A wildlife preserve it may be, but Shooter’s Island is far from pristine. The detritus that clogs its shores, built up over generations, is breathtaking. Weathered wood, bricks, shattered glass, and crockery from the turn of the twentieth century jostle in the shallows alongside plastic bottles and crates, fishing buoys, and balls of every shape and size that more recently washed ashore. Tires are everywhere; we even come across a huge tire from the landing gear of a large commercial jet. “You think it dropped off?” I wonder aloud, noting the frequent planes overhead. “Or they dumped it at Newark Airport and it floated over,” speculates Jord, giving the more plausible explanation.

Looking at the litter and mucky ooze at our feet, it’s hard to imagine that in the early 1800s Shooter’s Island was known for its oyster beds. According to Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller in The Other Islands of New York City (The Countryman Press, 1996), the then eleven-acre island was expanded into a shipyard, gaining renown for its cruising and racing yachts. Its historical high point came on February 25, 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt visited the island, along with 2,000 other guests, to witness the launching of the Meteor III, the fabulous racing yacht built for Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.

During World War I, 9,000 workers crowded onto the island to build steel cargo ships. By the 1920s Shooter’s Island was abandoned, becoming a dumping ground for derelict ships. In 1990 a ruptured Exxon pipeline spilled 567,000 gallons of oil into the Kill Van Kull, saturating Shooter’s Island. Fines paid by Exxon were used to purchase conservation easements to make the island the permanent wildlife refuge for harbor herons and other birds that it is today.

So Shooter’s Island has been returned to nature, an abused but much needed piece of open space amid one of the most industrialized regions in the world. Small trees and underbrush already have taken over the island’s interior, making it nearly impassible and forcing us to stick to the shoreline. Rounding a point, we consult our maps and realize we’ve just walked from New Jersey into New York.

Evening falls at Shooter’s Island

Back in our kayak, we complete our circumnavigation. The golden light of a winter’s afternoon erases some of the gloom of rotted wooden ships and disintegrated floating docks, forgotten along this busy shipping route. As we glide by, a large heron takes flight and heads across the island, slowly beating its wings. We’re reluctant to turn back, but the sun is dropping rapidly behind Staten Island and we’ve no interest in meeting the ghosts of Shooter’s Island after dark.