It is a truth universally acknowledged that everything is better when it’s free. A classic example of this is the Staten Island Ferry. Thousands of people (this is a made up statistic by the way, I can’t be bothered to look up real figures) get the ferry from Battery Park to Staten Island and back every single day, taking in the incredible views of Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island across New York Harbour along the way. Many people take the ferry just for the views, but there are also plenty of Staten Islanders who rely on the ferry to get them to and from Manhattan on their daily commute. What is rarer are people who are not from Staten Island going over to Staten Island for the day. Most tourists who board the Staten Island Ferry get off at St George’s Dock at Staten Island and walk straight around to the departing ferry dock and head right on back to Manhattan. They are missing out! Staten Island has a wonderful history, some fantastic old homes, lovely museums and parks, and feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of the other boroughs of New York City. So, a couple of weekends ago, Jenny and my friend Claire and I boarded the Staten Island Ferry and we got off at the other end, ready for a day of adventure.
The original plan was to have a two centre trip, stopping off first at the Alice Austen House, a Victorian photography museum, which I visited many years ago when I was travelling during one of my summers at university, and then going on to Historic Richmond Town, which is in the middle of the Island and contains a variety of historic buildings that go back to the 17th century, telling the history of the settlement of the Island. I sent Jenny a smug email on the Friday before we were due to go, saying that I had planned our entire trip and was going to be super organised and print off all the maps and bus schedules. Obviously because I am not super organised I then totally forgot and only realised when I was on the train home that I had done nothing I had promised, so an emergency text to Jenny deferred the navigation responsibilities onto her. Thank goodness they did, for Jenny is far cleverer than me and informed me that, due to my complete inability to understand the scale on a map, the two places on Staten Island I had planned for us to visit were approximately two hours apart, and not the half an hour stroll I had thought. Oops. So, instead, we just went to Historic Richmond Town. And what fun we had!
As soon as we stepped off the bus I felt like we’d stepped back in time. Grand Victorian homes sat alongside single level colonial cottages, 18th century official buildings, an old schoolhouse, a vicarage, general stores, and a church. Though it is surrounded by busy roads, the village itself is an oasis of calm, and I could just imagine how bustling it must have been one hundred years ago, the little streets swarming with ladies in bonnets and men in britches and horses and carts and little children in kid leather boots playing with wooden hoops. Many of the structures currently in the village have been brought from other parts of Staten Island, so the village centre itself would not have looked exactly as it does today, but they have done a brilliant job of forming a coherent village feel with buildings that cover three centuries of Staten Island life. There is also a museum on site that brings the history of the island to life and contextualises the buildings and the industries you will learn about when you take a tour of the village.
On our tour of the village we sat inside the oldest one room schoolhouse in the United States – which was actually rather cozy, though apparently not for children; the benches at the back were original and were very high off the ground. Those children who couldn’t afford to pay for school had to sit on the high benches away from the fire rather than the stools at the front, near the fire, and their little legs couldn’t touch the ground, so by the end of the school day they were in awful pain from having to keep their legs up all day long. Poor little things. We went inside the cottage of a revolutionary spy, whose house was used as a hide out for soldiers because from the outside it looks like it only has one story, when really it has two. Inside another similar cottage we got to see the construction methods of these old houses, with the skeletons of the walls laid bare for us to see what materials the original Staten Islanders used to create their wood and stone cottages. We went to an 18th century tavern, where we learned the reason why a bar is called a bar – there used to be bars you could drop down over the counter to protect the money and alcohol when things got rowdy, making a cage out of the serving area that no one could get into. Can you believe that?! I never knew! Next door to the tavern, we got to experience the lifestyle and cooking methods of a wealthy 18th century farming family in a reportedly haunted cottage, where there was a HUGE old bread oven that could have fitted 200 loaves of bread in at a time! We also learned about the life of a Voorlezer, a kind of teacher/preacher, who would have been the centre of the Dutch community that founded Staten Island in the 17th century. I felt so knowledgable by the end of the tour, but the best part was yet to come.
I have mentioned frequently that I love cemeteries; my beady eyes had spotted one on the map when I was planning the trip, and I couldn’t wait for a chance to escape the tour guide and run off to explore the old graves in the church yard across the street. When Jenny, Claire and I had finally had enough of the often rather patronising tour guide, we escaped through the back door of one of the houses while she was talking in another room and ran across the road to the pretty church and graveyard. Gorgeous old graves and mausoleums with some fantastic old Dutch names awaited us, and I had a lovely time exploring. Best of all was the little pet cemetery at the bottom; I’ve never seen one of those before and I thought it was so touching.
The final stop before leaving the village and heading back to Manhattan was the museum, where they had a fascinating exhibition about the changing fashions in children’s furniture, toys and clothing from the 17th to the 20th centuries, and several wonderful rooms of exhibits telling the story of the history of Staten Island, its farms, industries, population, architecture and connections with New York City. We loved it, and as a former museum employee, I am always very critical of other museums and how they choose to present information and displays, so that is high praise from me. For a small local museum with little external funding, they have done a truly excellent job.
Then – back to the city! A windy ride on the ferry, our cheeks stinging in the freezing air, wonderful views across to the Financial District, and heads filled with new knowledge. What more could you want from a day out? Staten Island is such a lovely place to visit, and I’ll be back again soon, to visit Snug Harbor and the Staten Island Botanical Gardens.