Iona Island: A History of Bear Mountain State Park’s Most Mysterious Isle in Rockland County, NY
Native American fishing spot, Dutch homestead, failed vineyard, amusement park, Navy depot, nature preserve — tiny Iona Island has seen it all
River gem: A present-day aerial view of Iona Island
All photographs courtesy of PIPC archives
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On a rainy weekend this past May, a few dozen hardy and curious hikers gathered at the kiosk by the railroad station near Route 9W in Bear Mountain State Park. There they met Donald “Doc” Bayne, an environmental educator and historian at Sterling Forest State Park. Bayne was about to lead them onto a spot of land in the Hudson River that has intrigued him since he was a teenager.
“I always wondered, ‘What is Iona Island?’ ” says Bayne, who turns 65 this month. “I mean, what is it? I drove out there onto the causeway when I was 17 — and got thrown out.” The causeway, which still exists, connects the island to Route 9W.
Bayne surely isn’t the only local to wonder about Iona, which actually is a small archipelago of three islands located near Doodletown, a former hamlet in Stony Point that was purchased in the 1960s by the Palisades Interstate Parks Commission to become part of Bear Mountain State Park. But Bayne now knows as much as anyone about the land’s colorful history, and leads occasional hikes for like-minded naturalists through the otherwise closed-to-the-public preserve.
That history begins at least 3,500 years ago, when Native Americans spent the summers fishing from the island’s shores. (“There were seven-pound oysters back then,” Bayne claims.) Native rock shelters still dot what came to be called Rock Island, which joined Salisbury and Round islands, tidal marshes, and mud flats to make up the bedrock spit of land.
In 1683, members of the Van Cortlandt family purchased the land from the natives. Dutch ancestors lived there for nearly 200 years, during which time Salisbury Island was also known as Weygant’s Island (for a local family named Weygant or Weiant). In 1849, a man named John Beveridge bought property for his great-son-in-law, Dr. E.W. Grant. “When he got the land, he told people, ‘I own a island,’ ” Bayne says. “That’s how it got the name.”