Staten Island: Before, there was a place called Tottenville. Earliest Settlers: Native American Indians
The original residents were the Algonquin Indians of the Lenape culture. The Unami, one tribe of the Algonquin nation, settled in a string of communities along the western shores of Staten Island from West Brighton to Tottenville. Tottenville is home to the largest known Native American burial ground in the metropolitan area. Known as Burial Ridge, this protected site is located within Conference House Park.
In 1624 the first families of white people settled on Staten Island - the Walloons of Belgium. But they didn't stay long. Following numerous confrontations with the Native American tribes, they soon retreated to New Amsterdam (Manhattan).
The Dutch arrived around 1630 and colonized the north shore of Staten Island near the Fort Wadsworth area. They, too, engaged in numerous conflicts with the Indians, but this time it was the Indians who began to retreat. By 1661, Staten Island had fallen into British hands. They negotiated an agreement with the Indians, who left the Island permanently in 1670.
Christopher Billopp, a British Royal Navy captain, was granted a 932-acre tract of land by the Duke of York in 1674. In 1687 the land grant was increased to 1,600 acres, encompassing the entire southern portion of the Island. On a rise of land overlooking Raritan Bay, Capt. Billopp built a two-story stone house c. 1680, known today as The Conference House. Originally, Billopp's house and property was known as The Manor of Bentley. Bentley was the name of his sailing vessel. Because of their loyalist connections, Billopp's descendants lost the property after the American Revolution. The land was subsequently divided into smaller farms and sold. The use of the name Bentley Manor, however, would continue through the 19th century.
Tottenville Changes Its Name & Tottenville Post Office is Established
The land area now known as Tottenville was originally part of the Manor of Bentley and later the Town of Westfield. On February 5, 1851, a post office was established at Tottenville; John Totten was appointed the first postmaster. For reasons unknown, in 1853 the post office moved to Bentley St. into the home of George Cole and was renamed Bentley Post Office.
By 1861, fueled by political changes, a controversy over the name of the town ensued with Stephen D. Arents, master sail maker, promoting the name Arentsville, while the Totten family pushed for Tottenville. The influential Totten family won the battle and the "Tottenville Post Office" was reopened on Totten St. (today's Main St.) near the railroad station.
In April 1910, in response to a petition of 300 names, the Post Office Dept. changed the name to Bentley Manor. Supporters of the historic name, led by the D.A.R., responded with two petitions containing over 1,300 signatures. The Washington Post, dated November 5, 1910, reported the following: "Complying with a general request by citizens, Postmaster General Hitchcock yesterday ordered the name of the postoffice at Bentley Manor, N.Y., changed to the old name of Tottenville."
In addition to the controversy over the name change, a debate was also brewing about how Billopp actually received the original land grant that included Tottenville. Following extensive coverage in the New York newspapers, George Oakley Totten, Jr., a direct descendant of Tottenville's founding family, wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times on April 2, 1910:
John Totten Jr.
"I have been greatly interested in your articles about the change of name of the Tottenville Post Office. In an editorial article you give the popular legend of how Billopp received his grant of land for sailing around the island. It is a pretty story and is given as you state it on page 102 of Bayles's "History of Richmond County, New York," but you will notice that on page 105 Bayles says: 'Another account says that Billopp received the plantation as a douceur from the Duke of York for his gallantry in some naval office.' So, pretty and romantic as the story sounds, it may or may not be true."
Oystering and Maritime Industries
By the early 19th century, the oysters harvested from the waters of Prince's Bay and Tottenville were known worldwide to be of exceptional quality. Oysters were a staple in the American diet. But by 1820, Staten Island's native oyster population had become exhausted and so the oyster industry took on a new strategy: oyster planting.The 19th century oyster industry was based upon oyster populations from Virginia, Long Island, and Maryland. Oystermen brought the oyster seeds from these regions and replanted the local beds. By the 1830's, the oyster industry began to thrive once again. As a result, shipbuilding and ship repair in Tottenville began to flourish. During the 19th century Tottenville was home to more than half a dozen shipyards. It is written that at one point eight yards were in operation.
A.C. Brown's Shipyard, ca. 1918
The revitalization of the oyster industry and the maritime industries associated with that revitalization were the impetus for the development of the village of Tottenville. The earliest Tottenville shipyards include Totten's Shipyard (1840-1860); Rutan Shipyard (1850-1880); Butler and Sleight Shipyard (later D.C. Butler Shipyard) (1855-1900); Journeay Shipyard (1855-1870); Ellis Shipyard (1857-circa 1920); and Brown's Shipyard (1873-1925). At the turn of the 20th century, the commercial shipyard industry took on a different role. Cossey's Shipyard (1905-1925) and later Tracy and Nash Shipyards were among those that met the needs of the changing industry.
By 1890 the oyster industry was once again in decline, due primarily to industrial pollutants and sewage. Later, in 1916, the New York Department of Health declared clamming and oystering in the waters around Staten Island unsafe. Coupled with the end of the oyster industry, the introduction of the steel hull drastically effectively the wooden shipbuilding industry of Tottenville. These long serving Tottenville businesses were faced with closure, and local citizens would have to find jobs elsewhere.
Agriculture was another important industry in the historic town of Westfield through the mid-19th century. The cultivated lands, located mostly south of Amboy Road to Raritan Bay, were producing abundant crops of wheat, rye, oats, corn and potatoes. The sandy soils were well suited for strawberries, tomatoes, asparagus and cabbage. Many of Westfield's oystermen supplemented their income in the off-season with truck farming. The farmlands included a mixture of large lots (20+ acres) and smaller parcels (1-5 acres) that extended south of Amboy Road to Raritan Bay.
During the second half of the 19th century, Tottenville underwent a period of rapid growth and development. Much of the land in the village proper was subdivided into smaller lots and developed. During the 1880s, many of the farming properties between Amboy Road and Hylan Boulevard were divided into smaller parcels, and by 1898, most of the area was divided into 25x100-foot lots; few farms were left.
By 1900, big industry was moving in, reducing the economic impact caused by the collapse of the oystering and shipbuilding trades. The Totten dock property at the foot of Main St. was sold in 1907 to H.G. Stiles, J.B. Runyon, and Joseph C. Seguine. A new wave of economic growth for Tottenville had begun. The Atlantic Terra Cotta Works opened in 1898 on the Arthur Kill shore near Ellis St. It became the world's largest producer of architectural terra cotta. Its products were used in the construction of the Flatiron Building and the Woolworth Building in Manhattan, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The depression years and changes in the building industry closed the business in the 1930s.
Tottenville Copper Co., 1926
The Tottenville Copper Company, a metal processing plant, was established near Mill Creek in 1900. In 1931, the plant was sold to Western Electric and the name changed to Nassau Smelting and Refining Company. In 1971, it became a metal recycling plant and renamed Nassau Recycle Corp. Today, remediation of the contaminated site on Nassau Place near Mill Creek has been completed.
The opening of the Outerbridge Crossing in 1928 and the end of ferry service between Tottenville and Perth Amboy in 1963 both affected the way people lived and shopped. The "mom-and-pop" businesses along Main St. and Amboy Rd. were becoming a thing of the past. The opening of the Staten Island Mall in 1973 closed many of these storefront businesses forever.
Several attempts to revitalize Main St., once a bustling business center, have been unsuccessful. Page Ave., the dividing line between Totttenville and Richmond Valley, has become the local center of shopping plazas and strip malls.
Most family-run businesses have disappeared in Tottenville - Lang's Hardware, Mary's, Sophie's Gift Shop, George's Deli, Ekstrand's Florist, and so on. We may agree Tottenville is not the same town it used to be. But the evidence of our rich history and heritage can still be seen in the streetscapes and found in many houses and buildings. We need to preserve that heritage so that future generations will know and understand the story of Tottenville - the town the oyster built.