Rat Island is a two-and-a-half acre rock formation situated in Hudson Bay, near Pelham, New York (The Bronx). As per American history, its origin dates back to 1654, when Thomas Pell purchased the land from the Siwanoys, one of seven Native American tribes that inhabited the area. Of course, as far as the Siwanoys were concerned, the island’s history preceded the white man’s purchase. Little is known about this tribe, except they that were notorious for selling unlivable land to the stupid Pilgrims. Hence, in English, Siwanoy translates to “robber land barons.”
How the isle became known as Rat Island is undocumented. Some sources claim that it became associated with prisoners — a.k.a. “rats” — escaping from the jail on nearby Hart Island.
In the 1800′s, the island earned the nickname “Pelham Pesthouse” for the typhoid fever victims quarantined there: a moniker that did nothing to dispel the association with vermin. The island did not become part of New York City until 1888, when the metropolis began acquiring land to create Pelham Bay Park.
Although Rat Island was not inhabited by anyone other than escaping prisoners, a lone cottage foundation sits at its highest point; storm tides sometimes submerged the entire island. No doubt the building was abandoned during its nascent construction for that very reason. Far from the maddening crowds of the mainland, the island’s only attractions seemed to be peace and tranquility. For a time, during mild weather, it had become a haunt for artists and writers as well as some fisherman.
Including Thomas Pell, the island has had four private owners, none of whom has been happy with it. The latest and current owner is a now-retired marine contractor named Edmund Brennen who saw the property as a diamond in the rough. In 1972, he paid the tax lien of $5,000 on the property. It took more time and money to foreclose on the property, but finally, Brennen became the owner.
Given his line of business, he used the island to store his equipment and retrieve barges that had capsized because of the cargo contained in their tanks. He brought the capsized barges to the island and removed the tanks, allowing the barges to drift freely on the high tides.
When the Army Corps of Engineers caught wind of this, they decreed that the drifting barges created a hazard to shipping vessels. They ordered Brennen to dispose of the tanks on an artificial reef in Smithtown Bay.
After many years, Mr. Brennen retired to Florida. But the Siwanoy curse still lingers over Rat Island in the form of taxes due. Since then, the property has been placed into the hands of Brennen’s agents, realtors attempting to help him retrieve something of worth in this gasping-for-breath market.
Although Brennen was asking $300,000 for the island in 2009, New York City had valued it at approximately $426,000. In September of 2011, Brennen conceded to a public auction. His realtors hope that this move will encourage entrepreneurs with both money and imagination to invest in the future. Mr. Brennen describes the public auction as Russian roulette, in that it will be quick and decisive.
In addition to the tidal flooding, Rat Island has other faults. Chief among them is the lack of infrastructure (no electricity, no plumbing, and no sewer system). It doesn’t even have a dock. But it does have a few good qualities. It is within swimming distance of trendy City Island. Those who eschew a dip in the Hudson can take a five-minute boat ride there, provided by Barron’s Marine Service. In clement weather, Rat Island also offers excellent views of Orchard Beach, New Rochelle, Long Island as well as Executive Rocks Lighthouse.
I am no expert in real estate, but in my opinion, a change of name might be prudent. Who wants to buy an island whose name brings to mind nasty vermin? If the name change fails to result in a sale, Mr. Brennen would do well to locate a living ancestor of the Siwanoy tribe to manage his real estate endeavors. After all, there are still plenty of stupid Pilgrims still out there!