Remember Gardiners Island? (Of course you don’t! Hehe.) Located off the eastern end of Long Island, it’s one of the largest privately owned islands in the United States, having been owned by the Gardiner family for close to 400 years. That makes it, by the way, the only piece of American real estate still intact as part of an original royal grant from the English crown (the English crown!) – and if you’re like me that just completely blew your mind right now. It popped back in my head the other day as I was riding over the Queensboro Bridge and I remembered how I’d wanted to look at some other islands, you know, like Island by Island style. But hey, we’ve got a lot of islands in NYC don’t we? In fact you could basically think of us as a city built on an archipelago. I know, I know, it’s hard to feel that when basically it just feels like the center of the world. But it’s true! So let’s look at one of those.
In fact, let’s look at an island that’s almost the total opposite of Gardiners Island: U Thant Island (officially Belmont Island), which is publicly owned, man-made, and amongst the smallest islands in NYC. U Thant lies off the southern tip of Roosevelt Island and almost directly above the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. At just half an acre it’s easy to miss – though it helps that there’s a 57 foot tall metal Coast Guard beckon sticking off its southern end. The island didn’t even exist until the early 1900s, only coming about because of the creation of the Steinway Tunnels running under the East River. The Steinway Tunnels, as you might guess, were built by William Steinway (of the Steinway piano family) to connect his company-town of Steinway (in Queens) with Manhattan. The fairly self-contained town of Steinway included its own trolley line and it was this that William Steinway envisioned connecting to the city. Work began on the tunnels in 1892 but due to a number of technical problems and some high-profile deaths by dynamite the work was halted and boarded up just one year later. Steinway himself would die in 1896 without having seen the work completed.
It was Steinway’s friend, and all around rapid transit big-wig, August Belmont Jr. who would ultimately see the tunnels finished. Belmont was (amongst other things) the founder of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) – the operator of New York City’s first subway line, opening in 1904 (running at that time from City Hall to 145th Street, with further extensions on the way). One year later, in 1905, Belmont renewed construction on the Steinway Tunnels, finishing them just 26 months later. It was during this construction phase that a shaft was built through what was known as Man-O-War Reef, a granite outcropping in the middle of the East River – the debris it created was piled on top to become New York’s newest island: Belmont Island. Despite the rapid pace of construction however the tunnels would ultimately lay idle for another 8 years, for reasons I won’t really go into because they’re confusing and convoluted as all hell (there are literally guys who just specialize in New York City transit history – and yes they make a ton of money and sleep with a lot of women). Suffice to say, for the first 40 years of subway history it was a constant battle and question as to city versus private ownership and operation – and in terms of the Steinway Tunnels, Belmont lost. Well he lost in the ownership sense at least; in 1913, as part of what were known as the Dual Contracts – which entailed the largest subway expansion in New York City history – Belmont sold the Steinway Tunnels to the city in exchange for a $3 million credit to the IRT as well as the tunnels being placed under IRT operation (today’s 7 Train). So before he owned the tunnels but couldn’t operate anything on them; now he didn’t own the tunnels but could operate the subway line. Convoluted yes?
That’s pretty much where U Thant/Belmont Island’s connection to subway history ends. Soon after the tunnels were sold to the city the shaft under the island was filled in and sealed. Then for 50 years or so the island just sat there – watching the skyline change, the United Nations buildings going up and what not – an unused pile of rocks. That changed in 1977, when the island was leased by New York State to followers of the Indian guru Sri Chinmoy. Chinmoy, who ran a meditation center in Queens (as well as some 60 other countries), had worked as a junior clerk at the United Nations at one time, and starting in 1970 began running twice-weekly meditations at the U.N. for employees and delegates. One of the people who enjoyed them was the then U.N. Secretary General, U Thant, who served in the post from 1961-1971. U Thant was Burmese and as per his country’s convention he only had one name, Thant; the U is basically equivalent to Mr. He died in 1974 and so when Sri Chinmoy’s followers leased Belmont Island they unofficially changed the name in honor of Mr. (U) Thant…a name that has pretty much stuck. They greened the surface of the island and erected a metal “oneness” arch that incorporated some of U Thant’s personal belongings. I’m not quite certain if Sri Chinmoy’s followers still officially lease the island but regardless, by all accounts they’re not allowed to visit it as much these days. Security around the U.N. is a little tighter than it used to be; they don’t just turn over little man-made islands in the vicinity to the care of the followers of some guru. It’s now managed by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation as a sanctuary for migrating birds – double-crested cormorants especially. I don’t think too much about what gurus think about, but I think that Sri Chinmoy might like that.