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History Excursionists (1850 - 1861)
Excursionists (1850 - 1861)

By the middle of the 19th century, summertime steamboat excursions to Davids Island gave city dwellers in New York and Brooklyn a chance to escape the urban crowds and grime for a few hours. Some special excursions to the island were organized by churches or social groups, but Davids Island was also a regular stop for excursion steamers running up the coast.


Newspaper accounts of the period record that visitors to Davids Island picnicked and strolled on its little hills and shores. For entertainment, there were dances, performances of music and public speaking, and sports like quoits (a ring-toss game similar to horseshoes) and ball games. Visitors could also fish from the shore or rent a boat to go rowing or sailing.


Maps published in the decade before the Civil War show the island had several buildings. One of these maps shows a dock in the area later occupied by the Fort Slocum Passenger Dock, a concert room, saloon and a few other buildings. There may also have been a small hotel on the island. The concert room was located somewhere in the southeastern quadrant of the island, while the saloon was located to the north of it.


The function of the concert room seems obvious, but the term saloon is a bit ambiguous. This is because in the language of 19th-century America, the word saloon might have meant an assembly hall, a genteel refreshment room, or an establishment for the consumption of alcoholic beverages.


In November 1856, a New Rochelle ink manufacturer, Thaddeus Davids, purchased the island from its previous owner, Newberry Davenport, Jr. After this purchase, the island became known as Davids (or David’s or Davids’) Island.


Davids considered moving his factory to the island, but never did so. The island continued to be an excursion boat destination until the arrival of the first soldiers in the fall of 1861, a few months after the outbreak of the Civil War.


Excursionists (1850 - 1861)

Excursion Ad NYT07241858-p7

Advertisement for steamboat excursion to Davids Island published in The New York Times on July 24, 1858 (image courtesy ProQuest Historical Newspapers).

Excur_Steamr HarpWkly09151877p728

Crowds gathering to board an excursion steamer on the East River, New York City, Harper's Weekly September 15, 1877. Although this engraving was published nearly two decades after the picnic grounds at Davids Island closed, it captures the bustle and excitement of New Yorkers about to take a day trip out of the city on an excursion boat (reproduced from J. Grafton, "New York in the Nineteenth Century," Dover Publications, 1977).

Neptune_Hse_bw JS_Baillie c1850s

The American Eagle, a sidewheel steamboat similar to vessels that carried excursionists to Davids Island in the 1850s, arriving at Neptune House. One of New Rochelle's leading 19th century hotels, Neptune House stood on the mainland shore about two-thirds of a mile west of Davids Island. (collection of the New Rochelle Public Library)

Picnic_Excur_DI LesliesIllNews09041858p219-1

Picnic excursion to Davids Island, August 14, 1858. This is earliest-known depiction of Davids Island and illustrates the rustic character of the picnic ground. The view perhaps looks south toward the area later occupied by the Mortar Battery. Published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, September 4, 1858.

Thaddeus Davids

Thaddeus Davids (1816-1894), namesake of Davids Island (collection of the New Rochelle Public Library).