There is a tiny island off the coast of New York home to a ruined castle. This mysterious ruin known as Starnburg Castle, almost looks as though it should be overlooking the Rive Rhine in Europe, rather than the city of New Rochelle. Whilst you might have discovered Bannerman’s Castle up the Hudson River, this smaller abandoned castle is hardly known about at all. We went to explore this peculiar Germanesque castle, only to discover a little-known, but quite incredible chapter of New York history.
Over half a century before Disneyland, this small island in Long Island Sound was home to the one of the world’s most magical and enchanting pleasure grounds. The abandoned castle is all that remains of one of America’s first and largest destination theme parks.
In the late 1870s, shipping magnate-turned US Congressman John H. Starin had a vision: to create, “the most popular picnic resort in the country.” The New York Times wrote of the planned park in May, 1879, under the headline, ‘A New Picnic Resort’ :
“Not only that, but to maintain it as the most orderly one and to banish from it all disturbing elements that are so frequently found at similar places.” To fulfill his dream of a wholesome, family friendly theme park, he came across a small island off New York’s shoreline.
Locust Island is located just north of where the East River empties into Long Island Sound. In 1879, Starin bought this island of just under 100 acres, along with four neighbouring smaller ones. Renaming his new acquisition “Starin’s Glen Island”, he set about designing something spectacular.
There were already amusement parks in the US, places such as Lake Compounce in Bristol; Connecticut had opened in 1846 and is still open today. But Starin had something far grander altogether in mind.
He built causeways connecting the islands, and in 1881 opened what is thought to be the first, large scale theme park in the United States.
The magical journey began in Lower Manhattan, where Starin commandeered Pier 18, and chartered steamboats to bring pleasure seekers to his enchanted islands. An hour an a half later, New Yorkers stepped foot ashore to find something breath taking and remarkable.
Starin divided up the islands into different themed worlds, similar, but pre-dating the concept of Disneyland by some 70 years. Winding pathways led to landscaped grounds, where visitors would find concert pavilions, an aviary of over a thousand birds, six bowling alleys and a restaurant catered by Manhattan’s most prestigious restaurant, Delmonico’s. Starin built one of the largest zoos to be found in the United States, that boasted not only sea lions, but a herd of buffalo. There were even elephants.
There was a Japanese tea house complete with Geisha girls, a Hindu village with magicians, jugglers and fakirs. Starin built reproduction Sioux settlements and Puerto Rican villages. Whilst these spectacles are perhaps somewhat ethically dubious today, a visit to Starin’s Glen Island must have been an exotic experience for New Yorkers for whom far flung travel was a scarce luxury.
Starin built a museum of natural history that housed mummies and stone age relics. There was an indoor botanical garden, shooting galleries, a carousel, a bathing pavilion, picnic grounds, club rooms, billiards tables, swings, a sand beach, bars, a barber shop, a wine cellar, a clam bake area, horses for horseback riding and a music pavilion.
Starin’s project began to grow ever more in scale. He imported a full sized Dutch windmill and a giant Chinese pagoda. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle paid a visit in July, 1881, describing the pagoda as “a triumph of American architecture…conspicuous upon a high boulder on an adjacent island, and is noticeable for its patriotic attire. It is four stories high, circular in shape and its cornices and roof are painted the national colors, the whole being surmounted by an immense gilded eagle. The tower floor is occupied by a large gun weighing about 1,000 pounds, which is used for salutes on especial occasions. Upon the second and other floors the visitors are entertained by the natural chiming of the bells by the breezes. It is a romantic spot, as it stands alone, the tides rising and falling around it.”
Starin’s theme park was an immense success. At its height, an estimated 15,000 visitors made the voyage up the East River to his islands every day.
Incredibly, this enormous theme park is hardly known about today. Mostly because it has virtually vanished completely. All apart from the ruined castle…
One of the most popular spots on Starin’s island was a place called Kleine Deutschland, or Little Germany. At its centre was the life sized Rhineland inspired castle and towers. Inside was a traditional German beer hall.
Starin died in 1909, and gradually his island theme park began to fall out of favour, and gradually apart. The steamers stopped making their way from Lower Manhattan, and eventually the park was abandoned. Today landfill has joined Starin’s six islands together.
Where the giant Chinese pagoda once was, is now just an anonymous looking rock. Glen Island is reachable by a small bridge, and is an idyllic park visited mostly just by those who live near by in New Rochelle.
All that remains of one of the most imaginative and enchanting secrets in New York history is the ruined German castle. But as local historian and writer Roderick Kennedy Jr. writes, “if you listen hard enough on a quiet summer day, you can still hear the strains of zither music coming from the tower, and the ghosts of the Tyrolean singers entertaining the visitors while they were eating authentic German food and drinking imported German beer.”