Posted by: jevcat | June 17, 2010

My Staten Island – Mount Loretto

I spent the first 31 years of my life in northern Manhattan, on the Harlem-Washington Heights border, and if you had told me I would wind up living in Staten Island, I would have said you were out of your mind.  Yet here I am, quite happily, and have been for 25 years.

Part of the pleasure of being a denizen of “The Forgotten Borough” is in introducing people to some of my favorite places here.  One place I only discovered a few years ago is Mount Loretto Unique Area, off Hylan Boulevard in the southern part of Staten Island.  Mt. Loretto was part of the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, founded in 1871 and established on Staten Island in 1883, with the goal of caring for and educating homeless children, self-sufficient with a farm and industry.  Indeed, the property on the western side of Hylan continues to serve children, albeit in different ways, but the 194 acres on the eastern side was purchased by New York State in 1999 and is now administered by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. 

Travelling south on Hylan toward the park, you know you are getting close when the right side of the road becomes a cemetery, presided over by the old grey stone towers of Mt. Loretto’s church.  You almost think you have stepped back into the Middle Ages, as the church is the tallest building in the area and surrounded by green.

There is a small (but rarely crowded) parking lot at the north entrance of the park, which can also be reached by the S-78 bus from the ferry terminal, although it is a long ride.  A path rises from the entrance, leading into the park’s three trails:  wetlands, grasslands, and a beach loop that can be reached by both.  There are all sorts of birds everywhere, and on the grasslands trail we once came upon (and gave a wide berth to) a large snapping turtle.

My beloved and I usually take the wetlands trail, though, which itself branches, one part up a hill to an old lighthouse (this is the highest natural bluff in New York City), the other past a pond and through woods to the shore along Raritan Bay.  The beach is never crowded, and often we have been the only ones there.  The shipping channel is so narrow and close to the shore here, that, if a container vessel comes by, you may think you will shortly be able to touch it.  The beach is sand and cobble, with a small freshwater stream that comes from the cliffs to meet the bay, and whose channel changes constantly.

At low tide the beach is especially interesting.  There is part of an old wooden barge upturned and stranded there, and pieces of old masonry:  bricks still mortared together, segments of column, bits of marble.  Shortly after the state bought the property, one of the old buildings burned, and the rubble was pushed over the edge of the cliffs.  Sometimes one comes across remnants of old cast-iron beds, warped and welded by the fire, jutting from the sand.

The cliffs themselves are fascinating.  The only natural red clay bluffs in New York City, the undercutting of the water has exposed their many layers, including layers of grey clay, of something ochre, and, in spots near the bottom, a thin line of something that might be ancient ash.  It is not surprising that the odd fossil-bearing rock turns up.

There is a modern, steel-girdered light (no house) on the beach, and we have stood at its concrete base, watching turkey vultures wheel the thermals above us, sun shining through their feathers.  Seals are known to appear from time to time, although we have not yet seen any there (we have seen them other places on Staten Island).

One of the attractions of the beach is man-made, however:  rock sculptures along the northern part of the beach, created by Chuck Schwartz, a zookeeper at the Staten Island Zoo.  He has been making them for more than a decade and, although this spring’s violent nor’easter obliterated years of work, he has returned and begun re-building an enchanted world of eerily ancient-looking towers and cairns. 

(For an article and photos from the Staten Island Advance, see www.silive.com/southshore/index.ssf/2010/03/stone_art_installation_near_le.html .)

Walking along them, it can feel as though one were wandering through the ruins of some vanished civilization.

Evidence of almost-gone more recent history can be found in spots between the beach and the top of the bluffs, where traces of the early 20th century railroad that served Mt. Loretto can be found by those that know how to look.

Back on the high ground, there’s a wonderful view from Brooklyn to New Jersey, with the open sea visible between.  The paths here include one past a still-used grotto shrine to Our Lady and a few benches, some of which usually have plastic rosary beads wrapped ‘round them.  Evidence of old buildings peeks through the grass in spots, and from places the towers of the church can be seen rising above everything.  You would never know you are in New York City.

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Responses

  1. I liked your story very much. But I must make one comment: It was called the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin (not Conception). I spent a few years there so I know. I am so glad that people are enjoying the grounds so much. We sure did. Incidently, this year we are having a special Reunion celebration on September 18th, 2010.

    • Thanks so much, Lydia. I will make the correction.

  2. Beautiful photos! I’m glad you have a place like this where you can go to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city!

    Wendy

    • Thanks, Wendy. We don’t have the proximity (or lens) that contributed to your photos, but it’s a blessing to be able to see such wonderful creatures, in any case.

  3. This is a wonderful tour or a special place. The pictures add a lot.


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