NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: The lost islands of the Niagara River

CONTRIBUTEDThe 1908 New Century Atlas of Niagara and Orleans County shows the islands in the American Channel near the brink of the American Falls.

For centuries, islands have dotted the Niagara River from Buffalo to Niagara Falls. Goat Island and Grand Island are the largest and most well-known of these islands. But over the years other islands have appeared (and disappeared) in the river, some of them natural and others man-made.

Many of the small islands around Goat Island still exist. These include the Three Sisters and Little Brother Islands, named for the four children of Niagara Falls hotel proprietor Parkhurst Whitney. They are located on the south side of Goat Island in the Canadian Channel.

There are several islands in the American channel to the north of Goat Island, near the brink of the Falls, that are not as well known but include Green (formerly Bath), Robinson, Ship, Brig, Crow, Bird, Chapin and Willow islands. Luna Island, which creates the Bridal Veil Falls, is also in the American Channel. These islands are fairly prominent now due to the decreased water flow going over the American Falls, especially at night. However, some of them have disappeared altogether. 

The 1908 Niagara County Atlas shows many of these islands by name. Willow Island, man-made by Daniel Joncaire in 1759, lasted 200 years until it was filled in and paved over to create the Robert Moses Parkway in the early 1960s. Joncaire had a channel dug to divert water from the Niagara River to power the mills he had built on the American shore. Another piece of land near the American shore in the river, Grass Island, also succumbed to the building of the parkway.

Conners Island, although no longer a true island, at least has not completely disappeared from the river. Conners Island is that low strip of land off the Robert Moses Parkway that contains the two water intake towers. Another island, Stony Island, shows up on the 1908 Atlas but is not mentioned in any other source. Further southeast along the river, Cayuga Island in LaSalle is still intact. 

Going further south along the river, Navy Island, in Canadian waters, is designated as a National Historic Park due to the events that took place there. There is evidence that Native Americans were on the island thousands of years before the Europeans arrived there in the 1750s. The French used it as a ship building site and later British soldiers were stationed there during the War of 1812. In 1837, it was commandeered by William Lyon MacKenzie as his headquarters during the Patriot War. Finally, it was a popular tourist resort from 1875 to 1910. The island is now popular with boaters. Navy Island is just off of the northwest corner of Grand Island.

On the opposite side of Grand Island, in the American Channel, is Tonawanda Island. This island also showed evidence of early Native American settlement and wasn’t inhabited by whites until the 1820s. It later became the home of Stephen White, who built a magnificent mansion. The island was also used as a storage yard for the booming lumber industry that grew up around Tonawanda.

Just south of Tonawanda Island was another man-made island, called Goose Island. This was created when the Erie Canal was dug in the 1820s and cut off a part of the mainland alongside the Niagara River. Goose Island started out as a rather fashionable area with many fine homes and businesses. However, as the canal area became more industrial and boisterous with canawlers, those homes gave way to taverns and brothels and Goose Island was soon the most notorious part of the city. When that section of the canal was filled in the 1930s, it continued to be called Goose Island even though it was no longer an island. Today, the area is home to a Tops Market and riverfront condos.

As you get closer to Buffalo there are other islands in the Niagara River, some that are still there and others that have been lost. Three islands that remain are Strawberry, Squaw (now Unity Island) and Motor Island (formerly Frog Island near the southern tip of Grand Island). Unfortunately Strawberry Island has been severely eroded but remedial work is being done to rectify that problem.

Rattlesnake Island is more or less still an island along the west shore of Tonawanda across from Grand Island. Bird Island is now the base for the Bird Island Pier in Buffalo.

Other islands that were listed but have no additional information are Deer and Buck Horse (possibly Buck Horn), in the upper Niagara River closer to Grand Island and Buffalo. 

Historically there may have been other islands in the Niagara River but those have been lost to time and progress.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.

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