Heard enough of the mystical allure of City Island? The Chimney Sweep Islands and High Island, formations far more foreboding and obscure, lie just beneath City Island’s nose. Or, at least, just across Pelham Bay. These are a part of a group of 20 islands situated within the borders of Bronx County known as the “Devil’s Stepping Stones.” With a history of waxing and waning fortunes, they have provided both key landmarks for sailors during the 18th century and have hosted lunatic asylums.
As with much of the New York area’s etymology, the island group’s namesake harkens back to Native American origins. According to folklore, the “Devil’s Stepping Stones” are believed to have been formed during a skirmish between a local tribe and the Devil. Every time the Devil set his foot down into the water, a small landmass emerged. Regardless of the accuracy of such tales, the names are indicative of the barren nature of these uninhabited land formations, most of which are composed entirely of bedrock and are devoid of any discernible vegetation.
It is no surprise then that the Chimney Sweep Islands, whose name was probably derived from the fact that they look like chimney sweep tools, have never been inhabited by humans. Rather, flocks of seagulls and blue heron have long called them home, and they have now become popular with kayakers as a resting point.
High Island, located just north of City Island, also has a close relationship with marine life, as it was once a basking spot for sharks who enjoyed the area’s warm water. Humans found this landmass much more hospitable, however, and High Island became known for a community of bungalow dwellers until the City kicked them out in 1962 to make way of for a radio transmission tower.
A service bridge connects High Island to City Island, allowing for maintenance workers (and perhaps the intrepid adventurist) to access the island.
Then, in 1967, a small plane crashed into the tower, knocking out communications the day before owner WCBS switched to an all-news format. WCBS borrowed transmissions from nearby towers until a new permanent (and a back-up) tower was erected that has stood ever since. Today, the tower transmits both W-CBS and WFAN radio, their daytime signals can be tuned in clearly from as far away as Cape Cod and Cape May.
We ventured to this spot to see what untapped trove awaited us. Though the bridge that accesses island is barricaded with a fence and an accompanying sign promising federal prosecution to all those who dare cross, it still holds a tempting invitation for those who enjoy wandering on the other side of societal boundaries. But for most, the island remains a devil’s stepping stone away.
Location of the Chimney Sweep Islands and High Island within Pelham Bay. Source: Google Maps
For more on Abandoned NYC, check out nearby Hart Island, NYC’s mass burial ground, another abandoned island near Staten Island, and the ruins of Northgate, an abandoned Cornish estate in the Hudson Valley.
Get in touch with the author @thisisnotreale