Note: The above picture was painted in August 2013 at Beaver Island State Park. It is a view of the river from the park.
Before I tell you the tragic story of Strawberry Island, I want to tell you about one of my most favorite of children’s books: The Giving Tree, written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein (1930-1999). It is very poetic. A boy and a tree loved each other, but the boy took far more than he gave. At first, when the boy was little, he was content simply to climb the tree and to play with the leaves and to sleep in her shade. After a number of years, the boy said that he was too old to play and that he wanted money more than he wanted to enjoy the companionship of the tree, whom he had once loved very much.
The tree loved the boy more than she loved herself and she offered everything that she had and everything that she was to the boy so that he would be happy.
Eventually, all that was left of the tree was a stump. She could no longer produce apples or provide shade. She still loved the boy and she gave him the only thing that was left: a place to sit and rest. That was enough for the boy because he had grown old and no longer had the strength to climb and his teeth were too weak for chewing apples.
This story of unconditional love makes me feel sad and joyous, both at the same time.
Yesterday evening, I went to the Buffalo Launch Club to eat delicious food and to hear a presentation about Strawberry Island and Motor Boat Island. They are small islands in the Niagara River, located between Tonawanda and the southern tip of Grand Island.
Strawberry Island is one of those small island in the Niagara River. So I will tell the story, a little bit differently than it was presented, which was factually. I will tell it as a story of an island that gave and gave and gave, until it had nothing left to give. Once, a long time ago, Strawberry Island was much larger than it is now.
The Neuter Nation, who were allied to the Eries, who were mound builders, loved the Niagara River. Their name for the river was Onguiaahra. People then went to Strawberry Island, and they foraged for food. Except for some food to nourish human bodies, the visitors did not take anything away from Strawberry Island.
The Neuter nation was gone by the 1700s. In the 1700s, fur traders wrote about Strawberry Island in their journals. Whether or not they visited the island, I don’t really know.
The journals of British General James Wilkinson during the War of 1812 make reference to several islands in the Niagara River, including Strawberry Island and Frog Island. In fact, Strawberry Island was occupied by the Americans for a while. They were there to try to prevent the British from burning down Buffalo for a second time.
After the war, in about 1815, title to the land went to New York State. To obtain that title, New York State paid the Senecas a one-time amount of $1,000 and an annual amount of $500 in perpetuity. That $500 is still paid to the Senecas.
Surveyor General Simeon DeWitt had the island surveyed in 1824. It was determined that the island was 100 acres in size. It consisted of marsh and upland woods and was capable of producing hay. Strawberry Island and the other islands in the Niagara River were seen as valuable to hunters and fishermen, including President Grover Cleveland (the only president with two nonconsecutive terms) and President Theodore Roosevelt (who established the National Park system).
In the mid-nineteenth century, Strawberry Island was seen as a place for people to go for rest and relaxation. A hotel was built with verandas on the island. A canal was built through the south end of the island so that people could enjoy boating without having to endure the harsh undercurrents of the Niagara River. Visitors were happy to get away from Buffalo, which was dirty and smelly.
By 1892, the hotel was closed. People preferred going to the larger hotels in Grand Island, and Strawberry Island was seen as too small.
Strawberry Island would eventually become much smaller.
In 1923, a survey was done that indicated that Strawberry Island was 200 acres in size. At about that time, sand and gravel dredging began. When Buffalo Gravel purchased Strawberry Island in 1926, sand and gravel dredging was done faster and faster and faster.
The island was giving up her very existence.
She was being dismantled, piece by piece.
Without the sand and gravel, the soil eroded from the island. It did not take long before the island was 100 acres smaller than it had been when the survey was done in 1923.
There were consequences to this destructive mining. Because the land mass of Strawberry Island was being mined for gravel and sand, the lake levels began to drop. This made shippers and sportsmen angry. Dredging was temporarily halted. All sorts of legal action took place, including a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer. In 1948, the size of the island was 36 acres. That same year, dredging resumed.
The island continued to shrink. It had a lagoon and it was rapidly shrinking, as a result of dredging and other activities.
At that time, no one thought to take care of the island, to keep it from eroding further.
The island had given until it could give no more.
Only a small land mass was left.
There was very little left to dredge.
The island was like the giving tree at the end of the story. There was nothing left of the tree but a stump.
Yet the tree still loved the boy, who had grown old and only had enough strength to sit on the stump and rest.
When the New York State Department of Parks purchased the island in 1989, it seemed as if it people would finally give something to the island. Garbage cans were installed to encourage people to dispose of their waste responsibly. The island, however, continued to shrink until is was not even 25 acres in size.
The island had given until it gave no more. It gave up its sand and it gave up its gravel because humans wanted those things for building and for industry.
Finally, a person came along who wanted to give to the island. His name is Frank Levin. In 1993, he raised the money needed to help stabilize the island, which had shrunk to just five acres.
Today, native vegetation is once again growing on the tiny island that was once a 200 acre piece of land that could support people’s need for food.
You can go to Strawberry Island in canoes and kayaks, and that’s about it. People are not encouraged to go there because of concern that the ecosystem of the fragile island could not withstand another human invasion.
Eco-tourism, however, is a new thing in the Niagara River, so it may be possible to see the tiny islands of the Niagara without damage to the ecosystem. If I get that opportunity, I’ll share the photographs with you right here in this blog.
And I hope that is a gift that I can offer to an island that gave and gave and gave until she had nothing left to give.