A Brief History:
What is known today as Roosevelt Island was first purchased from the Algonquin Indians in 1637 by the Dutch, who promptly renamed the island “Varckens Eylandt,” or “Hog Island.” In the 1660’s, the British reclaimed the island from the Dutch after years of dispute. The island was granted to Captain John Manning, the sheriff of New York. In 1673, Manning was sentenced to death (later commuted to life imprisonment on the island) for relinquishing New York’s Fort James to the Dutch without a shot.
When Manning died in 1686, stepdaughter Mary Manningham renamed the island after her husband, Robert Blackwell. Blackwell Island remained in private hands until 1828, when the City of New York purchased it and transformed it into a setting for mental institutions, hospitals and prisons. Reflecting this setting as a repository for the down and out, the city renamed the property Welfare Island in 1921.
PROVIDING ACCESS TO THE ISLAND: Initially, access to Welfare Island had been through a series of ferries from Manhattan and Queens. In 1930, a four-cab elevator service began between the lower deck of the Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge and the island. The service, which had served 230,000 cars per year by the early 1950’s, provided the only public connection to Welfare Island.
The increasing traffic needs to and from Welfare Island, as well as growing congestion on the Queensboro Bridge, prompted the New York City Department of Public Works to propose a new vertical-lift crossing between Queens and Welfare Island. After initial resistance from the New York City Council, which doubted that the $6.5 million span would carry enough traffic to justify its cost, construction of the Roosevelt Island Bridge (then named the Welfare Island Bridge) began on March 17, 1952.
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