Owned by Suffolk County since the mid-1960s, Indian Island is a part of the renowned American Venice community. At 87-acres, it makes up nearly one-quarter of the American Venice Historic District. In order to understand the history of Indian Island, one must also understand the history of its surroundings.
This may come as a surprise, but Indian Island has only been an island for just about 88 years. Near the beginning of my research into the American Venice development, I came upon an early 20th century brochure entitled “Copiague Manor.” Expecting it to describe a big, old house, it instead turned out to be a real estate pamphlet selling a piece of property stretching from the Long Island Rail Road tracks to the Great South Bay. Once owned by the “old Strong family” of Lindenhurst (as in Strong Avenue, the boundary line between the hamlet of Copiague and Lindenhurst village), the southern portion of the property map was immediately recognizable as American Venice. The 365-acres stretching from Montauk Highway to the bay was one land mass – no canals, yet. Indian Island was not then an island; it was still a peninsula, or a “neck.”
Late 19th Century maps indicate the area now known as American Venice, including Indian Island, was once referred to as “Copiague Neck” or “Copiag Neck.”
The first known inhabitants of Copiague Neck area were the Native American families or tribes of Long Island’s south shore. Huntington Town records document the “Indian Deed of Three Necks, Southside,” dated August 17, 1658, between Grand Sachem Wyandance and Henry Whitney of Huntington, “for the use of the whole Town of Huntington.” (Until 1872, the Town of Babylon, including the hamlet of Copiague, was part of the Town of Huntington and then known as “Huntington South.”) Copiague Neck was the easternmost of the three necks in that 1658 transaction which was exchanged for “twelve coats, each coat being two yards of tucking cloth, twenty pounds of powder, twenty dutch hatchets, twenty dutch howes, twenty dutch knives, ten shirts, two hundred muxes [awl blades], five pairs of handsome stockens, one good dutch hat, and a great fine looking glass.” Wyandance’s agent, Cheacanoe, who marked out the land, also received “one coat, seven pounds of powder, six pounds of lead, one dutch hatchet, and also seventeen shillings in wampum.” Wyandance confirmed receipt of his requested payment, stating: “Received this 23 May 1659 from the inhabitants of Huntington that satisfaction and payment for the meadow I sold last to them, which my man Cheacanoe marked out for them, which joins to that neck that [land] belongs to Mr. Strikland and Jonas Wood and so goes westward so far as Cheacanoe hath marked, being purchased in August last, which was 1658.”
From the 17th Century through to the late 19th Century, the marshy lands of the south shore were used by northern farmers gathering salt hay for their livestock. By the late 1800s, Copiague’s neighboring communities, Babylon and Amityville, had become resort attractions for weary city-dwellers. The resort craze slowed down after the turn of the 20th Century, but the appeal of the south shore had been discovered, eventually leading to its development.
The 1920s were a time of great development. World War I was over and no one could contemplate the economic devastation that would close the decade. In the fall of 1925, the American Venice Corporation, purchased the Copiague Neck peninsula and began the promotion and development of their “miniature Venice.”
Presumably, the Canal Grande (or Grand Canal) was the first canal to be dug in American Venice, running from the Laguna San Marco and Montauk Highway on the north to the Great South Bay. Intersecting the Grand Canal and creating the unique east-west path between Great Neck Creek and Copiague Creek, is the Santa Barbara Canal. Finally, a third canal was dug from the eastern branch of the Santa Barbara Canal, south, to the bay, named the Canal Lugano. These three canals created the five sections of the American Venice. Indian Island was born from the intersection of the Canal Lugano on its west and the eastern branch of the Santa Barbara Canal to the north.
Incidentally, it appears that the American Venice Corporation did not originally plan on these five sections. Rather than creating the Canal Lugano to divide Indian Island from the current southeast corner of the community, it showed one island in the southeast corner of the community with two north-south canals stretching from the Bay to a mid-point in the island. The first development plans filed with the Suffolk County Clerk, in August 1925, reveal that the designers initially intended many more canals for the community, including “finger” canals running between Venetian Promenade and Copiague Creek on the East and Doges Promenade and Great Neck Creek on the West.
The plans for the multitude of canals were abandoned by beginning of 1926, before dredging began. It is not known why they changed these plans, perhaps they felt it would decrease their dredging costs and increase the number of building lots. Plans filed with the Suffolk County Clerk in June 1926 set forth designs for the Canal Lugano and the formation of Indian Island. These plans were completed by the late 1920s, and reflect the landscape we see today.
The beloved Venetian-style bridges along East and West Riviera Drives were constructed in 1926. Engineering and survey drawings from 1925 and 1926 reveal that three additional bridges were contemplated – one joining East and West Riviera Drives at their southernmost points and two bridges to Indian Island, at the east ends of Lido Promenade East and Marine Avenue East. Those bridges were never completed. However, a wooden footbridge was constructed from Santa Barbara Road East, across the Santa Barbara Canal, to Indian Island. A handful of residents have confirmed the existence of that bridge while confessing that they would cross the footbridge to “make mischief” (the bridge has been described as dilapidated by the late 1950s.
When they began advertising in 1925, the American Venice Corporation asserted their desire to erect 2,000 homes of Venetian-style. They certainly did not come close to that projection but we have confirmed that between 1926 and 1929 the American Venice Corporation, and their subsidiaries, built at least a few dozen homes. Currently, there are over 1,200 homes in the American Venice community. Indian Island is 87 acres in size. Just imagine if an additional 600-800 homes had been built on that island!
Many long-time residents have said that there were sidewalks and house foundations on Indian Island. A 1964 survey map acquired from the Suffolk County Parks Department makes no indication of structures on the island but does confirm the development plans filed for Indian Island, as a part of the American Venice residential community. It clearly indicates that the streets on Indian Island were intended as continuations from the island to the west. Lido Promenade was to run clockwise from the northwest corner around the island to the southwest corner. A north-south road named Crystal Drive was planned to run on the west side, parallel to the Canal Lugano, and a second north-south road called Harbor Drive was intended for the middle of the island. The following roads would have been extensions from the island to the west: Hollywood Avenue East, Kissimee Road East, Marine Avenue East, Minerva Road East, Neptune Avenue East, Saltaire Road East and Seacrest Avenue East.
As for the reports of house foundations on the island, there were 49 individual property owners listed on the 1964 survey map. It is likely that some of these property owners had begun or contemplated construction on the island. Documents from the Suffolk County Parks Department and newspaper accounts at the time of acquisition make no mention of concrete sidewalks or structures. However, notations were made of an apple orchard in the northwest quadrant.
That brings us up to 1964. By that time, the American Venice Corporation had been defunct for over 30 years and ownership of the unsold properties in American Venice, including most of Indian Island, had been assumed by Venetian American Property, Inc., which was formed in 1931.
On February 6, 1964, the Babylon Town Leader ran a headline – “COUNTY TO TAKE ISLAND FOR PARK – -Acre Site Picked Off American Venice.” The article declared that the uninhabited island, “a canal away from American Venice,” would be taken over by Suffolk County for park purposes. The article further described the island, as follows:
“ONLY DUCKS AND GULLS – Tuesday of this week, only ducks and seagulls could be seen enjoying the swamp grass, scrub oak and rolling dunes of the island. At low tide a visitor could almost make it across the creek to the island, which, except for … some runaway pieces of bulk-heading, was in a primeval state.
Ironically, it is adjacent to an area nationally famous for the flamboyant speculation which brought about its development. Old time residents recall the boom for American Venice in the 1920s, when prospective clients were taken by salesmen in gondolas to see the marshland, one step removed from Venice, Italy, presumably.
The area still shows signs of its early development. Gaudy statues and rococo bridges dot it, though Indian Island, abutting to the east appears never to have known what happened.”
William T. Lauder, former Babylon Town Supervisor (1963-1965) and current Amityville Village Historian, recalled his discussions with then Suffolk County Executive H. Lee Dennison about the development of Indian Island as County parkland. He said, “In those years, the Town of Babylon population, and the County’s as well, was growing at a feverish pace. The County was acquiring a great deal of open space out east but Babylon had been overlooked, except for Bergen Point Park acquired while Arthur M. Cromarty was in office. When I suggested to Dennison that more open area be acquired in Babylon, he said Babylon land was too expensive and we didn’t have any parcels large enough to fit the program and he would not buy any small parcels. When I went back to him with the recommendation that the County buy the 80 plus acre Indian Island, he was not only surprised but disappointed because he was only interested in spending money out east. I pointed out that Babylon paid 20% of the County tax bill and reminded him of his original criteria as to size. He then reluctantly changed his mind and agreed to buy it. It is fortunate that he did so because it is the only undeveloped large parcel on the Great South Bay in our area in the County. I am very glad it was acquired and most pleased it continues to remain in its unspoiled natural state.”
Indian Island is one of three Suffolk County parks in the Town of Babylon. The other two are located in West Babylon, Bergen Point County Golf Course and Van Bourgondien Park on Albin Avenue, which is operated by the Town of Babylon.
Although some maps reference the island as “Copiague Neck County Park” or “Indian Island – Copiague Neck County Park,” the Suffolk County Parks Department verified that their official name for our Indian Island is “Indian Island County Park (Babylon).” By the way, Suffolk County has another park named Indian Island County Park in Riverhead. (If you Google “Indian Island County Park” and read about the great camping facilities, it is referring to the Riverhead park.)
The man-made Indian Island has been a bird sanctuary for over 40 years. The American Venice designers of the 1920s had intended the island as a location for residences of aesthetic enjoyment and tranquility. Although their plans were never carried out, the significance of Indian Island in the American Venice community remains unaltered. The island was specifically created as a part of that community.
Today, Indian Island remains a Suffolk County nature preserve and is now part of the American Venice Historic District designated by the Babylon Town Board, in 2007.
Research about American Venice’s history has been greatly enhanced by the generosity of community residents who have shared their memories and photographs of American Venice. We hope that residents will continue to share their memories of American Venice and Indian Island with us.
Mary Cascone, Town Historian
Town of Babylon, Office of Historic Services
and Town of Babylon History Museum
47 W. Main Street, Suite 2, Babylon, NY 11702