Tonawanda Island

Dublin Core


Tonawanda Island


1853 illustration of Tonawanda Island, showing the Beechwater residence, and a ferry The Saratoga plying the waters of the Niagara River.1860 illustration showing the southern tip of Tonawanda Island. The lavish Beechwater residence and a smaller building are seen to the left of a  mysterious mound (Harper's Monthly Magazine, May 1860) This small island in the Niagara River is today home to the N.T. (Water) Pumping Station, Taylor Devices, a booming feral cat population and (we expect) a very few skillful mice. But a mysterious structure at the south end of the island drew some of the earliest widespread attention to our area.

Burial mound left by Native Americans. Or giants.

Early European explorers notice a roughly 15 foot-high mound of earth near the southeastern end of the island. One explorer dates the peculiarity to the Native American Squawkie Hill phase (100-400 A.D.), which "included a religious aspect involving the burial of high-status individuals" (John Percy).

Indeed, human remains are discovered within, though there is little consensus on who (or what) they were. In 1853, Gleason's Pictorial reports that resident Mrs. White (more on the Whites below) personally unearthed "the skull and bones of a human body, supposed to be an Indian chief...not...less than eight feet in stature." (The article adds vaguely that "Many other curiosities are found on the island.") An 1860 article in Harper's tells of "several heaps of bones, each comprising three or four skeletons" found just under a circle of stones with indications of fire. Modern mysteriophile Mason Winfield poi
nts to sensational accounts in frontier newspapers claiming at least two "very bizarre skulls" were excavated from the enclosure, with a "portentous, protruding lower jaw and canine forehead," and buried in a way inconsistent with the traditions of the locals. The skeletons are not confined to the great mound, either. Yet more human remains are found while digging the foundations for the Beechwater mansion, the Tonawanda News reports in 1906.

Across the Little River, on the mainland, evidence of a Native American armory is discovered, with numerous broken flints and arrows.

Carney's Island? Not so fast!

The island's first European inhabitant arrives as early as 1791, one Edward Carney, who hopes to "squat" his way into possession of the island. The property's value skyrockets however when Mordecai Noah's plan to turn nearby Grand Island into a refuge for the world's displaced Jews gets underway around 1825, and the land is purchased at auction from the state by Samuel Leggate of New York City (Lockport Union-Sun & Journal).

White's Island and the Beechwater mansion

The plan to make Grand Island into a refuge for Jews, we know, fails, and the next speculators to turn their eyes to our little island are the moneyed men of the East Boston Timber Company in 1833. They are likewise most interested in the much larger prize of Grand Island, and harvest its white oak to build ships in New England. President Stephen White purchases Tonawanda Island as a headquarters and residence, and it becomes known as "White's Island." 
To cement his claim, White built a magnificent mansion at the southern end of the island. “Beechwater,” as White called it, was designed by Boston architect Samuel Perkins in 1835 for $18,000. The interior contained cherry, black walnut and marble embellishments (Lockport Union-Sun & Journal)
The Beechwater mansion boasts "chimney pieces from Italy," surrounding pleasure grounds with "choice fruits, ornamental shrubbery and graveled walks," and was called the finest residence in Western New York at the time. Famous American lawyer and politician Daniel Webster (after whom Webster Street is named) visits  Beechwater on several occasions. Webster's son Fletcher is married to White's daughter Caroline there in 1836.

Further plans of the East Boston Timber Company are thwarted by a poor economy. By 1840 the white oak of Grand Island has been cut down and floated away to New England. Stephen White dies, and his widow stays on. It appears Beechwater was offered as a summer resort for a time.

Lumber and industrial era

William Wilkeson purchases the property from the family in 1869, planting orchards and vineyards. In 1881, William Wilkeson sells the property to Smith, Fassett & Company, one of the many lumber concerns flocking to the Tonawandas. The natural harbor of the Little River make the island and opposite shore perfect for stacking, processing and shipping immense quantities of lumber, and North Tonawanda has become a major lumber market.

Beechwater, Stephen White's mansion, coexists for a while with the great square piles of wood coming and going around it. Although said to still be largely structurally sound, the mansion is torn down in 1906, as the "demand for lumber yardage makes its razing imperative." It had long been rumored to be haunted. Its fireplace, we believe, is preserved and cared for by the Historical Society of the Tonawandas.

Later significant occupants o Tonawanda Island include the International Paper Company and the R. T. Jones Lumber company.


Carney, James (1800-1881).jpg


From History of Niagara County 1821-1878 (1878): James Carney was a pioneer in the town as early as 1819, locating with his father, Edward Carney,…

White House relic to be demolished soon, article (Tonawanda News, 1906-03-17).jpg

White House relic to be demolished soon, article (Tonawanda News, 1906-03-17).jpg

Description of Daniel Webster's visits, and Uncle Vandervoort's store on Grand Island. A 1982 article claims: "Today, all that remains of its former…

Tonawanda Island, aerial photo set (Joseph Blake, 2016-06-15).jpg


A set of aerial photographs showing Tonawanda Island and the Little River.