New York City's Secret Little Island

Rat Island in front of the larger Hart Island

Rat Island in the tiny island in the top-center of the photo, the much larger Hart Island is in the background.

By Noele Illien
Back in 2011, Roland Veit first heard about Rat Island while he was watching the news at his home in Briarcliff Manor, New York.  The island, located off of the Bronx between City Island and Hart Island, is believed to be the only privately owned island in New York City.
Veit, who is a coffee trader by day, was intrigued by the piece of land that measures 2.5 acres at low tide and which was about to go up for auction. He remembers thinking, “Who buys something like that?  And what a weird name.”
A few months, a card tournament and $88,000 later, the Swiss-born Veit, to his wife’s fury, owned 50 percent of the island. He says it is his intrigue which led him to buy “a piece of rock that is pretty useless.”
But it is his rock.  Well, his and one other man’s. Veit co-owns the island with Alex Schibli, another Swiss native, who originally bid for it.
“I think we Swiss have an island complex having grown up in a landlocked country,” Veit explained in a phone interview.
Schibli, a former Port Authority worker, won the island in October, 2011 by bidding $176,000 at a street auction.  The purchase price included a 10 percent buyer’s fee. The previous owner, Edmund Brennan, had used the island as part of a ship salvaging operation before retiring to Florida.
Schibli says he bought the rock for the adventure factor and had always wanted to be a kind of Swiss Family Robinson. His waterfront home in City Island looks right onto Rat Island which even before owning he would often visit.
Although his relationship with the rock hasn’t changed much since he bought it, his eyes light up when he describes the feeling of kayaking over and letting it sink in that “Wow, this is my own island.”
The two Swiss men were brought together by a traditional card tournament in November of 2011 that had been organized by the Swiss Gymnastics Society. Veit overheard Schibli being congratulated for his winning bid, and intrigued, he approached Schibli’s table and asked what they were talking about.  Less than two weeks later the two had decided to form a company, Mussel Island LLC – named after the thousands of mussels dropped on the rock by birds. They each now own 50 percent of the island.
Veit laughs when asked if he bought the island for the bragging rights and admits that may be true. He finds that it is a great topic of conversation. “It’s not like I’m telling everyone, ‘Hey, I own an island.,’ ” he says. “But when people talk to me about it, they are either fascinated by the whole thing or they think I am nuts.”
Veit says he has only visited the island three times since he bought it.  And once his wife visited the island, she came around too.  Veit admits, however, that he doesn’t have the same emotional connection to it as his partner. Schibli who in warmer weather visits the island a few times a week, takes pleasure from its wildlife and is trying to grow new plants on it, but says the salty conditions make it tough.
The island’s Swiss connection in fact dates back to the early 19th Century when the surveyor Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler was commissioned by the government of the United States to undertake the first comprehensive Coast Survey.
Rat Island remains shrouded in mystery.  And the owners believe its Swiss origins is one of four historical secrets that it holds. Another involves a one time existence of a house, the foundations of which remain. The structure was believed to have either been used by sick patients or by artists, no one knows for certain which. There are also the remains of some shipwrecks that lie off its shore and the presence of a narrow channel dug into the rock which floods during high tide.
Schibli can see Rat Island from his home.

Schibli can see Rat Island from his home.

Where the island’s name comes from is also a puzzle.  It is not home to the rodent, which the owners often have to explain. Instead, legend says the island was given its name because of escaping prisoners who would swim to it from Hart Island and who were referred to as rats.
However, historian and author Pearl Duncan believes that the name Rat Island is in fact an abbreviation of Rattle Island, which she says is the original name given to it in the 17th Century. The island’s location allows for views far into the distance up and down river, so the rock held an important strategic position dating back to the times of the Dutch. Watchmen would use rattles to warn of approaching ships, says the historian, hence the name, Rattle Island.
Veit says that at first he was pretty adamant that the name be changed. But now he says he no longer minds it. “It is all part of the intrigue, of the fascination,” he says. “It’s a crazy name.”
Schibli too says he is happy with the name as it is, even though one of the first questions people ask him is whether he will be changing it.
For the moment, the two men say they aren’t in any rush to do anything with the island, though they have permission from the authorities to build on it. They both say, however, that they would be interested in putting the island at the disposal of a an environmental organization that could build something which is energy self-sufficient and makes use of the natural surroundings. They would like the structure to be permanent so that people could go and visit it.
“I’m waiting for the right opportunity to pop up,” says Veit. “At that point, as long as Alex and I agree on it something will happen. In the meantime, we’ll let it be as it is.”