Burlington Island has been the subject of discussion and thwarted plans for 400 years

Burlington Island was a popular destination early in the twentieth century. Earlier it had been a valued settlement site.
Burlington Island was a popular destination early in the twentieth century. Earlier it had been a valued settlement site.
Posted: January 24, 2012

From afar, Burlington Island appears uninviting.

There is no easy access to the uninhabited Delaware River island. A bridge connecting it to nearby Burlington City was planned but never built. There are no docks.

But for 400 years, the island has been a tantalizing prize, according to historians. It was seized during a conflict between the English and the Dutch in the 1600s, settled by people of several nations, battled over in courts, and targeted for a number of failed ambitious projects.

In the 1920s, it was home to an amusement park that attracted thousands before a fire destroyed the park.

Now the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is eyeing the southern tip of the 400-acre island as a place to dump a mountain of river dredge spoils.

That is what it was used for more than 20 years ago during previous dredging operations. But those spoils have sprouted trees and shrubs around a nearly 100-acre lake, and a competing business plan envisages a multimillion-dollar historical theme park on the island.

The problem is, the theme-park proposal has been discussed for three years and still lacks financing.

Money apparently was not a problem in 1624, when the Dutch West India Company financed the first European settlement in New Jersey - on the island - according to the late Burlington County historian Henry H. Bisbee.

"Here is an unspoiled island, nestling between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, hardly used by man, yet the site of the first European settlement on the river," he writes in his book, Burlington Island, The Best and Largest on the South River.

The company dispatched a group of French-speaking Walloons from the Netherlands to settle in the Delaware Valley. They chose the island for their new home, Bisbee writes. Back then, the Delaware was known as the South River and the Hudson as the North River.

"Why was Burlington Island, nearly 100 miles from the sea, selected?" Bisbee asks at the beginning of his book, in an edition sponsored by the Burlington Rotary. The answer is unclear.

Bisbee describes the first settlement as having three or four Walloon families and eight single men who lived in bark huts that were surrounded by a palisaded fort. The island then was called Matinicunk, or "Island of the Pines."

But after about two years, the settlement was relocated to Manhattan Island, leaving the island deserted for the next dozen years. Later, for a short period, the island was occupied by Swedes and Finns. In the 1660s it reverted to the Dutch. A Dutch governor took control of the island as "his own personal property" and built houses, established farms with livestock, used slaves, and "diked the marshland," Bisbee writes.

In 1664, English ships sailed into the Delaware and took control of the island. After a few years, the Dutch recaptured it, until an English governor reclaimed it in the 1670s under a treaty.

Michael Zalot, historian for the Board of Island Managers, the nonprofit organization that controls the island, said he believed it was attractive because of its location in the Delaware, near the ports of Philadelphia and Trenton.

The island was used as a trading post, and it afforded natural protection for the settlers, who erected a fort that stretched to both the eastern and western edges of the island, said Zalot, a retired English teacher and former board member.

In 1682, the West Jersey General Assembly introduced legislation granting the island to Burlington City and designating its revenue for education.

"Thus was born the oldest continual educational trust board in the United States, the Board of Island Managers," the board's website says.

In the early 1900s, Zalot said, steamboats and ferries brought thousands of tourists from Philadelphia, Trenton, and Burlington City to an amusement park on the island. It had a giant wooden roller coaster, a miniature train, a spinning-top ride called the Jollier, and other thrill rides. There was also a midway with games of chance, and a picnic area. But fires in 1928 and 1932 closed the park.

A sand and gravel company then bought the southern portion and began excavating the earth in the 1950s. The work created the island's lake. The project would have "decimated the island," Zalot said, had the city not passed an ordinance banning the removal of gravel. Warner Sand then sold the lower portion of the island to the city for $1.

The owners of summer cottages on the island were evicted for sanitation reasons in the 1970s. Since then, the island has been idle, for the most part. Kayakers and swimmers sometimes wander the island, which is a tangle of brush and woods except for about three miles of hiking trails that the board created in recent years.

Interest has waxed and waned in developing the island, but it's still waiting to become a destination again.


Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224, jhefler@phillynews.com, or @JanHefler on Twitter. Read her blog at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz

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