A Musical Legacy Preserved: The Glen Island Casino

Last post, I wrote about finding the history of Starin’s Glen Island.  The stories Glen Island keeps hidden though go far beyond the theme park.  On the foundation of the resort’s old Grand Café rose the Glen Island Casino and dining hall.  In 1930, with prohibition having survived a decade, the Glen Island Casino was a well-known speakeasy.  However, the music that played throughout the Casino was what drew people in.  Star musicians, such as “Ozzie” Nelson, Les Brown, and Glenn Miller, all got their starts at the Glen Island Casino.  My own grandmother describes going out to the Glen Island Casino as a great affair—people dressed to the nines to come here.   And the place had its fair share of drama, such as with the story of the Dorsey Brothers.  Like many of the big bands of the 1930s, they got their start performing a gig at Glen Island.  However, their orchestra also ended here, after the two brothers got into a huge fight about the tempo for a song during a performance.

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An image of the Glen Island Casino at its peak.  (Credit: https://goo.gl/images/U6hSTv)

 

The Casino closed in 1978 but reopened a few years later as a Restaurant.

Unlike Starin’s park, the Casino has been better preserved.  The restaurant that once took its place has come and gone, now being replaced by a catering hall.   Apparently, the second floor has preserved the space where the big bands of the 1930s and 1940s once performed.

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The Casino, now known as the Glen Island Harbour Club

Unfortunately, you can only enter what is now called the Glen Island Harbour Club if they are there for an event.  From afar, the place now has a very 80s-feel to it.  It was hard to believe that this was the site of a music boom in the 1940s.

Luckily, the music that once echoed throughout the building has been preserved!  The Glenn Miller Orchestra, one of the most famous groups that performed here, recorded an album in 1939 entitled “Live at Glen Island Casino,” which you can listen to here.

Glen Island had two stories waiting to be heard.  This small island now simply used for family picnics is where the theme park was born.  It was where music careers were started.  It was where Westchester County became an attraction.  The signs of this still stand in the castles and stone structures, in the stage at the restaurant, in the statues that seem slightly out of place.  It just needs to be uncovered.  So here is my uncovering of Glen Island—go visit and uncover it for yourself.

 

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The Glen Island Harbour Club, located upon the old Grand Café

 

Starin’s Glen Island: A Theme Park Forgotten In Time

Since I was three years old, I’ve spent my summers at Travers Island, across the water from Glen Island.  I could see the Island from the pool and our boat was docked directly across but I’d only ever visited once, when I was three years old.  I never felt any reason to go back, until while at my internship, I started to research the history of New Rochelle.  Turns out, Glen Island has a pretty wild story to tell.  So let’s take a trip back in time and uncover this story.

Everything begins with former U.S. Congressman John H. Starin, who served in the House of Representatives from 1877-1881.  However, Starin’s two other jobs are what make him so crucial to our story.  He owned a transportation company that included almost every tugboat seen in New York Harbor and many passenger steamboats.  This would come in handy, as in 1878, he purchased a group of small islands off the coast of New Rochelle, New York.  You guessed it—he purchased what would become Glen Island.  Starin created these islands into the first theme park and resort known as Starin’s Glen Island.  This is where our story takes flight.  In 1881, when the park opened, Starin used his steamboats to bring passengers back and forth from New York City to Glen Island.  Below is a map of the resort, showing the many activities guests could participate in.

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A map of the resort at Glen Island

The resort had two particularly notable attractions—a Museum of Natural History and a German castle.  This museum was amazing, as it housed mummies from 332 B.C., relics of the Stone Age, and several meteors.  The second attraction was a re-created German castle, which housed the “Little Germany” land.  Keep in mind, it was the nineteenth century—a German land meant having a beer garden.

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The castle that once housed the beer garden

The park thrived for twenty years, until things turned sour.  In 1904, one of the island’s steamboats burned, resulting in the deaths of 1,000 people.  The total end to Starin’s Glen Island soon followed with the death of Starin himself.   Without him at the helm, direction was lost and the resort became unprofitable, shutting down.  It seemed the story had come to a close– many of the original parts of the resort burned down but a new chapter began in 1924, when Westchester County purchased the islands.  The county joined all the islands together into one landmass, taking away the waterside walkways guests of the resort had enjoyed.  The county also built a bridge between the island and New Rochelle, linking Glen Island to the rest of the world.

Today, it’s hard to believe that Glen Island ever was the resort Starin created.  The only remains of the park are Little Germany, where two castles and many stone structures still stand. Today, one castle was boarded up and the other, where the beer garden once sat, is used for Westchester County storage. I could walk into a small hut structure, the inside of which has become a place for couples to sign their initials.  Only two plaques on the entire island mention Starin so here’s to his story, a story that deserves to be told.

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Part of one of the two Little Germany castles that has now been boarded up.

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The hut that is now a couple’s spot.

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The inside today of the famous Little Germany castle

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A statue, likely from the old carousel at Starin’s Glen Island