Filed under: Queens
One of the really neat things about taking a cruise along New York City’s waterfront is it enables one to (re)discover many hidden treasures* that cannot be appreciated from dry land. Such is the case with the above little island nestled between Roosevelt Island, Long Island City and the U.N. in Manhattan.
The island has its origins in the 1890s as a side-effect of William Steinway‘s construction of trolley tunnels under the river to link bustling Manhattan to his eponymous company town in Steinway, Queens. The island was built up on the existing granite outcrop Man-o’-War Reef using excess landfill from a shaft dug down the reef to the tunnels. Steinway died before his tunnels’ completion, and it was financier August Belmont, Jr. who finished the project in 1907, leaving the finished islet as a bonus.
The Steinway Tunnels are still in use as part of the 7–Flushing line in the New York Subway, and trains still pass directly beneath the island many times a day. Belmont Island, named after the financier, became the legal name of the island.
The small inconvenient island was unused and almost forgotten for nearly a century, until in 1977 it was adopted by employees at nearby UN headquarters following the guru Sri Chinmoy, who served as an interfaith chaplain there. The group, called Sri Chinmoy: The Peace Meditation at the United Nations, leased the islet from New York State, greened its surface and unofficially renamed it after Burmese Buddhist United Nations Secretary General U Thant, a friend of Chinmoy. Although unofficial, U Thant Island has stuck as the common name for the island. The islet is now the site of a thirty-foot “oneness arch” preserving personal items of the island’s namesake
Be sure to check out Mr. Thant’s biography as well. It is fascinating, especially given the troubled state of Burma nowadays. Not only was he an adept peace maker and a Buddhist, but U Thant was a U.F.O. buff to boot!
*Including a giant portrait of George W. Bush. As you will see.