A Brief History of Marshlands Conservancy...

The first Chief Justice of the U.S. and negotiator of the Treaty of Paris grew up on this land. Our trails lead to the largest remaining salt marsh in Westchester County. Hundreds of migrating birds stop at the marsh, meadow, or forest to refuel for their long journey each spring and fall. And for decades, hundreds of people have worked tirelessly to assure that this beautiful place will be preserved for many generations to come.

Take a look at our timeline to learn about the people, events, and wildlife that have made Marshlands Conservancy such a special place. The original timeline exhibit, spanning an entire wall, can be viewed in Marshlands’ visitor’s center.

blue events focus on the history of the land: the changes in ownership, and significant milestones locally and around the world which have affected the property in some way.

green events
highlight the laws and ordinances passed by the federal, state, and city governments which help protect this property and the plants and animals that call it their home.

The Paleoindians, a group of hunter-gatherers, lived throughout much of this area. At that time, what we now call Long Island Sound was merely a freshwater glacial lake.
A tribe of Eastern Woodland Indians known as the Siwanoys lived in wigwams overlooking the marsh, and cleared much of the land for agricultural purposes. The shore was an excellent source of clam shells, used in the production of “wampum” currency.
In the “Deed of Apawamis,” John Budd purchased 1560 acres from Siwanoy Chief Shenorock for 80£ sterling. The land was bounded by Blind Brook to the east, Beaver Brook to the west, Westchester Path (a road that ran along what is now the Rye-Harrison town line) to the north, and Milton Harbor to the south.
Two years later, Budd opened a gristmill where Blind Brook runs into Milton Harbor, where cattle, lumber, and oysters were also traded.
John Budd died and left the land and mill to his sons, Joseph and John Jr.
The Country Road (also known as Stamford Road) was laid out, later to become Boston Post Road (Route 1). A hundred years later, the first stagecoach would travel the route, taking 2 weeks to get from New York City to Boston.
Upon the death of his father, Joseph Budd, John Budd III inherited the property.
After the outbreak of smallpox epidemic in New York City left 2 of his children blind and one dead, wealthy merchant Peter Jay bought 250 acres of land from John Budd III.
He began the construction of a two-story farmhouse, and in 1746 moved with his wife and 6 children to Rye. Peter would eventually purchase additional land, increasing his estate to 400 acres.
The Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War, was signed. The American most responsible for the negotiations was John Jay, Peter’s son. Previously, John had been elected the first President of the Continental Congress, and later a minister (ambassador) to France and Spain.
The same year, Peter died and left the family estate to his son, “Blind” Peter.
Peter Jr. ran a very successful farm and horse breeding stable, despite his lack of sight.
John Jay was appointed the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and was later elected Governor of New York State in both 1795 and 1798 before retiring from politics.
Although he continued to live in his Bedford home, John Jay inherited the Rye estate when his brother “Blind” Peter died.  Peter’s wife, Mary, remained living in the house with several nieces and nephews.
John conveyed the property to his eldest son, Peter Augustus Jay. Soon after, Peter A. planted three magnificent American elm trees behind the house. The last one lived almost 150 years before dying of Dutch Elm Disease. The slab in the Marshlands visitor’s center was cut from the last tree, and the remained of the wood was carved into 9 gavels for Supreme Court Justices, in honor of John.
Peter Augustus tore down the original farmhouse and built the Greek Revival mansion that still stands at the top of the field today. At that time, it cost Peter $14,500 to have the house built.
Onset of the Civil War.
At the death of John Clarkson Jay, his children rented out the property and house to various tenants.
Possibly to alleviate money troubles, John C. Jay’s children had the property surveyed, and the New York and Portchester Railroad Company began construction here. You can still see the embankment they built to the west of the trail now running through the sweet gum forest, and the culvert over the stream. The plan, however, came to a halt when the Parsons family next door did not agree to have the tracks run through their land.
1970 - 1971
1836 - 1838
About 8000 B.C.
Probably 1000 A.D.
Mr. Edgar Palmer, the President of the New Jersey Zinc Company, bought the estate, and planted a European tree nursery. You can still see the London Planetrees, Horsechestnuts, and European Beeches that line the trail leading from the visitor’s center to the meadow.
The federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed, implementing treaties between the US and Canada, Mexico, Japan, and Russia to fully protect migratory and/or endangered bird species. Passage of the Act ended hunting for scarce shorebirds, and made it illegal to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture, or kill, possess, offer for sale, sell, offer to purchase, purchase, deliver for shipment, ship, cause to be shipped,...transport, carry, or cause to be carried by any means whatever, receive for shipment, transportation or carriage, or export, at any time, or in any manner, any migratory bird...or any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.”
The category five Great New England Hurricane of 1938, also known as the “Long Island Express,” blew through the northeast in late September. To date, it was the most destructive and deadliest storm in New York and New England history. Included in the over 57,000 damaged homes was the stone and wood summer house at Marshlands’ shore. This mysterious house has no known blueprints or photographs, but was built sometime in the early part of the century by Mr. James Hayes, Zilph Devereux’s uncle. Now often refered to as “the ruins,” a stone chimney, additional fireplace, and foundations can be seen at the shore.
The (amended) federal Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act was passed. Amongst other protections, the act requires that before any body of water is modified, a consultation must be made with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and (in New York’s case) the Department of Environmental Conservation. A report must be submitted by these agencies with recommendations based on surveys and investigations to determine “possible damage to wildlife resources and measures that should be adopted to prevent their loss or damage.” This act, together with other regulations, would prevent any modification to the marsh or Milton Harbor that would negatively affect the plants and animals living there.
Zilph Devereux donated the mansion, the rest of the buildings on her property, and 23 acres to the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, stating her wishes for it never to be developed. Quite a philanthropist, Mrs. Devereux also donated portions of her land to the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Research Center and Rye Neck School District, and sold 14 more acres to the City of Rye for development.
Mrs. Devereux gave 120 acres of land to the Westchester County Department of Parks, Recreation, and Conservation specifically for park land.
After digging out a marshy area to create the pond you pass on your way in, Westchester County built the entrance road, parking lot, and visitor’s center.
Marshlands was dedicated and officially opened to visitors.
The federal Coastal Zone Management Act was passed “to preserve, protect, develop, and where possible to restore or enhance, the resources of the nation’s coastal zone for this and succeeding generations.” The law also provides for “the protection of natural resources, including wetlands, floodplains, estuaries, beaches, dunes,...and fish and wildlife and their habitat, within the coastal zone,” and encourages coastal management that preserves natural resources. As Long Island Sound is part of the coastal zone, all of Marshlands’ beaches and marshes are protected under this act.
The federal Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act was passed, regulating the dumping of material into oceans and other coastal water (like the Sound) that would endanger human health and marine ecology. Tidal debris still sometimes washes on to the shore, but the amount could be much larger if dumping was allowed.
The NYS tidal Wetlands Act was passed “to preserve and protect tidal wetlands, and to prevent their despoliation and destruction.” Tidal wetlands include “those areas which border on or lie beneath tidal waters,” including all of our marshes. Amongst other activities, the Act prohibits draining of the marsh; removal of sand or stones; building roads, buildings, or bulkheads; fishing; and hunting.
The amended Clean Water Act was passed, regulating the contamination of bodies of water from both point source (i.e. a discharge pipe) and non-point source (i.e. pesticide runoff) pollution. The streams at Marshlands flow directly into Long Island Sound, making them part of the Sound’s watershed. If these streams were to be contaminated, so would the marshes and Sound. The Clean Water Act prevents this.
The New York State Environmental Quality Review Act was passed. requiring that an Environmental Impact Statement be prepared before any action occurs that could have a significant effect (short or long-term) on the environment. Actions that fall into this category include construction of buildings, developments, roads, or dams; creation of park or land use development plans; and creation of local zoning and wetland protection regulations. Before development plans could be written for this land, an EIS had to be submitted, and one of the reasons those plans were denied was because of their potential impact on Marshlands’ ecosystems.
Fanny Wickes Parsons, owner of the Lounsbery estate to the east of Marshlands, gave 17 acres of her land to the county to expand the park. What you may know as Parsons’ Pond and Parsons’ Island were included in her gift. Similar to Mrs. Devereux, Mrs. Parsons wished for her land to be preserved…
The Methodist Church began negotiations with developers to sell a major portion of the property given to them by Mrs. Devereux. This act sparked the longest-running land-use dispute in the history of Westchester County, continuing for 13 years.
Following the format of the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act, the City of Rye adopted their own local guidelines in Chapter 87 of the City Code. The law requires that an Environmental Impact Statement be submitted to the City Council in addition to the one required by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation.
DGM and Partners of Parchment, the real estate firm backing developer Diane Millstein, bought 23 acres of land and all of the standing buildings for about $1.2 million. Much opposition ensued.
The Peter Jay House, the Carriage House built by Warner van Norden in 1906, the Lounsbery mansion next door owned by the Parsons family, and Whitby Castle at Rye Golf Club were named the Boston Post Road Historic District, and were listed in the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
Chapter 64 of the Rye City Code, Boats and Harbors, was adopted, regulating discharge or noise from, and speed limits and moorings of boats in Milton Harbor. This law, enforced by the Rye Harbor Police, helps keep our shore clean, quiet, and safe.
The Friends of Marshlands entered the case on the behalf of the City of Rye, in support of the development proposal with the least environmental impact.
The Long Island Sound Study was formed as “a cooperative effort focusing on the overall ecosystem”. The federal Environmental Protection Agency, state agencies from New York and Connecticut, and concerned individuals and non-profit organizations partnered together to restore and protect the Sound.
The Jay Coalition formed in hopes of purchasing and preserving the property. The Coalition was made up of the Friends of the Peter Jay House (of which many members were descendants of Peter Jay), the Friends of Marshlands, Save Our Residential Environment (S.O.R.E.), the Rye Historical Society, and close to 70 other non-profit groups.
Marshlands was designated a “Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitat” by the New York Department of State. The designation protects an area of 250 acres (including all of the Conservancy and its marshes, along with all of the adjacent marshes and tidal flats of Milton Harbor) from degradation by banning any development or use of the land or water that would “destroy the habitat; or, significantly impair the viability of a habitat.” The need for protection was based on the presence of certain criteria: 1. Ecosystem Rarity: “The only sizable, undisturbed, salt marsh and tidal flat community in Westchester,” 2. Species Vulnerability: Diamond-back terrapin breeding area, 3. Human Use: “Environmental education programs and opportunities for information nature study,” 4. Population Level: “Concentration of various fish and wildlife species associated with tidal wetlands (especially marsh-nesting birds) are unusual in Westchester,: and 5. Replaceability: the habitat is “irreplaceable.”
Chapter 73 of the Rye City Code, Coastal Zone Management Consistency Review, was adopted. This law requires that actions within the coastal area of the City (including promotion of water-related recreation, expansion of fishing facilities, prevention of flooding, protection of wetlands, and handling of hazardous wastes) be reviewed for consistency with the Local Waterfront Revitalization Program, intended to “preserve the city’s coastal resources.”
Wetlands and Watercourses, Chapter 195 of the Rye City Code, was adopted. The regulations’s intention is to prevent “the despoliation and destruction of wetlands and watercourses while taking into account varying ecological, economic, recreational and aesthetic values. Activities that may damage wetlands or watercourses should be located on upland sites in such a manner as not to degrade these systems.” Those actions that would increase erosion or pollution, decrease breeding, nesting, or feeding areas for shorebirds, or increase cumulative loss of wetland buffers by encroachment are prohibited.
This year
After 14 different development proposals were protested and denied, DGM Partners sold the 23 acres to New York State and Westchester County, and donated the Jay mansion and Carriage House to the Jay Heritage Center (formed in 1990). With the aid of $4 million from NYS, the County paid $11.5 million for the property, the maximum amount they had agreed to.
The Long Islands Sound Study (LISS) completed a Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan, identifying seven issues of the Sound: “1. low dissolved oxygen (hypoxia), 2. toxic contamination, 3. pathogen contamination, 4. floatable debris, 5. living resources and habitat management, 6. land use and development, and 7. public involvement and education.” Since plans to address these issues have been put in place, the LISS has made significant progress on the Sound’s protection and restoration.
The Westchester County Committee on Legislation voted unanimously to approve County Legislator George Latimer’s proposal to “[set] aside Marshlands Conservancy as a natural park, and as a wildlife sanctuary to be preserved for the use of and development of habitat management and wildlife protection.” The adoption of this act restricts use to passive recreation and prohibits activities harmful to the wildlife.
Due to the diversity of habitats and bird species, the National Audubon Society named Marshlands an Important Bird Area under their Open Space Conservation Plan. IBAs “provide essential habitat...for breeding, wintering, and/or migrating birds” and typically contain threatened, endangered, or vulnerable species. The designation helps to prioritize conservation and allocate funding to benefit birds.
The Long Island Sound 2003 Agreement was signed by officials from New York, Connecticut, and the federal government. The agreement “builds upon the goals of the 1994 Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan by adding 30 new goals and targets to restore Long Island Sound.” Some of these goals include reducing hypoxia-causing nitrogen and pathogens in the water, mapping degradation of wetlands, identifying critical habitat issues, studying invasive species, and restoring 2000 acres of habitat.
Marshlands Conservancy, Edith Read Sanctuary, Playland Park, and the shoreline in between was listed as a Long Island Sound Stewardship Area. The designation was based on ecological significance as “one of the largest contiguous areas of undeveloped coastal land and the largest tidal marsh system in Westchester County...that provides nesting and feeding habitat for native shorebirds and rare birds,” and recreational significance as an area for birdwatching and education.
YOU can come visit Marshlands Conservancy any day of the year! As a resident of Westchester County, you own these trails, forests, and marshes. We hope that you enjoy your time here in this very important place.
All photos on this website Copyright 2010-2014, Megan Aitchison
Website ​Copyright 2010-2014, Friends of Marshlands, Inc.  
​All Rights Reserved.
Peter Augustus died and left the estate to his son, Dr. John Clarkson Jay. Dr. Jay was a noted
conchologist, and was famous for his collection of over 3000 types of shells -- the largest, most
complete, and most valuable collection of its kind in the country. His collection is now housed
at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
As Revolution erupted, Rye became “no-man’s-land” and was very dangerous. Peter Jay moved
his family north to Fishkill for safety.
After World War II broke out the previous year, the field was designated as an emergency
air landing strip for US military planes.
The “Better Bottle Bill” was enacted as an amendment to the 1982 New York State law (the “Bottle Bill”)
which placed a 5 cent deposit on metal, glass, and plastic containers containing carbonated soft drinks,
beer, and related beverages. The amendment expands the bill to include both carbonated and flat water
bottles under 1 gallon in size. One of the original bill’s objectives, to give consumers an incentive not to
litter, seemed to be quickly successful; soon after its enactment, a measurable decrease in bottles and cans
washing up on Marshlands’ shores was seen. As water bottles make up one of the largest categories of
trash found during our beach clean ups, we hope that the new bill will lead to an even further decrease
in littered beverage containers in the future.
The Friends of Marshlands was formed to help support programs and activities at the Conservancy.
Today there are over 400 members.
Zilph Palmer Devereux inherited the property after her father, Edgar Palmer, died.
Mrs. Devereux’s husband, Walter, used the field to train golden retrievers as hunting dogs.
After James Fine owned the Jay property for a short period of time, it was bought by Warner Van Norden.
A New York City banker fascinated by exotic animals, Mr. Van Norden imported Grevy’s zebras
(and other animals) to pull his carriage to the railroad station and shore.