A pair of privately owned, uninhabited islands in the Susquehanna River have been sold to the state of Pennsylvania.
Independence and Baileys Island, located just north of City Island in Harrisburg, were in the same family for generations. They were once home to a dance hall and a ferry route, but now the vacant islands are just a fun destination for boaters.
The two islands together sold for $160,000 in January.
The Long & Foster real estate listing boasted, “Rarely will you find an island come up for sale, here is an opportunity to have two.”
First listed in late July 2022 for $150,000, the combined property seemed to be marketed toward a private buyer. “Enjoy river access to fishing, camping and water sport on your own island. Bragging rights are hard to beat.”
Until now, those bragging rights belonged to Robert and John Ensminger, who live in Harrisburg and Carlisle, Pa., respectively. Robert tells Bay Bulletin that the islands were left to them by their parents and the property has been in their family since the early 1900s.
“Once upon a time,” Robert says, “there used to be a bathhouse on the island. People used to go swimming there. There was a ferry they had that ran across to the island. But the river is fairly shallow in areas. You can probably walk across it.”
So why did the Ensmingers sell? “We’re getting pretty advanced in age,” Robert tells us. When he and John leave their estates behind, ownership of the island would be split between as many as 14 people. “We decided it’s easier to distribute cash than the property in 14 directions.”
As an appraiser by trade, he says, “I have been involved in situations where way too many people own that doggone thing. It really gets difficult to pass everything down.”
Robert says they received a couple of offers on the property and went with the highest, which was the state’s. They don’t regret the sale.
The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) says it purchased the property for its “scenic beauty, public outdoor recreation and ecological conservation.”
Independence and Bailey islands are now part of the state’s 2.2 million acre forest system. They join hundreds of islands big and small the DNRC Bureau of Forestry owns throughout the Pennsylvania section of the Susquehanna River.
According to DCNR spokesman Wesley Robinson, the department is working to develop a management plan for the islands. Robinson says there will not be any changes to public access.
He says the islands’ location in Harrisburg is poignant because they are within view of the Mira Lloyd Dock historical marker.
Dock was an early 20th century botanist and conservation activist who became the first woman to be appointed to a Pennsylvania state government position. From 1901 to 1913, she served on the State Forestry Reservation Commission. Her historical marker also credits her with catalyzing the birth of Harrisburg’s “City Beautiful” movement, which ultimately produced the city’s park system.
Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Ted Evgeniadis welcomes the addition of these islands as public lands. He says the river’s many islands are great for anglers and paddlers and even serve as primitive camping sites.
“It’s a shoreline where you can take the river in. Opening any access for the public is a good thing as long as it’s treated with respect,” says Evgeniadis. “If we have more islands that are publicly accessible, it’s better for everybody.”
-Meg Walburn Viviano