Early New York – A Glance At Harlem

THERE was a woodpecker at work on the big cherry-tree this morning. For an hour he hammered away, with an industry which ought to have brought him a good breakfast. His figure flashed from one side of the trunk to the other with such rapidity that we watched with wonder to see where the silver fretting of his wings and the sheen of his glossy black back would next show themselves. A busy little fellow he, who paid no attention to the idle crew that gazed at him in delight, but thrust his bill into worm-holes with an accuracy that never made a mistake. It was my daughter Nellie who descried him first. She took me by the button-hole as I pushed my chair back from the breakfast-table, marched me out on the porch, and, pointing to the woodpecker, bade me behold my prototype. ” See,” she said, ” how he delves into dark places and digs out their hidden treasures, happy when he has brought to light the secrets that are hidden there. I pleaded guilty, with a smile, and took off my hat to the speckled delver.

Yes, mine has been the life of the little bird this summer, and I am loath to leave my ancient home-stead and pause from its antiquarian studies. Another year and the house that has known fourscore years of the joys and sorrows of life will be levelled to the ground, the axe will be hurled against the heart of these old trees, my garden will disappear, and on the real estate map of the city a red parallelogram will take the place of the yellow one of to-day, to de-note to the inquirer that a row of brick tenements occupies the site of the quaint old frame-house by the river. So I linger, while it is yet possible and while the golden glory of these autumnal days makes life under the. scarlet leaves of tree and vine a luxury, over the landscape whose forgotten beauties still exist for me. I trace out the brooks and ponds, headlands and meadows, country-seats and farm-houses, hills and bits of forest of the olden time, and for the moment they are real. I call up the sturdy old Dutch farmer in voluminous waistcoats and leathern breeches, the bewigged and belaced English colonist who brought with him the roystering ways of the mother-country, and made the valley of the Harlem resound with the cry of the fox-hunt ; the soldiers in the scarlet of the King and the patriot battalions in buff and blue; the merchant princes and jurists and men of leisure, whose country residences once crowned every hillock in view; the mill-pond and creek in the distance ; the little rural village, and its whitewashed church surmounted by a gilded weathercock; the stage-coach, horse-ferry, and rustic tavern-all these are hammered out by the bill of the literary woodpecker. It is not much in the eyes of a financier, perhaps, but then he would not think much of the busy little bird either, and the latter, though not so large as the hawk or a buzzard, is as merry as the day is long. What more could he ask ? He has his wings and his twig, and he finds his worm when he wants it. For anything beyond, he is wise enough not to bother his head.

It is always worth while to go to the bottom of a hole and find the nugget that lies there. I have been looking up the meaning of the old Dutch designation “hook,” which occurs so frequently on the ancient maps of the Island of Manhattan, and which yet survives in Tubby Hook on the North River. That pro-found work, entitled the Goot Woordenboeck, published at Rotterdam in 1658, says that the word ” hoeck,” or “hook,” signifies a nook, a corner, or an angle. The ancient maps of the Hell Gate district locate Hoorn’s Hook at the foot of Eighty-ninth Street, and Van Kenlen’s Hook at the southern bank and outlet of the Harlem River. The latter took its name from the family who pre-empted and occupied the 200 acres south of the Harlem and extending to Fifth Avenue. Although a landed proprietor by the name of Horn purchased a portion of the property in the neighbor-hood of Eighty-ninth Street, the locality did not de-rive its title from him, but, like New Amsterdam and New Haarlem, it was baptized in memory of Hoorn in Holland, where Siebert Claesen, a wealthy burgher of New Amsterdam in the days of Governor Peter Stuyvesant, had passed many pleasant days, and whose fragrant memory he desired to perpetuate.

As early as 1636 the pioneers of Dutch civilization made their appearance in the fertile plains at the foot of the rocky height to which they gave the name of Slang Berge, or Snake Hill, now called Mount Morris. There had been an Indian village at this point, and the Indians had given to the land the musical name Muscoota, signifying the flats or meadows, and the – river was designated by the same title, Isaac de Rasieres, who was secretary of the Dutch West India Company in 1628, gives the first written description of the locality, and says that while towards Hell Gate and to the westward it was rocky and full of trees, towards the north end it had good bottom-lands. The mind of the Hollander was instinctively drawn to what the early colonists called the flats of the Island of Manhattan, and the region was all the more attractive because it was bordered by salt meadows traversed at many points by creeks and kills. Under the shadow of Snake Hill they laid out a village. Its present spires and shipping, its railways and colossal structures of brick and stone, form part of the landscape from my windows, but they do not obliterate the woods and fields, the old Dutch homesteads and farm-houses, the streams and inlets now vanished but upon which my eyes looked more than forty years ago, and whose remembrance is as vivid as the city home of my childhood.

When the present plan of city streets was adopted, eighty years since, the eastern post-road, which di-verged from the present Third Avenue at Eighty-third Street and crossed Fourth Avenue at Eighty-fifth Street, passed the corner of Observatory Place and intersected the Middle Road at Ninetieth Street. Observatory Place was intended as a square for a reservoir, and extended from Eighty-ninth to Ninety-fourth Street, and from Fifth to Sixth Avenue. The road then passed in a northerly direction between the latter avenues, and crossed a small bridge over the head of Benson’s tide mill-pond, near One Hundred and Fifth Street and Fifth Avenue, and thence swept a little west of Third Avenue, through the village of Harlem, which was located between One Hundred and Sixteenth and One Hundred and Twenty-fifth streets, and so on to the Harlem River. From Ninety-second Street there was a road which crossed over to Kingsbridge Road, striking it a little to the west of the present Eighth Avenue at Myer’s Corner, about One Hundred and Thirty-first Street. Another lane, called the Harlem Road, passed from the village over the Harlem flat to the north of Snake Hill, and made a junction with the Kingsbridge Road at Myer’s Corner. These roads were all laid out in the seventeenth century, at which time also the diverging road to Hoorn’s Hook was cut through the woods that then lined the banks of the river. The land must have been exceedingly fair to look upon then, for Governor Wouter Van Twiller, who had laid hands upon the Island of Tenkeins opposite, now known as Ward’s Island, to appropriate it, as early as 1633 pre-empted all the lands bordering on Hell Gate Bay which had obtained the name of Otter-spoor or otter track, from the number of otters with which it abounded.

Through this tract swept a creek which was 100 feet wide at its mouth and 20 feet deep, and was navigable for half a mile or more inland. It emptied into Hell Gate Bay near One Hundred and Seventh Street, thence stretching westwardly up and beyond Fifth Avenue, one of its sources being in Central Park, and the other, a rippling brook, fed by crystal springs that nestled at the foot of the rocks in Morningside Park. The spring in Central Park was known as “Montanye’s fonteyn,” and still exists in its perennial freshness.

The curious wayfarer might find it in its original basin on the line of One Hundred and Fifth Street and to the west of the Sixth Avenue line, but the basin has been covered up, and a hidden pipe leads the waters to the foot of the hill where, in a ” hook ” or angle of the rocks, it bubbles forth as merrily as of old, and leaps along its ancient bed until it falls into the waters of Harlem Lake. Originally known as Montanye’s, the next century gave the name Benson’s Creek to this stream, and on later maps it appeared as Harlem Creek until obliterated by the march of the spade and the hod.

The Dutch had hardly begun to farm the fertile glebe of Harlem before one of their number saw the advantages of the stream, and proposed to the good burghers to help him in building a bridge. But they deliberated long, and doubtless smoked up several hogsheads of tobacco before they could see their way clearly to such a venture. At last they seemed to have organized a sort of trust, or ” combine,” in the line of public improvements. Not to do things by halves, they determined that Harlem should have a grist-mill, a tavern, and a ferry, and they proceeded to put the enterprise in operation. The dam for the mill was built in 1667. It crossed the creek a little to the west of Third Avenue at One Hundred and Ninth Street, and at its northern end stood the grist-mill. There was a stone bridge at Third Avenue, and another crossed Mill Creek at One Hundred and Eleventh Street and Fifth Avenue, the mill-pond ex-tending this distance back and giving its name to the principal brook that fed it. In 1730 Derick Benson became owner of the property, having removed hither from Greenwich Village-the Bassen Bouwery of old Dutch days, where dwelt the Mandevilles, Van Schaicks, Woertendykes, and Somerindykes of Holland ancestry. For some years the mill had fallen into disuse, and in October, 1738, the town granted permission to Samson Benson, his brother, to erect a mill with a dam and dwelling-house.

During the War of the Revolution these buildings, which were occupied by the military, who had a fortification at Benson’s Point (the southern bank of the creek, known later as Rhinelander’s Point), were burned to the ground. After the war was ended Benjamin Benson built a new mill and a substantial stone dwelling on the Mill Camp farm, as it was then called. In 1827, when the Harlem Canal was begun, that speculative enterprise, gigantic for those days, which was to unite the waters of the Hudson and East rivers by a navigable canal from Benson’s Point to Harlem Cove, now Manhattanville, the mill, a frame building three stories in height, was taken down, but the dwelling-house was spared until 1865. I well re-member the canal, with its stone embankments and locks, which was extended beyond Fourth Avenue be-fore it was abandoned ; and, indeed, the man of forty can recall it, and picture to himself how oddly appeared this bit of costly enterprise that crossed desolate marshes and barren wastes of ground. It has disappeared now, and a busy city covers up all trace of canal and marsh. The stranger would never dream that the snipe had so recently teetered on the site of yonder tall houses, and that it was only the whistle of the elevated train that finally drowned his cry. But there are old men who remember the quiet mill-pond and its overhanging willows, the dusty roadway lined with beeches and elms, the stone bridge and the salt-marshes on either side, and out towards Hell Gate Bay and Horn’s Hook the beautiful country – seats which diversified the landscape of river, rapids, meadows, and islands.

On either side of Benson’s Creek, in the time of which I write, were stately country-seats which faced the mouth of the stream, and whose lawns stretched down to its waters. One of these, the Bayard house, still stands on One Hundred and Tenth Street, between First and Second avenues. It is almost hidden by gigantic gas-tanks at the front and rear. Yet it still looks towards the stream that is no more, and has strangely outlived it. Now, after nearly a century of life, it retains much of its old look, and its chimneys at either end, its shingled roof, wide porch, and the broken slant of its galleried roof, proclaim its antiquity. Lifted high above the street, something of its once magnificent lawn is still left, and a cotton-wood and elm, each seemingly older than the house they guard, stand on either side as mute witnesses to a splendor that has been lost forever.

I do not know what name, if any, this ancient mansion bore in the days of its glory, but there were some names emblazoned on the old Dutch homes of Harlem that deserve to be rescued from oblivion. One would not suspect the Holland tradesmen and navigators of a tendency to poetry, yet these sterling old souls had it in their hearts, if not on their tongues. They may have cheated the Indians, sworn at the Yankees, and drunk heavily of schnapps on the Strand, but when they came back to their boweries the spirit of home brooded under their ample vests. Zegendal, ” the vale of blessing,” was the name one sturdy settler in Harlem bestowed upon the homestead he had made, and another called his glebe Vredendal, “the vale of repose,” or quiet. It is a pity that some of these names could not have been preserved ; a greater pity still that the old Indian names which the aborigines of the Island of Manhattan bequeathed us have almost passed into oblivion. No one remembers that the Harlem River was called the Muscoota; Tibbett’s Brook is usurping the name Mosholu ; Spuyten Duyvil has superseded Schorakapok, or Spouting Spring, and the land around Hell Gate Bay no longer recalls its Indian designation, Conykeekst-the home of the rabbit. Through the haze of these autumnal days I look out upon fields on the farther shore in which the shocks of corn stand like wigwams of the red man. The corn will be gathered to-morrow, and the winds from the north will sweep away the golden mists of to-day. I am very sorry for the Indian, but, really, this beautiful island is a little too good for him, even were he all that Fenimore Cooper has painted him.