Early New York – Echoes Of The Streets

THURLOW WEED once said to me that he regarded the description of the thronging footsteps that beset the house of Dr. Manette, in A Tale of Two Cities, as the most wonderful piece of descriptive writing that Charles Dickens had penned. He quoted, in illustration, this passage : ” The footsteps were incessant, and the hurry of them became more and more rapid. The corner echoed and re-echoed with the tread of feet  some, as it seemed, under the windows; some, as it seemed, in the room ; some coming, some going, some breaking off, some stopping altogether ; all in the distant streets, and no one in sight.” When I walk along lower Broadway in the quiet night, as sometimes hap-pens, I hear the hurry of those footsteps on the deserted pavement. They bring back to me the faces of the dead-the white-haired patriarchs to whom I looked up with reverence as a boy ; the stalwart men whose sturdy strength seemed to defy all change the manly youth who bore the names that commerce, professional life, or literature had delighted to honor. They surely are not dead who have left such pleasant memories behind them.

Among the thronging footsteps of those whose memories still haunt lower Broadway are scores of our old merchants, whose names I recall as some familiar circumstance or legend of old business days brings them back. It would make a list too long to print if all could be remembered and given the honor due them. When I was a boy the familiar names of the street were Aspinwall, Gracie, Howland, Coit, Minturn, Aymar, Lenox, Bruce, Griswold, Hoyt, Kortright, Haight, Storms, Morgan, Wilmerding, King, Ingoldsby, Broome, Laight, Dash, Lorillard, Henriques, Wolfe, Ogden, Crolius, and -Elheu, jam satis ! Looked at from this point of time, they seem to me like men who magnified their position and strove to make, the name of merchant great. They were not above taking their share in politics and doing their best to keep politics pure. The first alderman elected after the Revolutionary War was a wealthy shipping merchant of this city, John Broome, who was three times elected Lieutenant-governor (and the last time without opposition), and in whose honor one of the counties of this State was named. Since his time another merchant and alderman, E. D. Morgan, has been made Governor and United States Senator; but he was not a native of the city, and brought his ambition with him from Connecticut.

The Hall of Records, the old sugar-house on Rose Street, and ” Sam Fraunce’s tavern,” on Broad Street, still remain to recall the ante-Revolutionary buildings of this city ; but I have heard old men tell of the time when the east side below Fulton Street was studded with quaint, antique Dutch buildings that had served at once as store and home to the old-time merchants. The great fire of 1835 swept away nearly all of these relics of the city’s old life, the last that remained being located on William Street, opposite Sloate Lane, and bearing on its front, in sprawling letters, the date 1690. Gabled roofs, wide chimneys, and small windows were the characteristics of these dwellings. Their English successors were more lofty and much more luxurious, in many cases aspiring to marble mantel-pieces and huge mirrors in heavy mahogany frames, but not infrequently retaining the wide fireplace, with its setting of tiles that illustrated usually the stories of the Bible. A fine specimen of these Scriptural tiles, in blue and white, and most quaintly original, can be still seen in the old Van Cortlandt House, above Kingsbridge, within the area of Van Cortlandt Park. It is to be hoped that the Park Commissioners will preserve this ancient structure, erected in 1748, which vividly recalls the days when it was an outpost in the Neutral Ground, and was occupied alternately by Hessian videttes and patriot scouts, from whose doors Washington sallied forth in full uniform when he began his triumphal march to New York on Evacuation Day, 1783.

Comparatively little business was done on the east side of Broadway below the City Hall Park when I first began to observe that locality as a boy. There were many boarding-houses there, occupying what had been the stately homes of the Lows, Hamiltons, Delafields, Livingstons, Ludlows, Le Roys, Hoffmans, and Coldens. There were several hotels there also, the Howard, Tremont, and National. But that side of the street was immortal among boys as containing Barnum’s American Museum, and close by was the store of John N. Genin, the hatter, who made himself fame and fortune by bidding off at a high premium the first seat sold for the first concert given by Jenny Lind. My grandmother has told me of the great dry-goods store which Jotham Smith, the A.T. Stewart of his day, opened on the place occupied afterwards by Barnum’s Museum, and of its removal to a larger building on the site of the Astor House, where all the ladies in town went to do their shopping. But what are dry goods in comparison with the perennial pleasures of the museum, where I am certain that I had carefully investigated every article on exhibition many score of times, and had no more doubt of the authenticity of the club that killed Captain Cook (destroyed by fire when the museum was burned, but risen again, like the Phoenix, from its own ashes and still on exhibition) than I had of the doctrines contained in the Church Catechism ? I liked also to visit Peale’s Museum, on Broadway, opposite the City Hall Park, but not so well as the temple of curiosities at the corner of Ann Street. The former was the successor of Scudder’s Museum, that occupied the old Alms House in the park, and was the first of its kind in the city.

In the-days when I was on familiar terms of acquaintance with the museum, not a few of my school-mates lived in the vicinity, in Beekman and Barclay streets; and on the streets adjacent to the Park, and upon lower Broadway. Their fathers had stores or offices down-town, mostly east of Broadway, and they liked to be near to their business, as their fathers had been accustomed to live before them. Business men who lived up-town-that is, between Broome Street and Union Square-rarely rode to their offices. They walked and enjoyed the exercise. One could take his stand on Broadway on a pleasant afternoon and call the roll among passers-by of all the remarkable men in town. It came back to me the other afternoon-that busy Broadway panorama of forty years ago came back -when I saw John Jacob Astor striding sturdily down the great thoroughfare towards Wall Street. The “Astor boys ” could then be seen daily walking from their Prince Street office, a stalwart pair, pointed out as heirs to wealth that was supposed to be limitless, and marvelled at as miracles of industry amid the temptations of money. As for the Vanderbilts, they lived quietly on East Broadway, and the Commodore and his brother had offices at 62 Broadway, where they were weaving the maritime web that was to bring them in their millions. As a rule, wealth was not worshipped then. The old Knickerbocker spirit still ruled, and demanded blood and brains as the standard of admission to society. Wealth was an honorable and most comfortable addition thereto, but it was not a sine qua non.

As I pause on this lower end of the City Hall Park, where the footsteps seem to come thickest, I recall some names among the old auctioneers of the city whose associations, either through school or church or society connections, bring back forms that have long been dust. The names are those of Pell, Hoffman, Lawrence, Haggerty, Draper, Minturn, and Hone, and, earliest of all, the Bleeckers. Fifty or sixty years ago the auctioneers were commissioned by the Governor of the State, and for many a year no one but a Democrat could obtain a commission at Albany. Smart young Loco-focos thus managed to force themselves into solid old firms and line their pockets. The auctioneer was obliged to give a bond to the State for five thousand dollars, with two good sureties, that he would faithfully pay the duties accruing on his sales. These auction duties formed one of the important items in the canal fund, and amounted to several hundred thousand dollars. As the lists were made public, it became a matter of pride with each house to swell their own duties to as large a sum as possible by way of advertising themselves. The auction houses then centred in Pearl, in the vicinity of Wall Street. I recall in the personnel of those firms Lindley M. Hoff-man, the pink of courtesy, and a most devoted church-man ex-Mayor Cornelius W. Lawrence, a genial and genuine Knickerbocker; handsome Philip Hone, Anthony J. Bleecker, who afterwards headed the list of auctioneers, and David Austen, who, as knights of the hammer, held the field against all opponents.

It has seemed to me, as I linger on this old battle-ground of business generations, that our city takes too little pride in its merchants. More is known about our soldiers and our politicians than about our commercial champions, and more honor is paid them. Yet if one could gather up the legends and traditions of mercantile lives, it would be found more interesting than the history of our wars, and far more instructive.

Around their old homes lingers an aroma of quiet romance which history ought to preserve. A sturdy, independent folk, they enjoyed life thoroughly in their own way, and made the most of it. Nor were they a solemn people-far from it. They loved a joke, even at their own expense.

When old John Broome kept store at No.-6 Hanover Square he had his residence in the tipper part of the same house. On one occasion, after a customer had called, he took him up-stairs for the customary glass of wine. Pianos were rare in those days, and the stranger had never seen one ; so Mr. Broome called one of his daughters to play a tune. The visitor listened with delight, but kept fumbling uneasily in his pocket, and when she had finished the tune he pulled a half-dollar out and laid it before the daughter. She blushed, laughed, and glanced at her father, who chuckled, winked, and signed to her to keep it.

Odd stories used to be told of eccentric old Stephen Storm, who was in business in Water Street, and with one of whose boys I went to school. He was fond of music, and used to start the tunes at Dr. Matthews’s church in Garden Street before it was moved up-town. It occurred to Mr. Storm at one time to learn to play upon the fiddle, and accordingly he inserted an advertisement in the papers informing the public of his de-sire to purchase a violin. The next day the whole colored colony of the city was in attendance at his store with violins under their arms, reinforced by a large contingent of foreigners. One by one they were solemnly marshalled in, and each was invited to play a tune. The street grew distracted, and threatened mob law. After a hundred or more instruments had been tested, Mr. Storm dismissed the crowd, without his benediction, however. In the years to come Mr. Storm never again ventured to indulge his musical taste, at least in the instrumental line.

The name recalls the old Storm’s Hotel, which stood on the site of the Staats Zeitung building, and was a noted hostlery in its day. Major Noah used to tell, with many a chuckle, a story that associated the elder Astor with the hotel. One of the old fur merchant’s book-keepers had reached the age of sixty, and was to be retired. Mr. Astor gave him the choice of a gift of $1000 in cash or a promise to pay his board bill while he lived. The superannuated clerk chose the promise to pay instead of the cash, and lived for twenty years at the Storm’s Hotel at the expense of John Jacob Astor, who failed to find anything amusing in his longevity.

No man was better known in New York half a century ago than this same Major Noah. He was a man of wonderful wit, erudition, and social and political power. The contemporary of James Watson Webb and the older editors, whose down-town sanctums were fully as dreary as the dens of the lawyers and business men of their day, he wielded a pen as keen as his wit. It was he who, when Minister to Algiers, persuaded the Dey to make a most favorable treaty with the United States, on the ground that it was not a Christian nation-which he proceeded to prove by reference to the Constitution. The Dey was delighted to get ahead of France and England, to whom he had promised to sign no treaty with another Christian nation.

But the tourist cannot linger longer with the ghosts of the past, and so he passes on, with the expression of a hope that the time is not distant when the city will build monuments to commemorate its commercial he-roes, and rescue the names of Livingston and Lewis and Broome and their business peers from oblivion. Some day the ghostly cadence of their footsteps will cease on our busy streets, when we, who are gray-haired and learned about them when young, shall have followed also to their rest.