Early New York – Genesis Of Fashionable Parks

It is my grandmother who is speaking. The old lady sits by the open window in a pleasant little cottage in Chelsea. Her best cap adorns her white hair, and the vanity of violet ribbons further sets it off. A lithe and beautiful cat is curled up cosily at her feet; and on the sofa, curled up in much the same fashion, is the hostess of my grandmother, the daughter of Dr. Cuthbert, who for half a century had a drug-store on Grand Street, half-way between Broadway and the Bowery.

“It doesn’t signify,” says my grandmother, falling gently into one of her favorite modes of expression, ” but I shall never forget that week on the Albany schooner. We had a horrible storm in the Highlands, and we were all sea-sick and nearly wrecked ; and then we were becalmed-above Poughkeepsie for two days, and it took us just a week to make the voyage. I declare, I never see a schooner but it gives me a touch of sea-sickness. I wished afterwards,” she added, innocently, ” that we had got out and walked. And just’ to think that now the steamboats advertise to carry you to Albany for a shilling!”

She has told me often of her voyage up the Hudson, when the country was young. The sloop packet started from a wharf near the Battery. It sailed past the blooming gardens of Greenwich Village ; by the frowning walls of the State prison at the foot of Amos Street ; beyond the green fields that stretched out until the pretty little hamlet of Chelsea was reached, where the gray turrets of the Episcopal Seminary were at that time going up; and then swept by an unbroken succession of rural villas and manors up to the heights named in honor of Fort Washington, and thence looked back upon historic King’s Bridge, the seething waters of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, and the ample possessions of the Phillipse family and the Van Cortlandts.

That was a wonderfully exciting time when the rival steamboats advertised to carry passengers to Albany for a shilling, and an army of “runners ” pervaded the streets and thronged the wharves, pulling and hauling at the persons and baggage of the unhappy victims. Racing was rife on the river, and there was always a tinge of excitement in the voyage, through the probability of a boiler explosion or a fire. The wreck of the Swallow and the burning of the Henry Clay are among the memories of a day in which the names of the steam clippers of the Hudson (some of which still drag flotillas of canal-boats through the waters on which they once walked as queens) were as well known as the present favorites of the race-tracks.

There was a queer genius in my regiment named Bickford. His hair was red, and his stride was ungainly, but he would have been able to take care of himself either at the Court of St. James’s or on a desert island. In search of his fortune, he drifted to New York at the time when the rivalry between steamboats was at its height. Bundle in hand, he suffered himself to be dragged on one of the boats by a runner, where he took his bearings and laid out his campaign. When the supper-bell sounded he seated himself at the table and laid in a square meal. When the steward came for his money, Bickford said he had none and didn’t know any was wanted that one fellow had offered to take him to Albany for a shilling, another for sixpence, and a third for nothing at all. So he had come along, and supposed he was to be taken care of for the pleasure of his company. The captain was summoned, and demanded to see the fool who was travelling free to Albany. Bickford’s stolid assumption of ignorance was too much for the captain. ” Never travelled before? Never saw a steamboat, eh ? Well, this is fun ; come right along.” Bickford told the story in Libby Prison to a roomful of officers-he was then acting as my orderly-somewhat as follows : ” The captain took me to the engine-room, and I was horrified at the sights and sounds there, of course. The engineer turned the steam and water on me, and I shrieked and they roared. I asked the curiousest questions I could think of; asked them to light a candle and take me down-stairs into the kitchen, and up-stairs into the bed-rooms; and they laughed till they cried. Then the captain introduced me to a cabin full of passengers as the biggest fool he had met yet. I never let on that I was anything but a fool, and I got a good bed that night, breakfast the next morning, and four or five dollars from the passengers to help me on my way. Fool! I wasn’t half as big a fool as the captain, and they could squirt steam on me all night, as long as I was getting pay for it.”

Queer are the pranks that time plays with old buildings. The State prison that once stood on Amos Street (West Tenth Street now) has been transformed into a brewery. Its white outside walls alone are unchanged, and serve to mark the locality ; but even these, of late years, have been allied to red brick wings and other improvements in such a way as to take off much of their old-time bareness. The interior is all changed. The prison yard used to reach down to the river, and outside were sunny fields and a wide stretch of beach. Now, streets have been extended west of the prison site and far into the river, and buildings cover them, while beyond the new river line the great iron steamships of modern commerce nestle against the wharves. It is half a century since the inmates of the old prison were transferred to Sing Sing; and the city, excepting a few old people born in Greenwich Village or Chelsea, have forgotten all about the former home of the convict.

I never pass by the old prison walls but I think of a little episode that had its scene there, which developed a great deal of human nature. A young man had committed forgery and had been sentenced to death. The preparations were all made for the execution, which was to take place in Washington Square, and a large crowd had gathered, when news came that a reprieve had been granted at the last hour. There were many bitter expressions of disappointment from the sight-seers, among whom was a boy who subsequently told me the story. It appeared that some benevolent and active members of the Society of friends had become interested in the criminal ; and had secured the commutation of his sentence to imprisonment for life. Overjoyed at his escape from the gallows, the young man made himself a model prisoner, and was soon placed in charge of a shoe-shop, where he paraded up and down, rattan in hand, between the benches, and proved himself a terror to his fellow-convicts. Virtue has its reward. The kindly Quakers left no stone unturned until they had secured his pardon, and then the devout convert was set up in a shoe-shop of his own, where he handled the “thee” and “thou” and the cash to perfection. At last he had become a man of consequence among the Quakers and a man of mark in the business community, and then he saw his opportunity and seized it. One day he turned up missing. He had converted all his assets into cash, had gathered in a golden harvest by forging the names of all his business friends, and had crowned his iniquity by eloping with the pretty Quaker daughter of the generous benefactor who had secured his release from the gallows. New York never saw him again.

His career had not been without its thorns in the mean time. The shadow of a dangling noose sometimes came athwart the sunshine. One day he had been in a towering passion with one of his workmen because he had not finished a pair of shoes at the time he had promised. He told the man he had no right to break his promise and disappoint him. ” Master,” said the man, quietly, “you have disappointed me worse than that.” ” How did I, you rascal? When?” “When I waited a whole hour in the rain to see you hanged !”

In the old Dutch colonial days the executions of criminals took place outside the Battery, on the beach. Under the English the scene was transferred to the Commons, the present City Hall Park. In the present century executions took place in the vicinity of Houston and Wooster streets, and then on the open ground now known as Washington Square. Criminals were buried under the gallows in all these places, and it is a curious fact that most of our smaller parks were not reserved as pleasure places, but for public use in the interment of paupers. The upper portion of the City Hall Park was originally a potter’s field, and adjoining it was a negro burial-ground that extended across Chambers Street. Washington Square was used not only as a burial-place for paupers, but also for yellow-fever patients, and the ashes of the dead lie thick under its green patches of sward and stately elms. Subsequently a potter’s field was opened at Madison Square, adjoining the public buildings that once stood there-the House of Refuge occupying the site of the Worth Monument. Fashion enjoys the lovely little park, but little recks that it owes its pleasant shade to the tramps and the criminals whose bones lie mouldering beneath the grass and flowers.

It is a grateful incident in connection with this summer tour around New York-begun originally with the idea of showing to the modern race of Gothamites how much there is within their local boundaries to interest and inspire them-that these papers have brought to the writer a number of appreciative letters of encouragement. One suggests that it would be a good thing to tell the story of the old merchants who lived in Pearl and Broad streets, and on lower Broad-way, and whose social habits would form a striking contrast to the club-life of to-day. Another speaks of Washington Square in its ancient glory, when the Alsops, Rhinelanders, Robinsons, and other solid old families had their homes facing its elms, and not far away lived the Grinnells, Bogerts, Leroys, Minturns, and Livingstons. This letter recalled in one of its suggestions a man of mark who but recently passed away in Italy, and who, in his prime, I thought to be the handsomest man in the city. This was James E. Cooley, of the firm of Cooley, Keese & Hill, auctioneers, whose home was on Macdougal Street, near Washington Square, and who was an accomplished scholar as well as genial gentleman. A third letter expresses the hope that, in some future article, the writer will “indulge us in a more detailed account of the old residents about St. John’s Park, and what has become of them and their descendants. Take Beach Street, for instance. There were the Parets, Robert B. Minturn, Wm. Whitlock, the Hyslops, John C. Hamilton, the Smedbergs, Tracys, and George Griffin, with his blue side-winged spectacles, and broad shoes constructed for comfort. And then on Laight Street, Dr. Wilkes, Dr. Green, the Lydigs, and all of them. Let us hear about them all.”

A writer in the Evening Post once suggested the propriety of founding a ” Professorship of New York” at Columbia College, with the idea of imparting to the student of society accurate knowledge of the city in which we move and have our being. That was an admirable idea. The modern writer of press letters or articles about this city knows in society only the very re-cent Mrs. Potiphar and her friends. For him the old names of the past have no meaning. Yet the Knickerbocker race is not extinct. It sounds no trumpets and creates no sensations. To its charmed circle the golden eagle is no passport of admission. There was a youth of tender years, born in Connecticut, and who had never strayed beyond its borders, who was asked at a school examination which were the principal rivers of the world. He promptly responded, “The Scantic, the Podunck, and the Connecticut.” On the same principle the average exotic who chronicles the social doings of the metropolis runs over the gamut of a few mod-ern millionaires and their kin, and does not dream that he has not done full justice to his theme. As for the historical points that could make every nook and corner of the city a romance, they are outside of his knowledge. By all means we should have the professorship.