Early New York – Manhattan Island

IN a foot-note to The Spy, Fenimore Cooper writes ” Every Manhattanese knows the difference between ` Manhattan Island ‘ and ‘the Island of Manhattan.’ The first is applied to a small district in the vicinity of Corlaer’s Hook, while the last embraces the whole island ; or the city and county of New York, as it is termed in the laws.” The Manhattanese of sixty years ago were well acquainted with the distinction between the titles, but to most New Yorkers of today the words convey no shade of difference. Indeed, I had wrongly written ” Manhattan Island ” on a re-cent occasion, when the keen eye of my editorial critic detected the lapse of memory, and I was admonished of the outbreak of wrath that might be expected from the shade of the painstaking master of fiction who in life liked no name so well as that which his personal friends frequently bestowed upon him, ” The Path-finder.”

“Manhattan Island “was the name given to a high knoll of ground on the East River, above the foot of Rivington Street, containing about an acre of land, surrounded by creeks and salt-marsh, and at high tide partly covered with sea-water. Lewis Street ran about through the centre of it. Here were located the ship-yards of Henry Eckford and other great marine architects of his day-when American enterprise, American mechanics, and American patriotism were bent on displacing the colors of other countries in the world’s commercial arena with the American flag. Just north of Manhattan Island a natural creek ran up through the centre of the present Tompkins Square to the vicinity of First Avenue. The mouth of the creek lay between Manhattan Island and Burnt Mill Point, or” Branda Munah Point,” as the septuagenarians of to-day used to call it when they were boys. One of these late leaves of Time’s autumn tells me that the Point used to be a great swimming and fishing place, and in the hot summer days a perpetual temptation to play truant. As he first remembers the island, several creeks were crossed on small wooden bridges to reach it, arid the bridges were attainable only after a decidedly moist tramp through soggy meadows’ and salt-marshes.

The story of the old houses on the Island of Manhattan (few now, and growing farther between with each passing decade) can only be written by piece-meal. Families have disappeared, and their house-hold traditions with them. Their lands have passed into the hands of strangers and speculators. Only dim legends or dusty legal conveyances remain to connect them with the past. In one case I have found it impossible to tell with certainty which of two adjacent homesteads that were of eminent repute one hundred years ago rightly represents the family. which was known to have made it a centre of brilliant hospitality.

The world of to-day seems to have forgotten entirely a baronial mansion and estate that was once a feature in the rugged landscape above Harlem Plains and along the wooded heights that overlooked the river. About three-quarters of a century ago Archibald Watts erected at the eastern foot of Laurel Hill, on what is now the line of One Hundred and Forty-second Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, a massive stone mansion surmounted by a cupola. It was almost hidden by hill and woods from the Bloomingdale and Kingsbridge roads, and wholly shut out from the sight of travellers on Harlem Lane. The only exit was to Eighth Avenue, then a country road. Mr. Watts laid out an avenue fifty feet wide diagonally from the vicinity of One Hundred and Thirty-fifth Street to One Hundred and Thirty-ninth Street at Seventh Avenue, and at its sides set out a double row of trees which have had a stately and inviting appearance for the last forty years, for their foliage was so thick that the noonday sun could not penetrate it. It was a veritable grove of Arcadia, bespeaking in the dog-days the slumber of Sybaris under its shade. For many years this sylvan retreat has been the resort of those who loved a tranquil walk.

At either end of the road stood, until a year or two ago, two iron gates of English ducal pattern, such as I have never seen elsewhere on the Island of Manhattan, that lent to the surroundings the air of an old-country park, and brought to mind past pilgrim-ages across the sea.* The old stone mansion is still standing, a swell as a spacious frame-house, erected by Mr. Watts for his son about half a century ago, and which, as it stands on higher ground, has always been observable from the west. But the old houses have begun to put on something of a skeleton air. Their luxuriant crowns of foliage have been shorn and thinned by the steel of the woodsman, and they seem to be rapidly growing to the age of those who have outlived their strength, and are waiting for the crumbling touch of the destroyer. Within the last few days the axe has levelled nearly all those ancient sons of the forest that kept guard around the old homestead, and the glare of the September sun now lights up a scene of dusty desolation where they for so long time had stood in their glory. I am not going to preach the funeral sermon over these fallen giants. It is better to tighten up my shoestrings, grasp my cane a little more firmly, pucker my lips into the ghost of a whistle, and trudge over. the old Macomb’s Darn bridge or the more ancient Kingsbridge planks, to seek shade and retirement in the woods that overlook Mosholu Creek, or line the historic banks of the Bronx.

Our Dutch ancestors patterned their houses largely after the fashion of their clothes, in a day when out-ward attire was as distinct an indication that they worshipped according to the rites of the Reformed Church of Holland as the Quaker’s stiff garments bespoke the disciple of George Fox, and the severe and sombre dress of the New England Puritan marked the disciple of Cotton Mather. The home of Dirck Van Amster-dam looked like himself-short of stature, ample of girth, broad and deep of pocket, and unpretentious in his homely attire, and as he sat out on his stoop in the summer evening, drawing a cloud of comfort from his long pipe, his leathern breeches, huge brown waistcoat, and capacious shoes corresponded accurately with his comfortable home. With the English conquest there came an invasion of more ceremonious dress and statelier dwellings. Powdered wigs and cocked hats, velvet coats and breeches, silk stockings and massive canes marked the gentleman of the period, and he dwelt in a massive residence of brick or stone, such as within the memory of those still living were the city homes of the Waltons, De Peysters, and other colonial families. In my youth the fashion of homes was one of quiet, unpretending dignity, without display-such homes as one still finds on the north side of Washington Square and facing it, which for elegance of comfort cannot be surpassed ; or, at – least, I think so. Recalling the, civic dress of the period, I can see that the fashioning of house and attire was on the same plan of easy, dignified enjoyment. It was a decorous entity in red brick, with a mere shirt-frill of white marble stoop. As to the present day it is difficult to philosophize. As I am whirled up-town on an elevated road past the old houses on the Bloomingdale Road in which I ” went to the country ” for weeks at a time in my boyhood, I behold a collection of symptoms that I find it impossible to diagnose.

There was certainly a dignity about the masculine dress of half a century or more ago which seems to have been lost or forgotten. At that time a man’s occupation could be told by “the cut of his jib,” and professional characteristics were very noticeable. The clergyman wore a dress-coat of black, and folded a voluminous white handkerchief many times around his neck. In society one could not distinguish any ecclesiastical difference of dress between Dr. Berrian, the rector of Trinity Church, and Dr. Gardiner Spring, pastor of the Brick Church at Beekman Street and the Park, or between churchly Dr. Wainwright and his Calvinist antagonist who tilted at him with a sharp pen, Dr. Potts. The successful lawyer was wont to dress after the style of Daniel Webster, in blue coat with brass buttons, nankeen waistcoat and trousers, and ample shirt-frill., It was the portentous air of the physician that mainly distinguished him, for his clothes were plain, invariably black, and the older members of the fraternity clung to the gold-headed cane as if there were something of magic in it. The sober dress of the banker, the merchant, and the man of money was always the perfection of quiet taste, whether it were brown, blue, or black, and there was a quiet dignity about these men of business, whether in the counting-room or at home, that always challenged my admiration. One fashion all men had in common. None wore a mustache only. Shaven faces were the rule and a beard the exception ; but the mustache was held to be the mark of the gambler or adventurer from abroad. I think it was in 1853 that Bishop Chase of New Hampshire came to New York to ordain the graduating class of the General Theological Seminary, and he positively refused to lay his consecrated hands upon one of its members, the Rev. John Frederick Schroeder, Jr., until he had shaved his upper lip. The young man pro-tested that a razor had never touched his face, and that he had thus intended to keep the unspoken vow of a Nazarene. His protest was in vain ; the mustache had to go. So in later years, when the mustache was tolerated here, a young business man from this city who went to Milwaukee to be cashier in a bank was compelled to resort to the razor to satisfy prejudice. It was a day when no gentleman wore other than a ” beaver hat ; when soft and round hats were alike unknown, and the cap was the next and final step in the descent ; when fob ribbons and seals, and perhaps a solitary seal ring, were the rule for jewelry, when striped stockings were unknown, because the boot covered the socks that the hands of wife or mother had knitted.

Thinking of this similitude between the man and his home, I find fresh cause of regret that the houses built in this city by the men of other days are so rap-idly going to destruction. Only yesterday I passed the country home of Alexander Hamilton at One Hundred and Forty – third Street and Tenth Avenue, “The Grange.” The estate was purchased some time ago and divided into villa lots, with the intention of making the homestead one of the ” desirable residences for gentlemen of means,” as advertised. But the demand for villas was not great, and the land was valuable, and already the home of Hamilton is en-closed on two sides by great ramparts of red-brick blocks. An abomination of desolation ranges around the house which but a year ago presented a scene of rural beauty, and a pile of new boards is laid up against the fence that surrounds the group of thirteen trees planted by the hand of the great New Yorker who was the intimate friend as well as comrade in the field of George Washington, and the first Secretary of the Treasury. I think that if my father’s hand had planted those trees, I would stand under the shadow of Washington’s statue on Wall Street, and hold out my hat for pennies until the thirteen were redeemed and saved from the iconoclast, or the hat was worn out.* I remember what a fuss was made when the boyish Prince of Wales planted a tree in Central Park. A scrubby little Dutchman of an oak it is, and it exists but in a sickly manner, yet a thousand visit-ors ask for its whereabouts where one pilgrim to our local shrines inquires as to the fate of Alexander Hamilton’s trees, and fair damsels have begged the powers that be for a leaf or an acorn from the prince’s oak, and have offered gold in exchange for a twig from its branches. The spreading elm under which Washington sat upon his horse on ” the Common ” in front of our present City Hall, and listened to the reading of the Declaration of Independence to his troops at sunset of July 9, 1776, has disappeared, and the old pear-tree of Peter Stuyvesant, which stood at Third Avenue and Thirteenth Street, a patriarch whose years numbered ten score, has gone the way of all good fruit-trees, but the grove that Alexander Hamilton planted to commemorate these United States yet stands in its strength. What shall we do with it ?

I like to make a patriotic pilgrimage on all of our public holidays, and I have a companion who is al-ways ready to join me-my little son, who, fifty years hence, I hope, will take up these chronicles again, and write the story of the city as he sees it to-day. Recently we laid out our tour to the defences that guarded Manhattanville in the two wars with Great Britain, in which the spades of the old Continentals were supplemented by British sappers and miners, and the men of 1812 came in after-years to complete the line of protection for the growing city. We stood within the crumbling stone walls of Block-house No. 3, as it was known in the last war with Great Britain, on One Hundred and Twenty-third Street, between Ninth and Tenth avenues, and looked eastward to the busy city that covers the rough plain of a generation ago. At our feet a street had been cut through forty feet of solid rock, and broad avenues and boulevards stretched across the erstwhile village of Manhattanville and up the steep and wooded heights beyond. The walls of the block – house have crumbled at the sides, but the ruins are picturesque, and it ought to be that the landscape-gardener who is to “improve” Morningside Park (within whose extreme upper boundary these ruins lie) will suffer them to remain untouched.

But more interesting than these mossy walls are the earthworks that lie beyond, and that were part of the line of defences which in 1812 stretched diagonally across the island from Turtle Bay to Harlem Cove. In the hot sun we clambered up a steep ascent of rocks abutting on One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street, between Tenth Avenue and the Boulevard, and reached the remains of an earthwork, whose ram-parts were breast-high twenty-five years ago, but are now not higher than the knee. A little to the west and south is a second redoubt, on another eminence, whose lines are more distinct.- These earthworks were originally thrown up by General Washington’s troops during the war of the Revolution, and under cover of their guns the troops swept down from Harlem Cove and drove the English vanguard, with great loss, from Harlem Plains and within their upper lines of fortification. The first of these works was known during the War of 1812 as Fort Laight, and was re-built and occupied by our city militia. In a few years, no doubt, they will be swept away, for the land is private property and is beautiful for situation. A soldier who had fought in Hancock’s brigade, and whose modest little home is just in the rear, told me the story of the grassy mounds, and we exchanged the greetings of comrades-in-arms, while Master Felix Oldboy, Jr., who in his school uniform of cadet gray looked the most soldierly of the trio, listened with widely-opened eyes, and then sought the shade of a rock to sketch the redoubt. The place and its surroundings were well worth the work of the pencil.

Our pilgrimage ended at Fort George. The remains of this extensive fortification stand on high ground west of the Harlem River, at the end of Tenth Avenue, and ex-tend from about One Hundred and Ninety-second Street to One Hundred and Ninety-sixth Street. The soldiers of Washington first discovered the strategic importance of the place and occupied it with breastworks, but the British commander erected an extensive and strong fortification here and named it Fort George, in honor of the heir of England’s crown. Its green ramparts are still sharply defined, and afford a broad walk on their tops, and the outlying redoubts can be traced very distinctly. The spot was full of holiday pilgrims when we reached it, but whether they knew the story or only went there for recreation I could not tell. It is very safe to say that no other such view, and none equal to it in beauty, can be found on the Island of Manhattan, To the extreme west the Palisades lifted their wooded heads, and between the green heights of Inwood and Fort Washington the Hudson lay glittering in the afternoon sun. In front lay the long stretch of low ground through which the Kingsbridge Road winds its rustic way. Spuyten Duyvil Creek and Harlem River, with the uplands beyond, formed the north and east of the landscape, and the eye could catch a glimpse of the High Bridge. I stood on the ramparts that Washington had built and Howe had finished, and worshipped with my eye these beauties of the city of my love. As the little lad who had been sketching at the foot of the glacis ran forward, I wondered what the landscape would look like when he comes to write another ” Tour” fifty years hence. He will show his sketches to his grandchildren, and speak of his pilgrimage to Fort George on a sunshiny afternoon in a September of long ago. And I? Well, I shall then be telling my grandmother all about it, too.