Early New York – Old Homes And Haunt

ONE Sunday I was whirled in the railway cars along the banks of Spuyten Duyvil Creek to the vicinity of the spot where Anthony the Trumpeter had come to grief. It was an extra day in the Tour,” for, with the advent of a red tinge to the maple leaves, and the purloining of the oak tops, and with the opening of the reign of golden-rod and gentian and aster, there had come an irresistible desire to explore the terra incognita of New York, the land lying north of Kingsbridge, known little to the denizens of this big city, excepting real estate speculators and antiquaries. It is a land of stately old homes and luxurious modern residences ; of the forest primeval and the landscape-gardener’s effects; of modern avenues and ancient creeks and swamps ; of aesthetic interiors and of old-fashioned window-seats, in which Continental soldier and Hessian hireling alternately lounged; of lake and creek, and highland and meadow ; of mounted policemen and letter-boxes and steam fire-engines ; of fields and hills that have not changed their contour since Peter Stuyvesant’s solid men-at-arms marched over them, and King George allotted their fertile acres to his liege subjects. It is a land, too, that lies within the city limits, and I, Felix Oldboy, wearied of beholding only that which modern hands had improved out of all recollection, yearned for a leisure Sunday under oaks and chestnuts in city woods, which should recall the days of fishing in ” Sunfish Pond ” on Beekman Hill, and of gathering autumn leaves on the Bloomingdale Road, that used to stretch from Union Square to Kingsbridge in an unbroken panorama of rural loveliness.

There is nothing more beautiful in the way of landscape than that which greets the eye where Spuyten Duyvil Creek joins its waters to the Hudson-the lake-like rivers overlooked by wooded heights on either side, while beyond the Palisades rise abruptly in their grandeur, and distant hills to the east complete a picture worthy of the pencil of Claude. At Kings-bridge, too, there is much pastoral loveliness. The silver thread of Tibbett’s Brook (Mosholu, in the Indian tongue) wanders up through the vale of Yonkers, with frowning ridges on one side, and on the other meadows and orchards, over which hills crowned with the green of ancient forest trees stand sentinel. One can walk in almost any direction and soon be able to fancy himself living in the times of long ago, or any-where else save within the municipal boundaries of the chief city of the New World. It is fortunate for future generations that much of this landscape loveliness is to be preserved in the new Van Cortlandt Park, which will be about two miles in length and one mile broad. The land affords every variety of landscape, and its natural features render it a far more desirable acquisition than Central Park. Originally part of the great Phillipse fief, it passed into the hands of the Van Cortlandts in 1699, when the head of that house married Eva Phillipse, daughter of the patroon. Time has brought few changes to these lands since the days of the Revolution.

It is to be hoped that the city authorities will pre-serve from destruction the old Van Cortlandt mansion-house. It is a large edifice of stone, unpretentious in its way, and yet possessing a stateliness of its own that grows upon the visitor. Erected in 1748-the date is on its front-it preserves within and with-out many of the peculiarities of the last century. One of the rooms in especial is unchanged since the time when the Hessian commandant of the Green Yagers occupied it, and General Washington made it his headquarters just before his triumphal entry into New York on Evacuation Day, 1783. Around the fireplace are old-fashioned blue tiles, that tell Scriptural stories in the quaint method of illustration then prevailing, where saint and sinner were alike, as my grandmother would say, ” a sight to behold.” The deep window-seats are admirably suggestive of a quiet smoke for the elders and cosey flirtations for the younger people. Andirons, which have a history of their own, speak comfortable words of the day of back-logs and plenteous brushwood. As for the furniture, it is again in fashion and most valuable, for it is genuine in its antiquity. Jarvis, Copley, Stewart, and Chapman have furnished the family portraits, one of which is that of a knighted vice-admiral of the British Navy.

But thereby hangs a tale. Outside, above the old-fashioned windows, are some exceedingly grim visages carved in stone in the shape of corbels, whose serious, not to say morose, aspect would be calculated to drive away any sensitive tramp in affright. Pointing up to them, my quondam school-mate, Bowie Dash, who occupies an ideal cottage embowered by the trees that fringe the ridge through which Riverdale Avenue sweeps, remarked, ” Those are the portraits of the Van Cortlandt ancestors-family portraits, all of them.” ” Yes,” said Mr. Van Cortlandt, with all seriousness, ” and that particularly solemn one yonder was carved after he had been out all night with the boys.”

The windows themselves present an interesting scientific problem. Upon two sides of the house the glass has all the appearance of ground glass, though it was perfectly transparent when first placed there. Closer examination reveals a process of disintegration, spiculae of glass falling off when scraped by the finger-nails. Amateur scientists have been unable to account for it. Exposure to the salt-water of Mosholu Creek would be a plausible theory if all the glass fared alike. But some years ago the rows of stately box, venerable for their height and antiquity, which stood in the old garden and faced the windows that exhibit this phenomenon, were cut down, and the glass that has been inserted since that time shows no sign of change or decay. Whether the combination of box scents and salt air will account for the problem is a matter which only experimental science can determine, and Mr. Van Cortlandt would be very glad to have the puzzle solved.

There is scarcely a foot of ground about Kings-bridge that is not historical. Here the British had their outposts in the Revolution. Both sides erected earthworks on the adjacent hills. Skirmishes were frequent in these meadows, and many lives were sacrificed. Relics of the war-cannon-balls, bayonets, skeletons in full uniform-have been turned up by spade and plough, and many more are awaiting their resurrection at the hands of public improvements. The old tavern at Kingsbridge saw lively times in peace as well as war. The Albany post-road passed its door, and teams and passengers baited here. Dainty dames in lofty headgear and ample hoops have danced with the sons of the patroons on its floors, and smugglers have made it their headquarters for lawless forays. Going, going, gone. The public surveyor and the modern apartment-house are in hot pursuit of these romantic old localities. One has only to turn into Riverdale Avenue to be aware that the luxurious civilization of the period is learning to appreciate the beauties of this neighborhood, which, when I was a boy, was associated with the names of Lispenard Stewart, Abraham Schermerhorn, Ackerman, Delafield, Wetmore, and Whiting. It will be a pity to blot out the natural beauties of the spot for the sake of a little more brick and mortar – at least, I thought so last Sun-day as I climbed up Riverdale Avenue and fancied myself temporarily in Elysium. Riding is too rapid a gait to al-low of realizing the beauty of forest, ravine, meadow, hill-side, brook, and homes enshrined in landscape loveliness which is presented to the pedestrian on either side of the road. Tired? Not a bit of it, even if I am growing stout, and this is considerable of a hill to climb. I am looking at that maple. Did you ever see such a splendor of crimson and gold as lights up its top and sides? That fringed gentian-are not its purple spikes a delectable contrast to the sunny clusters of its taller neighbor, the golden-rod ? The oak leaves are turning ruddy, too, as if they had been imbibing freely of the autumn’s product. These old fellows have a right to be jolly, too, for they were children at the time when Hendrik Hudson anchored in Spuyten Duyvil Creek, and shot a falcon at two hundred Indians who had gathered on shore to dispute the right of way, and dispersed them with the noise and execution of this terrible weapon.

There is one oak still standing in a little wood that has known no change for a century, which has a history of its own. It is a sturdy tree with ample brown arms, clad to-day in a royal robe of purple, and defiant seemingly of all changes except such as the iconoclastic axe of the woodman may bring. You can see it from the road. Under its branches, so my informant tells me, a horse that bore a good soldier of the Union all through the late war, and whose gray coat is still presentable, is grazing peacefully. But in other days these great gnarled limbs bore other fruit. Tradition affirms that during the war of the Revolution more than thirty cowboys were hanged from this oak, and the annals of those days bear out the popular legend. This was part of the “neutral ground” of ’76-a territory extending from Harlem River to the Croton, which was ravaged with engaging impartiality by the camp-followers of both armies. The British called themselves irregulars, but the name ” cowboys ” could not be wiped out, and their punishment was never irregular when they were caught. The gentlemen who did the same favor to the Continental flag were called ” skinners,” and their shrift was an equally short one when caught. Usually the latter had the best of the game, because the sympathies of all except the large landed proprietors were with the colonies.

Beyond the wild primeval wood that holds this historic oak stands what seems to me, for situation and surroundings, the most beautiful home in the city. A stately stone mansion, half covered with vines and encircled by thirteen majestic elms, stands on a knoll which overlooks the Mosholu Valley and gives glimpses of twenty miles away. Nature did nearly all that was possible for its seventeen acres, and the landscape-gardener has finished it., At one side all is wildly picturesque, with ravine and brook and masses of rock; on the other civilization has done its best, and equally admirably. On an apple-tree, still standing, Jacobus Van Cortlandt carved his name nearly two centuries ago, and the stout stone farm-house that another Van Cortlandt built in 1766 shelters the coachman’s family. The place is now owned by Mr. Waldo Hutchins, who has been living there for the past twenty years.

Broad piazzas, a hall of ample width that shows no sign of a stairway, great rooms with high ceilings, thick walls, and large windows recall the old baronial homes of Virginia. But there the resemblance ceases, save in the matter of baronial hospitality, for modern luxury clothes the interior more royally than our ancestors dreamed of-and, it must be confessed, more comfortably. Of the family heirlooms within, two portraits taken from life interested me most. One is of Noah Webster-the maternal grandfather of Mrs. Hutchins-the patient, industrious builder of the dictionary, who wrought at his work for twenty years, until his fingers became stiff from using the pen, and he fainted away when he had written the word “Finis.” No wonder. I held some of his manuscript in my hand, and it made me tired to look at its intricacies, it was so suggestive of hard work. The other portrait presents Oliver Ellsworth, the paternal grand-father of Mrs. Hutchins, in his robe of Chief-justice of the United States, only with the addition of a red velvet collar to set off the sombreness of the heavy folds of black silk. His is a typical New England face, intellectual, determined, and strong. A later generation has forgotten that after the Virginia plan” had been adopted by the Constitutional Convention of 1787, on the basis of a “national Government,” or a single republic, in contradistinction to a Federal Union of separate States, on motion of Mr. Ellsworth the word ” national ” was stricken out and the words “Government of the United States” substituted in its place.

Riverdale Avenue forms a beautiful drive. Its roadway is as smooth as any drive in Central Park, and it has every advantage in the way of scenery. But this holds good only up to the city line, beyond which point the Yonkers authorities seem to look upon it as a country road, and treat it accordingly. The castellated mansion which Edwin Forrest built, and which he named Font Hill, marks the end of the city limits. It long ago passed into the hands of a religious sisterhood, who use it for school purposes. Poor Forrest ! He had no taste for domestic life, and his happiest hours were passed upon the stage. Chance brought me frequently, when a boy, into the company of his wife and her sisters, Mrs. Voorhees and Miss Virginia Sinclair, and all my boyish sympathies were enlisted in their behalf and against the man who had slandered the woman who bore his name. I never pass the neighborhood of the old city residence of Forrest, on Twenty-second Street, near Eighth Avenue, but I think of this unhappy episode. Font Hill is the monument of his blasted hopes.

One would think it would be a pleasure to live in sight of the Palisades of the Hudson, but a gentleman who occupied a house on the banks of the Hudson for several years assures me that his experience was disenchanting. The sight of that tall barrier of rock and woods beyond the silver waves of the Hudson grew terribly monotonous. He wanted to throw it down and get a glimpse of the lovelier landscape that he knew lay beyond it. A sense of imprisonment crept over him, and he was glad at last to move away. His paradise of the Palisades had its apple-tree and serpent. Viewed in this light, there was an element of reality in the joke of that wild wag, Fred Cozzens, who astonished the people of Kingsbridge and Yonkers by deliberately proposing to whitewash the Palisades. He argued that the effect would be wholesome to the eye and refreshing to the public taste, while it would break the monotony of the landscape, and give them something bright and clean to look at instead of venerable and dusty rocks. Such was his apparent sincerity and earnestness that he found many sympathizers, and for a while the contest over the proposition raged hotly.

As I steal back to the lower city, and the thousands of lights that dot Harlem Plains break into sight, like the sudden rush and twinkle of a myriad of huge fire-flies, I got to wondering at a letter which came to me a few days before. Was it a joke? The writer more than hints that Felix Oldboy knows nothing of ” the elite of the city in former years.” Perhaps not. But how the men and women of those days would have smiled at the word ” elite.” Most of them never heard it, probably, and none of them would have suffered their names to be printed in an ” Elite Directory.” Fancy one of the sons of the Knickerbockers being asked if he belonged to the ” elite ! One reason, I think, why Felix Oldboy loves the New York of former times, and seldom passes one of its historic points without some such quickening of the pulse as he feels when some one speaks of fields in the late war upon which he drew a sword, is that he has an ancestral interest in them. When Congress called for troops in 1775, Colonel Oldboy, my ancestor, led a battalion into the field, and his oldest son, also an ancestor of mine, commanded a company in it. On his manorial estate, which his father had held before him, his wife held high state, and those who wished to stand well in her eyes always addressed her as Lady Oldboy. It is said to have been an awesome sight when Lady Washington and Lady Oldboy met and exchanged stately courtesies. Lafayette, who was an ardent personal friend of Colonel Oldboy, and presented him at one time with an elegant suit that had just arrived from Paris, whose most striking ingredient was a bright green silk waistcoat that is still pre-served in the family, was a conspicuous figure at Lady Oldboy’s manorial receptions. Were these stately old souls the ” elite?” If they were, they did not know it, and I, for one, would not have liked to call them, to their face, by such a name.

As for the rest, these papers were not intended as a topical or social history. They are simply the record of a random tour through places whose acquaintance I made as a boy, that recall the people of other days whom I have known.

” Felix,” said my grandmother, “always cut your cloth by your pattern.”