Early New York – On The East Side

“WHAT is the matter with the east side ?” writes a friend, whose family homestead was once on Pearl Street.

To which I make answer by turning the steps of the tourist to a quarter of the city that was the earliest business centre, and that held the homes of the wealthier colonists, at a time when the splendors of the old Walton House were quoted in the British Parliament as an incentive to the tax-gatherer. Yet there are some recollections which sadden me as I take my way up the water-front of the East River. In my boyhood the wharves were filled with clipper ships and packets that bore the flag of the Union, and further up were great ship-yards where we school-boys went to see the great vessels launched. I am enough of a free-trader to be at war with the dog-in-the-manger policy of our Government which forbids our merchants on the one hand to go into the open market and purchase ships built in other lands, and on the other hand retains the heavy war taxes on material which prevents them from entering into competition with foreign shipwrights. My uncles were shipping merchants in South Street, near Wall (above the door I can still read the faded lettering of the sign), who were compelled to sell their ships when Confederate cruisers began their depredations. The ghost of our lost commercial marine haunts my steps as I pass by.

The east side from the earliest time was the cradle of mercantile life. The old Dutch founders of the city settled it by locating their canal on Broad Street and anchoring their vessels in the East River, on whose banks their primitive wharves and storehouses were built. There is not a street between the Battery and the City Hall Park which is not redolent with the romance of the old merchants. of the metropolis. They were a social power in colonial days, a political power in the years that saw the struggle for independence, a progressive power in the building up of the young republic. To write their story would be to give the history of the rise and prosperity of the city. Yet their social, business, and domestic life in the earlier part of this century is a theme to tempt sorely the saunterer’s pen.

I remember when a boy frequently visiting the store of Valentine & Bartholomew, on Front Street, in which one of my uncles was the youngest clerk. It was a dingy place. The front was filled with coffee and sugar in bags and barrels, and in the rear was a bare, bleak office, containing high desks with spindle legs, wooden stools and chairs, and neither carpet nor anything else approaching luxury. In winter a small fire of Liverpool coal made a dismal attempt to heat the atmosphere. It was a fair type of the offices of the period. As for the clerks, they were expected to work early and late. The junior clerk had to be on hand by seven o’clock to admit the porter, and help him sweep and set things to rights. The modern clerk would think himself insulted if set to such tasks. Yet out of just such work our great merchants were moulded. In the case above quoted the junior clerk was president of a bank in Wall Street at thirty years of age.

It would not do, in those days, to judge of the prosperity of a firm by its surroundings. A story told me by Jehiel Post, many years ago, illustrates this aptly. His father and uncle were in business in William Street, and their office and store (in which they kept only samples) were as bare and comfortless as an empty barn. It happened that a country merchant had received a note of theirs in course of trade, and as he was in the city he thought it would do no harm to look them up and find how they stood. On entering the store he was astonished to find their stock apparently very low, and everything bearing the appearance of a lack of trade. Beginning to grow alarmed, he entered the back office, and was still more disheartened by its appearance of poverty. At last he mustered courage to remark that he held a note of the firm. ” Very well,” answered the senior Jehiel, it will be paid when due.” But this did not satisfy the countryman, and he ventured to inquire if the firm would not discount the note. “We don’t do business that way,” was the cold reply. “But, gentlemen,” stammered the man, ” I’ll take off 10 per cent. for cash-yes,” with a burst of terror, ” I’ll take off twenty.” ” Brother Jehiel, do you hear that ?” whispered the other partner; “let’s take him up.” The bargain was made and the money paid down. ” Now, said one of the brothers, ” if you please, tell us the meaning of this strange transaction.” The countryman made his confession, and the brothers roared. They were vastly more tickled by. the joke than by the profit. Calling one of their clerks, they sent him around with the visitor to the bank where the note was to be paid, and there the latter was in-formed by the cashier that he would cash the check of the firm any day for $50,000.

To men who take a pride in New York as their own city there is a historic charm about this old mercantile camping-ground on the east side. There is scarcely a street which has not its patriotic legend. The old tavern of Sam Fraunce, in which Washing-ton took leave of his officers at the close of the war, is still standing at Broad and Pearl streets. At the De Peyster House, on Pearl Street, opposite Cedar, the general had his headquarters. On Wall Street he was inaugurated President. Through these streets the Liberty Boys paraded. Here they seized a load of muskets from their red – coated guardians ; there they threw into the street the types of the loyalist printer, Rivington. Francis Lewis, a merchant doing business on Dock Street, and Philip Livingston, whose store was at the corner of Water Street and Maiden Lane, were signers of the Declaration of Independence.

It is a good many years since I noticed on the wall of the Senate Chamber in the old Capitol at Albany a portrait of Jacob Leisler. A wealthy shipping merchant of New York, he was the city’s first martyr to constitutional liberty. Called by the Committee of Safety and the people to fill the interregnum occasioned by the accession of William and Mary, his short term of office, from 1689 to 1691, was the heroic age of the young colony. At his summons, in May, 1693, the first Continental Congress assembled in the old Stadt Huys, on Coenties Slip, where the colonies

of New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Plymouth, and Maryland were represented. New Jersey sent her sympathies, and the Philadelphia Quakers wrote that it was ” ag’t their princ’ls” to fight. But this sturdy little Congress was full of martial zeal, and voted to raise a grand army of 850 men to invade Canada and wipe out the French. The people stood by Leisler ; the aristocrats, led by Col. Nicholas Bayard, opposed him. Finally a new Governor came from England, Colonel Sloughter, and Leisler was deposed, tried, and condemned to hang for treason. It was a travesty of justice, and Sloughter could be induced to sign the death-warrant only after a wine supper at the fort. The next morning, in a drenching rain, Leisler was led forth to execution. The place selected was on his own grounds, on Park Row, east of the Post-office, in full view of his home. The people shouted and groaned, but the law prevailed, and they had to content themselves with tenderly conveying the corpse of the martyr to a quiet grave in his own garden, near at hand. Two months later Colonel Sloughter died suddenly, and was buried in the Stuyvesant vault, near the chapel which is now St. Mark’s Church ; four years afterwards the taint of treason was by royal proclamation removed from the name and fame of Jacob Leisler.

The lower east side early became the paradise of churches. The Dutch Reformed had the South Church, on Exchange Place ; Middle Church, on Nassau Street, where the Mutual Life Building now stands; and North Church, at Fulton and William streets, where the noon-day prayer-meeting still commemorates its site. These were large, substantial structures, each with its graveyard at the side, dotted with ancient tombstones. The Presbyterians built their first church on Wall Street, where it stood for more than a century. Jonathan Edwards was once its pastor. Their second congregation erected the old ” Brick Church ” upon the triangular lot bounded by Park Row, Beekman, and Nassau streets, and known as ” The Vineyard.” I remember the edifice well. It was an architectural horror. But no man was more revered than its pastor, Dr. Gardner Spring, though

he was not a particularly attractive preacher. Another Presbyterian church stood on Cedar Street, and a fourth on Rutgers Street. Theologically the denomination was a power. Drs. Rogers, McKnight, Mille-dollar, Romeyn, and Samuel Miller were men of wonderful strength in the pulpit, as were also Dr. Mason, of the Scotch Presbyterian Church in Cedar Street, and Dr. McLeod, of the Covenanters’ Church, in Chambers Street. Drs. Miller and Mason were the intellectual leaders of the New York pulpit in their day, their only rival being Dr. (afterwards Bishop) Hobart. It used to be said of Dr. Livingstone, of the Dutch Church, and Bishop Provoost, of the Episcopal, that ” when they met on Sunday and exchanged salutations, they took up the entire street, and reminded be-holders of two frigates under full sail, exchanging salutes with each other.”

In the Methodist chapel, on John Street, still occupied for worship, Whitefield used to “preach like a lion.” The Methodists had other churches on Forsyth and Duane streets. Baptist ” meeting-houses were erected on Gold, Oliver, and Rose streets before this century had opened, and were flourishing. The Lutherans built their first church at the corner of William and Frankfort streets, and the German Reformed people were housed on Nassau, near John Street. The pastors of these churches, Drs. Kunze and Grose, were among the group that stood back of President Washington when he took the oath of office. The Moravians had a church on Fulton Street, near William. The Quakers had a meeting-house and burying-ground on Little Queen Street, between Maiden Lane and Liberty Street, and the Jews built their first synagogue on Mill Street-a thoroughfare now blotted out by the march of improvement. Their old burial-plot remains, however. When they purchased it their idea was to seek a sepulchre far away from the living and their haunts, so in 1729 they purchased ground east of what is now Chatham Square, between James and Oliver streets. Part of the greensward and some of the headstones carved with Hebrew characters still remain, walled in on all sides but one by the high walls of tenement-houses.

There were two Episcopal churches east of Broad-way when the century was in its teens. One was Christ Church, on Ann Street, afterwards transferred to Anthony, now Worth Street; the other was St. George’s Church, on Beekman Street. The latter was a stately stone edifice, in which I have often heard Dr. Milnor, the rector, preach. Once a Congressman from Pennsylvania, the doctor was as successful in the ministry as he had been in politics. In Zion Church, on Mott Street (now the Roman Catholic Church of the Transfiguration), I have also attended services when Dr. Richard Cox was rector. He had been a Wall Street broker, and, like General Butler, was ” cross-William and Frankfort Streets eyed ” as well as eloquent. Zion Church had been a Lutheran conventicle until 1804, when it transferred its allegiance to the Episcopal ordo. About the same time, also, the old French Huguenot congregation on Pine Street conformed to the apostolic succession. With a minister and a church on Marketfield Street as early as 1687, they started a burying-ground ten years later, “far out of town,” bounded by Pine, Cedar, and Nassau streets. Here in 1704 they built a quaint stone church, fronting on Pine Street, which stood until about sixty years ago. Its last Huguenot preacher was a queer little man, of unimpeachable learning and dulness, who modelled his sermons exactly after the pattern laid down in Claude’s Essay on Preaching. Usually he preached in French, but when he resorted to English the effect was irresistible. He always announced in turn each division of his sermon, saying gravely : ” Now we have de oration,” or, ” Now we have de peroration.” But his masterpiece of effectiveness was exhibited when, with a befittingly solemn face, he gave out the thrilling announcement, “And now, my friends, we come to de pa-tet-ic.”

It is creditable to the religious spirit of the Knickerbocker founders of New York that, without making any proclamation of their piety, they tolerated all sects, and established here, what the Puritans did not leave ” unstained ” in Plymouth colony, ” freedom to worship God.” Roger Williams and Mrs. Anne Hutchinson found a refuge here from persecution. Governor Keift ransomed the Jesuit Fathers Jogues and Bressani from the Indians, and gave them free trans-port to Europe. Jews were admitted to citizenship on their petition in 1657. When the witchcraft delusion was at its height in New England, the New York clergy met and resolved that ” a good name obtained by a good life should not be lost by mere spectral accusation.” At a time when the religious people of Wethersfield, Conn., were bent upon praising God by hanging a poor widow, the latter found hospitable refuge in Westchester, and when some of the timid politicians of that day demanded her banishment, the Court of Assizes held in this city ordered that she ” remaine in the Town of Westchester, or elsewhere in the Government during her pleasure.” Thus, with even balance, did the men who built this city discharge their duty to God and man. And when churches had multiplied on the east side, and denominations had grown rich and powerful, there was still no clashing of theological strife. An upright, liberal people, invincible in honesty and enterprise, the old New Yorkers were unconsciously a model for their times.

But did I not begin to say something about the old merchants of the city, and then branch off into the churches ? What with finding a brand-new park down by the water-side, in the busiest and oldest haunts of commerce, and being greeted at every turn by the ghosts of departed churches and rifled burying-grounds, to say nothing of the spectre of our slaughtered ship-ping, I have let the old men of business renown slip by. Let us call the roll of the great merchants of forty years ago, and how many will answer? It is a roster of the dead. As to their ways of dealing, their social pleasures, their habits, and their homes, we have changed all that, as Moliere’s quack doctor remarks-but is it for the better?