Early New York – Panorama Of Ancient East River Homes


NELLIE and the old colonel are walking in the flower-garden, with their heads close together, and as intent on each other as if they were a pair of lovers. They are often at the river-side, finding endless entertainment, apparently, in the beautiful panorama of the East River. The garden has flourished all summer under my daughter’s dainty hands. Roses, holly-hocks, and lilies have ceased to bloom, but the beds are gay with marigolds, lady’s-slippers, petunias, Indian-shot, cockscomb, mignonette, and the white, purple, and pink blossoms of the morning-glory. For my own pleasure I planted a cluster of sunflowers, and a score of sturdy disks of gold turn themselves to the monarch of day as he wheels across the sky, and sway with the winds. On the other side of the broad path, the corn, pumpkins, and tomatoes flourish luxuriantly, to the delight of black Diana’s heart, and Nebuchadnezzar and his kindred have made discovery of a bed of catnip, among whose fragrant stalks they roll and twist their lithe bodies with perhaps a dim remembrance of ancestral tiger days in the jungle.

As I look out upon my little kingdom of petunias and tomatoes the thought comes to me, that after man had been created the first care of his Creator was to make a garden for him. ” And the Lord God planted a garden,” says the record. Then follows a glimpse of home and its comforts in the narration that “out of the ground” grew “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” It is a homely picture, perhaps, to be inserted by the side of the canvas on which chaos and the birth of a world are painted, but I understand it here with my garden spread before me, and can even fancy how lonely it must have been for Adam, with all its fresh, young beauty, when he had only his cats to keep him company. Those figures coming towards me, the daughter whose years have not yet reached a score and the friend and comrade whose summers are climbing up into five score, bear witness to my heart with every step that “it is not good that the man should be alone,” and my tongue instinctively hails them. ” What are you two plotting against-the peace of this commonwealth ?” ” Felix,” said the old colonel, solemnly, “ask the cats. They have heard us, and you ought to know their language by this time.” My daughter smiled mischievously, and said, “Do you remember what your grandmother used to tell you, when you asked what she was to give for dessert ?” I could but smile. The mention of my grandmother, the unforgotten guardian of the golden days of life’s fairyland -the magic epoch which every man recalls with a touch of tender reverence in his voice as he utters the time-worn preface ” when I was a boy,” always brings a smile and peace.

Once more I am in the old-fashioned dining-room where my grandmother sits stately and dignified at the head of the table of polished mahogany, on which mats do service for table-cloth, under the service of priceless china; where Abraham, the colored waiter, whose mother had been my grandmother’s slave, stands behind her chair, erect as a grenadier ; where an impatient urchin, whose great gray eyes and rounded cheeks I have long ceased to see in the glass, is seated in torture on a straight-backed chair, which he abominates, and I know he has put a question, for across the polished surface of the dark mahogany comes a dignified utterance which is strangely in contrast with the love that I never failed to find in my grandmother’s eyes-” Wait and see!”

It was natural that we should fall into talk once more of our favorite theme, the beauties of the East River shore of the Island of Manhattan, and that the old colonel and I should compare recollections of the days when it was peerless for scenery. The tourist now sees a succession of docks, broken here and there by rocks on which shanties have been thrown together, by the remains of a bluff, which recalls the terraces of a gentleman’s country – seat in the past, by the ghosts of some old houses that were mansions of wealth in the past, or by a house and garden here and there, decayed but still genteel, bent upon keeping up appearances to the last. Some few landmarks still survive. The old mechanics’ bell, which for nearly sixty years has rung out the hours of work and dinner over the ship-yards of the Eleventh Ward, and whose music is one of the recollections of my boyhood-recalling days when I “played hookey” from school in order to witness a launch, and the clangor of the bell was a sort of brazen conscience that took the edge off my enjoyment-still stands and keeps up its warning of the flight of time, close by the East River, at the foot of Frourth Street. The old shot-tower yet looms up hard by the foot of Fifty-third Street, and people who wish to speak of the neighborhood begin as of yore with the preface : ‘ You know where the old shot-tower is,” as if everybody had known it from infancy. The rocky height known as Dead Man’s Rock, that used to mark the beginning of Jones’s Wood half a century ago, and that still has the same name, is there yet, but has become ignoble as the boundary of Battle Row, all too well known in police annals. And at Horn’s Hook, opposite Hallett’s Point, a group of great elms still sway in the breeze as they did in the days when Halleck and Paulding and Irving walked beneath their shade.

The East River was by nature so much more picturesque than the Hudson, that the wealth and fashion of the little City of New York fixed upon it in the early part of the last century as a choice spot for country-seats. Pearl Street had become noted in the colony for its stately mansions, with gardens stretching to the water-side. Then came the cluster of aristocratic dwellings at Franklin Square, the estate of Rutgers, the farms of the Bayards and De Lanceys, the seat of Marinus Willett at Corlear’s Hook, the boweries of Peter Gerard Stuyvesant and his brother Nicholas Stuyvesant, and beyond these, for four miles up the river, the early part of this century witnessed the erection of a large number of elegant villas-like the Coster mansion near Thirtieth Street, on the river-bank, a stately edifice in the Grecian style of architecture, which, in my boyhood, was the country residence of Anson G. Phelps. But even as a boy I had more interest in the historic homes of the Kip and Beekman families. I remember both of these houses well. The Kip mansion, erected in 1655 by Jacobus Kip, was a large double structure, with three windows on one side of the door and two on the other, and with an ample wing besides. It was built of brick imported from Holland, and a stone coat of arms of the Kip family projected over the doorway. It was the oldest house on the island when it was demolished in 1851, and Thirty-fifth Street and Second Avenue now pass over its site and give no sign of its existence and story. Neither Oloffe, the dreamer, nor Heinrich Kip, whose great goose gun was the terror of prowling Indians, would now recognize the place that even in my recollection was encompassed by pleasant trees and sweet with grassy meadows that were reflected in the sparkling waters of the little bay.

In Turtle Bay, half a mile above, the British ships of war used to find safe harbor in the storms of win-ter, and here Lord Howe found a convenient landing-place when he invaded the island and drove out “the rebels.” On a knoll above the bay and overlooking it stood, near Forty-first Street, the summer residence of Francis Bayard Winthrop, whose estate was known as the Turtle Bay farm. There was a grist-mill on this place, fed by a brook that took its rise in the lower part of the present Central Park. It was known, before the time of the Winthrops, as De Voor’s mill-stream, and where it crossed Fifty-fourth Street, between Second and Third avenues, just below ” Old Cato’s” on the Eastern post – road, there used to be a wooden bridge of which the Rev. Mr. Burnaby, a traveller in these parts in 1759, says: “In the way there is a bridge, about three miles distant from New York, where you always pass over as you return, called the Kissing Bridge, where it is a part of the etiquette to salute the lady who has put herself under your protection.” Mr. Burnaby speaks as if he had made trial of the etiquette of the day, and evidently he found it soothing if not pleasant, for he utters not a word of protest. The lady’s opinion is not given, but she must have known the penalty, and in a rural scene like this rusticity is pardoned. The mill, the brook, the bridge, the fields silvered in the moonlight, the river a few rods away, a wilderness of woodlands at one side and the spires of the city rising three miles away-can it be that it is of the centre of a busy, bustling metropolis that these words are written and this picture painted ?

There is one landmark of which I have not spoken, and that is yet the most notable of those that remain. Close by the old shot-tower stands a house that is a perfect specimen of the Dutch architecture of two centuries ago, and is probably the oldest building in the city. Long before the War of the Revolution it was known as the Spring Valley farm-house. Outside, the walls are clapboarded, but an inside view discloses the massive stone and the huge cross-beams hewed out of solid oak. The grading of the street has made an additional story of the cellar, but originally the house had a single story and attic, with long sloping roof and ample porches-the very ideal of Knickerbocker rest and luxury. A generation ago it was known as the Brevoort estate and house ; before that time it bore the names of Odel and Arden, but the builders belonged to the family who gave their name to the mill-stream, and whose name, like that of many another old Dutch family, is spelled in a different way each time that it is written, as thus : Duffore, Deffore, Devoor, Devore, and De Voor. The original grant of sixty acres was made by Sir Edmund An-dross to David Duffore in 1677, and the spelling of the name is changed in each successive deed on record.

* In 1800, when the commissioners of streets and roads were laying out the plan of the new city above Houston, then North Street-a plan which, owing to the accuracy of the survey made by John Randel, Jr., their engineer, has stood the test of sixty years without revealing a mistake – the Bowery was the principal road leading to Harlem and to King’s Bridge. At the present Madison Square the Eastern post-road diverged from the Bloomingdale Road, crossing Fourth Avenue near Twenty-ninth Street, and passing through the hamlet known as Kip’s Bay, or Kipsborough, which lay to the west of Third Avenue and ex-tended from Thirty-second to Thirty-eighth Street. Thence it swept towards the west, close to the Croton reservoir at Forty-second Street, made another bend, and crossed the road to ‘Turtle Bay on the East River, at Third Avenue, between Forty-seventh and Forty-eighth streets. Sweeping still to the east, it crossed Second Avenue at Fifty-second Street, crossed it again at Sixty-second Street, and then followed the line of Third Avenue, passing Harsen’s cross-road at Seventy-first Street. At Seventy-seventh Street and Third Avenue it crossed a small stream known in the last century as the Saw-Kill, and Mr. Randel assures us that the bridge which spanned this stream was known to all the young men and women of his day as the Kissing Bridge. But the English historian of the last century, and a clergymen to boot, assures us that the Kissing Bridge was the edifice of plank that crossed De Voor’s mill-stream at Fifty-fourth Street, between Second and Third avenues, while a solemn Dutch historian of the seventeenth century, whose seriousness is not to be doubted, has placed it on record that the original and genuine Kissing Bridge was the one which crossed the stream that rippled down through Pearl Street from the Collect Pond and crossed the post-road-now Park Row-at the intersection of that street.

There is another venerable house standing on East Sixty-first Street, near Avenue A, which was completed just before the Revolution as a summer residence for Colonel William S. Smith, who had married the only daughter of Vice-President John Adams. It is emphatically a mansion, with two huge wings joined together by a portico in front and an extension in the rear, and its erection, together with an unfortunate speculation in East River real estate, bankrupted the owner before his work was completed. The records show that his possession of the thirty acres he had bought from Peter Prau Van Zandt was very brief. Much more of an old-time mansion was the Beekman House, which, until 1874, stood near the corner of Fifty-first Street and First Avenue. In its later days it had fallen from its high estate into shabby disrepute, but neither the hand of time nor the presence of a troop of ragged tenants could destroy its dignity. About it clustered more historic recollections than were attached to any other house in the city, and the pen of Madame Riedesel, wife of the general who surrendered with Burgoyne, has immortalized it. Howe, Chester, and Carleton held possession of it more than seven years, and during that time it was the scene of the trial and condemnation of Captain Nathan Hale, the martyr spy of the Revolution. Its greenhouse, in which the latter is said to have passed his last night on earth, and its extensive gardens, fell with all their glories twenty years before the old mansion gave up the ghost, but I recall them every time the train whirls me over their grave.

What a place of delight Jones’s Wood used to be in the olden days! It was the last fastness of the forest primeval that once covered the rocky shores of the East River, and its wildness was almost savage. In the infant days of the colony it was the scene of tradition and fable, having been said to be a favorite re-sort of the pirates who dared the terrors of Hell Gate, and came here to land their treasures and hold their revels. Later, its shores were renowned for its fisheries, and under the shadow of its rocky bluff and overhanging oaks the youth of a former generation cast their lines and waited for bites. The ninety acres which composed the wooded farm that was known in olden times as the Louvre passed through many hands until it came into the possession of the Provoost fainily in 1742, and here they built and occupied for nearly sixty years. Then they. deeded their broad acres to Mr. John Jones, reserving the family vault and the right of way thereto. The old graves are there yet, but the ancient chapel has been transformed into a club-house, and the youthful athletes of ,to-day play leap-frog among the tombstones.

It was the custom of the early settlers to have their dead laid to rest near the home of the living, and it was not until as late as 1802 that the family vault of the Bayards, at the foot of Bunker Hill-now at the crossing of Grand and Mulberry streets-was demolished. The home of the Provoosts, near the foot of Seventy-first Street, and the family vault, cut in a rocky knoll near by and covered with a marble slab, lay in neglected ruin long after the woods had become a favorite resort for picnic parties. The Provoosts were a remarkable family, connected as they were with some of the old historic families of Manhattan. Samuel Provoost, whose mother was daughter and heiress of old Harman Rutgers, was an assistant minister of old Trinity when the war broke out. Being a thorough American at heart, his preaching gave of-fence to the Tories and he was deprived of his position and sent into retirement, to emerge triumphantly afterwards as the first Bishop of New York and President of Columbia College, his alma mater.

A cousin of the bishop, David Provoost, better known in his day and generation as ” Ready-money Provoost,” was quite another character. A soldier in Washington’s army, and wounded at the battle of Long Island, he became in after-years a noted smuggler, having his chief stronghold at Hallett’s Point, and successfully defying the officers of the law to the end of his wild career. He always had a reason for his faith, and as he had plenty of money, his reasons were listened to with the deference that wealth commands. He had fought against England and taxation, he said, only to be more pestered with custom-houses than ever. With an assumed roughness of diction, which was really foreign to his education or social position, he made his defence openly, and to a merchant who took him to task, said : ” I’m for making an honest living by free-trade. There’s Congress just been introducing a tariff, as they call it, and Madison, Carroll, and old Roger Sherman and all on ’em are voting for it, but by the Eternal, old ` Ready Money ‘ will stand by his ` reserved rights,’ as they call ’em away there in Virginny, and nullify the custom-house laws as long as the `Pot’ boils in Hell Gate !” The fiery old smuggler was laid to rest in the family vault, by the side of his wife, at the ripe age of ninety. Long afterwards the boys used to gather there and tell each other wonderful stories of the unearthly doings of the old man’s ghost. Not one of them could have been persuaded by all the ready money in the city to keep a night’s vigil under the trees that overhung the lonely, desolate grave. Music, dance, and merrymaking must have exorcised it, however obstinate; long ago.

The September sunshine, which through the last two weeks of drought has seemed to be filled with gold dust, has sprinkled the lawn with a fresh crop of dandelions. If this humble little flower were an in-mate of the greenhouse, it would adorn fair bosoms and win extravagant admiration, for its beauty is unquestioned. But it keeps on its way quietly, and perhaps is happier in the lessons it teaches of home joys and fireside affections. It belongs to the home, and I have seen men pause and watch a dandelion that had strayed into a tiny square of grass in front of a city house, and was sure that I knew what was in their hearts.* I knew their thoughts had gone back to the farm on which they had been reared, the dooryard filled with dandelions, and the faces at the window that had watched their departing steps years before. It was this remembrance that, in a railroad cut across the river the other day, turned fifty faces towards a single yellow flower that had somehow taken root and blossomed in a rocky crevice twenty feet above the level of the tracks. Solitary amid the rocks, beautiful by its contrast to the rough stone, the little dandelion sat there and bloomed and sent out its reminders of home and fireside as no grand lily or radiant rose could have done.

No, Diana. Tell the man that I do not want to have the grass cut.

* Henry Ward Beecher wrote a characteristic paper upon precisely this subject-a single dandelion in a city front-yard. Mr. Beecher retained such liking for his own little essay that not long before his death he read it at one of the Authors’ Readings ” in the Madison Square Theatre.-L.