Early New York – Panorama Of East River Islands

IT has always seemed a pity to be compelled to bid good-bye to the Maelstrom, Nero’s Fiddle, the Mountains of the Moon, the pot of gold that lies buried at the foot of the rainbow, and other delusions of my youth, and to have to exchange the poetry of fancy for the prose of fact. It has been a disappointment to me not to find Hell Gate the terror that the early Dutch navigator described it, and yet I must confess that this loss is in great measure made up by its ineffaceable beauty. The Rev. Master Woolley, who published a journal of his visit to America in 1678, speaks of Hell Gate as being “as dangerous as the Norway maelstrom,” and says : “In this Hell Gate, which is a narrow passage, runneth a rapid, violent stream, both upon flood and ebb ; and in the middle lieth some islands of rocks, upon which the current sets so violently that it threatens present shipwreck; and upon the flood is a large whirlpool, which sends forth a continual, hideous roaring.” Into this wild whirl of waters no early navigator ventured to embark except of necessity, and the superstition of sailors expressed itself in giving the names of “Devil’s Frying Pan ” and ” Devil’s Gridiron,” to two of its reefs. To-night, as we sit upon the back porch, smoking our pipes in enjoyment that needs few words for its expression, I am entirely disposed to go out of the past into the present. Seldom has a more lovely picture been spread before the eye. The waters are silvered everywhere by moonlight, and the ripples on rock and reef are burnished to unearthly brightness. The city lies hidden by the vines that overshadow us. Across the swift stream the horizon is bounded by clustering trees that more than half conceal the homes on the Long Island shore, and on the islands below and above us the moon tips turreted buildings that have almost buried themselves in foliage, and that lend the landscape an old-time appearance. Across the, bosom of the rapid river flash craft of every build, from the great steamship on her trip to Maine to the dancing row-boat on pleasure or lobstering intent. We smoke in silence, we two who have had our day and yet are younger in heart than many who are our juniors by a score or two of years ; indeed, the youth-fulness of my comrade sometimes appalls me, as to-night when he proposed that we should hire a launch and explore the East River.

It would be no bad thing if every New Yorker who has the time to spare could make a voyage of discovery between Governor’s Island and Throgg’s Neck. To travel swiftly through on a steamboat would not answer the purpose. A sail-boat that would skirt the islands and penetrate the bays, or a naphtha launch which would make its way in spite of currents, is what the Columbus of the East River needs. That part of New York which flies to Bar Harbor or New-port for scenery or the sea does not know that the sea and its estuaries, its rocks, and its tides, are at their doors. The Palisades and Highlands of the Hudson have had their eulogists for half a century, and the Tappan Zee and Catskill Mountains have been immortalized in romance, but poetry has yet to discover the rare beauties of the East River, whose water-front is not surpassed in attractiveness in any country. Gemmed with islands, garlanded with woods, beset by rocks which are rich in legendary lore, and headlands that are redolent of history ; in many spots as unchanged as in the days when Harlem was a tiny, sleepy settlement, remote from the busy City of New Amsterdam ; this arm of the sea is one of the loveliest, if least regarded, features of the grandest of American cities.

When New York was created to be a great maritime city, care was taken to supply it with all that it should need in the way of islands, and they were strewn about its main island foundation with proper picturesqueness. Those who remember the islands in their primeval loveliness, when they were the homes of some of our ancient families, and were clad in verdure in summer, and in impressive dreariness in win-ter, may regret that the city has been compelled to use some of them as homes. for the sick and the sinner, but even the stern majesty of the law cannot make them other than beautiful. It is a matter of congratulation with those who believe that the useful need not be ugly that there are some things which the hands of men who fancy that they can always improve upon nature cannot mar. The islands in the East River will always remain an enchanting feature in the topography of this maritime metropolis, and New Yorkers, who are somewhat prone to overlook advantages which lie directly at their doors, will some day open their eyes to appreciate them just as the old colonel and I feast our eyes upon stray bits of their loveliness to-night.

The little island at the mouth of the East River, which is owned by the United States, but will revert to the city if its bristling cannon and other paraphernalia of war are abandoned and its flag is drawn down, was historically and municipally connected with other islands in the river from the early days of the Dutch Governors of New Netherlands. Its Indian name was Pagganck, or Nut Island, lengthened by the Dutch into Noton, or Nutten Island, and from the first settlement was made a perquisite of the director-general for the time being. Hither the small boy, who could then wade across from Red Hook or paddle himself from New Amsterdam, went to gather the plentiful crop of chestnuts until such time as an English Governor erected a summer-house on one of its knolls. The renowned Wouter Van Twiller, the Doubter, whose only certainty in life was that public office was a private trust, and who was the official ancestor of a long line of land-grabbers, was the original purchaser of Pagganck from Cacapetegno and Pewihas, the aboriginal owners, and while he bought this realm of the bluebird and bobolink in his capacity of director-general of the New Netherlands, he proceeded to use it as private property, as he did also Great Barn and Little Barn Islands-the latter now known as Ward’s and Randall’s islands, and stocked and cultivated them for the benefit of his own purse. Their ” high mightinesses, the lords of the honorable West India Company,” did not relish these proceedings, and subsequently ordered Governor Stuyvesant to take steps to secure ” Nut Island and Hell Gate ” as public property, and this was done. One of the English successors of Walter, the Doubter, was a man after his own heart. For, when the Colonial Assembly placed £i000 at the disposal of Lord Cornbury to fortify the island, that luxurious gentleman proceeded to expend the money in erecting for himself a handsome country residence there, and it was not until the war of the Revolution broke out that fortifications were erected there alternately by the patriot and British forces. After peace was declared, and Governor Clinton, as executive of the sovereign and independent State of New York, came into possession of the island, he leased it for the purposes of a race-course and hotel, and all New York went pleasuring there. But when, in the last term of President Washington, dark clouds of war threatened the young republic, the island was thoroughly fortified by volunteers from the city, under the inspiring watchwords of ” Free trade and sailors’ rights, and since that time it has ceased to exist as a gubernatorial perquisite or a haunt of sylvan peace.

Apparently there must have been always something official about the long, narrow strip of Blackwell’s Island in the East River, for it belonged to one of the Dutch Governors, and was known as The Long Island (the Indians called it Minnahannonck) at the time when the island which now passes by the latter name was known as Nassau Island. John _Manning, who had been captain of a trading vessel between New York and New Haven, and had abandoned business for a commission in the colonial forces, was appointed sheriff of New York after its first conquest by the British, and from the emoluments of the office made purchase of The Long Island. The bargain turned out to be a prudent one for him, and, moreover, during his incumbency the Duke of York, stirred to the very pocket by having the city named after his royal worthlessness, sent over a silver mace to be carried at the head of the procession of city magistrates, silken gowns faced with. fur for the seven aldermen, liveries of blue and orange for the beadles and constables, and a crimson robe, cocked hat, and sword for the use of the sheriff. Nothing so magnificent as these civic dignitaries on parade had been seen in the little city. Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like the sheriff or the town constable. But this gorgeous state of affairs was short-lived. The Dutch were slow to anger, yet at the. end of five years news came that a Dutch fleet was on its way to the harbor, prepared and competent to blow the English fort and its de-fenders to atoms. Governor Lovelace went to Boston to seek help and Manning was left in command of the soldiers, when Admiral Evertsen poured a broadside into the city, and proved his ability to bring down its houses and fortifications over their ears. Manning surrendered, and after the city had been re-stored to the English by treaty, he was tried by court-martial, and sentenced to have his sword broken over his own head and to be forever barred from holding any public position. On a chill. November day in 1674 the former part of the sentence was carried out in front of the City Hall-the old Stadt Huys on the Strand at Coenties Slip. Disgraced as he was, Manning was by no means in despair, for his confidence in himself was unbounded, and his pockets were full of money. With serene philosophy he retired to his East River island and the luxurious home he had constructed there, resolved to get as much enjoyment out of his physical life as was possible. Having money, he had friends, of course, and besides, the fame of his dinners went throughout the colony and pleaded his cause through the tender masculine stomach. His house became a synonyme of hospitality; his wit was a proverb, and he was pronounced the most elegant and agreeable of hosts. If he had been poor and penitent he would never have become popular. “So long as thou doest’ well unto thyself,” said wise old King David, ” men will speak good of thee.”

Even in an earthly paradise the genial and unrepentant old adventurer could not live forever, and when he died the island was bequeathed to his daughter, who had married Robert Blackwell, to whom it owes the name it has borne for 200 years. The city became the purchaser of its 126 acres in 1828, paying for the island what would now be called the modest sum of $5o,000, which was its full value then. It is a small municipality in itself, with a population of more than ten thousand persons. A glance and a thought suffice for Blackwell’s, but the scene that breaks upon the eye beyond, where the river makes a sudden bend and reveals its swift waters rushing between promontories clad in living green and crowned with luxuriant foliage, where the eyes cannot decide whether to most admire the charms of the land or the wave, and only knows that the beauty of one sets off the loveliness of the other, calls for the brush of the great American painter that is to be. In the full glory of the moonlight it is superb.

As the old colonel rose to go home, we two gray-beards started on a pilgrimage to the bedside of Master Felix Oldboy, Jr. My little boy loves every-thing that breathes and has legs, and after capturing two tiny mice had laboriously constructed a home for them for their protection from Neb. and Martha Washington, with a bay-window attachment in the shape of a revolving-wheel for their use. The old colonel had heard of it and came to me with a mutter of subterranean thunder: “Mice, indeed! Make a man of him and get him a gun !” and then trotted off and secretly gave the boy a quarter to buy wire with. We found him in his bed, rosy, placid, and sweet with-sleep. On a chair close to his pillow was the house he had built for his mice, and from the wheel two pairs of eyes that seemed to be brilliant black beads were keeping watch upon their master. So he had always gone to bed with his newest treasures before his closing eyes or hugged to his heart: It was a picture I had never looked upon without being aware of the footsteps of approaching tears. I bent and kissed the child in his sleep, and the old colonel said that the light hurt his eyes, and, with a sudden ” Good-night!” marched home.

The mice awoke and preached a sermon to me as their pink toes twirled the wheel of wire. It is just so, I said, with man and his toys of the hour. If sleep be the brother of death, when we stretch our-selves out for a long night’s rest under a coverlet of grasses, how pityingly will the dear Father look down upon the wreckage of hopes and plans strewed around our couch, glad in His loving heart that He can wake us to better things to-morrow!