Early New York – Rambles Around Harlem

These words were certainly not spoken. They came back to me from the mists of half a century ago, and were the echo of my thoughts. Master Felix and I were sitting in the library. He was studying his geography lesson, and I was reading about the pioneers who established a ” Nieuw Haarlem ” on the flats of Manhattan. There may have been an unseen connection between these two facts, but I maintain that no sound was audible. The echoed question and answer brought before me a little urchin in round-about and trousers, with a ruffle around his neck, standing with his class in a room which occupied the entire front of the second story in a little brick house on Franklin Street. Desks for a score of boys were strung closely together against the front and sides of the room. At the rear was a mahogany table, behind which sat the teacher in his arm-chair. On the table were books, bunches of quill-pens, and sand-boxes–for the steel-pen was an object of prejudice and blotting-paper was unknown-together with forfeited apples, cakes, fly-boxes constructed of paper, balls, and marbles, and certain flat rulers and rounded rattans, which were used interchangeably, according as discipline was administered to the palm of the hand or other more robust portions of the juvenile anatomy. In those days there was no revised version of the Scriptures, and our teacher, who was a son of the granite hills of New Hampshire, and likewise superintendent of the Sunday-school attached to the Presbyterian Church on Murray Street, was a devout believer in King Solomon’s advice about sparing the rod and spoiling the child.

It is a pleasure to note the love for their city which lies in the hearts of the old sons of New York, and which seems not only to survive many other emotions, but to grow deeper with advancing years. More letters with a word of sympathy in his pursuits have come to Felix Oldboy than he has had time to ac-knowledge, and most grateful among these have been kindly messages from some of my old school-fellows. The latest of these came from the Union Club, written by a gentleman of scholarly tastes and civic eminence, whom every New Yorker would recognize were I to write his name, in which he says : “I entered the school of J. J. Greenough, as a student, in May, 1839, more than fifty years ago, then at No. 399 Greenwich Street, near Jay, on the east side of the street, and remained three years, when I entered the university grammar-school. In May, 1840, Mr. Greenough re-moved his school to No. 18 Walker Street, and the next year to Franklin Street. Of those who were students at the school during my term I know of only three living : George C. Wetmore, Theodore Wet-more, and George De Forest Lord. I have many pleasant recollections of those school-days, it being the first boys’ school that I attended. I saw much of Mr. Greenough after I left his school; he always felt very kindly towards me, and on my departure presented me with a recommendation to a new school, handsomely engrossed, which I have preserved. He also gave me his portrait in oil, taken many years be-fore, which I now have. This I looked at this morning to refresh my memory of the old days.” It is a pleasure to read such a letter. As I hold it in my hand and look back to the past, the rod of which I stood in awe changes into an olive-branch in the hand of my ancient teacher, and his shade smiles as pleasantly upon me as if I had never gleefully plotted his discomfiture.

But, with the garrulousness of a seventeenth- century preacher, whom I shall presently have need to quote, I am wandering from my text. Harlem was always to me, in my younger days, the land of delightful mystery, the ultima thule of the Island of Manhattan, a region of hill-side and forest, of rocky de-files and marshy meadows, of brooks, in whose head waters the sunfish and perch abounded and at whose mouths the succulent flounder could be caught, of pleasant shade under the cotton-wood, oak, and tulip trees, of buttercups, daisies, and gentians, of farm and village life as contrasted with city roar and rumble. A picnic in this region was the acme of school-boy pleasure, especially if it included a trip on the rail-road, which slowly crept through the deep passes cut through the rocks at Yorkville, stopping at Harsen’s cross-road and at the middle road to drop its passengers, and landing, finally, after what seemed a long ride, at lonely Harlem. The nineteenth century has not gone out without witnessing vestibule trains, with modern hotel accommodations on wheels; but this luxury of travel will never bring me the same amount of pleasure that I used to extract from the barracks on wheels of forty years ago, the horse-hair seats, narrow windows with small panes of glass, and flat, unventilated roofs. Uncomfortable though they were, they were to me as the enchanted carpet of the Arabian Nights, and no similar amount of enjoyment could be purchased elsewhere for a shilling.

History represents the early Dutch settlers as a phlegmatic race who had always an eye to the main chance, but I shall never hesitate to express the opinion that they had also an eye to the beautiful, even if poetry was made secondary to pelf. It must also be remembered that many of the men who first came to New Amsterdam were Huguenot refugees, who had kept up, during their temporary exile in the lowlands of Holland, a vivid remembrance of the mountains and meadows of la belle France. The pioneer settler in Harlem, Henri De Forest-who dwelt but one short year in the home he had built under the shadow of Snake Hill, and then was called to enter the house not made with hands-was a native of France, and of the reformed faith, and several of his colleagues had the same ancestry. I do not wonder at their enthusiasm for the place they selected for their new colony. If they climbed Snake Hill and looked abroad, I do not wonder that they were enchanted with the prospect. Three rivers glanced in the sunshine before them ; mountain, forest, and plain were parted by small ponds and innumerable brooks, and at their feet, sheltered by two ranges of hills from the blasts of the north-westerly winds, lay a rich alluvial belt that promised a hundred-fold return to their labor as husbandmen. They felt that it was good to be there; and building better than they knew, they hewed out the rafters that were to be the foundations of the magnificent new city of to-day that covers the sites of their farms of the olden time.

Yesterday I climbed Mount Morris, and changed as the scene has become by the improvements which in two centuries have blotted out much of the ancient loveliness of the landscape, I felt like challenging any other city in the world to produce its equal. There sparkled the East River and Hell Gate, with their setting of emerald islands and wooded banks ; there the waters of the Harlem, spanned by aqueduct and bridge, wound along until they seemed to sink into the base of the distant, purple Palisades ; there again rose the wooded heights of Fordham on one side and of Inwood and Fort Washington on the other ; and the rocky ramparts of Morningside Park, with the teeming city below, while the hills and trees and meadows of Central Park broke the monotony of bricks and mortar and made a pleasant resting-place for the eye. All around me, at my feet, rose the magnificent public buildings and homes of a city that had grown up in a decade-built as by the magic of a day-the city of Nieuw Haarlem; indeed, but a city of which the timid projectors of the village on the flats never dreamed. Yet let us not be surprised that they did not dream of it, when the man who projected and built the Erie Canal-De Witt Clinton, New York’s greatest mayor -deemed it an improbability that the land at this end of the Island of Manhattan could be built up in city fashion during the present century.

The garrulous preacher of the seventeenth century, to whom reference has been made, was a schismatic of the Labadist persuasion, who, like other fanatics, believed that all the salt of the earth was confined to his mite of a sect. He made one of his visits to Haarlem in the October days of 1679, and he describes the Dutch minister, who sometimes preached there, and whom he did not fellowship in doctrine, as ” a thick, corpulent person, with a red, bloated face, and of a very slabbering speech.” If we are to credit this apostle of heresy, the people of the village spent much of their time in drinking rum and carousing; but even this narrow-minded man could not help being impressed by the natural beauty of his surroundings. “A little eastward of Nieuw Haarlem,” he writes in his journal, there are two ridges of very high rocks, with a considerable space between them, displaying themselves very majestically, and inviting all men to acknowledge in them the majesty, grandeur, power, and glory of the Creator, who has impressed such marks upon them.” And he rounds off his description with the assertion that the grapes were as good as any he had tasted ” in the Father-land,” and that ” the peaches were the best he had ever eaten.”

A later traveller, writing a quarter of a century after-wards, gives us a glimpse of the interior of one of the homes of Harlem, and, being a woman, her eyes observe narrowly. ” The inside of them” (meaning the houses), she writes, “are neat to admiration ; the wooden work, for only the walls are plastered and the sumers [the central beam] and gist [joist] are plained and kept very white scowr’d, as so is all the partitions made of Bord. The fireplaces have no Jambs, as ours have, but the backs run flush with the walls, and the Hearth is of Tyles and is as farr out into the Room at the Ends as before the fire, which is generally Five foot in the lower rooms and the piece over where the mantle tree should be is made as ours with Joyner’s work and, as I suppose, is fastened to the iron rodds inside. The House where the Vendue was had Chimney Corners like ours, and they and the Hearth were laid with the finest tile that I ever see, and the staircases laid with white tile, which is ever clean and so are the walls of the Kitchen which had a Brick floor.” The tiles in the staircase were set into the wall, forming a continuous border to the up-per line of the stairs, as can still be seen in some of the old Dutch houses in the interior, and notably in the old Coeyman homestead on the bank of the upper Hudson.

I have said that the growth of New York has far outstripped even the most sanguine expectations of De Witt Clinton, and I read this in the report made by the commissioners he appointed to lay out the streets and roads of the city under the act of 1807-Gouverneur Morris, Simeon De Witt, and John Rutherford. In laying out the streets they made provision for a parade-ground for the militia, to extend from Twenty-third to Thirty-fourth Street, and from Third to Seventh Avenue, as well as for other smaller parks; and in their report to Mayor Clinton, in 1809, they apologize for doing so, and add : ” It may be a subject of merriment that the commissioners have provided space for a greater population than is gathered at any spot this side of China. They have, in this respect, been governed by the shape of the ground. It is not improbable that considerable numbers may be collected at Harlem before the high hills to the south-ward of it shall be built upon as a city ; and it is improbable that, for centuries to come, the grounds north of Harlem flat will be covered with houses. To have come short of the extent laid out might therefore have defeated just expectations; and to have gone further might have furnished material to the pernicious spirit of speculation.” The ghosts of the highly respected citizens who penned these words must be mightily dumfounded at the city that stretches up from the Battery to the Harlem River, leaps across that stream on wings of steam, and is rapidly striding towards the classic Bronx.

As designed by Mr. John Randel, the city. surveyor under Clinton, Harlem was to have two parks. One of these, Harlem Square, was laid out between One Hundred and Seventeenth and One Hundred and Twenty-first streets and Sixth and Seventh avenues, on the common lands of the city. The other, to be known as Harlem Marsh Square, was laid out on the commissioners’ plan from One Hundred and Sixth to One Hundred and Ninth Street, and from Fifth Avenue to the East River at Benson’s Point. It contained nearly seventy acres, and until the canal at this point was projected, was considered the best and most healthful means of disposing of Harlem Creek and its adjacent marshes, whenever the growth of the village should demand the obliteration of the mill-dam and stream. And hereabouts, I must not omit to say, was the home of the McGowns, who gave their name (written in history as McGowan) to the famous rocky pass, still traceable in the upper part of Central Park, through which the troops of Washington sent the red-coats flying at the battle of Harlem Plains. Mr. An-drew McGown, the famous old Harlem Democrat, father of Judge A J. McGown, was fond of sailing on the waters of the East River, and kept his yacht at his residence, which stood at the foot of One Hundred and Ninth Street. He had a canal cut through the marshes to the foot of his lawn, to enable him to have his yacht brought up close to the house, and it remained open until quite recently, when it had to be filled in to sustain the onward march of improvement. The McGown family originally came from Scotland, and settled in Harlem a number of generations ago. In the days of ’76 Daniel McGown, father of Andrew McGown, resided at the homestead in McGown’s Pass, about where Mount St. Vincent Hotel now is-at One Hundred and Sixth Street and Sixth Avenue. After the gallant action on Harlem Plains, where the Americans for two days successively drove back the British troops, sending them whirling below Yorkville, Lord Howe moved up his entire army from the city to retrieve the disaster. The advance-guard was the Hessian brigade. They stopped at the McGown home-stead, and found that the only male person at home was this child of twelve years-Andrew McGownwhose father was in Washington’s army. The boy was pressed into service to guide the column of mercenaries against the American camp. Quick-witted and patriotic, he gave no sign that he was other than pleased, but he led the Hessians a merry dance over hill and marsh and meadow, down to the North River, near the present Riverside Park, while the American forces were leisurely taking themselves out of the way and camping behind their intrenchments at Fort Washington. A boy that day was the salvation of his country.

It was by such a spirit as this little lad’s that independence was achieved and the corner-stone of the country’s prosperity was laid. We need a little more of it in these days of Irish-American, German-American, and other un-American mixtures, when it is made a political crime to call one’s self an American simply, or to act or vote as such, and when an eloquent imported preacher proclaims that there are no Americans except the Indians. The boys and the men who fought in the Revolution were the fathers of the race, and the women who suffered in their absence, and sustained these heroes by their patriotism, were the mothers. When they are forgotten, or when we cease to honor them, it will be near the hour of sunset in our land.

Fifty or sixty years ago, when the only passenger conveyance between Harlem and New York was by Dingledine’s stage, which left the corner of One Hundred and Twenty – fifth Street and Third Avenue at seven o’clock in the morning and reached Park Row, opposite the City Hall, shortly before ten o’clock, returning at 3 P.M., the stage used to carry up and down half a dozen gentlemen, then young, but after-wards distinguished. Among them were Judge D. P. Ingraham, grandson of Daniel Phoenix, an eminent and wealthy citizen, who was City Treasurer, father of the present Judge Ingraham ; Edgar Ketchum, afterwards Register in Bankruptcy; Alderman Charles Henry Hall, Daniel Fanshaw, printer to the American Tract Society, and Isaac Adriance. They have passed away, full of honors as of years, leaving precious and fragrant remembrance. The fare on the Dingledine line was twenty-five cents. A few years later the stages found that it paid to make hourly trips. At first they used to leave from No. 21 Bowery, which was a sort of country-hotel, with stables in the rear, but after-wards they resumed their old stand at Park Row. The fare at that time, as I well remember, was a shilling, and the ride usually gave the passengers exercise enough for a week.

The first street paved in Harlem was One Hundred and Twenty-ninth Street, and this improvement was effected in 1832. The pavement, with flagged sidewalks, extended from Third to Eighth Avenue. How much of a public improvement this was may be judged from the fact that at the time there were no paved streets in New York north of Clinton Place and St. Mark’s Place, except a few in Greenwich Village. It was due to the efforts of Alderman Hall, who also caused both sides of the street to be set out with elms, many of which, and some of gigantic stature, still re-main to show how good deeds survive our dust. The city had men for aldermen then. During the fearful cholera season of 1832 it became the duty of Alder-man Hall, with several of his colleagues, who with him-self constituted the Board of Health, to visit the quarantine on Staten Island. It was a perilous duty, but they did not hesitate. Within a fortnight all but Alderman Hall had died of the epidemic. Two of the alderman’s brothers-Jonathan Prescott Hall and David P. Hall-were famous lawyers of the olden time, and the three names deserve a place in the city’s pantheon when it shall be built.

The old cotton-wood on the Gracie lawn is the largest tree on the Island of Manhattan, and I had thought it the largest in the city limits, but opposite, a lonely sentinel on the marshy point of Ward’s Island, is a venerable cotton-wood that is seventeen feet in girth at a point three feet from the ground. Who planted these giants? It was the Laird of Dumbiedikes who, when he lay dying, said to his son and heir : ” Jock, when ye hae naething else to do, ye may be aye sticking in a tree ; it will be growing, Jock, when ye’re sleeping.” And how much of human nature was there in his next words : ” My father tauld me sae, forty years sin’, but I ne’er fand time to mind him.” Our Harlem alderman found the time, and I have no doubt that as he now looks up into the branches of the tree of life by the side of that other river, he thinks of the little elms he stuck into the ground hard by our river’s waves, and is glad that he planted them.