ONE of the pleasantest experiences in the life of Felix Oldboy has been the receipt of scores of letters in regard to his ” Tour.” Some of them contain matter which seems to be appropriate for incorporation in these papers, and which convey interesting points in local history or queer bits of mosaic that reveal traits of city life which are well worth preserving. One of recent date, signed only with initials, relates to the historic territory of Kings bridge. The writer says:
In touching upon Inwood and the waters of the Harlem and Spuyt-den-Duyvil Creek, I hoped you would mention the old mill that once stood just to the west of Kingsbridge, and to which there was passage over the water, either from the bridge or from the New York side of the creek. I remember seeing this old mill as late as the year 1857, and I think that shortly after that date it blew down or was carried away by the waters of the Spuyt-den-Duyvil after a freshet. This mill stood on piles in the middle of the stream on lands under water granted by the Mayor and Commonalty of New York to Alexander McComb in the year 1800 at a rental of $12.50 per annum. About the year 1856 my father bought the mill and water grant at a foreclosure sale for $1650, and from that year to the present the tax has been regularly paid, though the mill has gone and all else that belonged to it except the bottom of the stream, which presumably is still there. The lease from the city provides that a passageway fifteen feet wide shall be kept open, so that small boats may freely pass and re-pass through the bridge, and the width of the stream seems to be thus guaranteed for the future. Can you tell me who built the mill that was destroyed thirty years ago, and for what purposes was it ever used?
Whether the mill thus destroyed was the same that was built by Frederick Phillipse, Lord of the Manor, I do not know, but there was a mill there in 1759, which, with house, farm, and bridge, was ” to be let, and entered upon immediately,” in April of that year, on application to ” the Manor of Phillipsburg, in the county of Westchester,” now the city of Yonkers. Presumably the mill ground wheat and corn for the farmers of that county and of the upper part of the Island of Manhattan. My correspondent writes the name of the famous stream at Kingsbridge Spuyt-den-Duyvil, and it is curious to note the variety of spelling to which this Rubicon of Anthony the trumpeter has been subject-ed. Prior to 1693 there was no bridge. across the stream, but in January of that year the Colonial Council met to consider the offer of Frederick Phillipse the elder to build a bridge at “Spikendevil ” for the convenience of “cattell ” and “waggons,” as well as the general public. This was the only bridge connecting the Island of Manhattan with the main-land for sixty years. Madam Knight, in her journal of 1704, recounting her journey from New York to New Haven in December of that year, says that about three o’clock in the afternoon ” we came to the Half-way House, about ten miles out of town, where we baited and went forward, and about five came to Spiting Devil, else Kingsbridge, where they pay three-pence for passing over with a horse, which the man that keeps the gate set up at the end of the bridge receives.” This Half-way House stood at the bottom of the hill on the old Middle Road, about One Hundred and Seventh Street; between the line of Fifth and Sixth avenues. The only road to Boston then, and a rough one it was, led across the island to Kingsbridge, and here the gates were locked and barred at night, and people stood and knocked until a servant came from the farm -house fifteen rods distant. It was a monopoly, and a grievous one. So oppressive did it become that in 1759 Benjamin Palmer built a free bridge across the creek just above the old bridge, from Thomas Vermilia’s land to the farm of Jacob Dyckman, and all New York celebrated the event by eating” a stately ox roasted whole” on the Bowling Green. This took place during the French and Indian War, and Palmer made a charge that Colonel Phillipse had him twice drafted as a soldier in order to kill the project, and compelled him to pay £5 for a substitute on the first occasion and 20 on the second. During the war for independence the British burned the free bridge in order to prevent the passage of the American army across the river, the original bridge at this point being defended by a redoubt.
It is difficult to realize that but a single generation can span all the years between the days of George Washington and to-day, and that the sons of men who fought in the Revolution are moving among us in hale and hearty old age. Somehow, although in boyhood I have talked of those days with a score who had wielded the sword or borne the flintlock in the war for independence, the scenes and men who made our country’s history in the last quarter of the last century seem to have been immeasurably removed from us by the mighty tragedy of our war between the States. But these modern memories were all swept away by a letter, which has come to me from the son of an officer in the Revolutionary Army, who was a conspicuous figure in the procession that entered New York in triumph on ,November 25, 1783, the day of the city’s evacuation by the British troops. Col. Christian S. Delavan writes me:
We-myself and my brothers-commenced keeping a hard-ware and furnishing store in the year 1826, and continued so from that year until 1849. During many of those years Peter Cooper often drove from his glue factory, in the rear of his house, north-east corner of Fourth Avenue and Twenty eighth Street, and came to have a chat with us. In your ramblings on Washington Heights you spoke of General Washington and his staff entering New York from that point, and the British withdrawing their lines as he advanced and finally em-barking at the Battery. It was my father, Captain Delavan, who, with his light-horse company, led the advance of the patriot column into the city. He, with the other officers, par-took of a grand dinner at the old tavern (still standing) at the corner of Pearl and Broad streets. My brother Charles and myself, fast approaching the eighties; are the only two living representatives of those who participated in that glorious event that gave us a country free from a foreign foe.
A correspondent sends the following incident, which dates back half a century, as illustrative of Gouverneur Morris and his times:
During harvest time, a few years only before your first visit to Harlem, an English nobleman whose ancestral patent of nobility dated back to the Norman Conquest, visited this country and became the guest of Judge William Jay, of Bedford, Westchester County, who entertained him most royally, also making calls with him upon the surrounding lords of the manor, such as the Livingstons, Van Rensselaers, and Schuylers to the north, and the Van Cortlandts, Morrises, and Stuyvesants to the south. One bright morning in July the patroon, Jay, with his English guest, left Bedford in the judge’s travelling carriage to introduce the nobleman to his brother patroon, Gouverneur Morris. They reached the Manor-house just be-fore noon, and as they drove to the door met the patroon him-self, in his shirt-sleeves, minus coat and vest, with trousers tucked into his boots and a scythe over his shoulder, rills of perspiration running down his manly face, and his lordly brow crowned with an old straw-hat with a hole in the top, through which protruded the end of a red bandanna handkerchief. At his heels were a little army of laborers, bearing their scythes, and also fresh from the meadows where they had been mowing. The welcome dinner-bell had summoned them. It was a revelation to the English nobleman, but when he had seated himself at the hospitable table of his host he forgot all about it. For Mr. Morris was a lover of the classics as well as of nature, and could not only lead the field with his scythe, but could recite whole books of Virgil by heart.
It has been a pleasure to sit down and converse on paper with these unknown correspondents, whose name is almost legion, and whose letters have been a constant source of encouragement, and also a revelation of patriotism and local pride that was totally unsuspected. Instead of being given up to money, fashion, and pleasure, the genuine New Yorker possesses underneath his quiet exterior a heart that pulsates to the history, the growth, and the grandeur of his city. He may not wear it on his sleeve, yet it is there. His patriotism, indeed, is a good deal like old Bishop Griswold’s religion. When that saintly man of God was bishop of the Eastern Diocese-Massachusetts and Maine-an ardent young preacher made up his mind that as an Episcopalian the bishop must be destitute of ” vital godliness,” and he concluded that he would go and convert him. The bishop received him kindly, and, on making known his mission, invited him to his study, asked him to be seated, and told him that he was ready to listen. ” Bishop, have you got religion ?” the young man asked, with great solemnity. ” None to speak of,” responded the bishop, quietly, as he sat twiddling his thumbs, as was his custom. The ardent evangelist paused, pondered, struck his colors, apologized, and left the house convinced that true religion did not consist mainly in talk.
Yesterday I stood in front of the old Stryker mansion, at the foot of Fifty-second Street and the North River, and marked the changes and ravages that time had wrought. I had known the house when it was the seat of an extensive and always hearty hospitality, and when it was one of the conspicuous country-seats on the lower outskirts of Bloomingdale, having a pedigree and history of its own. The old Stryker homestead still stands, but it is shorn of its former glory. Tenements and stables hedge it in on either side, and docks and lumber-yards occupy the place where its green lawn used to stretch down to the river-edge. Near by the Stryker mansion was the Hopper house. The two farms were adjoining, and the families naturally became allied by marriage. It is not ten years since the burial-ground of the Hopper family stood twenty feet above the level of the street, at the corner of Ninth Avenue and Fiftieth Street, an open, desolate, unshaded piece of ground, sown with gray tombstones, on the nearest of which the passenger could read that it was “sacred to the memory of An-drew Hopper.” The stout old farmer, who had never dreamed that the little city at the lower end of the island would ever come knocking at his doors and bid-ding him move on, had gone comfortably to sleep in the belief that his worn-out body would rest undisturbed in the sight of the fields he had tilled and the river in which he had sported in his boyhood.
I think there is nothing sadder in the story of our famous houses than the history of Richmond Hill. Of its ancient glories I have heard from my grandmother, who had been a guest within its walls when it was the seat of culture and refinement. I remember the mansion as a ruin, when, after it had been opened for a first-class theatre, it had passed through the gradations of circus and menagerie, and finally had been abandoned. It then stood on the line of Charlton Street, some twenty feet from Varick, still wearing the adornment of portico and columns, having been removed there from its old foundations at the intersection of those two streets. Built by Major Mortier, an English officer, ten years anterior to the Revolution, Washington with his family occupied the house in 1776, whence he removed his headquarters to the Roger Morris house, near what was then known as the Point of Rocks. Then British officers came into possession. During the first year of the Government under the Constitution, while Washington held his Republican Court in Franklin Square, Vice-president Adams occupied the Richmond Hill house and estate, of which Mrs. Adams wrote to her sister that ” Nature had so lavishly displayed her beau-ties that she has left scarcely anything for her hand-maid, Art, to perform.”
It was a beautiful spot then. In front there was nothing to obstruct the view of the Hudson. To the right fertile meadows stretched up towards the little hamlet of Greenwich Village, and on the left the view of the little city in the distance was half hidden by clumps of trees and rising hills. There was a broad en-trance to the house, under a porch of imposing height, supported by high columns, with balconies fronting the rooms of the second story. The premises were entered by a spacious gateway, flanked by ornamental columns, at what is now the termination of Macdougal Street. Within the gate and to the north was a beautiful sheet of water, known to men who are still living and who skated on its frozen surface when they were urchins of tender years, as Burr’s Pond. For, after all, the chief renown of Richmond Hill is that it was for ten years the home of Aaron Burr, and that here the lovely and ill-fated Theodosia, his daughter, on whom her father lavished the love of his life, dispensed a charming hospitality. The guests were the most eminent men and women of the Old World and the New. Talleyrand, Volney, Louis Philippe, Brant, the Indian chieftain ; senators, ambassadors, authors-all were alike charmed with the graceful manners of Theodosia Burr-and the stately hospitality of the home over which she presided. No man in all the land was then more highly honored than Aaron Burr, Senator and Vice-president, whose military record had been brilliant beyond comparison, and to whom the country, for which he had perilled his life, delighted to point as one of its chief civic ornaments. With his fall, crushed with his daughter’s loss, the glory of Richmond Hill departed forever.
Another old mansion whose features remain impressed on my memory was the house built by Admiral Sir Peter Warren in 1740 on the banks of the Hudson, several miles away from the city. It stood near the intersection of Charles and Bleecker streets, and when it was erected and the grounds laid out, its beautiful lawns reached down to the river, and there was no other house within the radius of a mile to intercept the view. Here, when the smallpox was raging in the little city, whose outer boundary was just above. Wall Street, Sir Peter Warren invited the Colonial Assembly to meet and escape the plague by adjourning to the country. The admiral, forgotten in the present day, was a great man in the colony, and quite as influential during the administration of Clinton as the Governor himself. Time could not spare the hero of Louisbourg, but it is a pity that man could not have spared the splendid avenues of locusts which Sir Peter had planted with his own hand, and which were cut down in the summer of 1865; when the ‘old house was demolished.
In the near neighborhood of the Warren mansion was the old Spencer homestead, at the corner of Fourth and West Tenth streets. It was erected at the beginning of the century by Garrett Gilbert, a well-known character of that day, who soon ran through his fortune and put his homestead up for sale. If a spendthrift, however, he was possessed of taste, and his cottage, with its peaked roof and veranda front, was considered at the time the most beautiful of the city’s suburban residences. The grounds were laid out with great taste, abounding in flowers and fruit-trees ; and the fish-ponds in them, fed from a number of cis-terns, were the marvel of the day. When the estate was sold, Senator Marcus Spencer became its purchaser, and the house went by his name afterwards, and is commemorated by the present Spencer Place. During the prevalence of the yellow-fever in 1822 the city Post-office was temporarily established at this building, but was subsequently removed to the corner of Asylum (now Fourth) and Bank streets. A few representatives of the magnificent trees which once surrounded the house are still standing in West Tenth Street ; and after the Spencer mansion was torn down, in 1872, Dr. Hall, the Senator’s son-in-law, enclosed a large portion of the old garden, which lay in the interior of the block, as a garden for his residence in West Tenth Street, and there it still lies hidden from the public eye, bright with flowers and shaded by ancient trees, a mute memorial of the last of the old home-steads below the homes of the Strykers and Hoppers.
If the old historic houses of New York cannot be preserved, and all seem doomed to pass under the hammer of the auctioneer, it would appear that measures ought to be taken to preserve the relics of old Revolutionary fortifications. A generation ago the upper part of the island was fairly covered with the remains of earthworks and redoubts, most of them outlined with much distinctness ; and there are octogenarian citizens still living who as boys played in the ditches and on the embankments of the fort erected on the hill just west of Broadway, between Spring and Prince streets. The hand of the builder has levelled most of these remains. Tenth Avenue, at Two Hundred and Twenty-sixth Street, runs through the site of Fort Prince, which guarded the approaches to Kings’ Bridge. The redoubts that crossed Eleventh and Twelfth avenues at One Hundred and Sixtieth street have disappeared, as has also Cock Hill Fort, that overlooked Spuyten Duyvil Creek at Two Hundred and Seventeenth Street. On Washington Heights are still to be seen the grassy embankments that marked the Citadel of Fort Washington, captured by the British, and rechristened Fort Knyphausen in honor of the Hessian general whose mercenaries had led the storming party, and the outlines of Fort Tryon, half a mile above, can also be traced. It will be a pity if those who have charge of what they are pleased to style street improvements are permitted to obliterate these monuments of our past glory, and the home of the parvenu shall cover the spot where bayonets were crossed in deadly conflict, and the men of ’76 fell in slaughtered heaps in defence of the liberties of the colonies.
The Revolutionary fortifications that stretched from the mouth of Turtle Creek up through McGowan’s Pass disappeared long ago, and the later earthworks thrown up there in 1812, and which I remember to have seen in my boyhood, have also gone the way of the past. There are men still living who helped to erect these fortifications, and who have lived to see their demolition. Not many of these veterans are left, but we old boys can remember when they were of little account, and the survivors of the war of the Revolution were looked upon as the country’s real heroes. One of these soldiers of three-quarters of a century ago, Col. Charles B. Tappan, belonged to the volunteer company commanded by Capt. (afterwards Judge) Robert Emmett. He has a very vivid recollection of the march to Yorkville Heights, where they were ordered to report at sunrise, and of digging intrenchments by day in the hot sun and mounting guard on dark and rainy nights. Every able-bodied man from the age of eighteen to forty-five was required to attend daily drill, and 28,000 men were constantly under arms to repel an invasion of the enemy. Another old friend, who was a butcher’s apprentice in those stirring days, pointed out to me in after-years the remains of a redoubt which he had helped to build on the right of McGowan’s Pass. It seems that the boys became inoculated with the martial fever, and they held a meeting in Bayard Street, where fiery speeches were made and resolutions were passed offering the services of one hundred boys, ready to march at the beat of the drum. Their proffer was accepted, and at six o’clock in the morning, with colors flying, a band of music playing, and citizens shouting, the bold soldier boys set out for the front-at Yorkville. They had not forgotten creature comforts, for a huge wagon followed them laden with the best that the market afforded. Breakfast was first in order, and then the boys set to work in earnest, and at sunset had thrown up a breastwork one hundred feet in length, twenty in breadth, and four feet high, sodded completely. In the centre of the ramparts the boys set their flag, which bore on its white ground the inscription:
“Free trade and butchers’ rights, From Brooklyn’s Fields to Harlem Heights.”
Then, having hailed it with nine hearty cheers, they marched back to the Bowery, with drums beating and colors flying, and ate and slept as only boys can.