My friend the school trustee is eighty-seven years old in March. His hair is white and his frame is a little bent, but his cheek is still “like a rose in the snow,” and his heart is as that of a little child. My little boy said to me once: ” Papa, when grandpa gets to be real old, he will grow down and be as small as me, and then we can play together, can’t we ?” I do not know from what source the little child, who had not yet been graduated into trousers, had drawn the strange idea that as men grew older they grew down into childhood physically ; but I have thought there was not a little of good philosophy in it, and the incident came back to me as I marked the bowed shoulders of my old friend, and noted how he was growing into a beautiful childhood spiritually. The late Ho-ratio Seymour said to me, at the age of seventy, when his friends were urging him to allow his name to be used once again as a Presidential candidate, ” I have only one thing to ask of the world now-to be allowed to grow old as gracefully as I can.” Then he went on to speak of the reluctance that many showed to admit the march of time, and of his own eagerness to be relegated to the rank of adviser, and be relieved from active duty.
As I write, there come back to me memories of that hospitable home on the Deerfield Hills, in which stood the clock that had ticked off the hours to Burgoyne when he was a captive in the Schuyler mansion, the favorite chair of Bishop White, and a hundred other historical relics of colonial and Revolutionary days; and I wonder if it will be amiss for me to say, apart from partisanship, and after close knowledge of many public men, that Horatio Seymour was the most complete Christian gentleman I ever knew? The pen that once pursued him bitterly in political life should be allowed to scratch this laurel on the rough bowlder that marks his grave.
My friend the school trustee was born in this city, on the eastern edge of what was then known as Greenwich Village. The house in which he was born stood on a hill not far from the lower end of Sixth Avenue, and it had no neighbors in sight except on the road that led up to the little hamlet on the banks of the Hudson, for which Admiral Sir Peter Warren had borrowed a name from England’s home for veteran sailors when he set up his baronial mansion here. The family had just moved from their old homestead on Duane Street, near Chatham, and their friends deemed them crazy for going out into the wilderness to live. – This house disappeared long since, but the frame dwelling to which my old friend brought his bride sixty years ago, and which he had erected, still stands in Jones Street, the oldest residence in the Ninth Ward. The house cannot tell its story, but it is like a revelation to talk with the white-haired patriarch who built it. He has seen Fulton and Aaron Burr, and talked with them ; he remembers when the friction match, anthracite coal, and gas were introduced in this city; when the first stage began to run, and the first steamboat ploughed its slow way up the Hudson. He was a man of mature years at the time when the first locomotive ran out of New York, and the telegraph and the sewing-machine were invented and turned to practical use.
When first he began to go to school he walked with his sisters from their home in Greenwich Village to the old Dutch Reformed school, then situated in Nassau Street, opposite to the old Middle Dutch Church, the site of the present Mutual Life Insurance Company’s building. Their long walk led them across Minetta Brook and down by Burr’s Pond (on his Richmond Hill estate), into which the brook flowed, through the thick woods that extended from Macdougal and Downing streets, and thence out into the cornfields and meadows that stretched down to Canal Street. It was only when they had crossed the bridge there that they had reached the suburbs of the city. In all their long walk they had to make but one turn, out of Broad-way into Liberty Street. It was a journey that would have appalled the school-child of to-day. But there were no conveniences of suburban travel at that time. A stage made a daily trip from Greenwich Village to John Street and back every week-day, to accommodate business men who lived out of town, but the fare was two shillings each way, and that was entirely too great a price to pay for education.
When a boy of eight, my patriarchal friend saw Fulton’s steamboat, the Clermont, pass Greenwich Village in making her first trip up the Hudson. Everybody had heard of this apparently foolhardy undertaking, and all were on the watch for a glimpse of ” Fulton’s folly.” The. school-children were wild with excitement, and when news came that the boat was in sight, they ran down to a high bluff that stood at the foot of Morton Street and cheered it as it passed. ” What did it look like ?” I asked. The old man chuckled. ” I told people afterwards,” he said, ” that it was as big as a barn and a block long, and horrible to behold; and they believed it, too. But in reality it looked like a big scow, with unprotected paddles in the centre, and a walking-beam and other machinery half exposed to view. It was a very primitive affair, and did not move very fast ; but to us it was a wonder then, as it went without sails.” Then he went on to tell me that he had often seen Robert Fulton afterwards in the shop in which he had learned his trade, and where the great inventor was overseeing the manufacture of machinery for the steam-frigate which he had planned for the defence of New York. The frigate was a species of floating battery, which proved to be impracticable, yet it was the seed idea of monitors and turreted ships, and did not ripen because its growth was premature. Fulton heard nothing while in the shop, and saw nothing. With eye and mind intent on the machinery or plans before him, he would not break away unless some one put a hand on his shoulder and called him back by a touch.
Two of the company on Fulton’s first steamboat voyage down the Hudson have but lately passed to the other side of the sea of time. Dr. William Perry, who lived at Exeter, New Hampshire, and who survived his ninety-eighth birthday, rode from Albany to Kingston on the return trip of the steamboat, and had a vivid remembrance of the incidents of that eventful voyage. He declared that the name of the boat was not the Clermont, as has been generally accepted, but Katharine of Claremont, so called in honor of Fulton’s wife, who was a daughter of Chancellor Livingston, and her family, to whose liberality he owed the money to carry out his idea of a vessel propelled by steam. The last surviving passenger on this famous voyage was Col. George L. Perkins, of Norwich, Conn., who, until his century-mark, continued in service as active treasurer of the Norwich and Worcester Railroad Company.
There is an old-fashioned Methodist Episcopal church at the corner of Bedford and Morton streets, at whose side I remember that long ago a quiet little burying-ground stretched. These serene and silent settlements of the dead have always had a strange fascination for me. Especially is this true of the half-forgotten nooks in old city by-ways where the men and women of a former generation sleep-those about whose lives hang the romance of the days before I was born. I never pass the greensward that softly roofs them in from our eyes but I wish that I could question them concerning the days in which they lived. Some one had told me that a half-century ago, when a smaller church building occupied the site at Morton and Bedford streets, the burial-ground was more extensive, and I remembered that at one time it was more conspicuous, so I went to my old friend, whose memory I knew to be wonderfully bright, and asked him how far back he could recall this old-time sanctuary of the disciples of John Wesley. His eyes twinkled triumphantly as he replied : ” Why, I remember when it was built. I attended with my mother the first Methodist meetings held here. We belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church at the corner of Bleecker and West Tenth streets-it was Herring and Amos streets then-but we got drawn into the carpenter-shop that was the cradle of Methodism here, and, praise the Lord, I have been in the way ever since.” It was the story of a city church that he told me then, and this was also a story of the city’s growth, though with this difference, that, unlike many another congregation, the people of old Bedford Street Church still hold the fort, and are as strong as they were half a century ago. I saw the church filled in the storm of a late Sunday night, and the altar railing occupied by nearly a score of penitents. And up from all corners of the church rang the triumphant notes of the old hymns with which Charles Wesley sang into the Kingdom of his Master and theirs a multitude whom no man can number.
The first meetings of the Methodists of Greenwich Village were held at the house of Samuel Walgrove, on the north side of Morton Street, not far from Bleecker. Thence they were transferred to his carpenter-shop, whose first floor was carefully swept on Saturday afternoons, and arranged with benches of rough lumber, so as to accommodate from fifty to sixty persons. This was in 18o8. It did not take long for this zealous little congregation to outgrow its limits and demand more room. Five lots were purchased at the corner of Bedford and Morton streets for $250 each, and there a church was built in 1810. It was a plain edifice, without steeple, blinds, or ornament; its sides were shingled, and it was painted the color of cream. Two separate entrances led into the two aisles-one for males and the other for females. The sexes were kept rigidly apart for years. ” Yes,” said my aged informant, ” we had a hard time keeping the boys and girls apart after the galleries were built, but we did it for a while. They could only sit and wink and blush at each other.” And then he laughed softly to himself, as if memory had brought back summer days when the corn could be seen waving outside of the windows of the old shingled church, and the bluebirds and robins were twittering in the willows, and the eye would wander, in spite of the conscience, to the opposite row of benches, where, demure and sweet, with dimples struggling up to the corners of the mouth and flushes of pink lighting up the severely simple Sunday bonnet, sat the dearest girl in all the world. An old story? Yes, it was an old story even then. But ask your grandson if it is not new.
The pulpit was a lofty, pepper-box structure, that subsequently went with the high-backed pews and other furniture to decorate the interior of a church for colored people on West Fifteenth Street, when, in 1830, the old building was enlarged by an addition of six feet on the front and fourteen feet on one of the sides, which made a singular exterior and decidedly queer interior. Outside, Nature made some amends, through a row of poplars on the Morton Street side and two comely willows on Bedford Street. But in-side all was bare and hard except around the altar space, which was carpeted. This, together with the placing of blinds at the pulpit windows, was an innovation that was stoutly resisted. It was inveighed against by the elders of the congregation as yielding to the pomps and vanities of the world. But the church prospered. John Newland Maffit, the famous revivalist, held wonderful gatherings in the old meeting-house (no one called it a church then), and in 1840 its membership of nine hundred had outgrown its former accommodations, and the present comfortable and commodious edifice was built, which still holds its own in the old Ninth Ward. Under the old church had been a cellar in which cider was stored ; under the new the space was turned to better account in class-rooms and an ample lecture-room, where the old railing, at which so many thousands of converts had knelt in the days of Maffit and Rice, stands as a monument to past simplicity and power; for there was power there from the first, and “the shout of a king was among them.” An old gentleman of eighty-one, who used sometimes to walk up to this church from his home in Vesey Street through the swamps and meadows above Canal Street, that then were filled with snipe and woodcock from the Jersey shore, and who liked to stop and drink at a beautiful spring under some chestnut-trees in the fields south of Morton Street, said to me : ” They used to call this the shouting church, and I often saw the men sitting in the pews in their shirt-sleeves and shouting as if they were wild.”
It was in 1841 that the steamship President sailed from New York, never to return. Among her passengers was the Rev. Mr. Cookman, father of the late Rev. John E. Cookman, D.D., pastor of the Bedford Street Church, and of the Rev. Alfred Cookman, famed in Methodist annals as a leader in the spiritual Israel. Pastor and people in the old Greenwich Village congregation are suited to each other, and work in wonderful unison. The church that has seen eighty winters pass over its head, and that has kept on growing all that time, is likely to breast successfully the storms of centuries to come. So may it be.