Early New York – The Story Of Ward’s Island

MY pet theory of acreage and happiness has received unexpected confirmation from a canal-boat. Ready as I am to maintain that one acre is enough for a home, and that its little circle of animal and vegetable life, its dreams and its realities, will suffice for a man’s kingdom, I have been amazed to find that the horizon may be narrowed still further without fatal results. It is the revelation of a circus of tadpoles in a drop of water, and it came about as Master Felix and I were exploring the water-front towards Dead Man’s Rock and wondering under what ledge bold Captain Kidd may have hidden his treasures, and whether the spook of the buccaneer, who was slain with a silver bullet and was said to haunt the Hen and Chickens, disappeared when that redoubtable array of rocks was blown into oblivion. At a dilapidated wharf just below Horn’s Hook, still a grassy spot well grown with trees, was moored a weather-beaten canal-boat, laden with coal and vociferous with animated life. The venerable craft was the home of a wedded couple and their five children, and the seven inhabit-ants of the very small cabin and narrow ledges of deck seemed to be as happy a family as had come under my eyes for many a year. I watched the glee with which the father and his three elder children-the eldest was a girl of twelve-fished a breakfast of tomcods and eels from the waters, while the mother was rocking the two younger ones to sleep down in the little cabin, and afterwards played softly to her-self on an old accordion. They had but $9 a week to be happy on, yet somehow they seemed to man-age it, and on Sunday they were bright and fresh in clean attire, and even the baby had new shoes. As I looked out at them from the rampart of my summer acre on the Sunday in which they had been paraded for inspection, I wondered whether the uncouth captain of the canal-boat would not by-and-by sail up the River of Life in better trim than many a fleet yacht that he envies as it sweeps by. Perhaps, however, it is an electric sympathy between a dilapidated canal-boat and a venerable mansion which has seen bet-ter days-and what marvellous yarns of land and sea they could exchange if acquainted and on speaking terms!-which has set me to moralizing in this vein.

The mention of Sunday reminds me to put it on record that we go to church in the morning of that day to old St. Paul’s. I like it better than any of the modern Gothic temples. People speak of old Trinity, but it is a child in comparison with St. Paul’s, which has fourscore years precedence in age. I have a friend living at the Astor House, the last scion of his family tree, who always marches solemnly out of church before the sermon. He says that he can stand the modern ” Ja-fiddle-de-de-cob ” style of singing, which, like all old-fashioned admirers of Coronation, Brattle Street, and Mear, I abominate, but he does not think that more than one preacher in a generation is qualified to go up into the pulpit.

Yet no modern critic of the Manhattan pulpit can flatter himself that he is original. In 1679 two members of the mystic sect, known as Labadists in Holland, made a voyage to the New Nether-lands to see what could be done in the way of securing proselytes. The men were no doubt sufficiently religious, but like many other good people they have left it on record that they were cranks of the first water. One Sunday they attended the old South Dutch Church in Garden Street, near Exchange Place, where they heard a sermon by Dominie Schaats, from Fort Orange, now Albany, and they wrote a criticism that was savage enough for the most godless of newspapers. ” He had a defect in the left eye,” said the gentle Labadist, “and used such strange gestures and language that I never in all my life heard anything more miserable ; we could imagine nothing but that he had been drinking a little this morning.” The next Sunday these wandering evangelists went to hear the English minister, whose services took place after the Dutch church was out, and whom they scored -unmercifully. “A young man went into the pulpit and commenced preaching,” the keeper of the journal wrote, “who thought he was performing wonders ; but he had a little book in his hand out of which he read his sermon -at which we could not be sufficiently astonished.” I have heard remarks very much like the foregoing as a modern congregation has dispersed at the church door.

In the journal of their voyagings these wandering evangelists set forth that the Haarlem Creek, at its juncture with the East River, forms the two Barents Islands (Ward’s and Randall’s islands), and that Great and Little Hell Gate are renowned for their exceeding frightfulness. To these designations succeeded the names of Great and Little Barn islands, which seems to have been imposed on them at the time when Wouter Van Twiller saw that the land was good and that his flocks and herds could multiply at leisure upon its luxuriant soil. Van Twiller was one of that class of mortals who believe themselves men of destiny. As Governor of the province he laid his taxes right and left, and claimed his prerogatives in all quarters. He paid no public or private debts, and when the sheriff ventured mildly to insist that his salary, then three years past due, should be paid, he had him arrested and clapped into jail. This gentle-man farmed the Barn Islands, and the province had no little difficulty in wresting them from his hands.

There is a little island in the East River, off the foot of Ninty-third Street, where the boys who were my contemporaries used to go in swimming and find delight in the sandy beach, which was known in ancient times as Mill Rock, and on later maps was put down as Leland Island, but which the late generation greeted joyfully as Sandy Gibson’s Island. Who is there of us whom the great leveller has spared at threescore who has not enjoyed a chowder at Sandy Gibson’s homely house of refreshment, and often done execution among the striped bass for which those waters used to be famous? Ah! the fishing was famous then. Bass of mammoth size and lobsters of incredible weight yearned to be caught, and the Harlem River flounders were a dainty for an epicure. The glory of the bass has departed, the flounder is almost a hermit, and the lobster coyly hides his green back from the sportsman, though by night the lights of the boats launched by hungry souls who bob for eels are seen rising and falling between the Hog’s Back and Nigger Head.

Of all the islands that lie scattered through the East River, Ward’s Island is by far the most picturesque. Forty years ago it was a paradise; to-day it is so beautiful as to attract the praise of all visitors. With its undulating surface, originally covered with dense woodlands, it was designed by nature for a park, and in the growth of the city it ought to have been reserved for that purpose. Van Twiner knew what he was about when he converted its two hundred and forty acres into a pasturage for his cattle, and the British knew what they were about when they occupied it in September, 1776, and made use of it to keep the patriots at Harlem in check. In maps of the last century it was known as Buchanan’s Island, and Lord Howe’s topographical engineers placed a house at the north-east corner and a still at the south. It speaks volumes for the careful delineator of the map that every still-house in or near New York is faithfully put down, and a bayonet dug up this week in the vicinity of the old distillery on this island is significant of the tastes of the British soldier. At one time 5000 English and Hessian troops were camped on Ward’s Island, but there is no record that an American soldier ever set foot upon its soil. In the south-west corner of the island, under the shade of ten or twelve majestic oaks still standing, there were visible once, and not. many years ago, half a dozen graves. The mounds were distinctly marked, and a bowlder stood at the head of each. One stone was of such size and shape as seemingly to designate superior rank on the part of the sleeper. The inhabitants spoke of them as Indian mounds, but it is more probable that the stones mark the graves of British soldiers, and that one of the number was an officer. The Indians never troubled themselves about headstones, and seldom sought the shade of trees for a grave, while instinct seemed to lead the white soldier to place his dead under the protecting arms of the oak* or the elm.

After the War of the Revolution the island was divided up into farm lands, and its uplands became famous for their crop of cherries and apples. But presently the rage of speculation seized upon the owners of the western shore, and in 1812 a cotton-mill of solid stone, 300 feet in length and three stories in height, was erected on the grounds now occupied by the commissioners of emigration, and everybody connected with the enterprise was warranted to become wealthy. A wooden bridge, wide enough to accommodate a wagon, was thrown across the East River between One Hundred and Fourteenth Street and the north-western end of Ward’s Island, on stone abutments, and a new era of prosperity was expected to begin for the old pasture grounds of Walter the Doubter. It was only a dream. The War of 1812 came with its terrible embargo ; the mill could not get cotton from the South, and the enterprise failed. When the Emigration Board entered on its mission, forty years ago, it found use for the old mill, now destroyed, but the bridge long before had gone to decay. Its stone abutments were removed after the steamer King Philip had been wrecked upon them. Our grand-fathers were a queer people. They did not make much of a fuss about bridging the East River, and left posterity to imagine that it had been the first to accomplish the feat.

As I first remember Ward’s Island it was clad with forests. Local historians speak of it as circular in shape, but it is really a rough square. Less than forty years ago it had great wood-clad bluffs on its eastern and western sides, and its dense woodlands were the haunt of rabbit and quail. The island is a picture tonight as I watch it from my eyrie below Horn’s Hook. Amid its elms and wild-cherry-trees rise the minarets and towers of public buildings, and it were not difficult to fancy it a ducal preserve. In its atmosphere are the more or less fragrant memories of many dynasties of the past, and pleasant recollections of picnics and parties of pleasure on the bluff that commanded the East River passage, and that have long since mingled with the common dust.