Early New York – The Unknown Land Of The Bronx

SWEET are the uses of-advertising. So the poet did not sing; but this is the theme of the brush as the peripatetic artist wields it on rock and cliff, whose bare, bold beauty even the mosses and lichens have spared. It is bad enough to become interested in a newspaper paragraph only to find .it a snare to lead the unwary on in the direction of a plaster or pill, but to settle one’s self back in a luxurious palace-car chair and prepare for the enjoyment of a delicious bit of rocky scenery, and then to find the foreground ruined by sprawling displays of the advertiser’s art scattered over every available surface of smooth stone, implies one of the impertinences of humanity which are not to be forgiven in this world or in the next. An old preceptor of mine used to say, “The boy who would injure a shade tree would kill a man,” and I am inclined to supplement this axiom by adding that the man who would wantonly deface a pretty touch of nature’s handiwork was originally framed for a pirate. The paint-pot of this pernicious buccaneer is an unmitigated evil.

The fact that the advertising artist had exercised his diabolical ingenuity upon Pudding Rock has reconciled to its departure the people of Morrisania, in whose eyes it was an historic landmark. Two months ago it stood where the glacier had deposited it, a stranger from a distant shore ” centuries ago.” Now it has been shattered into a thousand fragments, and it will return again to earth, to pass an existence of humble usefulness as the foundation of quiet homes. In the days of its glory it stood out in shape not unlike a pudding in a bag, and as if gathered in at the top, where a cluster of half a dozen cedars rose from its centre. Rising twenty-five feet from the ground and extending thirty feet in diameter, it was always a conspicuous object from the old Boston Post-road. Its site was between what will be One Hundred and Sixty-fifth and One Hundred and Sixty-sixth streets, at the end of Cauldwell Avenue and directly south of the handsome and hospitable residence of Mr. William Cauldwell, whose father, in 1848, built the first house erected in the new village of Morrisania. Pudding Rock had its history and traditions. In the rear was a natural fireplace, whose use the Indians had long ago discovered. Here they came to have their corn-feasts, and presumably to discuss Saddle Rock oysters and Little Neck clams, with other seasonable delicacies. For it must always be said in favor of the Indian women that they were good house-keepers and cooks, and the men had excellent appetites. When the Huguenot colonists, driven by religious persecution from beautiful France, took up their line of march along the East River and by the shores of Long Island Sound in search of a warm spot where vines would grow, and a quiet place where they might sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land, they camped around Pudding Rock and made their headquarters here for some months before they finally decided to build their New Rochelle. To them it was literally the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. Afterwards it became to the settler and voyager a landmark by which distances were measured, and to travellers in the stage-coaches on the old Boston Road it was pointed out as a natural curiosity. Last of all came the geologist, with his little hammer and his big brain, and, after tapping in succession the stone and his own head, he announced that the rock was a pilgrim and a stranger, left stranded on a foreign shore by a huge glacier that had swept down from the Polar regions and then crept slowly backward to Greenland, leaving the valley of the Hudson open to the tread of the mastodon, and slowly raising the price of ice as it retired.

There are traces of a great glacial deposit extending from the line of the Harlem River up through Connecticut and beyond ; and Pudding Rock, whose formation was foreign to the rocky growth of its vicinity, was not the least curious of them. Some of these deposits took the shape of ” rocking- stones,” and these were a source of superstitious veneration to the simple red men of other days, who were wont at intervals to gather about them and go through the mysteries of a medicine-dance. One of the most remarkable of the chain of rocking-stones is found on the old Lydig place, near West Farms. It is an immense bowlder, so nicely balanced on a rocky drift that the pressure of a strong finger will readily move it, and yet so firmly set that steam-power would be needed to drag it from its moorings. I remember that when I saw it first, years ago, the farmer in charge of the place told me that once he had harnessed up a dozen yoke of oxen to see if he could draw it away from its position, but he found that they could not move it, and yet I put forth two fingers and easily set it rocking. The structure of the huge stone was entirely different from the trap rock on which it rested, and it was a stranger amid the geological formation of Westchester County. It had found a pleas-ant abiding-place on the historic old grounds through which the Bronx found its way under overhanging trees, making a scene of rural loveliness which it would be difficult to surpass. The Lydig place was once the country residence of the De Lanceys. The quaint and picturesque old homestead, built in the early part of the last century, was destroyed by fire shortly before the outbreaking of the late war; but the flames could not sweep away the ancient garden laid out in the fashion of half a century ago, the summer-houses and rustic seats, and the gracious beauty of the stately trees. Even when the brick and stone phalanxes of city blocks begin to crowd into the quiet hamlet of West Farms, they will not, as I hope and believe, be able to destroy the incomparable beauty of the Bronx River scenery, of which the denizen of New York knows all too little.

As the city sweeps up to the north and east, it is blotting out the boundary lines of the score of scattered hamlets and country cross-roads which once dotted that part of Westchester County. North New York, Wilton, and Eltona have virtually disappeared, Mott Haven has melted into Melrose, and the names of streets from the city south of the Harlem have crossed that stream and usurped the homely titles of the old country roads of thirty and forty years ago. The story of Morrisania is the history of that active section of the city, once a portion of the ” neutral territory,” but now bristling with business at every street corner. It was in 1848 that the village of Morrisania was laid out. The plot was destined to be a suburban Eden. Every man was to have his acre of ground, and only eligible citizens were to be permitted to plant their domestic standards here. The village was to be strictly a temperance settlement, and neither ale nor strong drink was to be sold within its limits. Alas for the mutability of human devices! To-day it looks as if nothing but fluids were sold in Morrisania, and great breweries, which cease not to puff and labor night and day, dot its hill-sides, and move its reminiscent old settlers to wrath. Standing in their shadow, it is difficult to realize that forty years ago only fields of wheat and corn and stretches of forest trees were in sight, and that the only other signs of civilization within the horizon were a little old school-house and a winding stage road. Yet in 1848 Mr. Andrew Cauldwell built the first house in the village plot, and in the next year the colonists opened and dedicated a little union church, in which the inhabitants of this charming new paradise were to worship forever in harmony ; and when the anniversary day of the settlement came around a brass band and an oration made a prodigious celebration of the event, which was rounded up by a. dance at Horace Ward’s old tavern at the base of Buena Ridge. The men and women who danced at the ancient hostlery that night are by no means old to-day, but it makes them feel like relics of the past when they stand in the streets of Morrisania and look about them.

Only one landmark of the past remains, now that Pudding Rock is gone. A little to the east of the old Boston Post-road, and just north of One Hundred and Fifty-sixth Street, stands a decrepit wooden building a story and a half in height, with a long, steep roof, and a porch that runs the entire length of its front. The mosses of a century seem to have gathered on the long slope of the roof, and it appears in every part to be slowly withering to decay, like a dried leaf on a November oak. Near by, at one time, Mill Creek prattled along towards the East River, over a pebbly bed and under a double line of willows, but a sewer has swallowed up the pretty brook, and the new grade of adjacent streets threatens the existence of the school-house. It was beneath this roof that the gentry of the neighborhood, including the various, branches of the Morris family, whose ancient homesteads still linger in its neighborhood, received their early education. Most of the little ones, who, in the early part of the century, crept and danced along by country paths to the presence of the pedagogue who flourished a good birchen rod here, have grown old and tottered back to Mother Earth’s em-brace, but the frail little clap-boarded temple of learning has survived them, and still shelters life and love under its mosses. It was a desolate sort of blot on a new and dressy city landscape when I last saw it in the chill light of a November sun on a Sunday after-noon, but its desolation was far more eloquent than the sermon of a famous preacher which I heard that day.

Did I not say something about the beauty of that portion of Westchester which was annexed to this city a few years ago? I have frequently advised travellers who were wearied alike of Mont Blanc and the Yosemite Valley to betake themselves to a carriage and explore the City of New York, not hastily and superficially, but with slow delight, and with the pains-taking care that marks the botanist. In the ancient era of Peter the Headstrong, it was the talk and preparation of an entire winter to take a trip from the Bowling Green to the distant plantations of Harlem Village, or to voyage by schooner to Communipaw or through the horrible whirlpools of Hell Gate. Perhaps it might require as much determination to start on an expedition to the way-side settlement known as ” Moshulu,” which snuggles down in a convenient valley half a mile from Fordham ; to the sleepy old farming hamlet of Bronx, over whose cluster of rustic habitations an ancient windmill, long disused and ghostly in appearance, still broods ; or the little village on a knoll which is now known as Belmont, but once drew its forgotten designation from the homestead of Colonel Tompkins, the commander of the famous Tompkins Blues of lang syne. There is scarcely a thing about these places to indicate that they are a part of a great city, and, indeed, I am told that there are old people living in sight of the Bronx River, and within the corporate limits of the metropolis, who have never seen the City Hall. The horse-cars have found their way to ” the village ” of West Farms, as its older in-habitants love to call it, but the railway is still the only modern touch to the antiquated surroundings. The houses are old-fashioned, and have a look as if they would prove obstinately impenetrable to change. One of the most venerable of the buildings which apparently date back to the last century is a two-storied frame structure, with gambrel roof and a long porch in front, which is said to have been a headquarters for Washington and his staff in the early part of the Revolutionary War. Whether this were true or not, this sleepy old village was the scene of one of the most daring exploits of Aaron Burr, who, at two o’clock in the morning of a sharp winter day, attacked a block-house erected, on the present site of the principal hotel, by Gen. Oliver de Lancey, and by the free use of hand-grenades and scaling-ladders persuaded the astonished garrison to surrender without firing a shot. At the old De Lancey mansion, too, the British officers were freely entertained, and this hospitality to a foreign foe was avenged by the burning of the country-seat of the De Lanceys in Bloomingdale during the prevalence of hostilities. These events belong to the long ago in the history of this land, but, standing in the rustic streets of West Farms, in sight of gables and shingles and mosses, one naturally reverts to the days when the hand of every man was against his neighbor in Westchester County. But athwart this blood-red landscape of the “neutral ground ” there is also a glint of love and wooing, as when impetuous Aaron Burr was wafted by muffled oars across the Hudson in the darkness of the night, and dashed across country and through the pickets of the enemy to the home of the dainty widow whose heart his daring won. Even into these somnolent haunts, whose natural beauties have inspired in olden time the pens of Halleck and Drake, the brush of the advertising artist has penetrated and left a trail of disfigurement.

Many historic landmarks and legends will belong to the nearly four thousand acres which constitute the new parks of the metropolis. Beyond, but in sight of, Kingsbridge stands a commanding eminence known as Vault Hill, where was the ancient burial-ground of the Van Cort.

At the southern extremity of the lake which bears the family name of the Van Cortlandts, an ancient mill, which has ground corn for both the friends and foes of American independence, nestles among over-hanging chestnuts and elms, and looks out upon a miniature cascade and rapids, which babble to the great trees on the banks the same song they sang more than a century ago. To the north-east is an opening in the woods, where the dust of eighteen of the forty Stockbridge Indians who fell beneath British bullets while fighting on the side of the Colonists lie in one grave, still unmarked by a stone. All through this region the ploughshare and the spade of the builder turn up cannon-balls, rusty fragments of bayonets, and other reminders of the deadly struggle which raged here for eight long years. From Kings-bridge to White Plains and from the Hudson to the Sound was one great battle-field, and the most illustrious leaders of both armies have ridden along these country roads in the times that tried the faith of our fathers.

The scenery on the banks of the Bronx River, which is the main feature of the new Bronx Park, has long been the admiration of our painters and poets, and the only circumstance which has closed the eyes of New Yorkers to its wealth of natural beauty is the fact that its loveliness lay right at their doors. These rocky ravines, wooded slopes, glades tangled with wild vines, and placid pools, should have been hidden in the Rocky Mountains or in the Adirondack region, in order to have been appreciated by those who think that a long journey is necessary in order to discover the beautiful in nature. There hangs upon the walls of my library a painting which always exacts an inquiry as to the spot it has reproduced, and rarely does the inquirer fail to express his surprise that such a scene of picturesque loveliness actually exists within the corporate bounds of New York.

There is less of historic interest attached to this immediate locality than to other portions of the neighborhood. The reason for this is akin to the tragedy of the “Three Wise Men of Gotham,” who went to sea in a bowl, of whom legends make this record:

“If the bowl had been stronger My story had been longer.”

The quiet waters of the Bronx would have been the scene of a sanguinary naval battle had they been a little deeper. For, during the British occupancy of New York, Sir William Howe ordered the commander of the British fleet to sail up the Bronx with his fleet and guns, and annihilate certain Yankee gunboats of light draught that were making things unpleasantly warm for the Tory inhabitants thereabouts. After a brief, inglorious cruise to the mouth of the little river, the disgusted British admiral was compelled by the shallowness of the water to retire as he came, without having harvested his expected laurels. But there still stands, solitary and alone, towering to the height of 150 feet, a magnificent evergreen known as the De Lancey Pine, to recall the time when stout old Oliver De Lancey led his regiment of loyalists out to battle for the rights of king and crown. Peace to the ashes .of those brave men! The same fidelity to existing authority which made them defenders of the rights of royalty impelled their descendants nearly a century later to take up arms in support of the Union as it was.

A novelty in the way of a free sea-side resort for the weary multitudes of a great city is Pelham Bay, with a coast-line nine miles in extent, green uplands, picturesque inlets, rolling meadows, and ever-changing panorama of marine life on the Sound. Out in front lies City Island, on which the first proprietor hoped to build a great commercial city. The original lord of the manor, Thomas Pell, purchased i0,000 acres hereabouts in 1654 for a few trinkets from the Siwanoy Indians, who were a branch of the Mohicans. The red men were blotted out a century ago, and the burial mounds of the last of their sachems, Nimhan and Annhook, are still to be found on the Rapelyea estate, close to the water. They gave their name to the great rock Miskow, on Hunter’s Island (a spot of rare attractiveness within the Park boundaries), and, regarding it with special veneration as a gift of Manito to his children, held annual feasts under its shadow. Pelham Neck, in another part of the Park, was the scene of a spirited battle between 4000 British troops under Lord Howe and 800 of the American militia under Colonel Glover. The latter laid an ambuscade for the redcoats, and, with a loss of only twelve men, killed or wounded 1000 of the enemy. A generation later, in 1814, two British men-of-war bombarded the Neck, and the Americans returned the compliment from their batteries. It was the last time that the thunder of British guns was heard within the precincts of New York.

Most interesting to me of all the romance that lingers about the spot, whose very atmosphere is traditional, is the story of Anne Hutchinson’s adventurous life and tragic death. Puritan intolerance had driven her from New England, and the heroic woman made her home in the wilderness that then fronted on Pelham Bay. But she was not to end her troubled days in peace. An Indian outbreak came, and she fell a victim to the tomahawk of the savages whom she had always befriended, finding toleration only in the grave. The brave, stately woman left the baptism of her name to Hutchinson River, which forms the western boundary of the Park, and its Indian designation, Acqueanoncke, has been obliterated from modern records. When Boston heard of her death, it gave devout thanks in the churches, because, in its judgment, God had made ” a heavy example ” of a woful woman,” but we can afford to keep her memory green. The life of brave Mistress Anne Hutchinson was pure if not gentle, and she was a pioneer of that sweet gospel of tolerance which has ever been a marked feature of the city of the Knickerbockers.