Early New York – When Harlem Was A Village

A FRIEND, who is twenty years my senior, and whose life has been crowned with high civic honors, delights to tell of a stolen day spent on the forbidden banks of Stuyvesant’s Creek, near the foot of Fourth Street and the East River, and of the parental vengeance that overtook him the next day, when his mother discovered under his pillow a huge eel, which, with a fisherman’s pride, he could not bear to part with, and yet, as a trespasser in forbidden paths, he had not dared to exhibit. He recalls with a sigh the pleasure which that nibble afforded him on a summer day sixty years ago, and in the same way I look back with envy on a long day in June that has impressed on my memory a vivid picture of the quiet village of Harlem as I first saw it-a placid hamlet embowered in trees, set off on either side by the thick woods that crowned the heights beyond McGowan’s Pass and the elevation on the Westchester side known as Buena Ridge, and by the silver line of Harlem River and the East River waters, dotted with islands, that were broadening into the Sound. The old Dutch settlement, almost coeval with the metropolis, was a synonyme of repose. Physicians commended it as a place inaccessible to care.

There, it was rumored, natives and aliens alike slept twenty hours out of the twenty-four; but this may have been slander.

But let me begin at the beginning. A chum of mine, whose final name was Smith (this was his name, in fact, and I stand ready to prove that the Smith family has ancient and honorable lineage, and that one of the high and mighty Schepens of New Amsterdam bore the name of Smith in the Holland vernacular), entered into a conspiracy with me to play hookey. We longed for the country ; we wanted to catch some flounders; we had saved up sundry shillings which were burning holes in our pockets, and we were perfectly agreed that we could enjoy ourselves in no way so well as in stealing a day from school. Our plans were laid in secrecy, and it nearly killed us, I remember, to keep the conspiracy to ourselves, so proud did we feel of our boyish boldness. The day we had fixed upon came slowly, but it dawned gloriously, and at the hour when Trinity School was opening with prayer, two of its promising pupils were racing towards the Bowery to catch the stage which left the City Hall at nine o’clock for Harlem. What a ride that was! Up beyond the junction of the Bowery with Fourth Avenue all traces of business were left behind. The houses began to stand apart, gar-dens sprang up and blossomed between, with odor of roses and honeysuckles, clusters of trees became frequent as we emerged into the old Boston Road, and when we had passed Twenty-third Street we were fairly in the country. At the left rose the gray walls of the great reservoir at Forty-second Street, conspicuous among scattered villas; at the right the East River kept flashing into view between patches of forest trees and beyond rolling meadows.

Yorkville was a somewhat scattered hamlet, possessing several churches, a number of small stores, and a large and varied assortment of residences. It was never very attractive to the eye. But the view towards the East River was superb. The handsome residences on the Long Island shore were conspicuous then, as were also many fine old-fashioned houses on this side, which had been in possession of old New York families for generations. As a boy I had a special interest in the fortifications of 1812, which had once stretched transversely across the island from the vicinity of Hell Gate, and of which the remains were then visible at many points. Between Yorkville and Harlem Village, on the line of the Boston Road, there were very few houses, and none of special importance except an ancient hostlery, at which we did not stop. It seems incredible that time should have made such changes in little more than a generation, and built up a city in solid strength through five miles of what was then only rural scenery; but-ecce signum! the city is there. The fields have been swallowed up. Villas have disappeared as did Aladdin’s palace.

When we got to the canal at One Hundred and Tenth Street, we two truants, simultaneously animated by a desire to explore this marvel, pulled the strap of the stage, paid the driver a shilling each, and descended, glad of the chance to stretch our weary limbs again. The canal was filled up some years ago, and its site is covered by houses, which must necessarily be rather damp in the cellar. At that time it extended from the East River nearly to the Fifth Avenue line. In part it followed the line of Harlem Creek, a tributary to the river of that name at its mouth, and was solidly built of stone, with handsomely constructed locks. But it was a failure. Every once in a while the canal mania seems to have seized upon New York. It came naturally to the Dutch founders of New Amsterdam. They would have been unhappy without a canal. At one time they contemplated building a whole net-work of water high-ways in the sweetly swampy region of Spuyten Duyvil Creek and Mosholu Brook, a locality which always reminded them tenderly of the fatherland. But they contented themselves with the construction of the canal to which Broad Street owes its width, and which enabled the market-men from the Long Island shores to run their craft up as far as Wall Street. There, on the bridges that crossed that municipal ditch, the Dutch burgher smoked his pipe in the early twilight, leaning on the railing and thinking half regretfully of his old home. There, a little later, Katrina looked down into the placid water that reflected nothing prettier than her face, which glowed with tenderness at her ardent swain’s repetition of the old, old story, which every strong man’s heart thinks to be his own special discovery.

At a later day capital had an idea of traversing the young city with a canal which should extend from Beekman Swamp to the Collect Pond, and thence, by the western outlet of that body of water, through Canal Street to the North River. It proved to be too large a scheme to handle, however, and, after being discussed for years, was dropped. But the movement. which led to the construction of the Harlem Canal was really formidable. A company was formed in 1827, en-titled the Harlem Canal Company, which placed on the market 1,000 shares of stock at $50 each, to build a grand water highway “across the island, through Manhattanville, and along the valley in the vicinity of the North and East rivers.” The canal was to be sixty feet in width, walled with stone on each side, with a street fifty feet wide on each side, and three miles in length. I have been curious enough to look up the dazzling prospectus of this company, from which I quote ; and in reading it I am afraid it was slightly suggestive of speculation. Professor Renwick, of Columbia College (with what respect the generation of Oldboys remember him !), was quoted as computing that the canal would furnish one hundred and seventy horse-power to those who desired to avail themselves, of it. The company’s representatives in 1827 went into a prophecy of population, which was not fulfilled as they expected. The population of the city having been 33,131 in 1790, and 166,085 in 1825, and being estimated at 200,000 in 1827, they predicted that it would be doubled every fifteen years, and would reach 800,000 in 1857, at which time a “dense population” would cover Harlem plains. A curious feature of the programme was the offer of forty buildings and lots to be drawn in a lottery by the subscribers. Dazzling as was the prospectus, the project fail-ed. Now, at a later day, with the population on the ground, the Federal Government comes to the front to carry out in the proposed ship-canal through Harlem River and Spuyten Duyvil Creek the old idea which started at’ the Collect Pond, and afterwards laid foundations in Harlem Creek. When the great ship-canal is finally ready for dedication, the spirits of the Dutch founders of New York, who, when they were safely landed on Manhattan, first gave thanks to God, and then went to hunt for a place to dig a canal, may confidently be invoked to be present.

But it is time the two runaways left the canal, where they threw in their lines, but got no bite, and turned their faces towards Harlem. Forty years ago the village was compact, clustered down close to the river, well shaded with trees, most charmingly rural, and apparently impervious to change, Cows were grazing in St. Andrew’s church-yard, and there was more of the same style of four-footed worshippers in the yard around the old Dutch Church. Yet it all looked natural ; and the pigs in the street were taken as a matter of course, for even New York had not then entirely triumphed in her crusade against peripatetic porkers. Altogether, it is a pleasant remembrance which I have of ancient Harlem, even down to the remarkable old hotel at the river’s edge, just west of the bridge, where we went to hire a boat for fishing, and rented one for half a day for a shilling. We didn’t cross the bridge; it had no charms for us. I don’t believe it had charms for any one. It was a toll-bridge ; but I never felt entirely safe in trusting my life to it. I never remember it to have been any-thing but a ruin, moss-grown and shaky,, yet it is not twenty years since it was removed. At the time of which I write it was in keeping with the landscape. Beyond the river few houses were visible. The land belonged to the Morris family. The old homestead of Gouverneur Morris, builder of the Constitution, friend of Washington, diplomatist and Senator, stood near the mouth of Harlem River,, with its chimneys just visible above the trees. Not far away was the rural residence of Lewis Morris, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and just beyond rose the spire of the church the family had erected, and beneath which their dead repose-St. Ann’s Church, Morrisania. And up from the bridge stretched the old Boston Road, rich in historic associations.

It was in the autumn of 1865 that I next fished for flounders at the mouth of the Harlem River, and through all the intervening time I do not think that I had set foot in the old Dutch village. I found that Harlem had grown in size with the advent of the horse-cars, and had put on some fresh architectural frills, but the old toll-bridge was there, more rickety than ever, and the old inn by the river-side, more shabby and shambling than in former years. The flounders were there, but the new generation of boat-men charged two shillings an hour for their skiffs, and bait was an extra item. Across the river a scientific descendant of Tubal Cain had purchased a large plot of ground from the Morris heirs and called it after his own name. The old possessors of the soil rebelled at the name, but the new settler, whose foundery had put life into a sleeping locality, set up a painted sign, ” Mott Haven,” and clinched the business by obtaining from Uncle Sam the appointment of a postmaster.* Like the pioneer patriarchs from Holland, after Mr. Mott had fairly got his tent pitched in the plains of Westchester, he looked around for a good place to build a canal, and forthwith dug one in the rear of his foundery, extending north from Harlem River to a distance of about a quarter of a mile. Then he waited for developments, which do not yet seem to have developed themselves, but may do so in the future. Meanwhile the village of Morrisania had sprung up into vigorous life, and following in its wake came other smaller settlements, such as Melrose, Wilton, and North New York, now become part of the old city by annexation, with scarce a trace left of their rural existence. From the bridge out to Fordham, at that time, meandered at uncertain intervals the cars of the famous “huckleberry road,” which generously accommodated all except those who were in a hurry, and whose stockholders then walked by faith in the future, and not by sight of the present. There was a foundery at Port Morris, amid the samphire beds that cluster around that magnificent roadstead. At Wilton were the homes of a score of actors whom Eddy, the dramatic successor of Edwin Forrest, had gathered about himself, and whose festival day was Sunday. Old St. Ann’s Church still harbored the aristocracy of the peninsula, but streets had been laid out in its vicinity, and there was talk of rearing blocks of brick and mortar thereabouts and introducing new social elements. On Buena Ridge some ambitious villas had already made their appearance, and thriving mechanics had reared some score of comfortable houses in Mott Haven. Already the famous old hostiery of Horace Ward, near the railroad bridge, where for a dozen years the belles and beaus of Morrisania and parts adjacent had gathered for the winter dance, was beginning to look shabby, and more ambitious rivals in the hotel line were talked of for the upper settlements.

It was in this transition state soon after the close of the war. I had last looked upon the place in its rustic freshness when I was a boy; I came back to it a bronzed veteran of camp and field, and found it changed, like myself. Yet it had its charm for me still. The name of the old Revolutionary family still lent a distinct historic flavor to the land. Off Port Morris the British frigate Hussar had gone down, with great treasures of gold on board, and carrying, it was said, some shackled and helpless American prisoners with her, By day a crew of divers were at work over the place where the treasure was supposed to be entombed in the sands, and at night (so it was stated at quiet firesides and in awe – struck whispers) the ghosts of the hapless followers of the Continental Congress were seen to wander about the shore and clink their chains to warn away the treasure-seekers. Be-sides, was it not even told that, on the wooded point just above, wicked Captain Kidd had buried a portion of his treasures, and placed a perpetual guard above it by shooting one of his sailors and burying him in the same trench with the chest of gold, silver, precious stones, and the spoils of foreign cathedrals?