When Harlem was a Village Part II


For so long a while did Harlem remain a secluded hamlet tucked away at the northern end of the island that as late as 1830 the only passenger conveyance between the village and New York was by a stage, which left the corner of Third Avenue and One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street at seven in the morning and reached Park Row shortly before ten o'clock, starting on the return trip at three in the afternoon. A few years later the stages began making hourly trips, but a visitor describes the village in the fifties as still " clustered close to the river, well shaded with trees, most charmingly rural, and apparently impervious to change." Though the New York and Harlem Railway Company was incorporated in 1831, it was not until 1840 that the first steam-train was put in operation between Thirty-second and One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Streets. Twenty-five years later the horse-cars had come into being, but it took them nearly an hour and a half to convey passengers from One Hundred and Twenty-ninth Street to City Hall ; and it was not until the completion of the elevated roads in 1880 that Harlem entered fairly upon the career that in a little more than twenty years has made it the abiding-place of a million people. Now solid blocks of apartment-houses, stretching mile upon mile, cover The Flats of the old days, and Harlem has lost all semblance of its earlier self.

Besides the Boston Road, one other thoroughfare connected New York with Harlem when the last century was young. This was the Bloomingdale Road, which, starting from the present Union Square, followed the line of Broadway and the Boulevard through the village from which it took its name, skirted the foot of the hill where Manhattanville afterwards nestled, and joined the Kingsbridge Road near the present crossing of One Hundred and Forty- seventh Street and Ninth Avenue. The Boulevard has blotted out the middle and upper reaches of the Bloomingdale Road, filling its valleys, leveling its hillocks, and straightening its crooks and turns, but Dayton tells us that in his boyhood it was still " a country drive of unsurpassed beauty, up hill and down dale, varied with many a curve, and at short intervals enlivened by an enchanting view of the Hudson."

The road was laid out before 1707, and wealthy citizens early chose the region through which it ran as sites for their country-seats. One of these was Oliver De Lancey, whose roomy house faced the road near the present Seventieth Street. De Lancey ranged himself against his countrymen when the Revolution came, and in 1777 the patriots put an end to his home on the Bloomingdale Road. It was on a cold night in November of that year, the gloomiest of the long struggle, that a party of Americans descended the Hudson intent upon retaliating in some way for the atrocities perpetrated by the British in their forays through the neighboring country. After a hard battle with the ice that filled the river they managed to anchor their boat near the Bloomingdale landing. The women of the family and the servants were the only occupants of the De Lancey homestead. The soldiers, after reconnoitering, applied the torch to the building and burned it to the ground. Mrs. De Lancey found shelter in a stone outhouse, while Charlotte De Lancey and Elizabeth Floyd, two young girls of sixteen, escaped shoeless and hatless to a near-by swamp, where they concealed themselves until morning, when they were discovered by neighbors. The house was never rebuilt, and its site until a recent period was occupied by a small grove of trees.

Fate has dealt more kindly with the old stone house yet standing at West End Avenue and Seventy-ninth Street, which was built about 1759 by one Van Der Huevel, then governor of Demerara. Yellow fever was raging in the South American colony at the time, and it was Van Der Huevel's intention to return to his post when it had spent its force, but, charmed with New York, he concluded to make it his home, and, buying property, built the mansion which bears his name. The house was two stories high, with a steep gable roof and walls of solid stone. The main floor had an arched central hall, with a drawing-room at one side and at the other a lofty dining-room. The upper floor had four large rooms, and over these, in the gable, were the sleeping-apartments. Half a century ago fire destroyed the third or gable roof, and when it was rebuilt it was carried straight up, so that now the house has two stories of stone and one of wood. The house with its four hundred acres was abandoned by the Van Der Huevels during the Revolution, and at a later time became a road-house under the name of Burnham's Mansion House. After that it was bought by a Frenchman named Poillon, who in 1878 sold it to the Astor estate. It has been occupied since 1880 by a florist, whose greenhouses cover a large part of the block, but will no doubt soon go the way of most old houses in New York.

Five years after Van Der Huevel took up his residence on the Bloomingdale Road, Charles Ward Apthorpe, a leading lawyer of the city, bought a two-hundred-acre farm in the same region, and in its centre built a mansion which gave impressive evidence of its owner's wealth. The Apthorpe house stood between the present Ninetieth and Ninety-first Streets and Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, and was approached by a lane that extended from the Bloomingdale Road to Harlem Commons, between Ninety-third and Ninety- fourth Streets. Its recessed portico was supported by Corinthian columns, and a high arched door- way opened into a hall extending from front to rear and wide enough for a cotillion party, while the great rooms above and below had walls, mantel-pieces, and ceilings of English oak. Outside an ample lawn, dotted with groves of elm-, locust-, and cherry-trees, stretched down towards the Hudson.

Washington had his head-quarters at the Apthorpe house when the British army crossed from Long Island in September, 1776, and remained there until Silliman's brigade, which was supposed to be hemmed in by the enemy, was led to safety by Aaron Burr. The same evening Howe and his staff occupied the mansion, and there the British commander had his head-quarters and nursed his wounded honor after the battle of Harlem Heights. Indeed, it was whispered about that he was made very welcome there, and that Apthorpe was a royalist at heart. Apthorpe's name at the war's end was included in the list of those suspected of being Tory sympathizers, and he had to suffer the confiscation of the large estates owned by him in Maine and Massachusetts. His New York property, however, was untouched, and he continued to reside in Bloomingdale until his death. That event befell in 1797, but through the first half of the last century the mansion he had built remained a centre of social triumphs. Then it was converted into a public house in what was known as Elm or Wendell Park, and in 1892 was torn down to make way for a row of apartment-houses. The church, clergy-house, choir, and school-rooms of St. Agnes' s Chapel stand upon a portion of the old Apthorpe ground.

When the Apthorpe mansion still fronted the Bloomingdale Road, a few blocks to the south of it a steep lane led to a secluded nook by the river-side called Stryker's Bay, where was a modest road-house conducted by Joseph Francis, whom men remember as the inventor of the life-boat. A native of Boston and born with his century, Francis while a growing lad resolved to devote his life to the improvement of appliances for rescue at sea. He made his first model of a life-boat when he was twelve years old, kept up his experiments, and at last, in 1845, when landlord of the road-house at Stryker's Bay, was able to patent a boat built of corrugated iron which he was confident could do the work for which it was intended. Then he tried to induce the government to introduce it into general use, but the Secretary of the Treasury declared that there never had been nor ever could be a boat built that would carry people off a wreck. The Secretary said, however, that if Francis had a mind to take his boat down on the Jersey coast and wait until a wreck came along to try it on, the government would like to know the result. If it did half he said it would, then the government would look into it.

Francis was willing to take the chance. He sent his boat to the Jersey coast, hired a crew of hardy coast-men to man it, and drilled them carefully in its use. Soon the British ship " Ayrshire" came driving ashore in a furious storm. It was fast breaking to pieces and its passengers and crew, two hundred souls in all, seemed doomed to death, when Francis's life-boat came to the rescue. Forty times it went to and fro between the stranded ship and the shore, and by it all on board were rescued save one, and he perished through no fault of boat or crew. This splendid feat made Francis the hero of the day. When he went abroad the same year, Napoleon knighted him and gave him a gold snuff-box, the Emperor of Austria and the Czar of Russia heaped honors and decorations upon him, and a dozen other kings and potentates followed their example, hailing him as a benefactor of humanity.

Official recognition of his services by his own country did not come until a later time; but when he was ninety, and had earned the title of Father of the Life-saving Service in America, Congress bestowed upon him a gold medal in commemoration of an unexampled career. Content with a moderate fortune, Francis passed his last days in peace and honor, dying in 1893 at the age of ninety-three.

Talleyrand was once a dweller on the Bloomingdale Road, and so was Louis Philippe, though the tradition that the latter taught school there is a misleading one. The future king and his two brothers traveled in America between 1796 and 1798, and during their stay in New York lodged for a time with the Somerindyke family in Bloomingdale. American visitors at Versailles in after years found the Citizen King ever eager to recall and describe in detail what he had seen of their country, but regarding one feature of his memorable journey he always maintained a discreet silence. It was Gouverneur Morris who gave Louis Philippe money wherewith to
voyage to America, also furnishing him with unlimited credit during his wanderings in the United States. The bourgeois king's after-treatment of this loan showed the meanest and smallest side of his bourgeois character. " When he came into his own again," writes
Morris's biographer, " he at first appeared to forget his debt entirely, and when his memory was jogged, he merely sent Morris the original sum without a word of thanks ; whereupon Morris, rather nettled, and as prompt to stand up for his rights against a man in prosperity as he had been to help him when in adversity, put the matter in the hands of his lawyer, through whom he notified Louis Philippe that if the affair was to be treated on a merely business basis it should then be treated in a strictly business way, and the interest for the twenty years that had gone by should be forwarded also. This was done, although not until after the death of Morris, the sum refunded being seventy thousand francs."

Memories of Joseph Bonaparte also cling to the Bloomingdale Road. The ex-king of Spain sought a refuge in America soon after the close of the second war with England, and during his first weeks in New York was an inmate of what was then the country-seat of the Post family, but is now the Claremont, near the Bloomingdale Road at One Hundred and Twenty-third Street. A story is related of him while here that shows that his was the mind of a philosopher. Walking early one morning near the river's edge, his attention was attracted by several squirrels leaping and jumping from the branches of the trees on the hill-side. He watched them as they became more daring in their play and made longer leaps each time. Suddenly the largest one, after a rough-and-tumble contest with its companion, darted at full speed along a limb, leaped for a neighboring tree, missed it, and fell heavily to the ground. " Such is life," observed the ex- king. " By small successes we are led on to greater efforts, until finally " At this moment the foot of the speaker came in contact with the spongy ground bordering a small ditch, and before he could finish his sage remark he found himself in three feet of muddy water. He picked himself up, however, without much trouble, and upon his return to Claremont directed his servant to go down to the river near the bend, and where he found the footprints of a man deeply embedded in the mud to cut a notch in the nearest tree as a reminder of the second downfall of the brother of Napoleon.

Joseph Bonaparte's stay in America had a sequel not set down in the history-books. Before leaving Europe he had become the owner of a large tract of land in Jefferson county, New York, and in 1822 he settled upon this wilderness his family, Annette Savage, of whom he always spoke as " the beautiful Quaker girl." When the ex-king returned to Europe in 1830, his "American wife" and the daughter who had been born to them remained in Northern New York. Forty years later this daughter and her husband, Benton by name, found their way to Paris, where friends laid before the emperor her right to recognition as a Bonaparte. Napoleon III. made an appointment to receive her at the Tuileries, and immediately upon seeing her said, " I recognize you as a Napoleon." A decree was forthwith recorded legitimizing the union of Joseph Bonaparte and Annette Savage, and Mrs. Benton was received as the first cousin of the emperor. Following the downfall of Napoleon III., she returned to America, and after supporting herself by teaching music in Watertown and Utica, finally died in humble lodgings at Richfield Springs. She was laid to rest on a stormy
day in December, 1891, in the cemetery of the Presbyterian Church, at Oxbow, New York, only four persons standing beside the grave of this daughter of a king.

Such are the memories, grave and gay, called to mind by a stroll along the Bloomingdale Road. Now its westward reaches have become Riverside Park, perhaps the most beautiful of the city's pleasure-grounds, and on the heights of Claremont rises the tomb of General Grant. More fitting sepulchre could not have been found for the man who has taken his place in history among the world's leaders who live forever more.


Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: When Harlem was a Village Part II
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: New York: Old & New, Its Story, Streets, and Landmarks by Rufus Rockwell Wilson J.B. Lippincott
Company-Philadelphia 1902
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