The Old New Yorker Tells of Changes 1901

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"New York will never be old-they won't let it grow old, the only historical New York that will ever be known is the 'old New York' that we know today. Buildings are razed only to be succeeded by marvelous modern skyscrapers, and even before, somewhere on the twenty-fifth story, the roof has been riveted on. New Yorkers, in the admiration of the engineering feat, have already forgotten the history and the traditions that made the desecrated spot dear to their forefathers."

The speaker was an old New Yorker, a man who had traveled far and near over the face of the globe with his eyes open and memory alert, and he had invited the writer to accompany him on a trip up Broadway.

"Just to show the young people and to recall to the old people what New York was like in the days when dwelling houses surrounded Bowling Green and when omnibuses were the modern convenience that rattled over Broadway paved with cobblestones," explained the old resident, "I have outworn three pavements on Broadway.

"But to come to the point, how many people living in New York today know that from a certain point at the Battery they can look clean out through the Narrows and to the Highlands, 'way beyond, bordering on the sea? And how many know that on the present site of the giant Empire Building, at Rector Street and Broadway, there preceded two other buildings, and that one of them was the old Grace Church? But let us begin at the Battery, the beginning of the old town, as of the new metropolis, and, to the mind of one who has been in every quarter of the globe, the finest point on the face of it, not excepting the harbor at San Francisco.

"The observant man can still trace by the age of the trees in Battery Park the outline of the old Battery, and from where the park has since been artificially stolen from the Hudson River. Draw a line from the foot of Greenwich Street through the Barge Office and you will find, allowing for the irregularities of a river embankment, that all the old trees stand on the east of the line. West of the line is filled-in land.

"At the foot of the Battery was the original South Ferry, so called because it was the furthest ferry south. Up to the late thirties it was the ferry which connected with the one railroad, outside of the Harlem Railroad, running east out of New York.

"The famous Vanderbilt steamers landed exactly where now the Staten Island Ferry lands. The boats were not known as ferryboats in those days; they were called with dignity, 'steamers.' They were four in number, the Sylph, the Huguenot, the Sampson, and the 'Hunchback,' as we small boys called her, because of the lack of a name and the letters 'HOB.' painted on the paddle boxes. The boats were little side-wheel affairs, and double decked only aft.

"Now there is something that your modern New Yorker has not time to observe. See that Custom House flag on the Barge Office?" The perpendicular red and white striped flag with a blue eagle surrounded by 13 blue stars in a field of white, stood out straight in a clipping western breeze. "you would look at that all day and never notice there were sixteen stripes there, and simply because you took it for granted there were but thirteen. The three extra stripes were put in when the original thirteen States grew to sixteen. The flag was never altered from that day on, for it began to dawn on the officials hat there would soon be more stripes than would look well on a flag if each State were so honored.

"The Battery in those early days was the Central Park of today. People came here from all over. There was a sea wall built and on it was an ordinary wooden two-railed fence, but the people were very proud of their park. It was here that there was more to see than anywhere else in New York. The Aquarium was then Fort Clinton. Here Gen. Lafayette landed, and the memory, instead of being forgotten in the rush and turmoil after the other man's dollar, was tenderly preserved. Here, also, all that was new or striking was 'pulled off.' In 1840 Colt, the inventor of the revolver, experimented with a submarine mine with which he blew up an old hulk in the presence of thousands who had come to see the feat. The river that day was loaded with small boats, and no sooner did the bursting timbers sail skyward than there was a scramble for souvenirs, you see, therefore, the fever is ancient. The occasion, I believe, was the first on which a submarine mine was fired by electricity.

"At the Battery, likewise, the troops assembled for the Fourth of July parade. The whole town turned out in those days on the Fourth, and the parade was one of the occasions of the year. After forming in line the march was up Broadway, to Union Square, down the Bowery to City Hall Place, and to Park Row, where a grand salute would be fired. I do not know if men in those days were made of different stuff, but if today troops were ordered over that line of march on a blistering Fourth of July there would be a riot.

"The chief attraction at the popular spot was Fort Clinton, the water battery from which the park now has its name. The fort, which was built during our war with England in 1812, was isolated on a ledge of rock. The present entrance to the Aquarium, was the sally port, and it opened on to a long bridge that ran clear up almost to Greenwich Street. When Lafayette landed at the fort in 1824 a tremendous crowd assembled on the bridge to welcome him. There was a bad accident that day, for the bridge collapsed and many were injured.

"Later the city acquired possession of the fort, I think it was traded for Governors Island, and then it was turned into a pleasure garden. Jenny Lind sang there in 1850 and Italian opera troupes appeared from time to time. There also was conducted an experiment the revival of which recently caused astonishment. It was the principle that centrifugal force can overcome gravity the exact device recently 'invented' as a nerve raspier for Coney Islanders, that of a car shooting down a chute and then around a complete circle set on end. However, no person was in the car, the experiment being conducted with a pail of water. In time the fort was roofed in, and when Niblo's Garden burned down the American Institute Fair, to which every person of consequence in the city was a subscriber, held its fair in the building. About this time some of the veterans of the war of 1812 and a few of the Revolutionary War acquired privileges to erect booths of the Battery grounds.

"Thereafter there was a little Coney Island, Candy, popcorn, gingerbread, and red lemonade were sold. I can tell you, New York may not be the same as it was in days gone by, but the young people have not the good times they used to have! Why, sitting on a bench at the Battery one could see the full-rigged ships with every stitch of canvas drawing to the bursting point, race in and out of the harbor from and toward the long stretch of ocean. Then only steamers went up the Hudson, the sailing ships taking to the East River. What do they do today? With masts housed to prevent bumping into the Brooklyn Bridge they come crawling into port behind an absurd puffy thing of a towboat! You younger folks do not miss these things because you have never known differently. How many of you know that from a point directly behind the Aquarium you can see through the very Narrows and to the blue Highlands that seam the sea? But then you have not stood on that spot during the days when there were no telegraphs and when you had to stand there to catch the first glimpse of the vessel bearing a loved one, only to find that the ship was another one full of other people's loved ones.

"The only real friend the old New Yorker has here is old Fort Williams. In the early days there was also a "fort on Liberty Island, and it was an imposing thing to see the three forts, as if in a battle with one another, exchange shots and flames and powder smoke in salutes. Today old Fort Williams is condemned as useless, and they say it was never a properly built fort, that according to modern ideas the case-mates should not have been in perpendicular as well as in horizontal rows because the flash and powder in the lower case-mates would spoil the range of the men above. But to the old New Yorker the fort is still a joy. It is the only landmark that has survived.

"At the Battery, as long as I can remember, there was always a bath. A man named Rabineau was the originator of the bath in the exact place now occupied by a modern one. Rabineau had a second story on his bath. There men could sit and drink sherry cobblers and discuss the admission of another State, or, looking toward sea, make pools on the arrival of the next mail. Then, New Brighton, S.I., was a fashionable watering place, and Hoboken, in its day a beautiful spot, was a close second in favor.

"In the neighborhood of the Battery, then surrounded by dwelling houses, there were a number of excellent inns. One man named Bayard kept an inn on State Street, and it was famous for its splendid turtle soup. Among those living on State Street was a man named Stephen Whitney, who became famous in his day because he refused to be driven out of his home, corner of Bowling Green and State Street, by the encroachments of commerce. In time his neighbors went one by one, but he doggedly hung on until he died. His home then became the office of the Anchor Line Steamship Company, and was but recently torn down to make room for the new Custom House.

"With the destruction of the old building at 1 Broadway to make room for the present towering structure of red brick, there disappeared from New York the last old Holland style of architecture and a landmark which should have been preserved by the Government. It was in that same old house where Gens. Howe and Clinton of the British Army made their headquarters. For a time the house became an inn named the Washington House, and a favorite place it was. Then Cyrus Field came along, formed a company, razed the house, and never had a bit of luck afterward, and I'm not superstitious at that. But Field's company put up the present structure.

"In front of No. 1 the first bit of granite paving ever put down in the city was laid. Up to then cobblestones were the pavement. But the Staten island Granite Company offered as proof of merit to lay a strip of granite, pavement and blocks, slightly smaller than the ordinary cubical Belgian blocks, were put in place. These were so successful that cobblestones disappeared. Then the Russ pavement was proposed and tried. This consisted of blocks about one foot in the cube. Some of these may still be seen on the sidewalk in front of 16 Pearl Street, near Whitehall Street. The Russ blocks, however, quickly wore smooth, and when ridges were cut into them to give horses a foothold they quickly wore down. Lastly, the Guider pavement was tried out and accepted.

"After the big fire in 1845 Whitehall Street was widened to double its original width.

"The original Atlantic Garden was down in this vicinity, being situated in the rear of the two little buildings that stood at 1 Broadway and on the present site of the Bowling Green Building. A very fine place the garden was, with little stalls and many-colored lanterns over each stall. Ale was the drink in those days, and if you wanted to be real devilish you would order a sherry cobbler. The only beer in New York at that time was Philadelphia lager beer.

"The house across the street, 15 Broadway, with the two lions in front of it, had a curious experience. It was the only house on the west side of Broadway that was touched by the fire and destroyed. I remember that fire well. For one whole Summer the debris and bricks lay scattered over Whitehall Street, awaiting an insurance settlement.

"At 66 Broadway, the present Manhattan Life skyscraper's number, was formerly that of the famous Globe Hotel.

" Here, on the northwest corner of Wall Street and Broadway, a curious man had a curious business. His office was in the cellar, entrance from the street, and he was the publisher of the Banknote Reporter and Counterfeit Detective. Those were the days of wildcat currency when only New York, Ohio, and Massachusetts paper money could be relied upon. The Government had not then issued its greenbacks, and each State authorized its own money through State banks, and many persons within the boundaries made their own greenbacks. Whenever there was a bank failure or whenever a new counterfeit cropped up, out went a slip to every subscriber of the paper.

"The Soldiers' Monument, in Trinity Churchyard, adjoining the building 109 and 111 Broadway, so carefully revered and decorated by patriotic citizens on Decoration Days, does not stand over the bones of a single American soldier. Tories were buried there, not soldiers. The monument was raised simply because the city wished to extend Pine Street through the cemetery. You will notice the monument stands directly opposite Pine Street. Similarly, when it was decided to widen Thames Street, the Trinity Corporation put up the building at 111 Broadway. Many bodies' sacred remains', were raised and reburied in order to make room for the building. In the basement of this building is where H. B. Claflin first became prominent as a dry goods man.

"At 115 Broadway, where the Boreel Building now rears itself, stood the City Hotel, the most fashionable hotel in New York before the Astor House took its place. Here all the fashionable balls and dinners took place.

"Bowen, McNamee & Co., noted silk men in their day and otherwise prominent, had their place of business at 130 Broadway, a number now occupied by a most up-to-date 'quick lunch' room. Bowen was a famous Abolitionist, was prominent in politics, and the chief owner of The Independent.

"The Benedict Building, at 169 Broadway, was formerly known as the Gilsey Building, and was built by Mr. Gilsey, who made a fortune in tobacco and who later built the hotel bearing his name."

Here the old gentleman rested. "I'm afraid it is as much as I want to do in one day, even in the interest of old New York," he said. "From here to Fourteenth Street the history is even a more interesting one, but another time, maybe."

Website: The History
Article Name: The Old New Yorker Tells of Changes 1901
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


 New York Times Jun. 16, 1901. p. SM5 (1 page)
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