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Old Mansions Of The West Bronx 

  by Randall Comfort
 
 

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Berrian Farm House

Facing the south and enjoying the proud distinction of almost having the whole world at its feet, the old stone Berrian Farm House has in recent years developed into a most delightful modern mansion. Located near the end of the winding Spuyten Duyvil Parkway, its smiling sun-parlors command a most wonderful prospect of hill, river and creek, at the very spot where Henry Hudson and his "Half Moon" held their paw-wow with the aboriginal red-men.

We asked an old resident what he thought might be its age, but he was unable to state. "I'll tell you what I do know," he eagerly volunteered. "If I live to see the thirtieth of next February, I' be just ninety-two."

At last it slowly dawned on us that February had no thirtieth day, but the Oldest Inhabitant had escaped before we could settle our score.

The Canal Street Cottage

Delightfully located among Riverdale's most secluded glens, on a broad plateau of the greenest grass, may found the Old Canal Street Cottage.

So styled because it once stood on Canal Street, Manhattan, it was taken apart, many years ago, the sections loaded on a large barge and floated through the long-disappeared canal to the waters of the Hudson. It then made the voyage north until Spuyten Duyvil was passed, when it was placed on dry land again and erected where it now stands.

So hard are its ancient timbers, the owner told me, that only with the greatest difficulty could he drive nails into them. "They are as hard as a rock," said he.

A lofty platform over the railroad tracks affords a truly magnificent panorama from Sing Sing's walls on the north to the distant Jersey City on the south. Seeing a sumptuous steam yacht lying at anchor close by, its white paint and yellow brass glistening brightly in the summer sun, I asked if any one chanced to know whose it was.

"Oh, I know him pretty well," said my host. "It's my son's."

The Strang Mansion

The month of June, 1776, saw General Washington visiting this whole region and carefully examining its strategic points. As a result, nine sites were chosen for fortifications, and the work on these redoubts began at once.

What was known as Fort Number One was on the southwesterly side of Spuyten Duyvil Hill, in later times occupied by the mansion of Peter O. Strang, now owned by W.C. Muschenheim. Many relics have been found.

The tablet on the residence reads:

"The Foundation of this House is a Part of Fort Number One, Which was Erected by the Continental Army in August, 1776, Occupied by the British November 7, 1776, Dismantled in 1779 and Remained Debatable Ground until the Close of the American Revolution.

"One of a chain of Eight Forts North and East of Spuyten Creek and Harlem River, Extending from this Point to the Site of the New York University."

The neighboring monument to Henry Hudson rises 100 feet in the air, and stands on an elevation of 200 feet.

The Sage Mansion

The Warren B. Sage Mansion rises directly in the site of old Fort Number Two, just as substantial and square as the day it was built. The view to the east comprises a glorious vista of the Valley of Kingsbridge.

A well-known doctor, an ardent antiquarian, and possessor of many Revolutionary muskets with flash pans, ancient carbines and fowling-pieces of early date, was hurriedly summoned, one wet night, to this old Sage home. Rushing in, he found the patient in great pain and distress.

Refusing to say a word, he sought to retreat from the old fort faster than the British did. Yielding to the family's entreaties, he at last said: "You may do so and so for him if you will. I will not prescribe for a dog!"
The Bowie Dash Mansion

High on the hills among old Riverdale's most picturesque glades, the old Bowie Dash Mansion fairly overlooks the world. Dash's Lane, narrow, steep and winding, which in days past formed the only means of access to this residence, has yielded tot he broad and beautiful Spuyten Duyvil Parkway. What a contrast!

Styled "Upper Cortlandt's" to distinguish it from "Lower Cortlandt's" in the valley below, the square stone Dash Mansion is said to have been often visited by General Sherman, one of the relatives of the family, while we are told that the late Theodore Roosevelt often played there when a boy.

The quaint gardener's cottage on the estate far antedates the residence itself, while close by, between the years of 1776 and 1781, was an extensive Yeager Camp.

The Old Giles Mansion

Before the storm of the Revolution burst upon the American colonies, a young farmer, a Captain in the British army, searched the Borough of the Bronx for a suitable site for a farm. Nothing suited him so well as the fertile Kingsbridge heights, and on its slopes he settled and plowed his land.

Then broke the storm of war. Turning his plow-share into a sword, he joined the patriot ranks and soon rose to be in high command. In a word, this is the narrative of General Richard Montgomery, the hero of Quebec. Where his house once stood was but a hole in the ground many years ago. An old resident lamented loudly this fact, saying he would gladly have preserved it, had there only been anything to preserve.

Little did Montgomery think that the highest crest of his farm would ever be crowned by the all-important Fort Independence, the largest of the series of fortresses commanding the important valley below. It was built partly by Colonel Rufus Putnam, who had constructed Fort Washington.

On the approach of the Hessians in 1776, the American commander destroyed the ramparts, and abandoned the work, and for three years it was occupied by the British forces.

Rising in the very centre of this ancient fort is the tall and stately Giles Mansion, so prominent a landmark for miles around. Many were the Revolutionary relics unearthed when its cellar was dug: cannon-balls, caltrops and eleven cannon of early vintage, two of which now lie in front of the old Van Cortlandt Mansion in the valley below.

The Schwab Mansion

Overlooking the valley of the Harlem from the crest of picturesque University Heights, rises that massive structure, sixty-two years old, and now one of the buildings of the New York University, the grand old Schwab Mansion.

A handsome tablet proclaims this message to the world:

"The Site of Fort Number Eight, 1776-1783."

Serving to command the Harlem River and the old Kingsbridge Road, this fort was maintained by the British until 1779, as it served as a guard to Colonel De Lancey's troops in their bailiwick close below.

This red-coat officer had his headquarters in the old Archer Homestead, a short distance south, and while in American hands it was a constant source of terror and alarm to De Lancy and his corps.

The Van Cortlandt Mansion

The Van Cortlandt Park subway express lands its passengers almost in the midst of the charming Dutch Garden that forms the extensive front yard of the solid stone Van Cortlandt Mansion, by far the best known historical landmark of upper New York City.

Erected in 1748, as the figures graven so deeply in the front wall proclaim, it is a popular museum in charge of the Society of Colonial Dames, and is daily visited by countless sight-seers. The quaint bedroom where General Washington slept the night before his triumphal entry into New York City on Evacuation Day, 1783, is the Mecca of every one, while another prized spot is the immense cavernous fireplace of the great Dutch Kitchen.

One visit, one examination of its treasures of the past, is enough to carry one back to Colonial times when history "was warm in the making." During the critical days of the Revolution in New York, Pierre and Philip Van Cortlandt, father and son, were among Washington's firmest supporters. General Tryon, visiting the old house in 1774, had offered them royal honors, royal favors, even royal grants of land, if they would but embrace the British cause, but his propaganda was in vain.

Philip Van Cortlandt strongly resembled the noted Lafayette. While on his tour to America in 1824, the French General One day became so weary of the Constant handshaking at a long reception that he quietly slipped away, leaving Van Cortlandt to perform that duty in his stead.

Of his son, Philip junior, the following story is told: When fourteen years of age, his father sent him with a note of introduction to General Washington. The boy presented the letter and was promptly asked to dinner the next day. After starting for headquarters, the following noon, fear overcame him and he ran back home.

Unexpectedly meeting Washington, the general took him vigorously to task with: "Mister Van Cortland, where were you yesterday?" No answer. "Mister Van Cortlandt, Mrs. Washington and I expected you to dinner yesterday. We waited several moments for you. You inconvenienced us by failing to keep your word. You are a young lad, Mister Van Cortlandt, and let me advise you, hereafter when you make a promise or an engagement, never fail to keep it. Good morning, Mister Van Cortlandt."

A still older Van Cortlandt residence, built in 1700d, stood to the southeast of the present structure, and was destroyed in 1825. The hollow of its ancient cellar can distinctly be traced near a group of locusts.

Just east of the present mansion which an old resident always insisted was a "Dutch farm house, not a mansion", rises a grim-looking barred window in its setting of dark stones. This once formed part of the massive Rhinelander sugar house at Rose and Duane Streets, Manhattan, in whose dreaded interior such hordes of American prisoners were huddled together in Revolutionary times. To stand behind this relic of the past and peer between the solid bars is to bring vividly to mind those days when the patriot captives so eagerly pressed their faces against them in wild struggle for fresh air.

A short distance behind the "old Dutch farm house," on the heights of Vault Hill, a tall stone enclosure rises most prominently, the strong wall surrounding the ancient Van Cortlandt burial vault. In the dark recesses far below the priceless records of New ;York City were hidden by Augustus Van Cortlandt, then clerk of the distant city.

One who, years ago, was allowed to peer into the depths below, declared most emphatically that what he saw reminded him exactly of his conception of the Place of Departed Spirits.

On the crest of Vault Hill, where Augustin Corbin's buffaloes grazed, years ago, General Washington and his army bivouacked in 1781. Leaving his camp fires burning all night, he quietly stole away to New Jersey, and when the British opened their eyes in the morning, their prey had escaped.

Facing the southerly end of Van Cortlandt Lake, "on whose smooth surface young men and maidens glide in summer, gathering white lilies with their hands, and in winter, gathering red roses on their cheeks," once stood the venerable Van Cortlandt Mills, erected in 1700. Says a sprightly writer: "They have ground corn for both the friends and foes of American independence." After passing in safety all the troublous times of devastating war, they surrendered in 1900, when a bolt of lightning descended from the skies to end their days.

Thus ends the tale of the grand old Bronx mansions. Many have yielded to the advancing tide that flows, not from the waters of the Sound, but from the advance of human population. Others have lived to see fulfilled this interesting prophecy, made nearly fifty years ago, which reads:__

"He who undertakes to write a history half a century hence will speak of numerous viaduct railways starting from a point above the Harlem River and running to the Battery: of the Harlem River as lined with docks.

"He will speak of the lower end of Westchester County as the home of toiling thousands: of magnificent drives, boulevards and parks; of a population within fifteen miles north of the Harlem River as large as that then in the city south of it.

"Call this a dream if you will, but he who shall write a faithful history fifty years hence will record it as an accomplished fact!"

 

 
 
Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Old Mansions of the West Bronx  by Randall Comfort
Researcher/Transcriber: Miriam Medina

Source:

 From my collection of Books:  Valentine's Manual of Old New York No.7 New Series 1923, Edited by Henry Collins Brown Copyright: 1922 Henry Collins Brown
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