Saturday, August 14, 2010

Manhattan Memories: The Old New Yorker Tells of Changes 1901 (1)

"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.

To be continued: The Old New Yorker Tells of Changes 1901

Source of Information: New York Times June 16, 1901

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