Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Giant Owl That Never Was

The highest natural point on Manhattan Island is near 183rd Street in Washington Heights and the US Geodetic Survey marker on an outcropping of Manhattan schist in Bennett Park measures it at 267.75 feet above sea level. This site was once the scene of a pivotal battle during the American Revolution and later part of the country estate of one of New York’s most colorful and eccentric newspaper publishers, James Gordon Bennett Jr. What is not here is a colossal monument planned by Bennett– an enormous bronze owl 125 feet high, standing on a granite pedestal 75 feet high, that would have made it nearly the size of the Statue of Liberty. It is not here only because its famous architect was murdered, in public and before hundreds of people in a scandal that shocked New York.

Bennett’s doting father, James Gordon Bennett Sr., invented scandal-sheet journalism for a mass audience in the late 1830’s with his tabloid newspaper, the New York Herald. At the time New York’s newspapers primarily published serious news about politics and business and were sold mainly by expensive subscription to prosperous merchants and professionals, ignoring the “workies”, Bowery Boys, artisans and newly arrived immigrants. Bennett put murder, gossip and scandal on the front page and his newsboys hawked the daily paper along Broadway for a penny, shouting out headlines like, “BLOODY MURDER IN THE SIXTH WARD!” The better classes were scandalized and the Herald’s circulation went through the roof. Within a few years Bennett’s penny horror had the largest circulation of any daily newspaper in America. The publisher was scorned by Gotham’s Knickerbocker aristocracy and occasionally horse-whipped on the street by some outraged magnifco or rival editor. He vowed that his son would not be touched by his notoriety, so he sent him off to Paris to be educated.

James Gordon Bennett Jr. was his only son and when the senior Bennett died in 1872 he left him the newspaper, a considerable fortune and his estate on Washington Heights. To avoid confusion with his father he was most often referred to as simply Gordon Bennett. By 1905 Gordon Bennett was spending much of his time in Paris, but his roots were in New York and he began thinking of building an eye-popping monument to himself (he was that sort of fellow) and commissioned the city’s most fashionable and brilliant architect, Stanford White, to design something that people would notice.

Bennett was fascinated with owls, so he told White that this would be his theme and he gave the architect specific directions. White commissioned the then-renowned sculptor Andrew O’Connor to create a clay model of a giant owl and White drew pencil sketches of the pedestal and presented the designs to Bennett, who was delighted.

The ambitious plan called for an immense hollow standing figure of an owl in bronze that would eventually contain Bennett’s sarcophagus. It was not only to be his monument, but his tomb as well. Two steel chains were to be hung from the inside of the top of the owl’s head and midway inside the monument Bennett’s coffin was to be suspended. The monument was to be open to the public with an interior spiral staircase, much like the one inside the Statue of Liberty. At the top of the stairs, in the owl’s head, a viewing platform would allow visitors to peer out of windows in the owl’s eyes at an unexcelled view 467 feet above the Hudson River. Bennett was now in his mid-sixties and wanted the tomb to be finished and set up at once so that he might enjoy the public’s awestruck response while he was still living.

Stanford White and Gordon Bennett were old friends. Both enjoyed the society party circuit, late nights and more than a little carousing. The firm of McKim, Meade and White had been commissioned by Gordon Bennett to design the Newport Casino in 1880. White then designed a magnificent Italian Renaissance palazzo headquarters in 1893 for the Herald uptown on a trapezoidal block along Broadway between 35th and 36th Streets. The city named the intersection of Sixth Avenue, Broadway and 34th Street as Herald Square. The building was festooned with twenty-six large bronze owls, each four feet high, with flashing electric lights for eyes. Under the loggia surrounding the building large plate glass windows at sidewalk level looked down into the basement pressroom where six huge presses churned out 90,000 papers per hour and late night passersby could see the next morning’s Herald being printed. Herald Square, at the turn of the last century, was the heart of the theater district and this stretch of Broadway was called “The Rialto”. Both White and Bennett were frequent first-nighters along the Rialto and often accompanied by attractive young women who were not their wives. Although White was married, his patient wife stayed at home with the children on Long Island most of the time. Gordon Bennett waited to marry until he was 73.

Bennett was a celebrated yachtsman, bon vivant and often a prodigious consumer of cocktails. As a young man-about-town in the 1870’s his favorite was the “Razzle-Dazzle”, a potent mixture of one part ginger ale, one part brandy and one part absinthe. On New Year’s Day, 1877 the old Knickerbocker families on Washington Square and along lower Fifth Avenue held their traditional New Year open houses, a custom handed down from the Dutch period and still observed among the city’s bon ton . After indulging in a number of Razzle-Dazzles at the Hoffman House bar he headed downtown to the open houses of those families that would still receive him. Late in the afternoon, after several stops along the circuit, he finally arrived at the home of his fiancée, Miss Caroline May. Her father, Dr May and her brother Frederick noticed that Caroline’s intended was more than a bit tipsy as Bennett lurched toward the crowded drawing room’s fireplace and proceeded to urinate into the fire in front of dozens of observers, gasping in horror. The next day, as Bennett arrived at the Union Club for lunch Frederick May accosted his sister’s now former fiancée as he climbed down from his carriage and horse-whipped him on the sidewalk in front of the clubhouse and dozens of shocked members. One of the two men challenged the other to a duel, and although dueling was then long out of fashion, a few days later they met with dueling pistols, attending surgeons and their seconds on a dueling ground across the Maryland-Delaware state line. Both men fired wide of their marks and declared that they were satisfied.

Bennett was, amazingly enough, so embarrassed by the whole affair that he left New York for good to take up residence in Europe and only returned occasionally to visit Newport during the season and to the city for business. He spent much of his time aboard a series of lavish steam yachts, first the 226-foot Namouna (which his editors slyly referred to as the Pneumonia), fifty feet longer than JP Morgan’s Corsair. This was followed in 1900 by the 300-foot Lysistrata, that cost Bennett more to build that his new headquarters building in Herald Square. With a crew of 100 men, a milk cow riding in a padded stall and a new De Dion Bouton French automobile on board he was ready to roll. On a visit to Bermuda he rolled onto the beach in his shiny new car, the first ever seen on the island. Its appearance awed the locals and appalled vacationing Mark Twain and a Princeton professor named Woodrow Wilson who promptly registered complaints with the British governor. Bennett ignored them and drove wherever he pleased.

It was at about this time that he began corresponding with his friend Stanford White about his idea for a monumental tomb atop Washington Heights. It didn’t seem to bother Bennett that he planned to site it in the middle of what had once been Fort Washington, the almost sacred site of a great battle in the Revolutionary War. On November 16, 1776 the largest fort on Manhattan had fallen to an attack from British and Hessian armies in one of the new nation’s worst defeats. 3000 American defenders were taken prisoner, marched down to New York and held in terrible conditions in freezing cold, improvised prisons where most of them died.

By early 1906 White was well along with the monument plan and this was only one of many great projects on the drawing boards of the stellar architectural firm of McKim, Meade & White. Stanford White was at the top of his game and the most sought-after architect in America and his work had transformed the city. One of his masterpieces was Madison Square Garden, a vast entertainment complex at Madison Avenue and East 26th Street. On the southeast corner of the building was a great tower, modeled on the Giralda in Sevilla, Spain. At the top of the tower stood sculptor Augustus StGauden’s large gilded bronze figure of the goddess Diana, nude and balanced on one foot, about to fire her arrow. She could be seen for a mile around Madison Square as she slowly turned in the wind. Inside the tower was Stanford White’s pied a Terre apartment overlooking the roof garden theater. For the summer of 1906 the outdoor roof garden theater was selling out every night. Rooftop theaters were very popular during hot New York summers before the advent of air-conditioning and the show being presented on the warm evening of June 25 was opening night of a musical revue, Mam’zelle Champagne.

White sat at a table near the stage as the chorus sang “I Could Love a Million Girls”. At another table, on the balcony, there was a young couple, Harry Thaw and his new wife, Evelyn Nesbit Thaw. Both of them knew Stanford White well. Evelyn had arrived in the city in 1900 and soon found work as an artist’s model. She was 15. She posed, with or without clothes, for artists, photographers and illustrators and she became the inspiration for illustrator Charles Dana Gibson’s celebrated “Gibson Girl”. In 1901 she was introduced to Stanford White who, at the age of 47, soon fell in love with her and with introductions to his theater friends she was hired as a chorus girl in the hit Broadway musical, Floradora.

After a year or so Evelyn’s beauty had made her famous on Broadway and she became a kind of “sex symbol” for the Broadway crowd, most of whom knew about her relationship with White. That relationship began to fade after a few years, but the two remained friends. Meanwhile every night, in the same box seat at Floradora, Harry Thaw could be found watching intently Evelyn’s every move on stage. Harry was the spoiled and unbalanced son of a Pittsburgh millionaire and stood to someday inherit over $40,000,000 and now he was in love. He finally arranged an introduction and began courting Evelyn. As he learned more of Evelyn’s affair with Stanford White he became obsessed with this brilliant and well-liked man who Harry saw as a social and romantic rival. Soon Evelyn and Harry married and left for a honeymoon in Europe. Although Evelyn would say nothing against White, Harry was convinced that White had “ruined” his bride. After their return to New York Harry’s obsession with the architect became uncontrollable and, using detectives, he began to stalk White, following him everywhere - so it was no coincidence that the newlyweds were there in the audience on the roof of Madison Square Garden that June night, Harry seething with jealousy as he watched White enjoying the young chorus girls a few feet away from his table. As the performers sang on the stage Harry, dressed in a long black overcoat, rose from his chair and calmly walked down to the orchestra, through the packed audience, to Stanford White’s table. White was absorbed with the chorus line on the stage as Harry pulled a pistol from his coat and shot three times, point blank, into the back of White’s head. The great architect died instantly.

Harry was arrested and brought to trial and his mother hired lawyers who evolved a strategy of blaming the victim and proceeded to blacken the late architect’s reputation in the Hearst newspapers. After being bribed by Harry’s mother, Evelyn testified for the defense and Harry was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was sent to the Mattewan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in upstate New York and released in 1915. By the early 1920’s he had come into his inheritance and during a visit to Palm Beach he was invited to a dinner party at a new beachfront Spanish-style mansion. During the dinner his hostess turned to him and asked, “Mr. Thaw, what do you think of our new house?” Harry looked around the pretentious beamed dining room and remarked, “I think that I shot the wrong architect.”

The news of Stanford White’s murder came to Gordon Bennett the same night by Marconi wireless as his yacht steamed through the English Channel. The next morning he wired the office of McKim, Meade & White with his condolences and his order to cancel work on the monument. Bennett was convinced that no other architect would be capable of building his giant owl tomb.

Gordon Bennett died at his home in Beaulieu in the south of France in 1918 and was buried in Paris, in the Cimetiere de Passy, in an ordinary grave. The cemetery is quite near the site of the French Open on Avenue Gordon Bennett. One hopes that they thought of carving an owl into his headstone.

Bennett Park, on Fort Washington Avenue, between West 183rd Street and West 185th Street in Washington Heights can be visited today. The city established a park here in 1928 on what had been the Bennett estate and the park was named in their honor. In 1910 Gordon Bennett paid for a large plaque that commemorates the Battle of Ft Washington and it can be see on the wall of the northeast bastion of the fort, along the east side of the park. The rock outcropping in the center of the park would have been the site of the monument.

Stanford White’s Herald Building was demolished in 1930, but two of its bronze rooftop owls now grace the little triangular park across Broadway from Macy’s between 34th and 35th Streets. The great bronze clock that once stood on the roof of the old Herald Building is the centerpiece of the park. If you visit this spot at twilight you’ll see the lights flashing in the owls’ eyes just as they did so long ago when James Gordon Bennett, Stanford White, Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Thaw walked through “The Rialto”, along this block of Broadway.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Marooned on Manhattan Island

“Captain! Captain Block! Wake up! The ship is on fire!”
Captain Adriaen Block and his crew were spending their last night on the island the friendly Lenape called “Mana-hata”, camping out in the rude huts they’d constructed on a bluff (at the site of present-day 45 Broadway) looking out over the mouth of the river that the English captain Henry Hudson had explored four years earlier. Riding at anchor in the river, their little ship the Tyjger, or Tiger, was loaded to the gunwales with valuable beaver and mink pelts, ready for her voyage back to Amsterdam. The Dutchmen scrambled down the bluff to the riverbank and pushed out into the river in the longboats beached there. The fire was spreading to the furled sails as they neared the little ship-their only way home to Amsterdam was burning before their eyes. Some of the men boarded the burning ship to salvage what they could while the others lashed the bow to their longboats to tow her ashore. They finally managed to beach the Tyjger and salvage some tools, canvas and fittings, but she had burned to the waterline. It was early November of 1613 and they were facing a harsh winter in this strange land without a ship-their ticket home. The expedition’s other vessel, the Fortuyn, or Fortune, was far up the river, her crew establishing a trading post 100 miles to the north. Her Captain Hendrick Christiaensen, would be waiting until spring, when the river ice cleared, to return to Amsterdam.

When the sun rose behind the autumn-bronzed leaves of the huge oak and chestnut trees behind their little camp the anxious men gathered around Captain Block to hear his plan. There was no hope that Captain Christiaensen would return before spring-if he returned at all. The men had managed to salvage enough shipwright’s tools, spare sails, ropes and fittings to build a new ship from the abundance of wood in the forest. Among the crew were carpenters and a blacksmith. The Indians offered to help winterize the four little huts and provide cornmeal, dried berries, fish and venison to feed them. Now the Captain announced an audacious plan. They would build a new ship to sail back across the Atlantic and they would build it right here, from the trees surrounding their camp. They would cut down great oaks and plane them into a keel and ribs, then saw hickory into planks to fit on the sides. The tall pine on the hilltop would make a fine mast and chestnut would serve for the decking. They would construct the ship near the beach even though they would have to spend much of the time working next to an ice-choked river. They had no choice. This would become, if only briefly, the first European settlement on Manhattan Island.

In the spring of 1614 they launched their 44-foot long ship into the river and christened her Onrust or Restless-perhaps reflecting the mood of men who had toiled in the freezing wind from the north during that long winter, fashioning an ocean-going vessel from the forest around them. Block kept a detailed journal of his adventures. We know this because the seventeenth century Dutch historian, Johannes DeLaet mentions that he read it while compiling his 1625 bestseller, The New World. Perhaps one day someone will find the now lost journal in a dusty archive in Holland. Until then we can only speculate about the feelings of Block and his men during those hard, cold months marooned on Manhattan.

Block didn’t wait for Christiaensen to come sailing past on the river. They left the island of “Mana-hatta” as soon as spring arrived and went exploring. They didn’t name their little craft Restless for naught. First they sailed up the East River and right into the churning whirlpools and foaming waters that Block appropriately named Hell Gate. The name is still in place today. It rang true to three centuries of mariners who often lost their ships, smashed on the treacherous hidden rocks in the channel linking the waters of the harbor with Long Island Sound. The Onrust continued along the Connecticut coast and sailed up the Connecticut River (the Dutch called it de Versche Rivier) as far as the present day site of Hartford. They mapped rivers and bays and on to present-day Rhode Island (which Block named Roode Eylandt for its red clay cliffs), passing the island later named for the intrepid captain, Block Island. On they sailed, into Buzzards Bay and past the brightly colored clay cliffs of Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard, past Nantucket and around Mononomy Point. Then north, along the coast, around Cape Cod and into its bay, they stopped briefly at the natural harbor that would later become Plymouth, six years before the English Puritans landed there. Then the unimaginable happened. Returning to the open sea, the little ship rounded the tip of Cape Cod and a sailor manning the crow’s nest sighted another ship! Perhaps the only other ship sailing on the Atlantic Seaboard in the late spring of 1614-and it was the Fortuyn. Block’s luck had clearly changed.

When the ships met, off present-day Provincetown, Block boarded the Fortuyn and discovered that Cornelius Hendrickson, a member of her crew, was the de facto captain. Captain Christiaensen had been murdered. His assassin was “Orsen”, one of two Naragansett Indian brothers who had traveled from Amsterdam on the Fortuyn. On an earlier trip to New Netherland Christiansen and Block had persuaded a sachem of the Naragansetts to send his two sons back to Amsterdam with the trading expedition of 1611. The Dutch captains named the two brothers Orson and Valentine and, along with a boatload of beaver skins, they were paraded as spectacle before the Dutch burgers as evidence of the savages inhabiting the New World. Somehow these men survived for almost a year in Amsterdam without contracting one of the many western illnesses to which they would have had no immunity. What a story they would have told. We do know that Christiaensen treated them like the savages he thought them to be and the elder brother, “Orsen”, was described by the captain as being “exceedingly wicked”. At some point during the winter of 1613, near present-day Albany, Orsen had enough of Captain Christiansen’s cruel treatment and killed him. Orsen was immediately shot dead by one of the Dutch crew and his brother “Valentine” escaped into the forest and vanished into the mists of history.

Block was now in sole charge of the expedition, so he placed Cornelius Hendrickson in command of the Onrust and charged him with exploration of the coast south of the Hudson. Hendricksen was to sail the crude little ship down the coast, then return to Amsterdam to report his discoveries.

In late July, 1614 Adriaen Block arrived in Amsterdam on the Fortuyn, loaded with furs and all the makings for the first definitive map of New Netherland. A few months earlier a group of thirteen merchants of Amsterdam and Hoorn, including the investors who had backed the Tiger and the Fortuyn, had formed the United New Netherland Company. Excited by Block’s report of his discoveries, they hired the best cartographers money could buy and, under Block’s supervision, translated his charts and data into a surprisingly accurate map of the new Dutch empire across the Atlantic. In October Block and his investors presented the new map and its significance to Their High Mightinesses, the States-General of the Dutch Republic at the Hague. At the same time they petitioned for a charter for exclusive trading privileges for all of the territory covered on the map, stretching from the French colonies in Canada to the present-day Delaware River. Permission granted-at least for a few years.

Two years later, in the late summer of 1616, Cornelius Hendricksen arrived in Amsterdam. Evidently he didn’t trust his crude little 44-foot ship to cross the Atlantic, so he left the Onrust behind and her fate is lost in time. He had prudently hitched a ride home on another Dutch trading ship loaded with beaver pelts from the South River (today’s Delaware River). On behalf of his sponsors he presented his discoveries the States-General. While sailing the Onrust for two years he had explored the Delaware River valley and the coast of present-day Maryland and Delaware all the way down to the opening of the Chesapeake Bay. He petitioned for exclusive trading privileges for his discoveries. They turned him down. The powerful Dutch East India Company had other plans and a much louder voice in the affairs of the Dutch Republic. In 1621 they would form the Dutch West India Company that would establish a permanent colony and run New Netherland as its private trading monopoly until an English squadron arrived in New Amsterdam’s harbor in 1664, accepted the surrender of Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor of New Netherland, and assumed control of New Amsterdam and the entire enterprise. King Charles gave the little town to his younger brother, the Duke of York, who promptly named it after himself.

There is still another remarkable twist to this tale. 300 years pass. In 1916 the IRT subway line was being extended to the Battery and sandhogs were digging a twenty-foot deep trench along Greenwich Street, at the eastern edge of the present-day World Trade Center site. At Dey Street their shovels struck something more solid than sand and mud. A bit more digging revealed some sort of wooden structure that shouldn’t be there, under eleven feet of river silt, topped by another nine feet of fill that had been there for at least 150 years. Luck had it that someone on the crew thought to call in James A Kelly, a former IRT supervising foreman and an enthusiastic amateur historian. Jim was always finding old stuff in the trenches when they dug the earlier excavations and tunnels for the first sections of the subway 12 years earlier-he’d know what to do. Kelly rushed downtown and when he climbed down into the hole and saw what the men had found he was dumbstruck. The wooden structure protruding into the excavation twenty feet below the surface was the charred keel and framing of a ship! And it could only be one ship-Adriaen Block’s Tiger. It was exactly where all of the old accounts said it would be, this was a beach on the riverbank in 1613 and the keel was sitting in a bed of charcoal, exactly as it should be. He grabbed a shovel and began digging around the keel and quickly uncovered a Dutch broad-headed axe, some blue and white Delftware pottery shards, a small canon ball and some trade beads. He found a photographer and even a fellow with a motion picture camera to come down and documented the find in situ. The impatient foreman was eager to get on with the job of completing the trench on schedule and finally Kelly agreed to saw off the protruding 8-foot section of the keel and ribs and take it away along with the other artifacts found in the hole. Kelly knew that, exposed to the air for any length of time, the ancient oak would crumble into dust. If he could just keep it immersed in water it would remain stable. He had a friend at the New York Aquarium in Castle Clinton a few blocks away in Battery Park and Kelly prevailed on him to let this precious fragment of the city’s history be submerged in the seal tank. The 8-foot section of the Tiger’s keel and framing timbers rested in the seal tank for the next 27 years until the old aquarium was demolished in 1943. Next the NYC Parks Department presented this damp relic to the Museum of the City of New York. The skilled technicians at the museum were able to stabilize the wood so that it no longer needed to be submerged in water and they performed a series of tests that confirmed the date of 1613. This was indeed what James Kelly knew it to be. Kelly went on to become Brooklyn’s official borough historian and this genuine relic of the Tiger could, at one time, be seen at the Museum of The City of New York at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street. Its present location and its fate are unsure.

In the late 1960’s, when excavations were started for the new World Trade Center, archeologists hoped to find the rest of the ship’s bones under Greenwich Street. Not a trace was found. Recently, as construction crews dug again at this site for the new transportation hub, hopes were dashed when nothing was found. On the other hand, since there was no Jim Kelly around to intervene, perhaps nobody bothered to look.

It would seem astonishing to the modern observer that a group of 17th century Dutch sailors, marooned on a remote island at the edge of the known world, could fashion an ocean going ship from the primeval forest around them – and in the winter. But soon the Onrust, built of New York oak, may again sail through the Hell Gate. Since 2005 a group of intrepid volunteers in upstate New York have been building a replica of the Onrust, using original 17th century Dutch ship building techniques, on the grounds of the Mabee Farm Historic Site of the Schenectady Historical Society in Rotterdam Junction, New York. The group is the non-profit Netherland Routes and they have completed the ship in time for the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s 1609 voyage of discovery up the river that bears his name.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Blizzard of 1888's Most Famous Victim: Roscoe Conkling

In Madison Square, near the corner of 23rd Street and Madison Avenue, stands a bronze statue of Senator Roscoe Conkling, a politician that almost nobody remembers today. The site of the statue marks the spot where Conkling collapsed in a snow drift at the height of New York’s most catastrophic weather event – the great blizzard of 1888. At the opposite corner of the park is another statue – this one of President Chester Arthur. The lives of the two men were linked in a dramatic tale of New York politics in the Gilded Age.

Conkling was a larger than life figure during the years following the Civil War. One of his senate colleagues said of him, “While his fellow senators favored black, Roscoe was a virtual bird of paradise – he sported green trousers, scarlet coats, striped shirts and yellow shoes.” Presumably not at the same time. He was a protean power in the New York Republican political machine, with a ferocious temper, an athletic figure in an era of portly public men and his personal charisma was said to be irresistible to women. Many men considered him a “strutting dandy”. His supposed affair with Kate Chase Sprague, wife of another senator and daughter of the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, was common knowledge. Mrs Conkling was famously patient. Hi long-time enemy Senator James G Blaine of Maine skewered Conkling in a well-known speech before Congress reviling his, “haughty distain, his grandiloquent swell, his majestic, supereminent, overpowering turkey-gobbler strut!” Twice offered a seat on the US Supreme Court, Conkling turned down both invitations. He was even twice considered a likely presidential candidate.

Democrats uniformly despised Conkling, including one William Goodrich Arbuckle of Smith Center, Kansas. When his son was born in 1887 the hard-drinking Arbuckle was nagged by the sneaking suspicion that his son was not biologically his, so he named the boy Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle. The child grew up in an atmosphere of distrust but went on to fame and fortune with great success as Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a comic star of silent films, only to have his career cut short by a celebrated sex scandal – but that’s another story.

In a furious temper Conkling resigned his seat in the US Senate in 1881 after the new President Garfield appointed his own candidate to become Collector of the Port of New York. Unexpectedly the New York state legislature appointed another to replace him and Conkling retired from public life to resume a lucrative law practice on Wall Street, with blue-chip clients such as the notorious Jay Gould who was often in some sort of legal tangle.

March of 1888 was unseasonably warm in New York. Indeed it followed the warmest winter in seventeen years - the crocus were coming up and the trees in Central Park already budding. The United States Signal Service weather observatory in New York issued its forecast on Saturday morning, March 10, “Generally fair and a bit colder today and Sunday with partial cloudiness near the coast for Monday. Tuesday promises to be slightly warmer and generally fair.” Weekends the weather bureau offices around the country closed at noon on Saturday and opened again at 5:00pm on Sunday afternoon. Weather forecasts were chancy business in 1888, to be generous. Sunday and Monday were damp and gloomy and heavy rain fell from Sunday afternoon into Monday. The temperature began to drop late Monday afternoon as two vast storm systems coming from the west began to combine. A blast of cold air from Canada completed the mix and the wild nor’easter storm of the century was at hand. By midnight Monday sleet had turned to snow and the frigid wind increased. On Tuesday morning, March 12 the city awoke to heavy snow and a freezing wind. Senator Conkling, as usual, headed downtown to his Wall Street office from his apartment in the fashionable Hoffman House on Fifth Avenue, near the northwest corner on Madison Square. Telephone and telegraph wires, strung on poles along the streets, had come down in the wind, covered with ice so that no one could know just how serious the storm was going to be.

By 1:30 Tuesday afternoon it became clear to the senator that there would be no business done that day, so he and William Sulzer, a young lawyer in an adjacent office, agreed to walk up to Broadway and hail a hansom cab to take them uptown. The deserted streets outside were covered in deep snowdrifts and fallen telephone and telegraph poles. Sulzer later told a reporter, “There were great mountains of snow – we could hardly see Trinity Church or the buildings on Broadway. We stopped a cab and Conkling gave him our destination of Madison Square. ‘FIFTY BUCKS’, the cabbie said and the senator said something that you can’t print. Then we started up Broadway. When we had gone a few blocks to the Astor House(a fashionable hotel at Vesey Street) I told the senator that I was going inside but he insisted that he’d go on. That’s the last I saw of him.”

Conkling trudged on. At 58 he was proud of his fitness. He didn’t smoke or drink, exercised regularly and considered himself a skilled boxer. No snowstorm could stop Roscoe Conkling from walking up Broadway to his club. He later told reporters, “It was dark and it was useless to try to pick out a path, so I went magnificently along shouldering drifts. I was pretty well exhausted when I got to Union Square and, wiping the snow from my eyes, tried to make out the pathways, but it was impossible. There was no light and I plunged right through on as straight a line as I could determine. I had got to the middle of the park and was up to my arms in a drift. I pulled the ice and snow from my eyes and held my hands up there till everything was melted off so that I might see – but it was too dark and the snow too blinding.” For twenty minutes he struggled in the drift. “I came as near giving right up and sinking down there to die as a man can and not do it. Somehow I got out and made my way along.”

He kept moving now, up Broadway where workmen frantically dug away at the mass of snow as the wind shrieked and roared between the elegant storefronts of the Ladies’ Mile. The force of the gale often tore the shovels from the hands of the workmen. Conkling trudged on.

At 23rd Street He could dimly see the lights of the Fifth Avenue Hotel to the left and realized that the safety of his club was just ahead, on the other side of Madison Square Park. Out of the slight protection of the buildings along Broadway the ferocity of the wind seemed to increase, but he struggled along into the park.

The porter at the New-York Club at 25th Street and Madison stood in the doorway looking out at the blizzard when he saw a figure in the snow off to his left. Falling, then rising , moving a few feet, then falling again. Wrapping his greatcoat tightly around himself he headed out into the park where he found the half-conscious Conkling sprawled in the snow. He dragged the senator two blocks into the clubhouse and the ordeal was over – for now.
By Wednesday the storm had dropped 40 inches of snow on the city in 36 hours with winds up to 48 miles per hour. Along the Eastern Seaboard, from Washington up to Boston 400 people had died.

For the next week, from his sickbed, Conkling regaled his friends and newspaper reporters with descriptions of his narrow escape from the great blizzard – but he sensed that something was not right and soon he was back in his bed at the Hoffman House. The diagnosis was mastoiditis and pneumonia and two weeks later Roscoe Conkling drew his last breath.

His friends and family pressured the city fathers to erect a memorial statue to the great man in Union Square, near the spot where he had first fallen, but the officials felt his memory was not worth a position in a place that honored Washington, Lincoln and the Marquis de Lafayette. As a compromise Madison Square was proposed and accepted. The city’s pre-eminent sculptor, John Quincy Adams Ward was chosen for the job and in 1893 it was unveiled pot at the southeast corner of Madison Square Park where Conklin was rescued by the New-York Club porter. And there he stands today, his only visitors the pigeons. He is a mystery to modern passersby.

Senator Conkling’s current neighbor on the north corner of the park, President Arthur, was the senator’s political ally, indeed Arthur’s career was Conkling’s creation. In 1874 he arranged for his political henchman, good old Chet Arthur, to be appointed to the lucrative post of Collector of Customs for the Port of New York. Arthur did his best, but the post-Civil War era was one of the high water marks of patronage and political corruption and in 1876 incoming President Hayes dismissed Arthur. In the election of 1880 Arthur was named to be James Garfield's vice-presidential candidate. Garfield was elected and shortly afterward asassinated, making good old Chet Arthur President of the United States. Senator Conkling was not amused.

And what of Kate Chase Sprague, Conklin’s inamorata at the peak of his career? Washington’s most glamorous hostess when her widowed father was Lincoln’s wartime Secretary of the Treasury, Kate had married William Sprague, a textile tycoon from Rhode Island to help her father finance his run for the presidency in 1864. When she was scandalously linked to Conklin her husband had become a “drunken philanderer” and soon lost all his money. Kate spent her final, impoverished days selling chickens and vegetables door-to-door. She died broke in 1899.

The Horseback Dinner

Since 1937 commuters heading up the Henry Hudson Parkway have long puzzled over the enormous granite arcade half buried in a jungle of Norway maples and Virginia creeper on the steep slope of Fort Tryon Park at the northern end of Manhattan. Although it appears to be a section of a misplaced Roman aqueduct it is actually a part of the most elaborate private driveway in New York City. One hundred years ago its creator, CKG Billings, drove his four-in-hand coach through the arcade, and up the 1600 foot double switchback driveway from a newly paved Riverside Drive, heading for Tryon Hall, his lavish estate at the top of the hill, 250 feet above the Hudson. This luxury alone cost him $200,000 in 1908. He indulged himself in many more extravagancges and is remembered today for one in particular-his celebrated “horseback dinner” of 1903. The iconic photograph of this event is considered the apogee of wretched excess in the Gilded Age.

Appropriately Cornelius Kingsley Garrison Billings was born in Saratoga, New York in 1861 when Saratoga was the epicenter of America’s passion for horse racing. Billings would go on to become a dominant figure in American horse racing for almost fifty years. He grew up in Chicago where his entrepreneurial father was a principal in the Peoples Gas Light and Coke Company during the time when this new boomtown was largely lit by gaslight. After college he joined his father’s firm, eventually inheriting controlling interest in the company and, nearing the age of 40, retired from business to devote his time to his growing stable of horses. In 1901 he moved his family and his horses to New York City, acquired acreage on the largely undeveloped north end of Manhattan. He announced his arrival in the world of Gotham’s plutocrats and sportsmen with the construction of what the NY Times called, “The most luxurious and complete stable ever built”. This elaborate 25,000 square foot horse palace had 22 stalls (each with a brass plaque bearing the name of the occupant), a room for 20 carriages, another just for sleighs, a complete blacksmith shop and forge and an Edison dynamo to furnish electric light, steam heat and hot water. Topped by a huge curving roof, numerous towers and cupolas, the structure was 250 long and could be seen for miles. The two main towers sported huge weather vanes, one with a figure of his favorite trotting horse, “Little Boy” and the other with his famous mare “Lucille”.

Evidently Billings thought that one extravagance deserved another, so he planned a horseback dinner for 36 of his fellow sportsmen from the Equestrian Club in his new 75-foot indoor training ring. Word leaked out and crowds of newspaper reporters and the merely curious gathered around his entrance gates, craning their necks to see the fabulous stable and all of the glamorous visitors. Billings decided to quietly move the party to the privacy of Sherry’s elegant grand ballroom at Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. Horses rented from a riding stable were brought up in the freight elevator and arranged in a circle around a large table. Each saddle was fitted with a tray and saddlebags were filled with ice to chill bottles of Champagne fitted with rubber hoses that the diners could use to sip wine without dropping their glasses. His fellow Equestrian Club members, all in white tie, were mounted and a groom attended each horse. The waiters were dressed as if for a hunting party in scarlet coats and white breeches. The floor was covered with several inches of sand and uninvited newspapermen speculated about the mess that the horses would surely leave behind. They needn’t have worried-Billings arranged for more grooms to tidy up when the occasion arose. The horses dined as well, each furnished with a feeding trough filled with oats. The $50,000 bill included a photographer from the celebrated Byron Company to document this unique event. Byron’s photograph remains a true icon from the Gilded Age.

Now that his prized horses had a comfy home it was time to build a villa as a full-time residence for his human family. To the west of the stables, on a promontory 250 feet above the Hudson, a huge turreted chateau arose. Vaguely French in inspiration and described at the time as “In the style of Louis XIV”, the house had several large towers, a Mansard roof along with a 75 foot marble swimming pool, squash courts and bowling alleys-neighbors referred to Tryon Hall as a castle. The final cost was $2,000,000 and it was generally considered among the most lavish private houses on the island. Beginning in 1907 Billings lived here with his wife, two children and 23 servants.

Down below, on the river, he built a dock and boathouse at Tubby Hook, at the foot of Dyckman Street for his 277-foot turbine steam yacht Vanadis that arrived from Scotland in June of 1908. Although 14 other vessels in the New York Yacht Club fleet were larger, the Vanadis boasted two fireplaces and the only electric elevator. The NY Times, with uncharacteristic redundancy, described her as a “palatial floating palace”.

One hundred years ago many trotting horse owners raced their own steeds and Billings was no exception. A nationally recognized equestrian, he was a teetotaler, abstemious in an era when gluttony was the norm, and kept an athletic figure well into middle age. He prided himself in racing his horses without a whip, using just the reins to control them. The trophy room in the new stable was filled with ribbons and trophy cups won by Billings and his horses. One of his favorite pastimes was driving his coach-and-four along the newly paved Riverside Drive along the Hudson below his estate and one day he decided that it would be grand to be able to drive his four-in-hand up to the stable 100 feet above the road. The only requirement would be routing a driveway up that steep hillside. His neighbor came up with an idea-start one of the family milk cows at the bottom and follow her up to the barn, tracing her route along the slope. The cow’s navigational skills were as expected and the 1600-foot double-switchback drive was built along the track of her path. He proceeded to hire the architects Buchman&Fox to design this extravagant entry to his estate. They laid out the roadway and proposed a great arched stone gallery to carry the top section. Most of the stone was quarried right on the site. The surface of the roadway was paved with chamfered bricks to give the horses better footing on the 6% grade. The NY Times included a picture of an elaborate model of the project in an article that also announced that the total cost of Billings’ new driveway was $250,000-an enormous sum in 1913 dollars. He was a stranger to frugality.

There was a reason that he chose to build in this then remote section of Manhattan and the reason was proximity to a superb new racetrack, the Harlem River Speedway-a magnificent two and a half mile long dirt track built along the Harlem River, from the Polo Grounds at 155th Street to Swindler Cove at Dyckman Street. The Speedway was a favorite of all of the horsemen in the city and was built and maintained at taxpayer expense. How it happened to be built is an instructive tale of the politics of that era.

By the early 1890’s trotting horses, the Lamborghinis of their time, were the shared passion of New York’s plutocrats. They often raced along St Nicholas Avenue in Harlem until the area began to be developed for housing after the arrival of the elevated railway in 1879. In 1891 the city’s Tammany Hall Mayor, Hugh Grant (also owner of a string of racehorses) quietly planned a two-mile track along the western edge of Central Park. Tammany’s notorious politico George Washington Plunkett (“I seen my chances and I took ‘em”) guided a funding bill through the state legislature and got the governor to sign it. In March of 1892 surveyors and engineers began staking out the new raceway along the western wall of the park, marking all of the trees to be felled for the right-of-way. At this point secrecy had vanished and an infuriated public arose in anger to defend their beloved park. Led by the New York Times, the protestors pointed out that of the city’s horse population of 66,000 there were no more that 2000 racehorses and this proposed track would only benefit the city’s 250 trotting horse owners. The Park Commissioners, finally yielding to intense public pressure, voted to rescind permission to build the track in the park. Next it was proposed to build a track along the Harlem River on the sparsely populated north end of Manhattan. Nobody objected. Public funds were appropriated and $7,000,000 later a splendid new raceway took form along the banks of the Harlem. With wide sidewalks for spectators on both sides of the 95-foot wide dirt track, the Harlem River Speedway opened in July of 1895. Each Sunday portly middle-aged moneybags delighted in showing off their driving skills and horseflesh before large crowds of the less well off. CKG Billings was one of the most admired of these sportsmen and none seemed concerned that the public had paid for the construction and maintenance of the track. Later, early automobiles were banned and were reluctantly permitted in 1919. By 1922 the victorious auto had vanquished the racehorse and the speedway was paved with concrete.

By 1916 Billings had tired of his toys and sold the whole operation to John D Rockefeller Jr for $35,000 per acre. Initially Rockefeller intended to tear down Tryon Hall and give the land to the city to the city for a new park. Inwood and Washington Heights were awash in new apartment houses and a park in the neighborhood was badly needed. Architects protested destruction of the house and the city turned down the offer of a new park, so the house was rented a drug manufacturer named Partos and the sculptor George Grey Barnard took over the stable as his studio.

Barnard had worked in France until war broke out in 1914. While carving a group of heroic-scale figures for the Pennsylvania state house he supported his family by collecting Gothic sculpture and architectural fragments from local farmers and selling them to rich American tourists. When he returned to New York he brought along tons of these stone carvings and eventually built a large brick barn to house them just outside the gates to the Billings estate. To raise funds for military hospitals near the battlefront in France he opened his Medieval display on weekends for the public and called it The Cloisters. An early visitor was his new neighbor, John D Rockefeller Jr, whose passion was medieval architecture. Eventually Rockefeller bought Barnard’s collection, gave it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and funded construction of a new Cloisters atop the old estate. Tryon Hall burned in a spectacular fire in 1926 and the city finally accepted Rockefeller’s gift of the new 67-acre Fort Tryon Park, which opened in 1935. Today its centerpiece is Rockefeller’s superb gift to New York, the magnificent neo-gothic Cloisters museum, the Metropolitan Museum’s only branch, housing George Grey Barnard’s architectural artifacts and much of the museum’s Medieval collection, including another Rockefeller gift, the fabulous Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries.

Billings eventually moved to Santa Barbara, California where he died in 1937. Sherry’s went out of business along with its Fifth Avenue rival, Delmonico’s in 1919, both victims of Prohibition. Robert Moses turned the old speedway into the Harlem River Drive in 1940. All that remains today of the estate is the old gatehouse near the park entrance and, of course, the famous driveway. Its accessible (on foot) from the Heather Gardens in Fort Tryon park and well worth a visit.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Wall Street Bomb and Who Did It

At noon on a fine September day in 1920 the bells of Trinity Church rang out the hour as the sidewalks around Wall and Broad Streets filled with clerks and brokers, runners and secretaries scurrying to lunch. Cars and trucks moved along Wall Street, making way for a heavily laden horse-drawn wagon pulled up at the curb across from the elegant limestone wall of the new Morgan Bank building. The driver had just climbed down from his perch and walked quickly away, disappearing into the crowd headed down the street. He was later described as “an unshaven man in work clothes, wearing a dark cap”. Better dressed Joseph P Kennedy, a young stockbroker at Hayden, Stone & Co., hurried up Broad carrying a brief case stuffed with bond certificates. Before the church bells finished striking the hour the wagon exploded. The load was 100 pounds dynamite laced with of 500 pounds of shrapnel - nails, bolts and cast iron sash weights, hooked up to a time fuse set to go off at noon. A mushroom-shaped cloud of greenish yellow smoke rose 100 feet in the air above the site of a terrorist bombing that killed 31 and injured another 130.
1920 was a year filled with “Red Scare” headlines in all the papers. Public fears were stoked by random anarchist terror bombings in America and the brutal murder of the Tsar and his family by Bolsheviks in Russia. The president had been incapacitated by a crippling stroke (a fact kept secret from the public by his wife and his doctor) so his Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer was free to arrest thousands and deport hundreds of suspected anarchist and socialist immigrants in the notorious “Palmer Raids”. In May they arrested two anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Massachusetts for armed robbery and murder as well as complicity in bombing attempts on Palmer and a US senator. Sacco and Vanzetti’s friend and comrade, Mario Buda, swore revenge. Many scholars agree that Buda is the most likely candidate for planning the Wall Street attack. He fit eyewitness descriptions of the mysterious disappearing driver of the lethal wagon.
At the time nobody was ever charged with the bombing, even after an exhaustive investigation by the Bureau of Investigation, led by Francis Garvan and his young protégé, J. Edgar Hoover. Garvan rests today in a splendid John Russell Pope designed Greek temple - one of Woodlawn Cemetery’s grandest mausoleums. Joseph Kennedy never forgot being knocked flat on the sidewalk by the bomb concussion, his bond certificates scattering over Broad Street. The scars are still on that elegant limestone wall but the Morgan Bank, Mario Buda’s hated target, is now being converted into Phillipe Stark designed luxury condominiums. As for Mario, today some consider him “the father of the car bomb”. Shortly after the bombing he evidently escaped to Italy, where he lived out his days in his native village of Savignano di Puglia. Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted by the state of Massachusetts in 1927. In 1977 Massachusetts Governor Dukakis proclaimed August 23 Sacco and Vanzetti Day.

Charlotte Temple - Seduced and Abandoned in Old New York

Just inside the Broadway fence of Trinity Churchyard lies a slab of New Jersey Brownstone with a simple inscription, CHARLOTTE TEMPLE. It marks an empty grave and the name on the stone is that of a fictional character in the most widely read novel in America until the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851. This unusual artifact of old New York was a major place of pilgrimage for more than fifty years. It was said that the grass grew greener around the grave, watered by the tears of visitors as women and men would gather there, heads bowed and weeping, remembering the tragic tale told in Susanna Rowson’s 1791 novel Charlotte, A Tale of Truth. Mrs Rowson’s story is a thinly disguised version of real people and actual events that occurred on the eve of America’s War for Independence.
One of the actual protagonists in the story was a British military officer who was the sympathetic last confidant of the inept American spy, Nathan Hale. He was also the cartographer who drew up the definitive map of New York City at the end of the colonial era. Lieutenant John Montresor was a military engineer arriving in New York in 1765 and attached to the staff of Commanding General Thomas Gage when New York was His Majesty’s military headquarters for the American colonies. Montresor had a wife and family in New York and had purchased an island in the East River for their home (today its called Randall’s Island but then it was named Montresor’s Island). Gage commissioned Montresor to survey the city, along with the harbor and its islands and to draw up a large-scale military map. This during a time of turmoil following the hated Stamp Act, a time of riots when patriot mobs often tangled in the streets with the arrogant British troops.
In 1774 he took a few months leave from the army to travel alone to London to find a publisher for his new map of the city. During his visit he met a beautiful young woman, Charlotte Stanley. She was the teen-aged daughter of a prominent Anglican cleric, and they promptly fell in love. Still in school when they met, she left everything behind to elope with her dashing lieutenant and sail away to America. He delayed in telling her that he was married and the father of several children until they arrived in New York. He installed the now pregnant Charlotte in a rented house near Chatham Square at the corner of Pell Street and the Bowery.
In Boston patriots had dumped the East India Company’s valuable tea into Boston Harbor and Parliament ordered Gage to take the army north to get control of the situation. In early December of 1775 Montresor was promoted to captain, made chief engineer of the army, and promptly sent to Boston.
In his absence he arranged for a fellow officer to take care of Charlotte and he left him money to cover her expenses. His fellow officer had other ideas. He kept the money and intended to have Charlotte for himself. Although destitute, she spurned his advances and late in December she was evicted from Chatham Square. The baby was due soon and Charlotte was ill and homeless. Kindly neighbors took her in just as her father arrived from London, searching for his wayward daughter. He found her in a hovel at what is now 24 Bowery a few days before she gave birth to her daughter. She died in childbirth and the Reverend Stanley buried his only daughter in Trinity Churchyard. The grieving father returned to England with his new grandchild.
By the spring of 1776, after their pyrrhic victory at Bunker Hill, the British commanders realized that the American siege of Boston had succeeded and their position there was untenable, so they sailed off for Nova Scotia and Montresor returned to his family in New York. Filled with remorse, he was the only visitor to Charlotte’s lonely grave.
In June the British army returned to the city in force, defeated the patriots in August at the Battle of Brooklyn and captured the lower half of Manhattan on September 15. Washington’s army was encamped on the heights at the northern end of Manhattan when Captain Nathan Hale, a young American officer from Connecticut, volunteered to return to the occupied city as a spy to scout British army deployment. Just after midnight in the early morning of September 21 fire broke out in a tavern at the Whitehall docks and swept through the largely wooden buildings to the west of Broadway, consuming Trinity church and a quarter of the city. Certain that patriot incendiaries had set the fire, the new British commander, General William Howe was furious and when Hale was captured the next day Howe was determined to make an example of the neophyte spy. A peremptory trial was held in the greenhouse of the Beekman Mansion and Captain Hale was taken to be hanged in a temporary artillery park set up next to the Sign of the Dove Tavern on the Boston Post Road (present-day Third Avenue).
Captain Montresor had his marquee set up at the edge of the artillery park. As the scaffold was being constructed he noticed the strikingly calm young man, hands tied and feet shackled,quietly standing unafraid in the sun, awaiting his execution. It was a hot and humid morning and there was little shade available so Montresor took pity on Hale and invited him to wait in the shade of his marquee. Hale spent his last hours talking to the British officer and writing farewell letters to his family. It was Montresor who heard the young captain say his last words,”What a pity it is that we can die but once to serve our country.” He was so moved by Hale’s grace and courage that early that evening the British captain crossed into the enemy lines under a flag of truce and informed General Washington’s adjutant, a very young Captain Alexander Hamilton, of the particulars of Hale’s arrest, execution and his now famous last words.
Like many of the British officers in the colonies during the war, John Montresor profited from his position during the occupation of New York and left for England in 1779 with (it was said at the time) one hundred thousand pounds sterling. Three of his children had died in New York of yellow fever, his house on Montresor’s Island had burned in 1777 and the island was later confiscated by the new government. Parliament eventually asked for their money back and by 1799 his fortunes were reversed and he died in England, in debtor’s prison.
Montresor might have carried his guilty secret to the grave, but his cousin, Susanna Rowson, a sometime actress and novelist, heard rumors in the family about cousin John’s dalliance with Charlotte. After more inquiries she learned many details from a woman who had known the poor girl in New York, a now elderly Mrs Beauchamp. Changing the names-Charlotte Stanley became Charlotte Temple and Captain Montresor became Captain Montraville-her novel went through 200 editions and became a best seller for decades. New York readers soon learned that the wildly popular novel was based on a true story and began making pilgrimages to Trinity Churchyard to visit the real Charlotte’s grave.
A lovely young Englishwoman found her way to the churchyard early in 1801. Her name was Lucy and she was Charlotte’s daughter. She had made a pledge to her grandfather and had returned to New York to bring her mother home. Charlotte’s coffin was disinterred and sent to England for burial in the family plot and Lucy left a silver-plated brass plaque bolted to the brownstone slab, engraved with the name Charlotte Stanley and the family coat of arms -marking an empty grave.
In 1846 the present Trinity Church was built and in the confusion of construction the brass plaque disappeared. The supervisor of the cemetery ordered his crew to chisel CHARLOTTE TEMPLE into the slab, as this was the name that most visitors knew.
In the 1840’s a regular visitor to the grave was a young journalist from Baltimore, Edgar Allan Poe. Like many New Yorkers of the time Poe was moved by the tragic tale and decided to create an appropriate fictional punishment for the story’s villain, the officer who had withheld Montresor’s money from the destitute Charlotte. He worked this character (whom Poe named ”Fortunato”) into one of his classic tales,“The Cask of Amontillado”. His story’s character “Montresor” has delicious vengeance on his deceitful former friend “Fortunato” by sealing him alive in a wine cellar. In real life Captain Montresor killed his deceitful former friend in a swordfight.
Today Poe’s story is remembered but Charlotte’s is mostly forgotten…perhaps one day you might stop by Trinity Churchyard and leave a rose on her empty grave.

A Punchbowl on the Quarterdeck: The Forgotten Naval Battles Off Jeffrey’s Hook

Decorated with graffiti, a small column of boulders stands on a weed-choked ledge behind the east tower of the George Washington Bridge. The barely legible marker on the column reads, “American Redoubt / Fort Washington Chapter / Daughters of the American Revolution / 1910”. Overlooking the Hudson, this forgotten little monument is the only reminder on Manhattan of the dramatic naval engagements during the American Revolution that occurred on the river below, literally a stone’s throw from the rock point of Jeffrey’s Hook, the site of the Little Red Lighthouse. A moon-shaped battery, a one-gun “lunette”, stood where the lighthouse stands today. About 100 yards up the steep hill, to the northeast, was a sharpshooter’s redoubt, where the little stone column stands today.

More than once in the summer and fall of 1776 squadrons of British warships forced passage on the Hudson past the blazing cannons of Fort Lee, Fort Washington, the lunette battery and the rifle redoubt. These were the most significant naval engagements ever to occur in New York’s waters and they happened in the half-mile wide section of the river directly under the present day George Washington Bridge.

At the beginning of the war an essential British strategy in the battle for New York was control of the Hudson River, the central link between New England and the middle colonies. The American strategy was to choke off the North River section of the Hudson at its narrowest point, between the Jersey Palisades to the west and Jeffrey’s Hook on the east to prevent the Royal Navy’s passage up the river. Many years later the engineer Othmar Ammann chose this same advantageous site for his great bridge.

In the spring of 1776 the Americans built a large pentagonal earthen and timber fort on Mt Washington, the highest natural point on Manhattan Island, 220 feet above the river, and named it for the new Commander-in-chief, George Washington. On the New Jersey side two forts were constructed, Fort Lee, behind the natural ramparts of the Palisades and another atop the 300-foot cliff overlooking the Hudson, a barbette battery of 32-pounder cannons along with smaller field pieces. Ft Washington’s big guns were well within range of the river and additional smaller cannons were mounted in a battery above Jeffrey’s Hook. All together these batteries sprouted 100 cannons. In July hulks of ships were sunk in the shallower western side of the river and chained to Chevaux de Frise, ingenious wooden structures fitted with iron-spiked spears capable of piercing the hulls of oncoming warships. A secret opening in the Chevaux de Frise, to the east and just off Jeffrey’s Hook, was provided for friendly vessels to pass. This kind of obstruction had worked in the Delaware River below Philadelphia. The HMS Augusta, a 44-gun British man-of-war became ensnared in the trap and American shore batteries, firing “hot shot” into the wooden decks, set it afire, igniting the powder magazine and blowing up the ship.

In June of 1776, carrying an army of 40,000 men, the British fleet began arriving in the harbor and its commander, Admiral Lord Richard Howe (known to his men as “Black Dick” because of his swarthy complexion), arrived in late June with a squadron of ships-of-the-line, the world’s most fearsome war machines. By the first week in July, just in time for the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence, hundreds of warships and transports were in the upper bay and the army encamped on Staten Island.

Admiral Howe needed to cut off the American supply line of the North River to control the upper Hudson above Manhattan and he decided to do something about it. At 3:00 in the afternoon of July 12 the 44-gun HMS Phoenix, under 36-year old Captain Hyde Parker and the 22-gun HMS Rose sailed into the river’s mouth on the incoming tide with a brisk wind from the south. Cannons at the Battery opened fire and more guns from the shore batteries at Paulus Hook to the west joined in. Parker responded with broadsides of ball and canister from both warships and continued firing into the city all the way to Greenwich Village, terrifying the citizens. It was said that the smell of powder hung in the air for hours and numerous roofs were ripped open by the cannonballs. Six men manning the artillery on the Battery were killed when one of their cannons exploded. They were buried in a single grave on the Bowling Green. By 3:30 the British ships passed the unfinished forts near Jeffrey’s Hook, the American cannons having little effect. Captain Parker celebrated on the quarterdeck of the Phoenix with a bowl of punch for his officers as they passed up the river, unscathed, past the roaring cannons.

Parker’s squadron sailed on to anchor in the Tappan Zee for the next month until, on the night of August 16, American fire ships nearly succeeded in burning his ships. The next day they weighed anchor and sailed back to the safety of the fleet off Staten Island but Howe continued to be concerned about the newly strengthened fortifications being built to block the river.

At 8:00 on the morning of October 9 Parker’s squadron, anchored for weeks in the river off Striker’s Bay, at the foot of present day 96th Street, set sail up the Hudson to test the new works at Jeffrey’s Hook. The Phoenix, followed by the 44-gun Roebuck, the 22-gun Tartar and several tenders, had a guest aboard - a brother to the ferryman at Burdett’s Ferry. He knew the American defenses in the river well and for a reward offered to guide Parker’s squadron through the secret opening in the Cheveaux-de-Frise. This time the Americans were prepared with 100 cannons on both sides of the river and sharpshooters from Moses Rawlings Maryland and Virginia Riflemen armed with Kentucky long rifles in the redoubt above the river. At about 8:30 the flotilla came near Jeffrey’s Hook, sailing in 12 fathoms in the channel to the east of the Cheveaux-de-Frise and about 40 yards from the shore. Cannons from both forts opened fire, grapeshot and ball from the forts and lethal chainshot from an eighteen-pounder in the lunette battery to the east. Chainshot ripped through rigging and sails and balls took out mizzenmasts. The Roebuck had her topmast shot away and all of the ships were shot through their hulls several times by 9:30 when the ships finally passed out of range of the American batteries. Fourteen sailors and four officers were killed and more wounded. There was no punchbowl on the quarterdeck that morning.

King George knighted Captain Hyde Parker for his daring exploits and Parker went on to a distinguished career in the Royal Navy. Fort Washington fell to an assault by German soldiers under General von Knyphausen just after noon on November 15. 2800 Americans were taken prisoner by the combined British and Hessian troops that stormed the gates. The fate of the prisoners was grim as they were marched down to temporary prisons in New York. Few of the soldiers survived imprisonment in Bridewell Prison and the sugar houses. With unashamed tears, General Washington watched from the barbette battery on the palisade cliffs as the red and white American flag atop Mt Washington came down across the river. Standing with Washington on that sad day were Generals Mercer, Putnam, Greene and Greene’s aide-de-camp, a junior officer named Thomas Paine. In The Crisis Paine describes the bitter retreat from Fort Lee and the army’s flight across New Jersey to safety over the Delaware River at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. It was there, using the head of a drum as his writing desk, that he wrote his immortal lines,“These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
General Washington ordered his officers to read Paine’s words to the soldiers on Christmas Eve, 1776 – the night before the army crossed the ice-choked Delaware to victory over the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton.

Fort Lee was captured by Lord Cornwallis on November 20 and the battle for New York was over.

Fort Lee is gone today-its earthen ramparts have vanished under the streets and buildings of the modern city of Fort Lee, New Jersey. After over 200 years not a trace of the old fort remains. However, the barbette battery position on the Palisade cliff 300 feet above the river is still there and can be visited today at the Fort Lee Historic Park, a quarter mile east of the site of the old fort. The 33 acre park includes a small museum with artifacts from the 18th century such as examples of chain shot and grape shot canisters along with maps that illustrate the events of 1776. A barbette battery, complete with a working cannon, again looks out over the river just as it did when the British ships challenged the American defenses.

The present day site of Fort Washington at 184th Street on the highest natural point on Manhattan Island has been preserved. The earthen walls are gone, but one of the stone bastions has been reconstructed and the footprint of the fort is marked with granite paving.