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.