Category Archives: Wartime New York

Heroine of the century: A New Jersey woman saves lives during terrible explosion

On the afternoon on January 11, 1917, workers in downtown Manhattan skyscrapers were jolted from their desks by a startling sight in New Jersey — an exploding munitions plant in Kingsland, a small community about nine miles south of New York City.

“For four hours Northern New Jersey, New York City, Westchester and the western end of Long Island listened to a bombardment that approximated the squad of a great battle — a bombardment in which probably half a million three-inch high explosive shells were discharged.” (New York Times)

A map from the New York Tribune:

A Canadian company Canadian Car and Foundry had been producing weaponry for Russia and Great Britain in Kingsland. All of it went up in a dramatic and deathly burst. Two square miles of town completely flattened.

Given the dangerous work of manufacturing exploding devices, unfortunate accidents occurred all the time. But was this something more? Was this an act of sabotage?

A slightly less interesting map from the New York Sun:

The region had been on edge for a few years. Although the United States had still not yet entered the European conflict, fireworks and munitions plants had been producing weapons for Allied forces — France, the United Kingdom and Russia.  By 1917, America was clearly considered an enemy agent by the warring Germans.

Just a few months earlier, on July 30, 1916, the area shook with the horrific explosion at Black Tom Island in Jersey City, NJ, an act of sabotage that blew out thousands of windows and even damaged the Statue of Liberty. (We recount the entire story in our podcast from 2016 about the Black Tom Explosion.)

Courtesy Lyndhurst Historical Society

Seven people died in that explosion the previous year. But in Kingsland that day, with a deadly blast even greater than that which had occurred at Black Tom, nobody died.

This is attributed to the heroism that day of a single woman — Lyndhurst resident Theresa Louise “Tessie” McNamara.

Tessie was a switchboard operator at the plant that fateful day. The explosions began in a building used for cleaning artillery shells. Once they began, the company’s buildings were a scene of confusion and chaos.

McNamara was immediately informed of the blaze, but kept to her station, broadcasting messages to every building in the complex, even as most others fled the site fearing for their lives.

From the New York Tribune: “McNamara, operator of the Kingsland Central, stayed in her revolving chair, with the receivers clamped to her ears, keeping the terrified town in touch with the outer world until the wires were blasted away.  Then she fainted, with her job well done, and was carried away to safety by Fred Walters, of East Rutherford.”

From the New York Sun: “It was emphasized from a dozen sources that one girl’s bravery stood between many hundreds of men and shocking death.”

From an interview of Miss McNamara: “Shells were dropping all around and I thought every minute would be my last. About a dozen buildings were now on fire and I had completed 36 calls. No more were coming in and I started for the door without coat or hat. Just then three of the boys who had missed me appeared in the office doorway. One of them shouted, ‘Come on now, Tess,’ but I couldn’t walk. My courage left me and I needed their assistance to get out” [source]

The explosion stranded tens of thousands of passengers along train lines in New Jersey. The explosion’s curious timing — at the end of the day, near closing time — meant that trains were filled with commuters on their way home from work.  Nobody was injured, but nobody got home in time for dinner that evening.

This begs the question — was the Kingsland Explosion purposefully set? Nobody was ever arrested, although many reported the mysterious behavior of an employee named Fiodore Wozniak who lived in New York.

From a statement by Wozniak’s foreman: “I noticed that this man Wozniak has quite a large collection of rags and that the blaze started in these rags. I also noticed the he had spilled his pan of alcohol all over the table, just preceding that time. I also noticed that someone threw a pail of liquid on the rags or the table almost immediately in the confusion ….. Whatever the liquid was, it caused the fire to spread very rapidly and the flames dropped down on the floor and in a few minutes, the entire place was in a blaze.

It was my firm conviction from what I saw, and I stated, that the place was set on fire purposely, and that has always been and is my firm belief.”

Wozniak later disappeared and never questioned.

In the 1970s, Germany did pay tens of millions of dollars in reparation for various acts of sabotage within the United States, but did specifically accept the blame for the Kingsland disaster.

Today you can visit a unique site associated with the explosion — a smokestack that somehow survived the disaster, near a plaque dedicated in Miss McNamara’s honor. [More details here]

 

For additional information visit the Lyndhurst  Historical Society page on the disaster.

Governors Island: New York’s newly transformed monument (NPS 100)

This month America celebrates the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, the organization which protects the great natural and historical treasures of the United States. There are a number of NPS locations in the five borough areas. Throughout the next few weeks, we will focus on a few of our favorites.   For more information, you can visit National Parks Centennial for a complete list of parks and monuments throughout the country.  For more blog posts in this series, click here.
The following also features an excerpt from the Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available for sale wherever books are sold and online at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
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GOVERNORS ISLAND NATIONAL MONUMENT
NEW YORK HARBOR

Governors Island has now inched a little closer to becoming an actual exotic island.

The cone-like southern portion, a landfill addition once populated with former U.S. Coast Guard buildings and an airstrip, has now sprouted fanciful hills of various shapes and sizes, providing extremely unique views of the surrounding harbor. The Hills feel both ancient and new, barren of trees but shaped like ancient landmasses which have conveniently emerged from the water, just in time for summer. Palm trees would not feel out of place.

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Graciously carved paths lead from the historic side of the island to these new topographical features, and along the way, you’ll be tempted to stop in the hammock grove or perhaps the urban farm with its tiny population of tiny goats.

The Hills are the latest addition to one of New York’s most secretive historical corners, a new diversion for an island blessed with so many unusual stories.

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Of the three small islands that sit in New York Harbor between Staten Island and Manhattan, two of them (Ellis Island and Liberty Island) have been embedded into the American consciousness as icons of freedom and opportunity. The third, Governors Island, is often overlooked by both visitors and residents.

However, for much of the city’s history, this ice-cream-cone shaped island, separated from Brooklyn by the richly named Buttermilk Channel, has been critically important to the nation’s defense. Fortunately, its most treasured historical landmarks are still around more than 200 years after they were constructed.

In 1624, when the Dutch brought the first settlers to the New World to establish what would become New Netherland, they deposited eight men on this small island, which they named Noten (Nut) Island. It was a convenient spot, just a short rowing distance from the future settlements of New Amsterdam and Breukelen. But it would be the British who would give it the name Governors Island after taking charge of the colony in 1664, as the royal governors of the New York colony would indeed live here.

Governors Island in 1824, the harbor’s military sentry even in times of peace.

Courtesy Museum of City of New York
Courtesy Museum of City of New York

The island would be less hospitable to the British a century later, when in 1776 the Continental Army constructed earthen forts here to ward off British war vessels during the early years of the Revolutionary War. While its guns did scare off two British ships on July 12, 1776, the British succeeded in driving the Continental Army out of New York during the Battle of Long Island. They would occupy Governors Island—and all of New York—throughout the conflict.

In 1783, at the end of the war, the new Americans ushered the British out of the harbor with gusto. But fears of their return continued for decades afterward, presenting the young government
with the alarming thought of New York being recaptured.

A view of Castle Williams from the interior of the island.

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And so, with tensions mounting in the run-up to the War of 1812, two very different fortresses were constructed here. Fort Jay, sitting on the site of the original Revolutionary War defense, was designed like a five-pointed star fort surrounded by a dry moat.

Castle Williams, sitting on the shoreline, was given an almost completely circular shape, punctured with openings for dozens of cannons. Both fortifications have survived and can be visited today, most likely because neither ever saw an actual battle.

Aware of the island’s strategic location for defending the nation’s most important city and harbor, the U.S. Army moved out to Governors Island in the 1830s, and would remain stationed there until 1965.

The shady lawn separating the officers homes from the administrative buildings.

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During the Civil War, the forts were reworked into holding cells for Confederate soldiers, Union deserters, and criminals. Captured Confederate officers were held in relatively posh quarters at Fort Jay while regular soldiers were thrown into the much less comfortable prison at Castle Williams.

As Lower Manhattan developed skyward in the late nineteenth century, the close proximity of two military forts to the nation’s largest city was a bit, well, surreal. Meanwhile a sort of small-town life developed here on the island, and by the 1880s, rows of elegant Victorian brick houses were constructed for Army officers and their families. A genteel life among the cannons!

In the first years of the twentieth century, the island more than doubled in size —the “cone” was added to the ice-cream scoop—with landfill mostly taken from excavations of New York’s subway system, which opened in 1904.

Wright’s historic flight from Governors Island over the harbor to Manhattan.

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Internet Book Archive

This new flat expanse, located so close to lower Manhattan, was an ideal spot for the city’s first airstrip. In 1909 Wilbur Wright lifted off here in his flying machine, coasting around the Statue of Liberty and later up the West Side as far as Grant’s Tomb. It seemed like such a logical base for air transport that in the 1930s Mayor Fiorello La Guardia tried to build the city’s first permanent airport there.

The gigantic Building 400 (later renamed Liggett Hall) was the largest military building in the world when it was completed in 1930. The structure separates the original section of the island from its twentieth-century addition and lends the island something of a college campus feel. You can easily imagine how charming it must have been in the 1940s—there’s even a playhouse where Irving Berlin debuted a revue in 1942 called This Is the Army. Of course, charming revues couldn’t mask a more harrowing reality: The island’s residents were fully engaged in fighting World War II.

The ‘new’ section of Governors Island does feature a few artifacts from the past.

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In 1966, the island changed administrative hands, as the Coast Guard moved in and increased the population by nearly 4,000 people. The leafy lanes became ever more bucolic, as small-town amenities were added, including a bowling alley and a supermarket.  By 1996, the Coast Guard had departed for roomier shores, leaving the island desolate.

Governors Island had been the property of the federal government since the early nineteenth century. When in 2008 the island was sold to New York City, many wondered what could possibly become of the now-abandoned settlement. That same year the island opened its shores on weekends to visitors—they were free to explore, often with great astonishment, some of the empty structures, as if they were wandering ancient ruins.

Today, after more than a decade of thoughtful preservation and promotion, thousands of New Yorkers enjoy the island during the summer, visiting the officers’ homes (now home to arts and music groups), newly landscaped parks (in the landfilled “cone” section), and weekend arts and food festivals.

And after all this time, Fort Jay and Castle Williams, now maintained by the National Park Service, still stand watch over the harbor. Oh, the things they’ve seen.

WANT MORE INFORMATION? Visit the NPS Governors Island National Monument site for more information, as well as the Governors Island Alliance.

LISTEN TO OUR PODCAST! We have an entire show on the history of Governors Island. It’s Episode #185. You can find it on iTunes or download it from here.

History in the Making 4/14: Debate at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Edition

Big Bowery Boys book news! The release date for Adventures In Old New York got pushed back to June a couple weeks but for the best reason ever — the book is enormous, almost 500 pages, and full of spectacular images. It’s really shaping up to become an attractive, entertaining and usable book. We cannot wait for you to see it.

You can pre-order the book on Amazon, Barnes and Noble or at your local book store. On Amazon you can buy it for a discount with Hamilton: The Revolution, the official book of the Hamilton musical! The book is also going to be available digitally, and you can already pre-order it for the Nook.

The Tale of Belvedere:  Meanwhile I was featured on a recent episode of the Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the Castle, talking about the history of Belvedere Castle, the dreamlike ‘folly’ in Central Park. It was Episode 3.13, originally broadcast on March 31.  You can catch it in reruns, watch it on-demand or on iTunes!

Below: Central Park’s fairytale weather station in a postcard dated sometime early 1900s

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

Some links that you may find of interest;

Treasure Hunt: Where in New York City you can find beautiful examples of Gaustavino’s amazing tile work — from grand spaces (or, more specifically, Grand Central) to hallowed halls (the Cathedral of St. John the Divine). [Gothamist]

On Montague: A unique view of Brooklyn  Heights in the 1970s/ [Brooklyn Historical Society]

Now Playing: The tale of one of New York’s most unique performance spaces — the Neighborhood Playhouse in the Lower East Side. [Daytonian In Manhattan]

Opening This Week: Class Divide, a movie about the High Line and the gentrification in Chelsea. [Vanishing New York]

Coming up tomorrow: The new Bowery Boys podcast. Tom goes on the road to find the food of the past!

And now, in honor of tonight’s historical Democratic presidential debate at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a look at some less volatile events there over the years. (Yes, these are pictures during times of war. Modern campaigning is tough!):

These images are all courtesy Library of Congress, dated between 1910-1920

Launch of the USS New Mexico — April 1917

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A few images of Japan’s Admiral Togo Heihachiro touring the Navy Yard in August 1911:

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Armed up on the USS New York with visiting children during Christmas.

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At the launch of the USS Arizona, June 1915

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Danger in the Harbor: World War I and the Black Tom Explosion of 1916

PODCAST The tale of the Black Tom Explosion which sent shrapnel into the Statue of Liberty and rocked the region around New York harbor. 

On July 30, 1916, at just after 2 in the morning, a massive explosion ripped apart the island of Black Tom on the shoreline near Jersey City, sending a shockwave through the region and thousands of pounds of wartime shrapnel into the neighboring Ellis Island and Bedloe’s Island (home to the Statue of Liberty).

Thousands of windows were shattered in the region, and millions woke up wondering what horrible thing had just happened.

The terrifying disaster was no accident; this was the sabotage of German agents, bent on eliminating tons of munitions that were being sent to the Allied powers during World War I.  Although America had not yet entered the war, the United States was considered an enemy combatant thanks to weapons manufactures in the New York region and around the country.

But the surprising epicenter of German spy activity was in a simple townhouse in the neighborhood of Chelsea.

ALSO: New Yorkers still feel the ramifications of the Black Tom Explosion today at one of America’s top tourist attractions.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #197: DANGER IN THE HARBOR: THE BLACK TOM EXPLOSION

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The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

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The location of Black Tom Island in relation to Jersey City, circa 1880.

Courtesy New Jersey City University
Courtesy New Jersey City University/ Prepared for the National Board of Health, Washington, D.C.(Hoboken, N.J.: Spielmann & Brush, 1880)

 

The Statue of Liberty in relation to Black Tom (situated in the background) in 1912

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

 

The view of Jersey City from a skyscraper in downtown Manhattan, 1918.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

Images of the grim aftermath of the explosion (courtesy Liberty State Park):

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Associated Press
Associated Press

 

This series of photos (courtesy Library of Congress) shows the efforts of divers and salvagers looking for remaining munitions that had sunk into the harbor!

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The front page of the New York Tribune the following day:

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The Kingsland munitions explosion of January 11, 1917, caused millions of dollars in damage, but no lives were lost thanks to the efforts of a single switchboard operator named Tessie McNamara who stayed at her post throughout the disaster.

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To give you some idea of the size of the Statue of Liberty’s torch, here’s a picture of its replacement during the 1984 renovation. It can only be accessed via a very narrow stairway.

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Adventures on Governors Island

PODCAST What can you find on Governors Island?  Almost 400 years of action-packed history!  This island in New York Harbor has been at the heart of the city’s defense since the days of the Revolutionary War, and its story takes us back to the very beginnings of European occupation in America.

Its two fortifications — Castle Williams and Fort Jay — still stand there today, evidence of a time when New York was constantly under threat of attack and invasion. During the Civil War, these structures served as prisons for Confederate soldiers.

The rest of the island was a base for the U.S. Army for almost 150 years before ceding to the Coast Guard in the 1960s. Their community transformed the island into a charming small town, quite the contrast with the city across the water!

Today Governors Island has become an exciting park ground and events area, hosting art, music festivals and Jazz Age picnics.  But its  history remains evident all around. In this show, we head out to Governors Island for an exploration of its magnificent story firsthand.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #185: Adventures on Governors Island

___________________________________________________________________________

The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

Starting this month, we are doubling our number of episodes per month. Now you’ll hear a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

________________________________________________________________________

A depiction of Fort Columbus (Fort Jay) in 1816. Published in D.T. Valentine’s Manual, 1860.

Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

 

A view of Castle Williams and New York Harbor, painted in 1820

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Another view of Governors Island, this time from Manhattan, a watercolor made in 1825

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

Governors Island in a photograph taken by Matthew Brady sometime during the Civil War.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Prince Louis of Battenberg arriving at Governor’s Island with Rear admiral Robley Evans during his 1905 visit to New York.

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

Castle Williams, seen in 1905

Photo by the George Eastman House, courtesy Library of Congress
Photo by the George Eastman House, courtesy Library of Congress

 

An illustration made in the 1910s laying out what Governors Island would look like after its landfill expansion. As you can see Liggett Hall has not yet been conceived!

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

Colonels Row, photo taken in 1913. This area pretty much looks exactly like this today!

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

 

Troop training on Governors Island, with Lady Liberty positioned neatly in the background.

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Here’s an interesting view of the south side of island from 1924.

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

Inside Castle Williams in the 1920s

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Governors Island made a striking contrast to the city even in the 1930s!

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York
Photo by Samuel H. (Samuel Herman) Gottscho.  Officer's apartments, Governors Island, N.Y. 3/4 view cannon foreground. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Photo by Samuel H. (Samuel Herman) Gottscho.
Officer’s apartments, Governors Island, N.Y. 3/4 view cannon foreground. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The exterior of Castle Williams in 1936, still serving as a disciplinary barracks at this time.

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A beautiful engraving by Charles W. Beck of Manhattan from the vantage of the Governors Island shoreline (although it looks a bit too close if you ask me!)

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

Flying over Governors Island in 1937, the two forts in view and a clear dividing line seen between the old section and the new section of the island.

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From the vantage of 60 Wall Street, looking south toward New York Harbor and Governor’s Island. Taken by the Wurts Brothers.

 

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Museum of the City of New York

 

 

 

 

New York: The City of Forts

The vestiges of America’s oldest wars surround us to this day.

New York City has had more military fortifications contained within it than perhaps any other major American city. Part of this has to do with its roots in the American Revolution and the subsequent fears of a return invasion in the early 19th century.

Today’s existing forts — and those that remain in part or in ruin — make for a stark architectural contrast to the modern city. Their walls of stone and brick may conjure up a history far older than New York’s or images of a made-up fantasy world. You could pretend, for a few moments, to be a character on Game of Thrones while exploring places like Fort Wadsworth or Castle Williams on Governors Island

Here’s a list of some of the best known forts in the New York City area. Most are still around in some form. Some exist only in commemorative markers.  Others are completely gone but they leave their names as a reminder of their existence.  How many of these have you seen in person?

1 Fort Wadsworth
Location: Staten Island
Placed at a strategic site on the Narrows, Wadsworth and its associated defense buildings are perhaps the most dramatic military remains in New York City. It traces to an old Revolutionary War-era fort called Flagstaff Fort.  While it serves minor military functions to this day, Wadsworth has become a popular Staten Island attraction.

1979, photographed by Edmund V. Gillon, Museum of the City of New York
1979, photographed by Edmund V. Gillon, Museum of the City of New York


2 Fort Jay (formerly Fort Columbus) 
Location: Governor Island
A star fort constructed from an original 1776 earthen defense. In 1806 its name was changed to Fort Columbus and changed back in the 20th century.

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3 Castle Williams
Location: Governors Island
Specifically designed in 1807-1811 to defend the harbor from probable British invasion. While the British did invade America during the battles of the War of 1812, New York was spared. Today, its maintained by the National Park Service, as is Fort Jay.

1936, by Samuel Gottscho, courtesy Museum of the City of New York
1936, by Samuel Gottscho, courtesy Museum of the City of New York


4 Fort Gibson (or Crown Fort)
Location: Ellis Island
Built by the Army in 1795 and greatly upgraded in 1809 as part of the beefing up of harbor defenses. It was dismantled by the 1860s although the island was used to hold naval munitions for decades before its transformation into Ellis Island Immigration Station.  Today you can find exposed ruins outside the main building.

Courtesy NPS
Courtesy NPS

5 Fort Wood
Location: Liberty Island
This too was completed during the 1810s and was later named for Eleazer Derby Wood, an officer killed at a battle at the Battle of Lake Erie in 1814. Today the Statue of Liberty and her pedestal are affixed atop of the old fort. You can see a trace of the original brickwork on an exposed wall near the exit.

New York Public Library
New York Public Library


6 Castle Clinton
Location: Manhattan (Battery Park)
Lower Manhattan was formerly guarded by Fort Amsterdam/Fort George, but that had been dismantled in 1790. (It stood where the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House is today.) Castle Clinton — named for Governor DeWitt Clinton — was built in 1808-1811 to protect lower Manhattan.  It was originally set into the water and connected with a footbridge.  After stints as the performance hall Castle Garden, New York’s pre-Ellis Island immigration station and New  York Aquarium, it sits today as a national monument in its own right.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress


7 Fort Gansevoort
Location: Manhattan (Meat-Packing District)
Also called the White Fort, this forgotten redoubt once flanked the western waterfront, built at the same time as the harbor forts. It was named for General Peter Gansevoort (the grandfather of Herman Melville) and stood here until the 1850s. Nothing remains of this fort today but its name, found on the street which cuts through that area — Gansevoort Street.

New York Public Library
New York Public Library


8 Blockhouse No. 1
Location: Manhattan (Central Park)
This curious little structure stands on the northern end of Central Park, a fortification almost two hundred years old.  Its the oldest structure contained within Central Park (although obviously Cleopatra’s Needle, which was moved here, is much, much older.)

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

9 Fort Washington
Location: Manhattan (Washington Heights)
This fort predates most of the rest, built as a companion for Fort Lee on the New Jersey side. It was here that the Battle of Washington Heights was fought on November 16, 1776, and the fort was captured by the British. While this particular fort is no longer there, some stone walls and a plaque mark its former location. Fort Washington Avenue also pays tribute.

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10 Fort Tryon
Location: Washington Heights
This was actually a northern redoubt that was an extension of Fort Washington. When the British took it over, they renamed it for William Tryon, New York’s last British governor. For some reason, the name just stuck! Its location in preserved in the breathtaking Fort Tryon Park, completed in 1935 and designed by the son of Frederick Law Olmsted.

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11 Fort Sterling
Location: Brooklyn (Brooklyn Heights)
This fort, tracing to the Revolutionary Era, is unique it that it was almost immediately dismantled once the British left.  There was another fort nearby called Fort Brooklyn that lasted a bit longer,demolished by the 1820s to allow for the growth of Brooklyn’s first wealthy neighborhood. Today, near the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, stands small Fort Sterling Park, with a plaque and a flagpole commemorating the location of this critical defense.

12 Cobble Hill Fort
Location: Brooklyn (Cobble Hill neighborhood)
This unusual corkscrew shaped fort — which we talked about in one of our previous ghost story podcasts — is notable for receiving George Washington as he observed his troops during the Battle of Long Island in 1776.  A handsome plaque on the old bank-turned-Trader-Joe’s at Atlantic Avenue and Court Street marks the location of this forgotten fortification.

Courtesy the blog South Brooklyn
Courtesy the blog South Brooklyn

13 Fort Greene
Location: Brooklyn (Fort Greene neighborhood)
There really was a fort here in the area of Fort Greene Park today, on the highest point of the hill, a traditional five-point fortification similar to that on Governors Island. In the 1840s it was torn down to construct one of Brooklyn’s oldest parks — called Washington Park. Oddly enough, the original fort here was called Fort Putnam. There was a Fort Greene (named for Nathaniel Greene) but it was in another area of Brooklyn, closer to today’s area of Boerum Hill.

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

14 Fort Hamilton
Location: Brooklyn (Bay Ridge)
This is the last active military headquarters in the New York City area. Built in the late 1820s-30s, it was named for Alexander Hamilton who was an officer in the Revolutionary War. Although an active site, you can visit the Harbor Defense Museum which is housed here.

Robert Bracklow, Museum of the City of New York
Robert Bracklow, Museum of the City of New York


15 Fort Lafayette

Location: Off the coast of Brooklyn (Bay Ridge)
This imposing island fort was built in the 1810s and named for the Marquis De Lafayette. Like many of New York’s forts, it held Confederate and enemy prisoners during the Civil War. The fort was later dismantled for the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. You can see where it would have stood as the bridge’s Brooklyn-side tower stands on the location today.

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16 Fort Tilden
Location: Brooklyn (Rockaway Beach)
While defenses of various kinds have sat out on Rockaway Beach since the early 19th century, Fort Tilden was fully built up during World War I, named for Samuel J. Tilden. Today its ruins peering through overgrowth can be found near the beach as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.

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17 Fort Schuyler

Location: Bronx
Completed in the 1850s, this unique fortification protected New York for any possible attack from enemies approaching along the Long Island Sound. Abandoned for strictly military use in the 1920s, today it houses the State University of New York Maritime College and a maritime museum.

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York


18 Fort Totten

Location: Queens
This fortification traces to worries relating to the Civil War. It was constructed in 1862 to protect the East River with its companion across the water Fort Schuyler.  You can still visit Fort Totten today as the area has been opened up as a public park with regular tours of the old buildings.

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

 

At top: Fort Lafayette in a painting by Thomas Hicks (1861)

The Arches of Madison Square Park

Memorial arches have been a dramatic way to honor military victories, dating back to the Roman times. Naturally, in a city with abundant Beaux-Arts classical-style architecture, New York has erected its share of grand archways. Two spectacular examples exist today — the Washington Square Arch and the Soldiers and Sailors and Sailors Memorial Arch in Brooklyn.

But the area which has been host to the most arches has been Madison Square Park. Sadly the only arches you can find near here are McDonalds Golden Arches on 23rd Street and Madison.

There are been four total arches here, all of them on Fifth Avenue near the park:

The George Washington Arches – 1889

Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

Two arches celebrating the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration were on Fifth Avenue — one at 23rd Street at the southern side of the park, and another at 26th Street at the northern side.

These, of course, were accompanied by another arch further down Fifth Avenue at Washington Square Park.  That arch, designed by Stanford White, was considerably better received than the Madison Square versions, so much so that White designed a permanent one in 1893.

Below: The 1889 arch up at the northern corner of Fifth Avenue and 26th Street

Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

 

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The Dewey Arch – 1899-1900

This ornate and exceptionally lavish structure was built to commemorate a then-recent event — the victory of Admiral George Dewey at the Battle of Manila Bay, which took place on May 1, 1898.

The Dewey Arch was far showier than the earlier arches: “The great triumphal arch to be erected in this city in honor of the return of Admiral Dewey will not only be worthy of the occasion, but will be the most elaborate and artistic structure of its kind ever attempted here or in Europe.” [NYT]

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Madison Square Garden, just on the other corner of the park, was closed to construct the statue.  For Dewey’s triumphant arrival in New York in late September 1899, the entire city was lit up with ‘fairy lamps‘ to greet the procession.  The fireworks display for the event would be the greatest the city has ever seen.

It seems, however, that the Dewey Arch was massively rushed, built in hot haste according to reports. Although a great many petitioned for a permanent Dewey Arch in its place that winter, people had moved on by the winter of 1900 when it was unceremoniously torn down. 

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

 

 

Courtesy of Museum of City of New York
Courtesy of Museum of City of New York

Victory Arch — 1918-20

By 1918, the area around Madison Square Park was quite a transformed place with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower and the Flatiron Building now in attendance to witness the fourth arch, built to honor those in New York who had died thus far in the battles of World War I.

This arch was equally as ornate as the previous arch occupant, designed by Thomas Hastings (co-architect of the New York Public Library). It was built in wood and plaster and also, apparently, in haste.

Below: The ‘Altar of Jewels’ glowing to signal victory

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At the completion of the war, It was the focal point of a gigantic parade greeting arriving troops on March 25, 1919, a parade which turned quite rowdy. “The greatest crowd that ever gathered in New York City upon any occasion, and the most difficult to handle,” was how the New York Times described it. “The worst point of disorder was the district around the Victory Arch at Twenty-Third Street, where thousands and thousands fought among themselves or combined against the police in an effort to get a vantage point.” [source]

This arch was not spared either. It was soon villified as an icon of wasteful spending by no less than future mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. “The Altar of Liberty was renamed the “Altar of Extravagance,” the Victory Arch “Wasteful Arch,” and the Altar of Jewels — the “Arch of Folly.”  It was ripped down in the summer of 1920, although the damage to the park would last throughout the year. [source]

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

“To the memory of the Brave Soldiers and Sailors Who Saved the Union”

Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument on the Upper West Side has been the centerpiece for Memorial Day commemoration for decades.  Unless you actually live by it, you probably have not been there in years, if at all. It’s a vastly under-appreciated landmark, occasionally vandalized and certainly in need of work.

It owes its form to the great Gilded Age fervor for classical beauty and the aesthetic appeal of Beaux-Arts architecture. Grand war memorials were sprouting up all over New York during this period, most notably he Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza (1892) and Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene (1908).  Then there’s Grant’s Tomb (1897), which owes its existence more to the General’s military career and not so much his scandal-filled presidency.

And similar monuments of such colossal proportion were erected in other cities including Hartford (1886), New Haven (1887), Allentown (1899) Indianapolis (1902), Baltimore (1909)  Syracuse (1910), Pittsburgh (1910), among many others.

Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

Monuments are dandy indicators of civic pride but many were inspired by practical necessity. Most Union veterans were in their ’50s and ’60s by this time many of these memorials were planned. Those that grew up after the war– the sons and daughters of war heroes — wanted to recognize the achievements of a previous generation.  Many of these men (Grant being the notable example) were now prominent citizens in New York.

Its also not a coincidence patriotic feelings were swelling during this period due to conflicts like the Spanish-American War which would later demand their own memorials like the powerful Maine Monument, unveiled in 1913.

1915, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
1915, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

Riverside Drive might seem a curious place to put a Civil War monument. In fact, its location inspired a bit of a civic war itself from the moment it was first planned in 1893.  “THE MONUMENT FIGHT AGAIN” proclaimed the New York Times in 1895, reporting on a rivalry between  members of the Upper East Side Association and the Upper West Side Association.

I mean, in 1895, didn’t it make sense to place it on Fifth Avenue, the most prominent and wealthy street in the world? Proponents chose Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, the entrance to Central Park, as the ideal spot. “It is rather amusing to hear …. grounds for opposition in view of what was said in front of the Commissioners when the west side men wanted to locate the monument on the Riverside Drive and Seventy-Second Street…..[T]hey charged that the Plaza was not suitable because the monument would be surrounded by buildings that would dwarf it.”

Supports of the Riverside site claimed that the foundations would not be sturdy enough near the park, an amusing remark given the skyscraper boom which would take over Midtown Manhattan in the 20th century.  In particular, naval officers bristled at the Fifth Avenue site which was almost as far from the site of water that one could get in Manhattan.

Had the eastsiders won, we would have gotten a Soldier’s and Sailors Monument that looked like this on the spot of today’s Grand Army Plaza:

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By 1899, years after the project was conceived, proponents of the west side finally won out.  The monument was planned for a spot in the newly developed Riverside Park known as Mount Tom, a “very beautiful little knoll of natural rock,” believed to have been a spot of quiet contemplation for one Edgar Allen Poe (who lived nearby in 1844).  That was at Riverside Drive and 83rd Street.  Eventually that too was deemed inadequate, and the preparations were then moved to the present location at 89th Street.

Given the new location, the monument was redesigned by the firm of Straughton and Straughton as a circular temple adorned with Corinthian columns. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument was officially dedicated on Memorial Day 1902:

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Here are a couple views of its dedication ceremony in 1902:

Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

 

Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

 

The final monument is absolutely beautiful, of noble design, but was not well constructed.  Repairs were necessary less than five years later, and the structure has gone through several alterations.  This New York Times article gives you a look inside the monument and reviews some current efforts to rescue the building from further deterioration.

The weather’s supposed to be spectacular this holiday weekend, so make that a good excuse to visit this unusual and charming little memorial.

Photo by Renee Bieretz, courtesy the Library of Congress
Photo by Renee Bieretz, courtesy the Library of Congress

 

And finally, a mysterious post card from the New York Public Library collection. Note the caption:

index

 

 

 

In 1914, a Jersey City fireworks and munitions plant exploded. Was it sabotage by the Germans?

One hundred years ago today, the Detwiller & Street fireworks plant, located in the Greenville section of Jersey City, exploded in a horrible shower of fire and glass.  Four men were killed instantly and dozens of employees were injured.  Several surrounding buildings “fell to pieces like houses of cards.”   The rumble shook buildings throughout the city, up to Weehawken and even into Manhattan and Staten Island. [sources]

This was the sad, weird reality of munitions plants in the New York metropolitan area.  Staten Island was one of America’s largest producers of fireworks and saw its share of disasters, including a 1907 explosion in Graniteville.

But there was one huge difference between the 1907 Graniteville disaster and the 1914 Jersey City explosion — World War I.  Fireworks manufacturers during the war also produced munitions.  As the United States wasn’t yet engaged in the European conflict, some manufacturers were hired directly by the Allied nations.

The New York Tribune notes the unwillingness of executives to talk about the blast, and eventually the plant’s superintendent was eventually charged with “violations of the Crimes act, which makes it unlawful to store high explosives within 1,000 feet of a  highway unless in a fireproof vault.”

From the Evening World, October 3, 1914:

While the press reports of the day never explicitly mention Detwiller & Street’s munitions productions, it’s clear from later incidents that this was probably at least part of the plant’s output that year.  Another explosion at the very same plant in 1917 killed nine, all women.  A safety report clearly indicates then that “[t]he company is engaged in the manufacture of munitions for the Russian government.”  On hand to rescue some of the women was a Russian munitions inspector. [source]

This naturally leads to a more disturbing question — was the 1914 explosion sabotage by the German?

An early postcard from 1873.  The New York based Detwiller & Street specialized in “fireworks, time danger signals, railroad track torpedoes, etc.”  They were also responsible for the spectacular fireworks display at the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge.

That’s one suggestion according to a 1918 book The German Secret Service In America 1914-1918, listing a set of suspicious fireworks accidents in New Jersey before Oct. 3, 1914, Jersey City disaster. While these early accidents may have been due to increased munitions contracts in the hands of inexperienced employees, the authors admit ominously, “These explosions were the opening guns.”

German orders from that year make clear the focus on American targets.  From the German Secret Service book: “[A] circular dated November 18, issued by German Naval Headquarters to all naval agents throughout the world, ordered mobilized all ‘agents who are overseas and all destroying agents in ports where vessels carrying war material are loaded in England, France, Canada, the United States and Russia.”

This had horrible consequence for the United States and those plants in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania in particular, leading to the greatest act of sabotage prior to America’s involvement in World War I — the Black Tom Explosion. (Pictured above: Aftermath of the Black Tom Explosion, courtesy Liberty State Park)

On July 30, 1916, a munitions depot on Black Tom pier in Jersey City was set ablaze by German agents.  The resulting explosion killed seven people on neighboring Ellis Island  in Jersey City and ricocheted through the metropolitan area, shattering windows in Times Square and over at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and shaking people from their beds in Brooklyn.  The Statue of Liberty also suffered damage from this act of sabotage.

And so it’s hard to read accounts of the Jersey City explosion from one hundred years ago and not imagine the possibility of sinister intention.

 

History in the Making 9/25: Music Made For War Edition

During World War II, Steinway and Sons produced specially-built pianos for the American troops.  Called the Victory Vertical or G.I. Steinways, the pianos were sometimes airdropped onto battlefields to provide a bit of relaxation to troops.  They were manufactured in Steinway’s Queen-based factory and mostly sold to the U.S. government.  More pictures below of the pianos in Steinway’s Manhattan showroom:

Meanwhile, some links of interest….

Exxxxcellent: Seventeen years ago, the Simpsons visited the Big Apple in the episode “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson.” As you may remember, the World Trade Center is featured in a central gag.  [Gothamist]

Still in ‘Power’:  Robert Caro’s The Power Broker turns forty years old this month and reminds a searing, indispensable read. [Salon]

Men in the ‘Moon’:  The imposing roster of the Half Moon Club, an obscure gentleman’s club of the Gilded Age, featured the most important men of New York [New York Historical Society]

Dangerous Mission:  The incredible story behind a newly discovered photograph of a Southern slave in a Confederate uniform. [Smithsonian]

Saturday Matinee:  The extraordinary Valencia movie palace in Jamaica, Queens, is being opened for a rare preview by its current owners the Tabernacle of Prayer Church.  The tour may already be filled up, but call anyway! If they get enough interest, perhaps they’ll start offering regular tours. [Scouting New York]

Opening Soon:  The list of participating sites and events for the 2014 Open House New York will be available next Tuesday, September 30. [OHNY]

A Real Meat Market: Photos by Richard Ovaduke of a very different Meat-Packinig District. [Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York]

Towering: An extraordinary castle on the Upper West Side that once served as New York’s first cancer hospital. [Gizmodo]

Below: On display at the Steinway showroom on 57th Street:

Pictures courtesy the Steinway and Sons Photo Collection at the San Diego Air-Space Museum