Tag Archives: fires

The Story of SoHo: The Iron-Clad History of ‘Hell’s Hundred Acres’

PODCAST The history of SoHo, New York’s 19th century warehouse district turned shopping mecca

Picture the neighborhood of SoHo (that’s right, South of Houston) in your head today, and you might get a headache. Crowded sidewalks on the weekend, filled with tourists, shoppers and vendors, could almost distract you from SoHo’s unique appeal as a place of extraordinary architecture and history.

On this podcast we present the story of how a portion of “Hell’s Hundred Acres” became one of the most famously trendy places in the world.

In the mid 19th century this area, centered along Broadway, became the heart of retail and entertainment, department stores and hotels setting up shop in grand palaces. (It also became New York’s most notorious brothel district). The streets between Houston and Canal became known as the Cast Iron District, thanks to an exciting construction innovation that transformed the Gilded Age.

Today SoHo contains the world’s greatest surviving collection of cast-iron architecture. But these gorgeous iron tributes to New York industry were nearly destroyed – first by rampant fires, then by Robert Moses. Community activists saved these buildings, and just in time for artists to move into their spacious loft spaces in the 1960s and 70s. The artists are still there of course but these once-desolate cobblestone streets have almost unrecognizably changed, perhaps a victim of its own success.

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 Google MusicStitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #232: THE STORY OF SOHO

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A map of the Bayard farm and how it was broken up and carved into the streets we know today.

Niblo’s Garden, located at Broadway and Prince Streets, was one of the finest theaters along Broadway in the area of today’s SoHo.

Looking north along Broadway between Grand and Broome Street. The St. Nicholas Hotel is the white structure in the center of the photo.

Photo attributed to Silas A Holmes

 

An auction poster from 1872 advertising a property on Broome Street and “South Fifth Avenue or Laurens Street” — today’s West Broadway.

MCNY

 Here is that corner at 504-506 Broome Street — in 1935 (photo by Berenice Abbott). Per Sean Sweeney on Facebook: “The two buildings were demolished and for years were a parking lot. Now a new 3-story retail building sits in their place.”

NYPL

 

 

The house at 143 Spring Street — in 1932 (photograph by Charles Von Urban) and today (it’s a Crocs shop!)

Museum of City of New York/Charles Von Urban collection

 

491 Broadway at Broome Street — in 1905 (photograph by the Wurts Bros.) and today

James Bogardus, the man who helped give SoHo its distinctive appearance thanks to his vigorous marketing and promotion of cast-iron architecture.

The first cast-iron structure in New York, built in 1848, was further south at the corner of Centre and Duane Streets.

NYPL

 

Robert Moses’ view of Broome Street via his project Lower Manhattan Expressway project. Broom Street would have had an elevated highway, enclosed within modern buildings. A view of surviving cast-iron architecture on the right.

 

SoHo would have been eliminated (or greatly reduced) by Moses’ project which was thankfully nixed.

Map produced by vanshnookenraggen

A map of the art galleries in the SoHo art scene during the 1970s.

SoHo Artists Association Records, 1968-1978. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

From a 1971 SoHo newsletter: The criteria for qualifying as an artist — and eventual resident — of a specially-zoned loft in SoHo. M1-5A and M1-5B were the newly created work-living zones.

SoHo Artists Association Records, 1968-1978. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

 

We greatly encourage you to check out the SoHo Memory Project for a lot of fantastic and often deeply personal recollections about the SoHo days of yore.

For further listening, check out the following Bowery Boys podcasts which were referenced in this week’s show:

Before Harlem: New York’s Forgotten Black Communities (#230) for information on first farms of the city’s first black New Yorkers

Niblo’s Garden (#113) for the history of the district’s most famous entertainment center

Our podcasts on Robert Moses (#100) and Jane Jacobs (#200)

 

And we really hope our show inspires you to check out two films that features interesting views of SoHo during its chic gallery phase — The Eyes of Laura Mars and After Hours

 

The Boss Tweed connection to St. Sava, the cathedral destroyed by fire

New York City lost a very interesting landmark this past weekend.

Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava, at West 25th and Broadway, was destroyed in a spectacular and mysterious four-alarm fire on Sunday, its windows shattered in shafts of flame, its ceiling reduced to cinders. If you’re a podcast listener, you may know this place from the show we released just last Friday on the life of Nikola Tesla. Sitting in front of St. Sava is a bust of Tesla, placed there by the Tesla Memorial Society of New York. Or was, I suppose. The bust was either moved or did not survive this catastrophic blaze.

New York has lost an important bit of history. The cathedral was the former Trinity Chapel, an outpost of downtown’s Trinity Church which opened here in 1851 to cater to the elite moving uptown along Fifth Avenue.

The New York Times has a short roundup of some of its most notable events — notably the marriage of Edith Wharton in 1885 and, in 1943, its conversion into an Eastern Orthodox house of worship. The usual fine work of Daytonian In Manhattan highlights the details of its construction.  “It was, as The New York Times called it in 1914, “distinctly fashionable to be married there.'”

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Picture courtesy Trinity Wall Street

In fact one of the most notorious weddings in New York City history took place here.

Not because of the bride and groom — Mary Amelia Tweed and New Orleans heir Ambrose MaGinnis — but because of the lavish behavior of the bride’s father William ‘Boss’ Tweed. In another strange bit of coincidence, that fated wedding occurred 145 years ago this month, on May 31, 1871.

William_Magear_-Boss-_Tweed_(1870)

“The streets for blocks around were filled with carriages, while the church was crowded to excess,” said the New York Herald the following day. “The center aisle was reserved for the invited guests and presented a most brilliant spectacle.”

The entire clan was adorned in jewels; “the Tweed family seemed to be a Christmas tree of diamonds,” according to author Alexander B. Callow Jr. Tweed wore his famous diamond pin, while his wife sparkled in so many that she threatened to take attention away from the bride.

Almost, that is. For Tweed’s daughter wore, according to Kenneth Ackerman, a “‘white corded silk, décolleté, with demi-sleeves, and immense court train’ with orange blossoms at her waist and, on her bosom, ‘a brooch of immense diamonds, and long pendants, set with three large solitaire diamonds, sparkled in her ears.’”

It was one of the most ostentatious weddings of the post-Civil War era. The reception was held at the Tweed residence at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street where hallways were filled with rich fineries. But it was the upstairs rooms — filled with wedding gifts — that would be the focus of future query.

From the New York Herald:

“THE WEDDING PRESENTS, which were displayed in one of the upper rooms, must have amounted to the value of over $700,000 and presented an appearance of brilliancy which can never have been equaled in munificence even in this Empire City.  They comprised all sorts of jewelry with diamonds enough to stock half a dozen stores; silver sets in profusion and almost everything that the ingenuity of the human mind could suggest in the line of presents.”

In today’s money, those gifts would have been worth over $14 million! This lavish ceremony highlighted Tweed’s extravagance at a time when many began questioning his corrupt hold over city affairs. In particular, the New York Times, Tweed’s biggest enemy, delighted in highlighting the garish cost of the ceremony. “The wedding was a most expensive affair.”

tweed

 

Tweed’s arrogance and extravagance definitely got the better of him, and the wedding at Trinity Chapel would soon become emblematic of the absolute corruption which fueled the city politic of the day.

To select but one example — a 1872 tome by minister Hollis Read called The Foot-Prints of Satan: Or, The Devil In History waxes on for a few pages about the scandalous wedding:

“Weddings are often relentless prodigal of lucre.  A recent one in our great Gotham has attracted some special attention, both on account of the profuse expenditure, and from the character and position of the parties concerned.  It was at the ‘palatial residence’ of the redoubtable ‘Boss Tweed,’ and the happy bride was his daughter.  Here we shall cease to wonder at the extravagant amounts absorbed in grounds, house, stables; and now in profuse expenditures for the wedding, when we are reminded how the ‘Boss’ got his money. For here certain unmistakable ‘footprints’ are, if possible, more apparent in the getting than in the spending.”

Tweed and his notorious Ring (including mayor A. Oakey Hall) would be exposed by the summer, and the Boss was soon thrown into jail (only to promptly be released on bail). He would go to trial for his crimes by 1873 and eventually died at the Ludlow  Street Jail on April 12, 1878.

 

For more information on Boss Tweed, check out our podcast on William ‘Boss Tweed and the bitter old days of Tammany Hall.

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And here’s a picture of the Tesla bust which I took this past Friday, then the scene at St. Sava as it looked on Monday afternoon.

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The fire at Barnum’s American Museum 150 years ago

One hundred and fifty years ago this week (July 13, 1865), New York City lost one of its most famous, most imaginative and most politically incorrect attractions.

When P.T. Barnum opened his museum in 1841, the kooky curiosities contained within the building at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street — at the foot of Park Row — were simply reconstituted properties from other museums.  But he soon expanded the collection to include living spectacles, both human and animal, become both the greatest show and the greatest side-show on earth.

From his lilliputian stars Tom Thumb and Commodore Nutt to the unfortunate white whales contained in water tanks in the basement, Barnum’s American Museum was New York’s destination for the fascinating and the weird.  Millions would visit its corridors during its two and a half decades of operation.  It was so renown that it was even a target of attempted sabotage during the Civil War. 

Below: A rare photo of Barnum’s American Museum, taken in 1858

Taken 1858
Taken 1858

At around noon on July 13, 1865, the building quickly succumbed to  “the fierce tooth of fire,” causing the greatest pandemonium that New York City had ever seen.  I must give way to some of the press reports of the day, as they best capture the drama:

New York Times: “Probably no building in New-York was better known, inside and out, to our citizens than the ill-looking ungainly, rambling structure on the corner of Broadway and Ann-streets, known as the American Museum, where for more than twenty years Mr. Barnum has furnished the public with a wonderful variety of amusements.”

Below: The street scene at the cross-section of Broadway and Ann Street, in 1860. A sign advertising Barnum’s snake collection can be seen on the museum.

Courtesy Internet Book Archive
Courtesy Internet Book Archive

New York Sun: “About half past twelve o’clock yesterday … the Engineer rushed up from below announcing that his room was on fire, and about the same time immense volumes of smoke permeated the Ann Street end of the building.  [K]nowing that the immense whale tank was directly over the spot where the fire had begun to make headway, attempted to knock a hole in the huge reservoir.”

Christopher Pearse Cranch. Burning of Barnum's Museum, July 13th, 1865, 1865. Chromolithograph. Eno Collection Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library
Christopher Pearse Cranch. Burning of Barnum’s Museum, July 13th, 1865, 1865. Chromolithograph. Eno Collection Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library

 

The occupants of the tanks were doomed.  “‘[T]wo whales, imported, at a cost of $7,000, from the coast of Labrador,’ whose sportive plunges and animated contests of affection afforded constant amusement to hundreds of spectators, [was] a pregnant contrast to the fearful death by roasting which they so soon thereafter met.”

The fire spread rapidly, quickly filling the upper floors with smoke.  Firemen burst in from the Ann Street side and quickly attended to patrons who had collapsed or were too confused in the immense labyrinth of bizarre objects to escape.

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A fireman named William McNamara is credited with single-handedly evacuating many patrons of the museum, not to mention some of the performers who regularly lived there.  From the New York Sun: “Knowing that [some performers] occupied apartments on the third floor, he rushed thither and burst open the doors.   Finding the rooms empty he ascended to the next floor  and succeeded in bringing down the ladies assembled in the dressing rooms there – Miss Swan, the Giantess, and Miss Zuruby Hannus, the Circassian girl.”

Below: Anna Swan, ‘the Giantess’ who lived at the museum, was successfully rescued

swan

Many of the wax figures from the third floor were hurled out the windows. One peculiar item captured the imagination of the crowd — the wax depiction of Jefferson Davis, dressed in a woman’s petticoat.  (It was rumored that the former president of the Confederacy has attempted to escape dressed as a lady.)

NYT:  “One [rescuer] had Jefferson Davis’ effigy in his arms and fought vigorously to preserve the worthless thing, as though it were a gem of rare value. On reaching the balcony the man, perceiving that either the inanimate Jefferson or himself must go by the board, hurled the scarecrow to the iconoclasts in the street. As Jefferson made his perilous descent, his petticoats again played him false, and as the wind blow them about, the imposture of the figure was exposed.”

NYS: “When the Jefferson Davis petticoated figure was recognized by the crowd, it was seized, kicked, knocked and finally hanged to an awning frame [in front of St. Paul’s Church], amid the derisive and contumelious epithets of the persons engaged in this pastime.”

More seriously a great number of artifacts from the Revolutionary War were incinerated in the fire. “Valuable mementos of Washington, Putnam, Greene, Marion, Andre, Cornwallis, Howe, Burr, Clinton, Jefferson, Adams, and other eminent men which should have been carefully stored in a fire-proof vault, yesterday smoldered in the heat….” [NYT]

barnum's museum burns 1865

The museum’s impressive collection of taxidermy — monkeys, lions, elephants, zebras — were swallowed up by smoke and collapsed into the inferno.

But the museum also had a great many living animals — snakes, pigs, dogs, and even a kangaroo and an alligator. And, of course, a great many monkeys — “big monkeys, little monkeys, monkeys of every degree of tail, old, grave, gray monkeys, young, rascally, mischievous monkeys, middle-aged, scheming monkeys, and a great many miserable, mangry monkeys.” Most perished in the flames although some escaped into the streets, some never to be found again.

Below: This is Harpers Weekly’s illustration of Barnum’s second fire — see below — but could have tragically captured the events on July 13, 1865.

Harpers Weekly
Harpers Weekly

Remarkably, nobody humans died in the blaze. In fact, few wax depictions of humans perished as many took to rescuing wax figures thinking they were alive.  The fire spread to several surrounding buildings, and soon the entire block was engulfed in flame.

NYT:  “The roof of the Museum had now fallen, and the interior of the building was like the crater of a volcano. A stream of heated air issued from the top, and was borne eastward by the breeze directly over the block, carrying with it light articles, pieces of burning wood, shingles ….

At 1:30 came a crash resounding like the explosion of a powder magazine. The whole wall on the Ann-street side had fallen. A cloud of dust and smoke filled the air, making it dark as twilight, and rendering it impossible to descry objects at short distance.”

 

Harpers Weely
Harpers Weely

 

 

Notable among the surrounding buildings that were damaged was the famous Knox the Hatter at 212 Broadway. Fortunately for the fate of New York,  the Croton Aqueduct water system had been installed two decades earlier, allowing the blaze to be put out with some speed, preventing a repeat of the Great Fire of 1835.

There was a bit a looting, including “two men dressed as soldiers [who] were seen coming out of the shoe-store in Ann Street, each with five or six pairs of shoes under their coats.” And there were false reports that the lion has escaped and was running through the streets.

For years after, people mourned the loss of Barnum’s collection, truly among the greatest in New York City up until that time.  Barnum attempted to relaunch the museum at 539-541 Broadway. but it, too, was destroyed in a fire (pictured below). Then, in 1871, he leased a train depot and called it Barnum’s Monster Classical and Geological Hippodrome.  (It would later morph into the first Madison Square Garden.)

Finally he just decided to take his collection of acts on the road forming a traveling circus in 1881 with ringmaster James Anthony Bailey.  While the world of entertainment would be changed by their collaboration — Barnum and Bailey’s Circus — most would consider the old American Museum as Barnum’s greatest achievement.

Below: Barnum’s second museum destroyed by fire, which gutted the building on a cold day

Harpers Weekly
Harpers Weekly

 

 

History in the Making 4/25: In Memory of a Horrible Fire

Above: A dramatic depiction of a fire which took place 160 years ago today. 

W. T. Jennings was a fine gentleman’s clothing store located at 231 Broadway, on the site of today’s Woolworth Building.  A tremendous fire took the building on the evening of April 25, 1854, causing thousands of dollars in damage and destroying the “hair-dye and wig establishment” next door.

In the image above, you can see the volunteer fire fighters manning a pump at the very edge of City Hall Park.  The Astor House would have been one block to the south.

Eleven men were eventually killed in this horrible blaze, the worst fire-related accident since the Great Explosion of 1845 (which killed 30 people).  It was later discovered that the fire was started by teenager thieves who were subsequently sent to Sing Sing Prison.   However the architect and builders of the structure were censured in a later hearing for creating a so-called fire “death-trap.”   Jennings eventually opened another location at 566 Broadway (at Spring Street).  Below: headline from the NYT.



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Some historic-themed links of note:

A Robert Moses-Jane Jacobs opera. It’s happening, soon. “[T]he story of New York, of cities, and of the struggle between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses will be told like never before.”  [Moses Jacobs Opera]

An Alexander Hamilton hip-hop musical. It’s happening even sooner! Coming January 2015. [Public Theatre]

One hundred and forty-nine years ago, there was a solar eclipse on the same day as Abraham Lincoln’s New York funeral procession. Here’s the procession order:  [New York Times]

Next week we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the opening of the World’s Fair 1939-40.  One notable star of the fair — Hitler the Cat! [Slate]

A tour of all the New York City locations used in the Martin Scorsese film Good Fellas, from downtown Manhattan to Astoria, Queens. [Untapped Cities]

Well, isn’t this just great! “Lower Manhattan’s Flood Risk is 20 Times Higher Since 1844″ [Accuweather]

The New York Times Book Club is discussing Colm Toibin’s amazing novel Brooklyn next month!  [NYT]

Next month is Lower East Side History Month! Tours, exhibits, a Henry Street Settlement block party and the sidewalk-focused #ChalkLES are all on the slate.  Check out the full calendar: [LES History Month]

A short history of the New Yorker called the Queen of the Waves who swam the English Channel in 1926. [Ephemeral New York]

Explore the newly opened photo vaults of the American Museum of Natural History! [Gothamist]

Top image courtesy New York Public Library

At The Ready: The History of the New York City Fire Department


The distinguished members of New York’s various volunteer fire brigades, posing for the photographer Matthew Brady in 1858

PODCAST  The New York City Fire Department (or FDNY) protects the five boroughs from a host of disasters and mishaps — five-alarm blazes, a kitchen fire run amok, rescue operations and even those dastardly midtown elevators, always getting stuck!  But today’s tightly organized team is a far cry from the chaos and machismo that defined New York’s fire apparatus many decades ago.

New York’s early firefighters — Peter Stuyvesant‘s original ratel-watch — were all-purpose guardians, from police work to town timepieces.  Volunteer forces assembled in the 18th century just as innovative new engines arrived from London.

By the 19th century, the fire department was the ultimate boys club, with gangs of rival firefighters, with their own volunteer ‘runners’, raced to fires as though in a sports competition.  Fisticuffs regularly erupted.  From this tradition came Boss Tweed, whose corrupt political ways would forever change New York’s fire services — for better and for worse.

Volunteers were replaced by an official paid division by 1865.  Now using horse power and new technologies, the department fought against the extraordinary challenges of skyscraper and factory fires.  There were internal battles as well as the department struggled to become more inclusive within its ranks.

But the greatest test lay in the modern era — from a deteriorating infrastructure in the 1970s that left many areas of New York unguarded, and then, the new menace of modern terrorism that continues to test the skill of the FDNY.  From burning chimneys in New Amsterdam to the tragedy of 9/11, this is the story of how they earned the nickname New York’s Bravest.

Above:  That’s Harry Howard, one of the FDNY’s greatest firemen and a former member of the Bowery Boys volunteer fire unit!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed 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 #161 Fire Department of New York (FDNY)

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A poster by Vera Bock from 1936, created for a series by the Federal Art Project, touts the contributions of Peter Stuyvesant to the history of New York firefighting. (LOC)

One of two fire engines first received by New York in 1733 (from an 1872 illustration) Courtesy NYPL

A firefighters’ procession at night, marching past Niblo’s Garden. 1858   Courtesy NYPL

Eagle insignia from a New York fire truck, 19th century, courtesy the US National Archives

The first official fire boat of the FDNY (although others had been rented before this), named for former mayor William F. Havemeyer.

Volunteer fire divisions were slowly fazed out after the introduction of an official paid company.  This was expanded when the five boroughs were created in 1898.  This postcard commemorates the final run of a volunteer fire department in West Brighton, Staten Island. (NYPL)

Firefighters battled a tenement blaze in this illustration from 1899, one of thousands that occurred in the poorer districts of town.  Improved fire regulations would ensure newer buildings were more fire proof. (Courtesy NYPL)

One of New York’s more interesting firehouses — the one for fireboats at the Battery. Photo by Berenice Abbott (courtesy NYPL)

Horses were a hotly contested inclusion to the fire departments during the 19th century.  They were eventually banished during the volunteer years, but re-introduced after 1870 and soon became essential for getting quickly to fires.

Hook and Ladder Co. No. 8, from 1887

Motorized fire engines and trucks replaced the horse-drawn varieties in the 1910s.  Here’s one model that was used by the FDNY in 1913 (Courtesy Shorpy)

The city’s growth created new challenges for the FDNY.  With the new subway, there was the potential for dangerous fires underground.  Here a team of firefighters battle a subway fire in midtown in 1915, and a couple firemen who braved the inferno underfoot. (LOC)

The difficult blaze at the Equitable Building in 1912 produced a bizarre aftermath of icy ruins.

Firefighters rescuing people (and paintings!) from a fire at the Museum of Modern Art, 1958. (Courtesy Life)

A sorrowful day:  Thousands come out to mourn the 12 firefighters who died fighting a terrible blaze that erupted across from the Flatiron Building on October 21, 1966. (Picture courtesy FDNY)

Total mayhem erupted in New York City in the 1970s, as whole districts like the South Bronx, Bushwick, Harlem and the Lower East Side saw a massive increase of fire-related disasters due to the city’s financial woes. (Photo courtesy New York Post/Vernon Shibla photographer)

Three hundred and forty-three firefighters and FDNY paramedics died in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.  But the force, along with the police and other emergency workers, managed to save tens of thousands of people on that day, making one of the largest rescue operations in American history.  In total, 2,977 people were killed that day, 2,606 of them in New York, on the ground and in the towers.

And finally, a rather amazing film documenting the fire department’s emergency response process in 1926, with a breathless dash-cam vantage point!

Charles Kellogg, the man who put out fires with his voice

New York has seen its share of bizarre entertainments, especially back in the days of vaudeville, when people would pay for almost anything that amused or titillated.  A few months ago, I wrote about the novelty star Don the Talking Dog, who allegedly spoke a handful of English and German words.

But another vocally talented star was the hot vaudeville ticket one hundred years ago — Charles Kellogg, the man who could extinguish fire with his singing voice.

Kellogg was an early environmentalist and promoter of California’s redwood forests.  He billed him as ‘California’s Nature Singer,’ known for his sterling emulation of bird song,  recording his aviary music for Victor. “He was born with the throat of a bird,” said the New York Times.  Imagine cranking up this record on your Victrola, his ‘duet’ with Romanian soprano Alma Gluck:

Kellogg voice was allegedly superhuman.  It could not only emulate the sounds of nature, but it could protect nature from devastating flame.

He performed this particular trick in New York on November 11, 1913, at the brand-new Palace Theater (Broadway/47th Street), performing for an audience which included various New York fire chiefs, several scientists, and an auditorium full of curiosity seekers.  Also on hand: William Temple Hornaday of the Bronx Zoo, his reputation recently sullied over the whole Ota Benga scandal.

During the demonstration, Kellogg proved he could affect the flickering flame on the other side of the stage by first aiming his ‘bird song’ at it, then by drawing a bow across a sheet of metal.  “He stood fifty feet away from the flame and drawing the bow across the metal and singing his bird song the flame acted the same way, finally going out.”

Kellogg continued his display of natural gifts by demonstrating a divining rod for finding water, then by dropping to the floor and “demonstrated the Indian way of making fire by friction with two pieces of redwood.”

Captivating, I’m sure, but not enough to convince New York’s fire chiefs.  “It has not yet reached a point where Fire Commissioner Johnson will put male quartets in the fire house ready to dash to a fire and render a popular ballad.” [source]

Kellogg returned to New York in 1917 with another redwood-inspired creation — his ‘redwood motor home’, called the Travel Log (pictured below), which he and his wife took cross-country.  The idea of a ‘mobile home’ was a true novelty for the day.  Kellogg’s Travel Log was briefly displayed at a motor car salesroom on Broadway and 57th Street to the delight of auto enthusiasts.

Picture courtesy NPR

By the way, Mythbusters recently took up Kellogg’s challenge as to whether the human voice could put out a fire.  The verdict — yes, it can, but not at any decibel Kellogg could have possibly been singing in. More information here.

Staten Island already had a gigantic Ferris wheel — in 1893!

In the spirit of P.T. Barnum, Mayor Michael Bloomberg yesterday announced plans to build the world’s largest Ferris wheel next to the ferry terminal on Staten Island. The amusement, called the New York Wheel, will stand 84 feet higher than a similar Ferris wheel in Singapore and also nods towards the London Eye, a ride built in 1999 that quickly became a centerpiece of British tourism.

Obviously geared towards boosting tourism to Staten Island, the plan offers something for the residents of the borough in the form of a “retail outlet complex.” With the ballpark home of the Staten Island Yankees and the recently redesigned ferry terminal, the new projects will radically alter the face of the St. George neighborhood.

(At right: A rendering of the new wheel, courtesy ABC.)

But the idea of a Ferris wheel drawing tourists to Staten Island isn’t a new one. The very first Ferris wheel in the borough was constructed back in 1893, on the opposite shore in the old Midland Beach resort area.

Midland Beach and adjacent South Beach were Staten Island’s answer to Coney Island and Rockaway Beach, back in the era before any of those amusement centers were officially a part of New York. The Staten Island resort area got its wheel the same year that George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. installed his most notable wheel — and thus giving the amusement its name — at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Staten Island’s ride — called an ‘observation roundabout’ — was built by Ferris’ rival William Somers after he was rejected a spot at the Chicago fair. It was probably similar to Somers over roundabouts built on Asbury Park and Rockaway Beach, of wooden construction, about 50 feet in diameter with approximately 16 passenger chambers. [Check out Norman Anderson’s history of Ferris wheels for more information.)

Thanks to Ferris and the fame of the Chicago World’s Fair, nobody was calling them roundabouts by the start of the 20th century. The Ferris wheel hovered over Midland’s rows of bathing pavilions and beer gardens along the boardwalk and was joined by the Happyland amusement park in 1906.

The New York Tribune sang praises of the amusement in 1904: “If they [the young of all ages] desire pleasure with an element of excitement, [they] may venture a ride in the great Ferris wheel, from the summit of whose broad circle they may enjoy an excelled view out over the broad bay to the open sea.”

The St. George Ferris Wheel is slated for completion in 2015. As for the old Midland Beach wheel, it appears to have been destroyed — along with a great many other amusements — in a devastating fire in 1924.

And by the way, Ferris’ original wheel, the one that was at the Chicago World’s Fair? There were actually plans to bring the wheel to Manhattan in 1894 and set it up — on Broadway! Sadly, these plans fell through.

Pictures courtesy NYPL