Tag Archives: Washington Heights

Visit the glorious High Bridge, New York’s tribute to the ancient world

The thirst for water has transformed New York.

The Dutch were sold on the island’s placement in the harbor at the mouth of the mighty Hudson River, making it a convenient waypoint for explorers and traders. Soon its ports had built the foundation for New York’s—and later America’s—financial sector.

The city’s most influential nineteenth-century businessman, Cornelius Vanderbilt, got his feet wet in business first with ferries and steamships before building his mighty railroad empire. Manhattan is surrounded by water, and yet early New York would almost be undone due to a lack of it.

Traces of the city’s centuries-long quest for clean drinking water can be found from the island’s tip to its top—from the site of spring water wells down in Bowling Green to the relics of old water systems that we’ve visited in the past few chapters.

But no monument to freshwater dominates quite like the High Bridge, the Romanesque wonder linking Manhattan to the Bronx over the Harlem River.

Courtesy NYPL

For many decades this majestic artifact, seemingly plucked from the hills of ancient Gaul, was a vital link in that great engineering triumph: the Croton Aqueduct.

With the dense river traffic below and the icky-brackish composition of the surrounding rivers, early New Yorkers had to look beyond their waterways for drinking water. They dug cisterns and hunted down springs, but these couldn’t support the growing city.

By the late eighteenth century, Collect Pond, a so-called freshwater source located northeast of today’s City Hall, had become polluted by the industries that surrounded it, and valiant efforts to bring water from other sources during the Colonial era were dampened by debt and war.

Courtesy MCNY

In 1799 future vice president/murderer Aaron Burr hatched a grand business plan to construct a reservoir system that would distribute water via an elaborate network of hollowed-out logs. (Above: The reservoir and grandest structure of the Manhattan Company system, pictured here in 1825.)

Unfortunately for parched New Yorkers, he ended up using most of the funding for his company to establish a successful bank instead. More than a century and a half later, Manhattan Company merged with Chase National Bank to become Chase Manhattan, known today simply as “Chase,” one of the largest banks in the world. But his water distribution efforts ended up being woefully inadequate, and left Manhattan high and dry.

NYPL

By the 1830s the city was on the verge of a health crisis, as putrid water, poor sanitation, and all-around squalid living conditions culminated in a series of health epidemics and breakouts—which only heightened the urgent need for clean water.

In April 1835 New Yorkers were so desperate for a freshwater supply that they voted in favor of a seemingly impossible plan: a pipeline that would bring the pure waters of the Croton River, forty miles north in Westchester County, down to city residents. Only underscoring the emergency, eight months later the Great Fire of 1835 would ravage the city. The aqueduct couldn’t be constructed quickly enough.

 

Wikipedia

The elaborate project employed thousands of mostly Irish immigrants for many years (1837–1842). They constructed a sophisticated system of iron piping and brick masonry, which drew upon gravity to run the water through pipes and over arches, across the lush terrain of Westchester, and through the small towns that would later form the nucleus of the Bronx.

But how would the water get into the island of Manhattan? The aqueduct’s architects would need to find a way to keep it flowing across the Harlem River. Drilling technologies were not advanced enough in the 1840s to allow for a tunnel, so planners thought bigger—and higher.

NYPL

The High Bridge, at an elegant 1,450 feet long, is the oldest surviving bridge in New York. Completed in 1848, it not only brought the Croton water into the city, but it also made one heck of a statement noticed around the world.

New Yorkers had pulled off a technological miracle, borrowing engineering and architecture principles not attempted, on this scale, since the glory days of the Roman Empire. They were changing the course of one river forty-one miles away and sending its waters high above another.

“Water! Water!” wrote diarist and former mayor Philip Hone on October 12, 1842, “is the universal note which is sounded through every part of the city, and infuses joy and exultation into the masses.”

When the water was finally turned on—flowing on October 14, 1842—the city threw a bash bigger than any since the expulsion of the British in 1783.

The water flowed through pipes across the High Bridge and to a receiving reservoir in the area of today’s Central Park, and from there to a distributing reservoir at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.

From there it moved through the city, eventually to City Hall Park, where good, clean water shot high into the air and down into the City Hall fountain, to the delight of the public. Imagine— enough water to waste in a fountain!

(At the time of the celebration, the High Bridge had not yet been completed, so Croton water crossed a temporary low bridge. The lofty span replaced the modest one a few years later.)

Below: New Yorkers gathering at City Hall in celebration at the completion of the Croton water system. For more information, check out our podcast on the construction of the Croton Aqueduct

NYPL

 

But the celebrated new system struggled to keep up with the demands of the growing city. In 1872, as masses of new arrivals from far-off lands crammed into tenements, an attractive water tower was constructed near the High Bridge to help increase the water pressure into the city.

The High Bridge and tower in 1915

By this time the High Bridge itself had turned into an attraction, a festive promenade where young gentlemen and their parasol-clinging lady companions could stroll, taking in the striking views of the still-forested landscape that surrounded them, while millions of gallons of clean water coursed beneath their feet.

MCNY

But New York, growing larger every day, would need more water. Much, much more. The introduction of indoor plumbing would require an entirely new and much larger Croton system to be built, which opened in 1890 and employed the massive Jerome Park Reservoir in the Bronx to satisfy the demand.

But alas, with a million flushes came the end of the High Bridge as an active part of the water system. Its function replaced by unromantic pipes buried underground, the bridge and water tower were retired from service by 1949, and soon these structures modeled after antiquity became historical relics themselves.

Below: The High Bridge, lost in a haze, photographed in 1920

MCNY

In a surprising twist given the unforgiving tendencies of city planners of the day, it was probably the beauty of the bridge and the tower that kept them from being ripped down in a bit of “progress.” Motorists along the Major Deegan Expressway took moments from their traffic jams to reflect on the possible story behind these strange and magnificent artifacts, which grew more incongruous as the modern highway system developed around them.

MCNY

Two years ago this month, the High Bridge was restored, not for the movement of water but for those visitors and their parasols (replaced by headphones, we imagine) to enjoy a one-of-a-kind perspective on their buzzing metropolis.

If you go — or rather, when you go, because you really must see it — reflect upon the water that once passed below you—it helped this city grow.

HOW TO GET TO THE HIGH BRIDGE

Mass Transit: Take the A/C or the 1 train to 168th Street, get out and walk east. OR the M101 bus takes you right up to Highbridge Park

On the Bronx side, you can take the 4 train to Mt Eden Ave but it’s a bit of a walk west. Instead take the Bx11 or Bx13 bus

From the NYC Parks website:

“If you are entering the High Bridge from the Manhattan side, please enter Highbridge Park at West 172nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue and walk east to the High Bridge Water Tower Terrace staircase down to the bridge level. If entering from the Bronx side, enter at University Avenue and 170th Street in Highbridge, Bronx.”

Some images from my trip there in November. It’s three times as beautiful now!

The above is an excerpt from our book The Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available at bookstores everywhere.

The New York Christmas tradition in an uptown cemetery

Clement Clarke Moore, the lord of Chelsea (the manor for which the neighborhood is named), lived a long and distinguished life as an educator and land developer, dying in 1863 at his home in Newport, Rhode Island.  He was originally buried in the churchyard of St. Luke-in-the-Field (pictured below) in the area of today’s West Village . In 1891 the cemetery was redeveloped  and the remains were transferred to Trinity Church’s graveyard in Washington Heights.

grave

What does all this have to do with Christmas you ask?

Moore was a revered scholar, former president of Columbia College (later Columbia University) and the developer of the General Theological Seminary on his old Chelsea property. But most everybody knows him better as the author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” or “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” a verse of holiday anticipation penned for his children.

For well over one hundred years an unusual ceremony has taken place at Church of the Intercession, the house of worship which sits upon  the grounds of Trinity Church Cemetery.

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Church of the Intercession

 

The tradition was apparently initiated by a vicar at the chapel named Milo Hudson Gates. He “instituted the Christmas Eve service in which many hundreds of children went in procession to decorate the graves of Clement Clarke Moore, author of ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’, and Alfred Tennyson Dickens, son of Charles Dickens, author of ‘A Christmas Carol’.”

Hundreds of children, carrying lanterns and torches in the old days, gathered around Moore’s gravestone and sang Christmas songs.  “Carols were sung and wreaths placed on the grave,” according to a 1919 report. The famous poem by Moore was then recited.  (I’m not sure they still do the march to Dickens’ resting place.)

“His name was Clement C. Moore. His body sleeps beneath the Christmas trees that grow in Trinity Cemetery.” [December 23, 1918]

Below: Children surrounding the grave of Moore’s, sometime in the 1920s or 1930s (according the church website).

pic

This tradition has survived into modern day with some interesting variations. Frequently a person dressed as Saint Nicholas (the saint, not the Santa) leads the procession. In recent decades, a person of some renown reads the poem such as in 2003 when basketball great Isiah Thomas brought Moore’s words to life.

And the tradition returns this year!  This Sunday, December 20, the Church of the Intercession begins with prelude music at 3pm and the official program at 4pm.  This year’s reading will be by William C. Rhoden, sports columnist for the New York Times.

Visit Intercession’s website for more information. The church and cemetery are located at Broadway and West 155th Street.

If you’re heading up there, why not get there an hour early or so and visit the Hispanic Society‘s amazing collection of Spanish artwork, just across the street at Audubon Terrace?

moore1

 

 

 

The Stunning Wilderness: John James Audubon saves the birds and creates a rare 19th century masterpiece

Happy Easter!  Audubon’s Golden Eagle with its bizarrely depicted bunny prize.  Notice the small man in the background. That’s Audubon himself as ‘an American woodsman’, the only appearance he makes in this series of watercolors.


You’d be forgiven for thinking that the latest show at the New-York Historical Society Audubon’s Aviary: Parts Unknown (Part II) — is about birds.  It’s in the title, after all.

The gallery, painted sky blue, is filled with them, most in studied, formal poses, trapped in elaborate picture frames, a static zoo for slightly unusual animals.  You’ve certainly seen the work of John James Audubon and might be familiar with his style.  His creatures are sometimes arched and twisted around a frame in a way that seems otherworldly.

But take your focus off the individual subjects and look around. You’re basically standing in the middle of one of the greatest publishing achievements in history.

The Birds of America is an ambitious book of wondrous art, published in sections between 1827 and 1838 and collected in a double-elephant-folio (almost 40 inches tall).  The watercolors here are studies for the original edition of Birds, one of the most treasured books of the 19th century, a landmark of publishing and a charmingly dated approach to animal preservation.

This is the Historical Society’s second Audubon show, this time mostly featuring images of water fowl. (Part three will come next year.)  The individual birds themselves may either bewitch or repel you — depending on your tolerance for 19th century scientific formality — but the overall display is surprisingly moving.  You’re standing here in an age where the published tome itself has become an endangered species.

Audubon was one of the most esteemed New Yorkers of the early 19th century, although as the era’s greatest naturalist, he was rarely in one place for long. (His family roots in France frequently took him back overseas where he was widely hailed.)  He owned an upper Manhattan estate Minniesland where his descendants lived for decades.  The watercolors you see in this exhibit were stored at Minniesland for decades; his wife Lucy often bringing them out to the delight of dinner guests.

 Audubon Terrace sits on most of that land today.  Audubon is buried nearby at Trinity Cemetery.

A vista of Audubon’s home and the Hudson River. You can see this particular print in NYHS’s exhibit:

Hardly any of The Birds of America depicts any creature he would have seen from his porch.  The exhibit takes you along on his travels, constantly on the move over the Atlantic Ocean on the search for specimens. And we get to meet some of his collaborators, including his sister-in-law Maria Martin, who contributes some of watercolors in the collection.

His drive to preserve seems especially prescient today.  In 1829 he wrote  “When I see that . . . the vast herds of elks, deer and buffaloes which once pastured . . . in these valleys . . . have ceased to exist; that the woods are fast disappearing under the axe by day, and the fire by night . . . when I remember that these extraordinary changes have all taken place in the short period of twenty years, I pause, wonder, and, although I know all to be fact, can scarcely believe its reality.”

Little did he know that it would be the book itself — not just the birds within his own great masterpiece — that would now seem to be similarly imperiled.

You may the most transfixed with the bound edition of The Birds of America in the middle of the gallery.  Behind glass, its dimensions give it the appearance of something you might find at the Cloisters museum.

Audubon’s Aviary: Parts Unknown (Part II of the Complete Flock) on display at the New-York Historical Society, until May 26, 2014.  Visit their website for more information.

All images courtesy New-York Historical Society

Hilltop Park: home base for NYC’s premier baseball team


A few hundred well-dressed men and a few women and children enter Hilltop Park, 1912 (See original photograph at Shorpy)

This weekend marks the end of the regular season in Major League Baseball, as the New York Yankees head to the playoffs, and the New York Mets head to, well, I’m sure many very lovely, well-deserved vacations.

The Yankees, defending World Series champions, were doing okay for themselves a hundred years ago also, when they were called the New York Highlanders, placing second in the American League to the Philadelphia Athletics. Second place was the best the Highlanders would ever do; ultimate victory would only come when they were bought in 1915 by beer mogul Jacob Ruppert and their name changed to the most press friendly ‘Yankees’. (Hear more about their history in our 2008 podcast on the history of the New York Yankees.)

Below I’m reprinting my article from March 2008 about the Highlanders uptown home Hilltop Park. And I’ll get to the old haunt of the Mets on Friday….

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Before they went by their better known name — and before they were really any good — the team that would become ‘the Yankees’ were known as the Highlanders, from 1903-1913. The name played to a couple dated references. The team captain was named Joseph Gordon, and the name referenced a British military outfit named Gordon’s Highlanders. More importantly, the team played on one of the highest points in the city, in a long forgotten ball field called Hilltop Park.

A large but spare field located in Washington Heights on Broadway between 165th and 168th streets, Hilltop Park could accommodate 15,000 to 16,000 spectators comfortably, though more exciting match-ups would draw clusters of almost 10,000 standing room only crowds. In fact, in the rather lax early days of formalized sports, fans were allowed to stand around, almost virtually on the playing field!

I’m sure it was at that capacity on opening day, April 30, 1903, when the Highlanders played the Washington Senators. Yet despite a cost of $200,000 and arresting views of the Hudson River, Hilltop had a swamp in right field and most of the bleacher seats were uncovered until 1912, making for many a hot, steamy game for fans.

The Highlanders were in equally good shape. In fact, many of the best moments in Hilltop Park’s brief history were made by players from other teams against the Highlanders. Cy Young (Boston Americans) and Ty Cobb (Washington Senators), the two best known players from this generation, had spectacular days on Hilltop beating the crap out of the local team.

Hilltop Park is almost completely gone save for one peculiar memorial. In 1914, almost as soon as the Highlanders moved to the nearby Polo Grounds (and thus changed their team name to their popular nickname ‘the Yankees’), the field was demolished. Within ten years, the hospital that today is known as the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center would be built over it, and it stands there still today.

However a small base-shaped plaque can be found in the grass outfront, placed there in 1993. It’s on the exact spot of the original home place — thank God it happened to be in a garden and not somebody’s room — honoring the now-forgotten home of the team that would become the most successful team in baseball.

Reprinted from the Bowery Boys article from March 20, 2008

Going medieval at the Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park

PODCAST The Cloisters, home of the Metropolitan Museum’s repository for medieval treasures, was a labor of love for many lovers of great European art. In this podcast, I highlight three of the most important men in its history — a passionate sculptor, a generous multimillionaire and a jet-setting curator. Equally as fascinating is the upper Manhattan park that houses the museum, Fort Tryon Park, a site of a Revolutionary War fort of the same name and the exploits of the war’s most heroic women.

Download this show it for FREE on iTunes or other podcasting services. Click this link to download it directly from our satellite site. Or click below to listen here:

The Bowery Boys: The Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park
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Fort Tryon circa 1858, after the war, before the millionaire mansions. (Courtesy NYPL)

The lavish home of Cornelius Kingsley Garrison Billings, one of many spectacular homes bought up by Rockefeller to contruct Fort Tryon Park.


Check out our Facebook page for additional photographs of the Cloisters

Where are New York City’s oldest living trees?

Say hello to the Giant, the largest living thing in New York City

This week, I’m looking at the oldest things New York City has to offer, by borough. Today’s subject happens to be the very oldest living residents of the city, the trees of New York City. These would be those trees that have not been transplanted from elsewhere — that would give the botanical gardens of New York an unfair advantage — plants that have stood right where they were since the earliest days of Dutch and British occupancy — and in one case, even before then.

I was not able to find complete info for all five boroughs, and I will indicate where I could not come to a definitive answer. If you have any leads, please post them in the comments section.

I’m obviously no arborist, so the details below are based on the research of others. However maybe someday I’ll trek out to these various sites armed with a tape measure and an layman’s knowledge on how to evaluate tree age.

Hattie Carthan, Brooklyn’s tree saviour

BROOKLYN
It appears that the oldest tree in the borough — among, as Betty Smith well knows, the many, many trees that grow in Brooklyn — is undetermined. I read one assertion that the oldest tree was near Macdougal and Rockaway Ave in Bed-Stuy, but I’ve been to that corner and I don’t know which tree that could possibly be.

However, one of Brooklyn’s most famous trees is very nearby — a southern magnolia tree Magnolia Grandiflora, brought to Brooklyn from North Carolina in 1885 and located near 667 Lafayette St. It happens to be the only landmarked living tree in the city, thanks to community leader and nature lover Hattie Carthan, back in 1970.

Most likely, however, the candidate for oldest tree is living in Prospect Park, one of 30,000 trees in notably the last remaining natural forest in the borough. Formerly, the title holder was a 220-year old black oak; it was recently uprooted during a storm and tumbled into the ravine.

BRONX
With the borough’s thousands of acres of park land, the real candidate for borough’s oldest may as yet be undiscovered. However, the leading candidate is currently a handsome white oak tree around the 18th hole of the Split Rock Golf Course in Pelham Bay Park. The oak is well ‘over 200 years old’ although its location by a golf course can’t be good for its health.

Hangin’ around with New York’s oldest and most legendary elm

MANHATTAN
One might naturally assume Manhattan’s oldest tree must be in Central Park. It’s a very manicured place though, and most of its older vegetation was transplanted here. However, the great London plane tree near the Reservoir (pictured below) is said possibly pre-date its construction in 1862.

There are two other candidates for oldest tree on the island. One is in Washington Heights, a 110-foot elm at 163rd Street and St. Nicholas. Known as the Dinosaur, it reportedly shaded George Washington as he surveyed his shifting fortunes during the Battle of Washington Heights.

The most renown candidate is, of course, the Hangman’s Elm, in Washington Square Park. At a reported 310 years old, this arboreal old man in the northwest corner of the park most likely never really saw any hangings as its legend indicates, but its certainly fun to morbidly gander at its branches.

The top two candidates for New York’s oldest tree have been the fascination of tree lovers since their discovery.

Below: The London plane tree near the Reservoir, most likely Central Park’s oldest tree (pic courtesy Central Park 2000)

STATEN ISLAND
The two oldest trees in New York happen to be tulip trees, a common tree of the region named for its flower-shaped leaves. The charming Clove Lakes Park, at Forest Avenue and Clove Road, takes its name from the Dutch word “kloven” or cleft. Its granddaddy entry into the tree race is known as the Clove Lakes Colossus is a monstrous 119 feet tall with a circumference of 21.4 feet.

It’s reported to be well over 300 years old, predating all but the most rudimentary European settlement here in Staten Island. It’s actually a thicker tree than the tulip which is New York’s oldest, but that’s due to more ideal growing conditions. Unlike many other ‘oldest tree’ candidates, Clove Lakes takes good care of its elders, easily located at the park’s north end near a paved path.

QUEENS
Say hello to the Queens Giant (pictured at top), the grandmother of all native New York City plants. Located along a secluded trail in Queens’ Alley Pond Park, this monster is also one of the city’s tallest trees at 133.8 feet — just 20 feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty.

It may be one of the few remaining living things from the era before Henry Hudson sailed into New York harbor, with its age calculated at anywhere from 350 to 450 years old. This would make it one of New York’s truly extraordinary natural features. Interestingly, in the past, the city has taken a stance of ‘benign neglect‘ to the tree, arguing that it shouldn’t be better accessed in order to protect it.

The Hilltop home of the Yankees


Before they went by their better known name — and before they were any good — the team that would become ‘the Yankees’ were known as the Highlanders, from 1903-1913. The name played to a couple dated references. The team captain was named Joseph Gordon, and the name referenced a British military outfit named Gordon’s Highlanders. More importantly, the team played on one of the highest points in the city, in a long forgotten ball field called Hilltop Park.

A large but spare field located in Washington Heights on Broadway between 165th and 168th streets, Hilltop Park could accommodate 15,000 to 16,000 spectators comfortably, though more exciting match-ups would draw clusters of almost 10,000 standing room only crowds. In fact, in the rather lax early days of formalized sports, fans were allowed to stand around, almost virtually on the playing field!

I’m sure it was at that capacity on opening day, April 30, 1903, when the Highlanders played the Washington Senators. Yet despite a cost of $200,000 and arresting views of the Hudson River, Hilltop had a swamp in right field and most of the bleacher seats were uncovered until 1912, making for many a hot, steamy game for fans.

The Highlanders were in equally good shape. In fact, many of the best moments in Hilltop Park’s brief history were made by players from other teams against the Highlanders. Cy Young (Boston Americans) and Ty Cobb (Washington Senators), the two best known players from this generation, had spectacular days on Hilltop beating the crap out of the local team.

Hilltop Park is almost completely gone save for one peculiar memorial. In 1914, almost as soon as the Highlanders moved to the nearby Polo Grounds (and thus changed their team name to their popular nickname ‘the Yankees’), the field was demolished. Within ten years, the hospital that today is known as the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center) would be built over it and it still stands there today.

However a small base-shaped plaque can be found in the grass outfront, placed there in 1993. It’s on the exact spot of the original home place — thank God it happened to be in a garden and not somebody’s room — honoring the now-forgotten home of the team that would become the most successful team in baseball.