Here to return to
THE river ends at the southern point of Manhattan Island where it joins New York Bay. Its wide channel is here alive with shipping. Now and then a great ocean steamer passes going to and from its wharf, the broad, open-ended ferry boats ply back and forth, tugs are moving noisely hither and thither usually pulling some vastly bigger vessel or a long line of barges, and there are numerous other craft large and small. It must be confessed that most of this shipping is prosaic, and not a little of it is actually ugly. Even the great steamers that voyage to other continents consist for the most part of tremendous black hulls that can lay small claim to beauty. The comparatively rare sailing vessels with their tapering masts and white canvas spread to the wind are almost the only ones that have any marked grace and charm. Steam is the ruling force, and the sole aim seems to be utility, yet the marvelous energy displayed and the vastness of the business that is going on are strikingly impressive.
Battery Park occupies the extreme lower end of the island. It is an agreeable bit of greensward and trees, but a good deal marred by a long loop of the elevated railroad, and you wonder that it has not been overwhelmed long ago by the encroachment of the mammoth city buildings which rise to giddy heights in the immediate background. The gray, hazy mystery of the ocean envelops the view down the harbor, the waves swash ceaselessly along the masonry sea-wall, there is a salty odor to the air, and all in all it is a spot that entices to loitering and meditation.
Bordering the water on the west side is a big spreading building very like a shallow pot with a low, conical cover clapped on top. This is Castle Garden, now an aquarium, but formerly used for festivals, concerts and public meetings of various kinds. It was originally erected by the government in 1807 for a fortification, but when finished its foundations proved too weak to support the weight of the heavy ordinance, and its intended use was abandoned. Castle Garden’s most notable claim to fame is the fact that here in 1850 was given Jenny Lind’s first concert on American soil. A choice of seats was disposed of at auction and the first place on opening night brought two hundred and twenty-five dollars. There was an audience of five thousand persons, and as the New York Herald announced the next day, “Never did a mortal in this city, or perhaps any other receive such homage as the sovereign of song received from the sovereign people.” Jenny Lind’s share of the proceeds from the opening concert was about ten thousand dollars, all of which she bestowed on various charitable and public institutions of the city. Nearly one-third of it went in a lump to the three volunteer fire departments, probably at the suggestion of the singer’s manager, P. T. Barnum, who keenly appreciated the advertising value of such a gift.
The huge buildings that extend from the Battery northward every year become more numerous and the new structures that are added have a tendency to rise higher and higher. Their towering masses are almost frightful in the near view, and the crowded gloom of the canyon-like streets between is depressing; but seen from the water, that lofty irregular skyline is replete with grandeur, and the buildings themselves, softened and massed in the haze, with here and there a plume of steam or smoke, or the gleam of a gilded dome, make a delightful spectacle. What a dreamy wonderland! How suggestive of the fabulous — as if it all might melt away! And what wealth and power and aggressiveness these soaring heights of masonry represent!
Where is the spire of old Trinity at the head of Wall Street? We used to think it was “in danger of tearing the silver lining from the clouds with its heavenward-pointing tip.” But now it is dwarfed to insignificance among its tall, worldly neighbors.
In going up the river after leaving the Battery, the city presents nothing especially salient for a long distance. The blocks of brick and stone repeat each other endlessly, and only now and then an aspiring tower or skyscraper on this broader portion of the island lifts itself conspicuously enough above its fellow buildings to be impressive.
There are plenty of great ocean steamers along the wharves, but they lie in narrow basins between the big, barn-like warehouses on the piers, and you only get a glimpse of the tips of masts and smokestacks, or, in passing on the water, obtain a hasty and unsatisfactory view in sharp perspective of the entire vessels.
At 72nd Street we come to Riverside Park which extends along the bank of the stream to 130th Street. It is a most attenuated strip, but the steep slope it occupies makes possible much variety in its winding roads and paths and affords many delectable views of the great river. Here are trees and shrubbery, and the birds flit and sing, and the children tumble and play on the sunny declivities of greensward, or loiter in the grateful shade if the day is warm. Here, too, the babies take their outings in care of mothers or nurse girls, and all sorts of other people ramble, or linger, or drive.
On its most commanding height, at the extreme north end, is the temple-like tomb of General Grant. This is built of flawless white granite, and the cost was six hundred thousand dollars, representing ninety thousand individual subscriptions. The tomb is a striking landmark as seen from the river, but can hardly be called graceful. In form it resembles what a child might attain by placing a round block on top of a somewhat larger square one. Moreover it stands severely alone on a broad terrace with no green boughs or creeping vines to soften its austerity.
Farther back from the river on the airy crest of the ridge is Columbia University. This is still in the making, but has some noble buildings that will increase in charm with the mellowing of the passing years and the accumulation of associations. Especially satisfying is the library, one of the purest examples of classic Greek architecture in this country. It is approached by a broad, paved esplanade and a wide flight of steps, and its pillared front and great dome have a repose and simplicity that are delightful.
About twenty-five streets farther north, occupying a lofty, flowing sweep of land, is the cemetery of Trinity Church. It is closely surrounded by city blocks, but when you go inside, where stand the ranks of tombs and monuments, you find abundant trees and shrubbery, and eternal quiet reigns. On this spot the naturalist Audubon dwelt for many years before it was taken for its present use, and here he is buried.
Continuing along the ridge we presently come to its loftiest height where it makes a slight cape-like projection into the Hudson. At the time of the Revolution a strong earth‑work was constructed here and named Fort Washington. Several other points in the neighborhood were fortified, and though the works were all weak, the positions they occupied made them formidable.
For the defense of the city itself, General Lee, early in 1776, hastily gathered levies of raw troops in Connecticut. The merchants and other citizens of New York were fearful that the presence of these troops would make the town a battleground and mean its total destruction. So when Lee arrived on the same day that the British Squadron from Boston reached the harbor the community was in a ferment of agitation. An exodus of the more timid inhabitants began, and in the succeeding hours of darkness there were “carts going and boats loading, and women and children crying, and distressed voices heard in the roads.”
However, the expected clash did not occur, and the fleet soon sailed south. Its commander had apparently found the place better prepared for resistance than he expected; and when he withdrew, the Americans proceeded to fortify the Highlands, which was exactly what the British had intended to do. In April General Israel Putnam assumed command in the city and undertook to close the Hudson by erecting several batteries along shore and placing obstructions in the channel opposite Fort Washington.
Toward the end of June another British fleet arrived bearing a considerable body of troops. In all there were one hundred and thirty vessels, but at first their only land possession was Staten Island. In spite of these menacing neighbors the Colonials in New York greeted the news that the Declaration of Independence had been signed in Philadelphia with ardent enthusiasm. They celebrated the event for several days, and incidentally pulled down the leaden statue of George III which they had set up on Bowling Green only a short time before. The statue was afterward made into bullets to be used in the patriot cause.
Putnam prepared fourteen fire-ships which were to be sent among the enemy’s fleet, but the fleet took measures to protect itself from such attacks, and the fire-ships were a failure. Likewise a submarine engine which was hopefully constructed failed to explode at the time and place planned, and merely blew up a vast column of water to the enemy’s great astonishment, but doing no damage.
The American force was decidedly smaller than that of the British, and was largely made up of raw recruits. Many of the yeomen hastily summoned from the farms were destitute of arms, lacking which they were ordered to bring with them a shovel or pickaxe, or a scythe straightened and fastened to a pole. As affairs grew more gloomy the militia became intractable and impatient to leave. Deserters were the scandal of the day, and two-thirds of the Connecticut troops were smitten with an attack of homesickness that nothing but the sight of their own firesides could cure. The restraint which was indispensable to the army’s effectiveness was too galling to men accustomed to unbounded freedom, and the din of arms and their lack of military skill made them, when opposed to the trained soldiers of the king, “ready to fly from their own shadows,” as Washington said. Members of the militia could only be obliged to serve three consecutive months beyond the boundaries of the state in which they were enlisted. They were called out and disbanded as the exigencies demanded, and were nearly as apt to leave a cannon in a ditch as a plough in a furrow.
If the troops could have been depended on a battle might have been risked in defense of the city, but as things were, no sooner was an actual movement begun against the town than the troops withdrew in haste. It was a sultry day in September, and they abandoned their tents, blankets and heavy guns and retreated under a burning sun amid clouds of dust. They were encumbered with women and children and all kinds of baggage. Many were overcome by fatigue and thirst, and some perished by drinking cold water too freely. The safe accomplishment of the perilous retreat was said to be due to the fact that when the attacking force reached Murray Hill, then the country residence of a patriot of that name, Mrs. Murray sent out a servant to invite the British general to stop and take luncheon. A halt was ordered and the officers were entertained for over two hours. But while they leisurely ate and drank, and bantered their hostess, Putnam’s flying army had passed by within a mile of them.
The Americans assembled on the rocky heights at the northern end of Manhattan Island. It was thought that the obstructions in the river here with their accompanying batteries on each shore would prevent any hostile ship from passing. But early on the morning of the ninth of October, several of the British vessels got under way and came standing up the river with an easy southern breeze. They broke through the vaunted barriers as through a cobweb, and in spite of the constant fire of seven batteries passed on without a pause. About a month later an attack was made on Fort Washington garrisoned by three thousand men under the command of Colonel Magaw. At nightfall the day before, Washington had arrived at Fort Lee which crowned the palisades across the river. He entered a boat and had partly crossed the river when he met Generals Greene and Putnam returning. They assured him that the garrison was in admirable shape to make a strong defense, and prevailed on him to go back to the Jersey shore with them. But he was greatly excited, for he had urged that Manhattan was untenable and should be entirely abandoned, and this was one of the few occasions when the “Father of his Country” swore.
The next day, about noon, sharp volleys of musketry and a heavy cannonade thundering among the rocky hills proclaimed that the action was begun. Assaults were made from four directions. Washington was an anxious spectator of the battle from the opposite side of the Hudson. Much of it was hidden from him by the intervening hills and forest; but the roar of cannonry from the valley of the Harlem River, the incessant crack of rifles, and the smoke rising above the tree-tops showed that a spirited resistance was being made. The action of the defenders on the south lay open to him and he was much encouraged by the gallant style in which they maintained their position. But at last, overpowered by numbers, they retreated to the fort, and as Washington beheld some of those in the rear overtaken by Hessians and cut down and bayoneted, he was completely overcome and “wept with the tenderness of a child.” The defenders of the outworks to the east and north were likewise driven in, and presently Washington observed a flag enter the fort which he surmised was a summons to surrender. He wrote a note to Magaw telling him if he could hold out till evening, he would endeavor to bring off the garrison in the night. Captain Gooch of Boston offered to be the bearer of the note. He hastened down to the river, rowed across in a small boat, clambered up the ridge to the fort and delivered the message. Then he came out, ran down the steep, broken bill, dodging the enemy, some of whom struck at him with their guns, while others attempted to thrust him with their bayonets, but he escaped them all, got into his boat and returned to Fort Lee.
Magaw was past help. The fort was so crowded by the garrison and the troops from the outworks that movement was difficult, and the enemy could at any moment pour in showers of shells that would have made dreadful slaughter. Fort Washington was therefore surrendered. This was one of the most crushing blows that befell the American cause during the entire course of the war. A considerable proportion of the best troops in the army was captured, besides an immense quantity of artillery and small arms, and there was gloom and foreboding throughout the country.
The site of the old fort has not yet been entirely overflowed by the city. It is partially wooded, and here and there amid the trees are glades of greensward, and openings that give pleasant glimpses of the river far below and of the rugged bluffs of the opposite shore.
Two miles farther north the island ends at Spuyten Duyvil Creek which connects the Hudson with the Harlem. This waterway has been deepened and widened to allow the passage of good-sized boats, and the tides sweep through it with great vigor. The origin of its curious name has been facetiously explained by Irving; and his story has some real foundation in a fatal exhibition of foolhardiness on the part of a young Dutchman in the early days of the colony. As Irving tells the tale
“Anthony Van Corlear, the trumpeter of Governor Stuyvesant, was sent post-haste, on the appearance of the ships of the Duke of York in the harbor, to warn the farmers up the river, and summon them to the defense of New Amsterdam. So just stopping to take a lusty dinner, and bracing to his side his junk-bottle, well charged with heart-inspiring Hollands, he issued from the city gate, sounding a farewell strain, that rung in sprightly echoes through the winding streets of New Amsterdam.
“It was a dark and stormy night when Anthony arrived at the creek which separates the island from the mainland. The wind was high, the elements in an uproar. For a short time he paused on the brink; and then bethinking himself of the urgency of his errand, he took a hearty embrace of his stone bottle, swore most valorously that he would swim across in spite of the devil, and daringly plunged into the stream. Luckless Anthony! Scarcely had he buffeted half-way over, when he was observed to struggle violently, as if battling with the spirit of the waters. Instinctively he put his trumpet to his mouth and giving a vehement blast, sank forever to the bottom. The clangor of his trumpet rang far and wide through the country, alarming the neighbors round, who hurried in amazement to the spot. Here an old Dutch burgher, famed for his veracity, and who had been a witness of the fact, related to them the melancholy affair, with the fearful addition that he saw the devil, in the shape of a huge moss-bunker, seize the sturdy Anthony by the leg, and drag him beneath the waves. Certain it is the place has been called Spuyten Duyvil ever since.”
This little cross valley was originally thickly inhabitated by Indians. One great attraction, no doubt, was the abundance of fish, a recommendation that still holds good. Great hauls of shad are made at the mouth of the creek, and many striped bass and other less aristocratic fish reward the angler along its shores.
In my own rambling in the vicinity I paused to chat with one of these anglers, an elderly man by whom I was cordially welcomed. Cordiality is an attribute of all such haunters of the waterside. Who ever knew a fisherman to be crusty and sour, selfish and uncommunicative? He has leisure, and is sure to be something of a philosopher. While he fishes he meditates and catches much more than gets on his hook, and I think there must be some occult influence in his occupation that inclines him to a friendly affability. My acquaintance did not have the most ideal surroundings. Close behind him on the north shore were lines of railroad tracks along which frequent trains thundered, but across the stream rose an abrupt wooded hill that descended to the east into a little dale of farmland. He smoked his pipe enjoying the serenity of the day and nature’s genial mood, yet very intent on his fishing. Even while we visited he kept sharp watch of two poles he had propped up at the water’s edge on a bush.
“I came from Killarney penniless at the age of eighteen,” said he, “and I’ve raised ten children right here in New York. My wife and I are still hale and hearty, and the children are a credit to us. Some of my daughters’ husbands are lawyers and some are real estate men. They don’t want me to work any more.
I used to have a butcher shop, but I’ve given it up. Yes, and now I play every day, but I get as tired as if I was working. At first, after I quit work I stayed at home, but that didn’t do. The table was always so handy I’d be tasting this and that, and drinking coffee, until I hadn’t any appetite. For a change I tried fishing, and now I’m at it nearly all the time. I spend about a dollar and a half a week for bait, and there isn’t a stream or fishing place for a long distance around New York that I don’t know. I caught a five-pound bass here last year; and I have a standing offer of ten dollars, and no questions asked, for one weighing twice that much. I give away quite some eels and Tomcods, and on the whole I’m pretty well suited. In fact, with plenty to eat, and drink, and a feather bed to sleep on, what more does a man want?”