In Olde New York - Charles Burr Todd - ebook

In Olde New York ebook

Charles Burr Todd



Father Knickerbocker himself seems to come to life and tells of the people whom he knew and the incidents of which he was a part, with all the interest that comes of actual-personal participation. That is the feeling one gets in reading Mr. Todd's description of old days and old scenes in the city of New York and the surrounding region. The subjects of which he treats are as fragrant in their mere titles of the interest that dwells in those days as an old cupboard of lavender.

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In Olde New York


Sketches Of Old Times And Places In Both The State And The City







In olde New York, J. Burr Todd

Jazzybee Verlag Jürgen Beck

86450 Altenmünster, Loschberg 9



ISBN: 9783849652456

[email protected]

































THIS book is dedicated to the citizens of New York who love her history and traditions. Many of its stories were written twenty years ago and are repeated now with very little change simply because they described types and conditions (especially in the great city) that no longer exist. The generation that read them in 1885 in the Evening Post or Lippincott's Magazine will re-peruse them as one reads the faces of old friends long forgotten. To the generation which has come on the stage since they were written they will have the novelty and interest of original tales. My publishers and some of my critics have suggested that I adapt them to changed conditions. I let them stand as written.

C. B. T. October, 1907.



AN old-time friend of mine, a gentleman of leisure, whenever an attack of ennui threatens, flees to the city docks, where he finds in their bustle and infinite variety an unfailing specific. He stops to inspect whole fleets of canal boats snugly housed during winter from the terrors of the "raging canawl," is thrilled at sight of an ocean steamer just in from a perilous voyage, storm-battered, with torn sails, and decks and rigging sheathed with ice. The great railway docks hold him a long time. On the Southern steamship wharves he draws odorous breaths of resin and tar, trails his cane through little puddles of molasses, and gets his hair full of cotton lint, whereat the stevedores grin. The dock where the trim little fruit schooners from the West Indies unload is a favorite haunt and so are the piers along South Street, below Roosevelt, where the few battered veterans of the California and Canton trade still discharge their cargoes. When his circuit is completed he has studied every nationality, learned the cut of every civilized jib, heard the music of every tongue, and inspected the products of the known earth.

The region between the present Coenties Slip and Whitehall Street my friend finds most prolific of fancies. It is the site of the old city dock, the first built on Manhattan. This dock was the comer-stone of the commerce of our metropolis, the progenitor of our thirty miles or more of wharves. That famous monopoly, the West India Company, built it, and its quaint, round-bottomed, high-pooped Dutch ships were the first vessels here. They gathered the grain, pelts, lumber, potash, and medicinal herbs that then formed New Netherland's exports, or landed the hardware, groceries, household goods, brick, "cow calves" and "ewe milk sheep," and other peculiar Dutch imports. As late as 1702 this dock formed almost the sole wharfage of the city, and seventy-four vessels, pinks, galleys, snows, a few brigs and ships, were moored to it during the year, two thirds of them from the West Indies and Southern provinces. The town then contained 5250 inhabitants, living in 750 dwellings, so that the wharf was ample for its needs. As much of the interest and romance of the old dock gathers about this period from 1690 to 1700, I may indicate its primitiveness by the fact that the city streets were first lighted in 1697, by hanging a lantern on a pole before every seventh house "in the dark time of the moon," and that the city police force consisted of four honest citizens whose office was to walk the streets at night sounding a bell and proclaiming the hour and state of the weather.

Along the rude dock at that time we should have seen, here a galley from Fayal, there a " pink" from Barbados, in its neighbor a "snow" from Boston or the Virginias, with possibly a full-rigged bark or ship from London unloading cargo, for England was as determined then as later that her American colonies should receive their European products through her own bottoms and warehouses. It is likely, too, that a trim, buoyant vessel, painted black, with long tapering masts and spars, would be lying at the wharf — a slave trader lately in from the coast of Guinea, and about to sail for a new cargo. As soon as the stout burghers of Manhattan acquired a little wealth in stock and lands they felt the need of servants, and dispatched ships to the coast of Africa after them. Strange adventures and many dangers attended these early traders; if they escaped the pirates which then swarmed in all frequented seas, they ran into some little port along the Angola coast, bargained with the petty king of the place for a contingent, and so creeping along the shore made up their cargo from a score of villages, provided, however, that some piratical craft did not follow them into harbor and capture craft, cargo and all. For these were the days of such freebooting in the colonies as seems incredible to modem ears.

In our character of dreamer we shall see a dim, shadowy vessel far out in the offing that does not come boldly up to the wharf like an honest craft, but tacks and fills as if waiting an assurance that the coast is clear before venturing in. While we are speculating about her a long boat appears coming from her direction, in whose bow stands a stout, swarthy, bearded man, his sinister face tanned by Indian suns, a fine, beautifully wrought gold chain from Arabian workshops about his neck, rings set with gems on his fingers, and under his coat a netted belt through whose meshes we catch the gleam of gold. Once ashore he makes his way to the Governor's mansion, whence he presently returns smiling and rubbing his hands gleefully, and then hurries away to the ship. Next morning we gather with the crowd to see the latter berthed, and when this is done and the hatches removed, bale after bale of costly merchandise is hauled up and carried away. One might fancy himself for the nonce transported to the Orient. Tea and cassia, rich silks of China, woven fabrics of Cashmere, Indian sandal wood, perfumes, and gems, spices and gums of Ceylon. African gold and ivory, with half the products of European workshops, the vessel pours out, until half-a-million dollars in value has passed from her hold. There is no doubt as to the character of the craft; she belonged to that powerful guild of pirates which at this period, under the corrupt Governor Fletcher, had become one of the wealthiest interests of the city.

These colonial pirates at this distance of time seem the ideal freebooters. As a rule they were the most enterprising shipmasters of their day, who were drawn from the merchant service into privateering during the French and Spanish wars, and on the return of peace, impatient of restraint, became privateers on general principles and turned their guns on vessels of every flag. The whole waste of waters was their cruising ground, but their special field was the Indian Ocean. With characteristic ingenuity they reduced the business to a system. The home merchants, who in many cases had fitted them out and had a share in the profits, established lines of swift vessels to Madagascar, the rendezvous of the pirates, which carried out such supplies as they might need and brought back the booty to be disposed of as lawful merchandise, the pirates themselves returning home only at intervals. What seductive pictures must have been painted for the adventurous youth of Gotham in 1690-6 when the pirate captains were beating up the town for recruits! Fighting and bloodshed were not mentioned; the prizes were unarmed and would yield to a show of strength. And in sober truth these calculations were correct. East India piracy was not a bloody trade; captured crews and passengers were in most cases well-treated and put ashore at the nearest point. At the trial of Captain Kidd his prosecutors could not fix a single murder upon him, except that of a mutinous member of his crew. With such inducements scores of vessels fitted out from the colonial ports, chiefly from New York and Rhode Island. Had they been content with plundering the Dutch and native traders, they might have continued to flourish for years; but when, grown bolder, they began taking the rich bottoms of the East India Company, that powerful corporation began taking steps to suppress them.

The era of the California and Canton clipper ships was one of which America may justly be proud, and, singularly enough, the trade which they created centered in the neighborhood, if not on the site, of the old city dock.

They had their origin in the advantages which our shrewd merchants of 1845 saw lay in quick passages to the East, but they were brought to perfection by the California gold mining excitement of '49 and succeeding years. During their existence, they gave us the supremacy of the seas, excited the keenest rivalry between American and English ship-builders, and became the theme of international comment. Yet one looks in vain for any account of them in the published histories of the city, while the opening of the Pacific Railway and the development of steam navigation so revolutionized the machinery of commerce that merchants of to-day have almost forgotten their existence. The two lines of clippers were of nearly simultaneous origin, the one in part the complement of the other.

In the winter of 1848-9 New York wore an air of suppressed excitement: in counting-room and office, tavern and exchange, there was one common topic of conversation — gold; until, at length, the spell of it fell on half the energetic men of the city. The spring before, a workman clearing out a mill-race on a branch of the Sacramento had found particles of gold. The discovery leaked out despite the efforts made to keep it secret; it floated over the mountains, came around the Horn, and brought unrest and disquiet not only to the Atlantic seaboard cities, but to the old-world centers of capital and population as well. Many yet remember the scenes of bustle and excitement produced by the news. Ordinary methods of moneymaking seemed slow or superannuated compared with the picking up of gold nuggets in the river beds. The newspapers fanned the flame by publishing interviews with returned Californians, and every scrap of news concerning the diggings that could be gathered. The Herald published California specials, and tales of twenty-five and twenty-eight pound nuggets picked up by lucky miners. Associations were at once formed for proceeding to the gold regions. Clothing men turned their attention to providing mining outfits; patent medicine men evolved specifics against chills, fevers, rheumatisms, and other diseases incident to a new country; publishers advertised "choice reading, suitable for voyagers to the Pacific," and inventors placed in the field a bewildering and ludicrous array of contrivances for camping and gold-washing. Patent mess hampers, folding tables, and dressing cases, gold detecting scales, portable India rubber beds that could quickly be inflated for use, and houses of the same material that could be put up or taken down in a few hours, figure in the advertisements of the day. "I first heard the news, I think, in February, 1849," said an old pioneer, " from the wife of Clerk Gallagher, of Washington Market. She had a babe barely a month old, and was in a pretty condition at her husband's leaving her and going to the mines. As we were talking Gallagher came in, and I remarked that I felt like laying my stick across his back for his cruelty in leaving wife and baby. 'Ah,' said he, 'wait till you hear it all,' and he sat down and told me such tales of the mines that when he had finished I was ready to leave my desk and family and set out for the diggings. There was witchcraft in it, you see."

The first pioneers went around Cape Horn, usually chartering their vessel and furnishing their own outfits. The later and more favorite route was across Mexico, and later still over the Isthmus. The first to lead a party over the Mexican route was Col. J. C. Battersby, of New York City, favorably known during the war as commander of the First New York Lincoln Cavalry, and for his war sketches in Harper's Weekly. The Colonel's reminiscences of the event are entertaining. "It was in March, 1849," he says, "that I hired a room at No. 2 Dey Street and advertised to lead a company of men across Mexico to California in sixty days at $250 each. It was the first time, to my knowledge, that the idea had been broached. The usual method for gold-diggers then was to form an association of perhaps fifty or a hundred members, charter a vessel, procure outfits, and sail around the Cape, a voyage of five or six months. As showing that there were those incredulous as to the richness of the new Eldorado, I may mention that soon after my advertisement appeared, the owner of the building came to me and said he would have no more men roped in there and their money taken away. 'You tell them,' said he, ' there's gold in California, and I don't believe there's that gold in California,' indicating a section of his thumb nail as large as a pea. 'Very well,' said I, and secured rooms of Richard French, on or near the spot where the Belmont Hotel now stands.

'' The plan was so novel, however, and untried, that few presented themselves. I secured but one. Dr. N. S. Murphy, an Irish physician of character and attainments. I had chartered the bark Eugenia, owned by Peter Argus & Co., and, after holding her three weeks for the desired number, put my horse, my Newfoundland dog, Rubens, and my outfit on board, and embarked with the doctor for Vera Cruz where we arrived in thirty-one days. From that port we took the National Road to the City of Mexico twelve days, thence by easy stages through the valley of Guarmica, later Maximilian's summer retreat, to Acapulco. Here the doctor was taken ill with burning fever and lay forty days in the Governor's palace, where we were hospitably entertained. Just as he was well enough to travel, the British steamer Unicorn came into port eight months from New York with 600 passengers on board bound for San Francisco. Cabins, decks, forecastle, everything was full, except the upper compartment of a large coop on the main deck which had been used for the storage of fowls: this we secured for $100 each, and in this queer cabin made the voyage to San Francisco."

The vast influx of gold-seekers into Califomia naturally induced a demand for all sorts of goods, and to supply these and at the same time furnish quick passenger service, the merchants of New York and Boston provided the clipper lines. J. &; N. Briggs, 40 South Street; E. B. Sutton, 119 Wall; James Smith, 116 Wall; E. Richards & Co., 52 South; Thomas Wardle, 88 South; E. W. Kimball & Co., 84 Wall; C. H. & W. Pierson, 61 South; and N. L. McCready & Co., 36 South, figure in the advertisements of the day as the principal ship- owners in the California trade, all of them, it will be noticed, in the vicinity of the old city dock. This section of the water front never had seen, and never will see again, such scenes of bustle and animation as then enlivened it. Truck after truck loaded with lumber, groceries, provisions, clothing, mining implements, and miners' outfits crowded it from morning till night. Groups of pioneers roughly clad in suits of tough, ill-smelling, English cloth, with pockets covering all available space, wives and children bidding them tearful farewells, the departure of half-a-dozen vessels a day, were the scenes there presented.

The trade with California was a very unsatisfactory one for the merchants engaged, owing to the fluctuating character of the market. Many fortunes were lost as well as made in the business, and many cargoes shipped that did not pay the charges, the ship owners being often obliged to sue for their freight money. An instance of this uncertainty was narrated by Colonel Battersby. On arriving at San Francisco he had written a letter to a friend in New York, cashier of the Chemical Bank, in which he mentioned casually the abundance and cheapness of provisions in the city. As the cashier was reading it a gentleman came in to draw out $50,000, remarking as he did so that he was about sending a cargo of provisions to California, as they were all starving out there. On hearing the Colonel's letter, however, he decided to relinquish the venture. Perhaps it was this uncertainty of a market, perhaps the competition of the steamers, that led the more enterprising merchants to make San Francisco only a port of call, and to send their clipper ships over the Pacific to the rich ports of China and India; at least about this time originated the Canton tea trade as a distinctive business of the port.

Of course, there had been trade with China before, but the California clippers were not in it. Salem, fifty years earlier, had boldly announced herself a competitor with Europe for the trade of the Orient, and had demonstrated the superiority of small, swift vessels in the transportation of teas and rich cargoes. Boston and New York now began to put in commission those magnificent clippers that for speed and seafaring qualities have never been equaled, and which, but for the development of the steam marine, would certainly have wrested from England her boasted supremacy of the seas. Most of the shrewd, far-seeing merchants and skilled sea captains who carried on this enterprise have done with ledger and log-book, and sleep in Greenwood or in the coral depths. A single firm the writer succeeded in finding in Burling Slip, and was kindly allowed to mouse among its scrapbooks and records at will.

The great object aimed at in these clippers was speed, and their owners had the English as well as the American market in mind in their construction. If the English merchant could secure his cargo of tea or silks from Canton in an American bottom a month earlier than in an English one, they argued, interest would prompt him to charter the quicker craft. It was found, too, the longer a cargo of tea was on the water the more it deteriorated. "Speed" was therefore the order given the American ship-builder. The more famous clipper ship-yards were those of W. H., Webb and Jacob Westervelt in Brooklyn, Charles Mallory and Greenwood & Sons, Mystic, Ct., and Donald McKay, East Boston. The clippers were sharp, comparatively narrow for their length, and models of trimness and grace. Some were of large tonnage, the Eternal for instance registered 1800 tons, the Staghound 1534, the Sovereign of the Seas, built by Donald McKay, 2421. Later the Young America, of New York, was turned out, registering eighty tons more, whereupon Mr. McKay expressed his determination to build a ship of 3500 tons to carry 4000 tons of merchandise to California. As a rule, however, the true Canton clippers were vessels of from 500 to 1000 tons burden. Some of the quick passages they made approached the incredible, and exceeded the quickest steamer time of the day. In 1852 there were in commission the clipper ships Surprise, Celestial, Sea Witch, Samuel Russell, Staghound, George E. Webster, and barks Race Horse and Memnon, all of which had made the passage from New York to San Francisco in from ninety to one hundred and twenty days, the average steamer time being one hundred and fifty. The clipper ship Northern Light once sailed from San Francisco to Boston in seventy-six days, five hours; and in a trial of speed with the Contest in 1853 made the passage to New York in seventy-three days. The log-book of the ship Samuel Russell, one of New York's finest vessels, in a voyage from China home, showed a total of 6722 miles run in thirty days, the greatest distance in one day being 318, or 13 ½ miles per hour. The same ship sailed from Whampoa, China, February 5, 1848, passed Angiers on the 15th, Cape of Good Hope March 18, the equator April 6, and took the New York pilot April 27.

One gets no idea of the esprit and dash of the clippers, however, unless he stumbles on some idle tar of the many on South Street, who formerly served in the fleet. Mention a Canton clipper to such a one, and his eyes glisten, and his tongue wags fast. "There was nothin' like 'em for prettiness," he observes, "and the way they jist did flog all other craft out of the water. I remember once we was at Hong Kong in the Sam'l Russell, and as there was a Britisher leaving for New York, we sent home letters by him. 'Bout a month later the Russell cleared on the same tack, an' she did drive on that voyage like a race horse.

Sail after sail she overhauled and left behind: roundin the Cape, I remember, the Jack Tars started the sayin' that 'the old man couldn't hold his horses in.' But flyin' up the coast of Brazil what did we do but skip by that Britisher that had our letters on board and make port a week ahead of him, delivering 'em by word of mouth. Another voyage I was on that racer, the Flyin' Cloud, comin' home from Hong Kong. I tell you 'twas as bracin' as a glass of grog to stand on her top hamper and feel her pull, comin' down the trades. Once in a while a brother Yankee would give us a tug before we could shake him off, but as for anythin' foreign, English, Dutch, or French, we handled 'em as though they was babies. There was one thing the ship did on that v'yage that I've alius blamed her owners or nearest relations fer not spin 'in' a yarn on. One day we took a pretty smart breeze on the starboard quarter, and held it tolerably steady for the space of ten days, in which time, sir, we made upwards of forty-five degrees, hard on to 3200 miles, 328 miles one day, as the log will show. Ther's another thing; bein' so long and narrer, you'd expect the clippers would ship some water, but all that v'yage, I didn't see a gallon o' water on the ship's deck, not enough to wash her down with."

American ships continued to rule the wave, until superseded by the more reliable steamers. But what a turn in fortune's wheel! In 1853 American ships securing cargoes in English home ports amid the fiercest competition; in 1883 almost every pound of America's exports afloat in British bottoms, and scarcely an American vessel in commission in the foreign trade!



In 1880, St. Patrick's churchyard was one of the few in the densely populated portion of the city remaining intact, and had long been closed to interments except by special permit of the Board of Health.

A blank brick wall hid it from the three streets Mulberry, Mott, and Prince that bounded it: the old Cathedral of St. Patrick overshadowed it, while the office of the Calvary Cemetery Association formed part of the northern boundary.

If one hunted up the old sexton and was admitted he found little turf within, little shade, a litter of twigs and leaves on the ground, some of the tombstones shattered, and others overthrown or leaning far out of the perpendicular; while the voices of the few birds that harbored there were drowned by the discordant noises of a squalid neighborhood.

In this ground a tombstone was long ago erected with this inscription:

A La Memoire


Pierre de Landais,

Ancien Contre Admiral

au service

Des Etats Unis.

Qui disparut

June, 1818,

ae 87 ans.

For forty years prior to the above date Pierre Landais had been one of the noted characters of the city. He claimed the rank of "Admiral,'' and those who would retain his favor were obliged to observe a punctilious regard for the title. His short, stout figure clad in a faded Continental uniform — cocked hat, small sword, knee breeches, and all — seated in the shade of Printing-House Square or pacing slowly down Broadway to the Bowling Green — his favorite promenade — was a familiar object to the New Yorkers of one hundred years ago. In the coffee-houses and inns, equal sharers of his attentions, he never failed of a circle of admirers to whom he recounted stirring tales of sea fights in which he had been an actor, and generally concluded with an account of his capture of the Serapis and Countess of Scarboroughy and a hearty denunciation of the man who had stolen the laurels of that conflict from him. His persistency as a claimant before Congress alone made him noteworthy. He had claims for arrears of pay and for prize money, and urged them for forty years until he became the Nestor of American claimants. Every year, at the sitting of Congress, he hurried to Washington in the lumbering old coaches that then connected the cities, and haunted the lobbies and galleries of the Capitol like an unquiet spirit, deluging Congress with petitions and memorials, watching its proceedings with feverish interest, and button-holing members at every opportunity in the interest of his claims. In the journals of Congress no name appears more frequently among the petitioners and memorialists than his; but although his petitions were personally urged, and often accompanied by letters offering cogent reasons why his claims should be allowed, they were never granted, and the old man, year by year, returned to his lodgings at the close of the session as empty as he went, to renew the conflict with poverty, and live in the hope of better fortune another year.

His history has the elements of a romance. One cannot but feel, too, on reviewing his career, that there may have been a grain of injustice in the treatment he received from his adopted country. He was born a Count of France, and early rose to the command of a French line-of-battle ship, but relinquished all in 1777 to join his fortunes with those of the young republic across the sea, then engaged in her gallant stand for liberty. Baron Steuben recommended him, and Silas Deane, then American Commissioner to France, gave him the command of the ship Heureux, rechristened the Flammand, recently purchased to convey military stores to America. His commission, dated March 1, 1777, was accompanied by this interesting letter from the worthy Commissioner: "I give you a commission to use in case of necessity or advantage in making a prize, but you are not to go out of your course for that purpose. You will keep an account of your expenses, which will be paid you on your arrival in America. I shall write to the Congress by other conveyances, and assure them that you have received nothing but your expenses, and your generous confidence in them will not pass unnoticed." So good an authority as the Marine Committee of Congress testified to the skill and address with which Landais executed this commission, in eluding the British cruisers sent to intercept him, and bringing the Flammand safely into port. Congress also showed its appreciation of him by commissioning him a captain in the navy, and ordered 12,000 livres to be paid him "as a pecuniary consideration equal to his services." The Marine Committee also gave him the oversight of the ships-of-war then building at Portsmouth and Salisbury for the newly-created navy, in their report to Congress styling him "an excellent sea officer, and skilled in the construction of ships-of-war." The next summer he enjoyed a still more signal mark of its favor. On the 29th of May, 1778, the Alliance, a fine and uncommonly fast frigate of thirty-six guns, was launched at Salisbury, Mass., where she had been long building. She went into commission June 19, and for her maiden voyage was ordered to transport the Marquis de Lafayette and suite to France. Her commander, duly commissioned by Congress, was the Admiral Pierre Landais. The memorable voyage of the Alliance, the motley character of her crew — a part of whom were English seamen from a vessel wrecked on the Massachusetts coast — how these mutinied as the vessel neared the British coast, and how the mutiny was promptly quelled by Landais, and the vessel safely brought into Brest, is told in history.

In France Landais met his evil genius in the person of the famous Admiral John Paul Jones. Landais had his faults, being haughty, imperious, punctilious, quarrelsome, and a martinet. Jones was all this and more, and the two were at enmity from the moment of meeting. They met first in August, 1779, at Brest, where a little squadron composed of four French vessels and the Alliance had rendezvoused in order to make a swoop on the Baltic fleet then about due in England. Jones, in command of the Bon Homme Richard, was the senior officer, and there was trouble before the fleet sailed as to who should command it, but the matter was amicably settled at last by each of the five commanders signing an agreement to act in concert under the commissions received from Congress. The squadron got under way August 14, and on the 23rd of September met the Baltic fleet, convoyed by the Serapis and Countess of Scarborough. The details of the engagement that followed are so familiar that I need not repeat them. The charges so frequently made against Captain Landais by Jones in his report of the affair to Franklin, and corroborated by the statements of other officers of the fleet, merit attention. It was charged that the Alliance held aloof at the opening of the engagement, and that when she came to the aid of the Bon Homme Richard^ then engaged with the Serapis, she poured her broadsides into the former, and repeated the maneuver again and again, never once striking the Serapis except over or through the decks of the Richard. The report did more than this — it distinctly charged the commander of the Alliance, first with cowardice and then with treachery — that he designed to sink the Richard in order to win for himself the glory of capturing the Serapis. These charges were generally accepted as true by the American public of that day, and have passed into history as truth. This paper makes no attempt to disprove them. It is but due to Captain Landais to say, however, that he met them with an indignant denial, and that he at once demanded a trial, where he might be confronted with his accusers, which demand was not granted.

He showed himself to be no craven, however, by calling out one of his defamers — Captain Cottineau, of the Pallas — and running him through with his small sword. This exploit he followed up by challenging the commander of the Bon Homme Richard. No meeting, however, took place. Franklin, obliged to notice the charges, ordered Landais to Paris to answer them; but although the latter promptly presented himself at the capital, and used every effort to that effect, he failed to secure a trial.