Read an Excerpt
Birth of the Bravest
A History of the New York Fire Department From 1609 To 1887
By A. E. Costello
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2003 A. E. Costello
All rights reserved.
GENESIS OF FIRE EXTINGUISHING
1609-1664.--Manhattan Island as seen by the Discoverer, Henry Hudson.--"A Rugged Fragment of Creation."--Primitive Fire Apparatus.--Quaint Customs.--Dutch Architecture.--First Fire Ordinance (1648).--Fire Wardens and Surveyors of Buildings.--The Reign of the Knickerbockers.
In considering the history of the Fire Departments of New York City some degree of attention must necessarily be given to a variety of subjects calculated to illustrate the growth and rapid development of the city. And what a wonderful story that is! What a bewildering panorama it reveals! What changes have to be noted, what pregnant events dwelt upon, and what a wonderful tale of progress is to be unfolded! What alterations, moreover, have occurred in the locality now occupied by the city of New York since the ship of the discoverer first entered its quiet waters, or even since the burgomasters and schepens of New Amsterdam surrendered the infant metropolis to its English captors. The cluster of trading houses and rude huts of those days has expanded into the first city of the United States and the third largest in the world, containing over one million and a half of inhabitants, and untold wealth. But marvelous as is this material progress, it is not a whit more so than the story of the New York firemen. This gallant band of citizens has been and still continues to be, the protectors and defenders of the city in all its varied stages--from infancy to manhood. Such changes as have been effected from time to time in the organization of the departments have been brought about to conform to pressing public requirements and to keep pace with the times. Hence it became necessary, at successive periods, to pass a number of municipal ordinances regulating the force and defining their duty. These ordinances contain a pretty comprehensive history of the doings and operations of the firemen of our city.
It is also a noteworthy circumstance that the New World, even in its youth, should have shown its parent how best to guard against the dreadful ravages of fire, and how most scientifically to fight the flames which had been the terror of the Old World.
Europe, with its ages of civilization, and with all its inventive talent, had conceived nothing like the New York Fire Departments. No transatlantic city could show so devoted a band of men as our old volunteers; and to-day our new Department stands unrivaled for efficiency. The fame of the Paid Department has crossed the seas. One of the first sights which visitors to our shores are anxious to see is a fire engine house. An exhibition drill is to them something to be remembered in after years. But the volunteers were the pioneers of the glory of the Fire Department of New York. It is not too much to say that they built up the present admirable system. They, at least, largely and directly contributed to the perfection of its organization.
Our early firemen were drawn from all ranks in life--the greater part from the most influential classes. Each man felt he had a stake in the city, and readily volunteered his services. Many of them were individually the makers of our history. As a body, they have written one of the most remarkable pages in the history of the country. A volume devoted to these gallant fellows ought, therefore, to be a very interesting one.
As we have already intimated, we cannot touch a single company of the fire department, or the briefest period of the annals of that company, without finding ourselves face to face with some interesting bit of the history of New York. The histories of New York are all excellent in their way, but not one, we presume to say, has dealt with its people as this history does. We have walked into the people's so to speak, and have become intimate with them as no ordinary historian, who views men and manners afar off, has yet thought of doing. The result of our industry, of our new departure, appears in every page. The Fire Department is co-existent with the first Dutch settlement. It makes us acquainted with the British colonists; it carries us into revolutionary times; we are borne along in the telling of its story to those piping times of peace when the only enemy that menaced the Empire City was the fire fiend or the importation of disease; it brings us up to the stirring political times that for thirty years preceded the rebellion, and then it launches us into those years, red with the blood of contending brothers, and wherein those gallant firemen have played a conspicuous part. The experience of the firemen has been of use to the architect and the merchant. Nearly every improvement in the way of building has been the suggestion of men who have seen the evil effects of old methods and styles. They have given a fillip to the inventiveness of the practical engineer, and have helped to improve, in various ways, the useful arts. Thus, it will be seen, that no one who is ambitious to write a true history of the Fire Department can fail of writing a history of New York City, with all that the name implies.
What, then, would Henry Hudson, the intrepid navigator, when he landed on these shores, have thought of such a story, had the enchanted wand of some wizard transformed the primeval beauties of Manhattan Island into the panoramic picture which it presents to-day, with its vast population, its commercial enterprises, and teeming business life. Surely, the adventurous skipper of the "Vlieboat" or "Half Moon" would have thought it impossible that in the period of two and three-quarters of a century such a metamorphosis could have taken place. Well may we believe that he lingered with enthusiastic delight along the picturesque shores of the harbor and the bay, the magnificence of the scenery being such as to cause him rapturously to exclaim, "It is as beautiful a land as the foot of man can tread upon!"
The site of New York originally presented only a wild and rough aspect, covered with a thick forest, its beach broken and sandy, or rocky and full of inlets forming marshes. These irregularities of surface rendered it all the more undesirable for building purposes. The early colonists made but little effort to overcome or remove those rude obstacles of nature in the path of civilized life.
"A more forbidding spot of earth," remarks a local historian, "on which to erect a great city has seldom been seen than was presented in the original ground plan of the city of New York; and in rearing a city on such a foundation the builders have combined the arts of the stonecutters of ancient Petraea and the amphibious labors of the founders of Venice and St. Petersburg."
Sudden acclivities and projecting crags were originally intermingled with ponds and marshes. In some parts the tide penetrated nearly to the middle of the island; and in others were fresh water ponds, elevated considerably above tidewater. Midway between the Hudson and East Rivers was a pond of fresh water, which was discharged by a brook running southeastwardly to the East River, through a vast swamp or estuary--the tract now reaching from Pearl Street on the west to Catharine Street on the east, and extending up nearly to Chatham Street. To the west of this swamp was another of less extent, separated from the former by a ridge, upon which Pearl Street runs. This, in after years, was long known as Beekman's swamp. To the west of the fresh pond was a valley of wet land reaching down to the Hudson, and ending in a marsh, a region now traversed by Canal Street. Beyond this belt of fresh water and marshes, that almost insulated the part below them, there lay to the northeastward a fine tract of arable land and extensive meadows, the southeastern angle of which was known for many years as Corlaer's Hook, so called after an early proprietor. Farther up, on the eastern side, the land was more broken and rocky, swelling into eminences, with intervening swamps and morasses. The west side of the island was less varied in its natural features. The shore of the Hudson for a distance of three or four miles was low, and intersected by bays and estuaries.
As seen by the early navigators, this rugged fragment of creation was clothed in its primeval forests. The land thus discovered was not altogether an uninhabited waste. Scattered and enfeebled bands of the great family of the Mohegans were found along the banks of the Hudson. In character, habits, and pursuits, the human tenants of these wilds were but one remove from their irrational associates of the wilderness.
Adrian Block and his companions, whose ship was destroyed by fire, suffered great hardships on the island in the winter of 1613. They erected four huts near the southern point of the island, or about the present site of No. 39 Broadway. These were the first human habitations constructed by Europeans on the island of Manhattan.
Ten years later, the dwellers, who had increased in numbers, built themselves huts, and, for the common protection, constructed a fort, which they made in the form of a regular square, with four bastions. Those who could not find room within the fort built houses under the walls, and they formed the first street. This they called Hoogh Straat, now Pearl Street. Presently rude cottages began to cluster about the block house, and in good time the incipient metropolis assumed the title of New Amsterdam, while the whole territory of Hudson's River was called New Netherland. During the directorship of Peter Minuet (1624-33) the whole island of Manhattan was purchased from the Indians for a sum about equal to twenty-four dollars. As the rigorous winter season demanded a plentiful supply of fuel, the dry and inflammable nature of the huts--for houses they can scarcely be called--often gave rise to very destructive and alarming conflagrations. As early as the year 1628, it is recorded that some of the property of the colonists had been destroyed by fire. The experience of this, their first fire, was not lost upon them, for we find that in this year, "the making of brick, lime, and potash, was now begun, and grist and saw mills were built."
"On this island of Manhattan," says the Rev. Isaac Jogues, "and in its environs, there may well be four or five hundred men of different sects and nations; the Director-General told me that there were persons of eighteen different languages; they are settled here and there on the river, above and below, as the beauty and conveniences of the spot invited each to settle; some mechanics, however, who ply their trades, are ranged under the fort; all the others were exposed to the incursions of the natives, who, in the year 1643, while I was there, actually killed some two score Hollanders, and burnt many houses and barns full of wheat."
After the conclusion, on the part of the authorities, to build a city tavern, in the year 1642, its site was selected close to the shore, south of the road to the ferry. The building was of considerable dimensions and cost; and this place was chosen for its situation, as giving a good appearance to the town from the harbor. The building was erected near high water mark, on the present northwest corner of Pearl Street and Coenties Alley. After the organization of the city magistracy, in 1653, this building was ceded to the city for the purpose of a city hall, and was used as such until the year 1699. Its principal use was for the sittings of the burgomasters and schepens, and for the prison. The chamber occupied for the sitting of the magistrates was on the southeast corner of the second story, the prison chamber being in the rear, on the other side of the house, facing a yard which extended to "Hoogh Straat" (Pearl Street). Upon the roof was a cupola, in which was hung a bell, in the year 1656, which was rung for the assembling of the magistrates, and also on occasions of the publication of proclamations, the proclamations being read in front of the hall.
More permanent and substantial improvements were inaugurated by Governor Stuyvesant. He had been director of the company's colony at CuraÃcoa, where he lost a leg in an unsuccessful attack on the Portuguese island of Saint Martin. Being obliged to return to Holland for surgical aid, the directors, in recognition of his "Roman courage," sent him to New Netherland as "redresser-general" of all abuses. He arrived in New Amsterdam in the middle of May, 1647, and found the colony in a "low condition." The aspect of city affairs was certainly not attractive. Fences were straggling, the public ways crooked, and many of the houses, which were chiefly built of wood and thatched with straw, encroached on the lines of the streets.
To remedy these defects stringent ordinances were passed, and "surveyors of buildings" were appointed (July 25, 1647) to regulate the erection of new houses "within or around the city of New Amsterdam." Citizens were obliged to see to the sweeping of their chimneys, while the abolishment of wooden chimneys and thatched roofs was decreed.
These are the names of the surveyors of buildings: His Excellency, Lubert van Duicklargen, the Equipage-master; Paulus Leendersen Vandiegrist, and the Secretary, Cornelis Van Teinhoven. These officials were "authorized and empowered to condemn all improprieties and disorder in buildings, fences, palisades, posts, and rails." Persons designing to build, plant, or settle, within or about the city of New Amsterdam, were warned, "that nothing shall be done or undertaken without the knowledge, consent, and examination of the aforesaid surveyors of buildings, in the penalty of twenty-five carolus guilders; and also of having whatever they may have put up removed."
Fires were of frequent occurrence. The inflammable materials of which the houses were composed, and the insufficient means of extinguishing the flames, led to great anxiety and insecurity, and a corresponding vigilance, or what was deemed vigilance, in the prevention of fire. As the houses of the New Amsterdamers were mostly confined to the southern point of the island, the settlement was well supplied with water with which to do battle in case of emergency. Besides being within easy reach of the waters of the bay, the East and the North Rivers, a stream "deep enough for market boats" to ascend flowed in from the bay through the center of the present Broad Street as far as Exchange Place. Also, there was generally to be found a well or cistern in the garden of each house. But this abundant supply of water was about as practical a factor in the extinguishment of fire as were the "oceans of water" to the thirsty mariners, who, nevertheless, had "not a drop to drink." This paradox will be understood when it is stated that it was a difficult matter for the so-called firemen of this primitive era to utilize these natural sources of supply, and still more difficult of accomplishment to transport the water in sufficient quantities to the scene of the conflagration. The water had to be carried by hand, and "in such emergencies," remarks the Hon. Charles P. Daly, "we may imagine the scene of confusion that must have ensued when tubs, pails, or other means of carrying water, had to be hastily improvised to stay the progress of a fire."
This state of affairs was not destined to last long. It was the first period of fire organization. Other and more potent methods were, however, soon to be inaugurated. In order to introduce these methods the city fathers of those days, after due deliberation, and as a result of their combined official wisdom, signed the doom of wooden chimneys and thatched roofs, while four fire wardens were appointed to enforce the ordinance. This was the first step in the right direction; other plans were under consideration, and their adoption followed in good time. But as it took a very long while to set the wheels of Dutch official machinery in motion, reforms of every kind were slow and uncertain, and the easygoing burghers were content with one progressive measure at a time. Hence it came to pass that the year 1648 was a memorable one in the annals of New Amsterdam, for it was then that the first fire ordinance was passed. Houses, or log cabins, had been run up with an entire disregard to the alarming possibilities of the ravages of fire. These rude dwellings were, it would seem, specially constructed with a view to their speedily becoming a prey to the devouring element. Wooden chimneys and thatched roofs were certainly not designed to stay the fury of the flames. These naturally inflammable materials were subjected to a double process of seasoning, namely, to heat within and the rays of the sun without. Hence, a spark ignited them and a flame destroyed. It was in this year, then (1648), that a system of fire police was first established, the immediate cause of which was the happening of fires in two places. The preamble to this ordinance declares that "it had come to the knowledge of his excellency, the Director-General, that certain careless persons were in the habit of neglecting to clean their chimneys by sweeping, and of paying no attention to their fires, whereby lately fires have occurred in two houses." Mention is made of the fact that the danger of fire is greater as the number of houses increases, particularly as the majority of the houses were built of wood and covered with reeds, while some of the houses, it is pointed out, had wooden chimneys, "which is very dangerous." Therefore it is declared to be advisable and highly necessary to look closely into the matter.
From this time forth it is ordered no wooden or platted chimneys shall be permitted to be built in any houses between the Fort and the Fresh Water, but that those already standing shall be suffered to remain during the good pleasure of the fire wardens. To the end that the foregoing may be duly observed, the following persons were appointed fire wardens: From the Council, the Commissary Adrian Keyser; and from the Commonalty, Thomas Hall, Martin Krieger, and George Woolsey. They, in their turn, it is stipulated, shall visit all the houses in the city, between the Fort and the Fresh Water, and shall inspect the chimneys whether they be kept clean by sweeping, and as often as any shall be discovered to be foul they shall condemn them, and the owners shall immediately, without any gainsaying, pay the fine of three guilders for each chimney thus condemned--to be appropriated to the maintenance of fire ladders, hooks, and buckets, which shall be provided and procured the first opportunity. And in case the houses of any person shall be burned, or be on fire, either through his own negligence or his own fire, he shall be mulcted in the penalty of twentyfive guilders, to be appropriated as aforesaid.
The appointment of these fire wardens may be regarded as the initiatory effort to establish a system of protection against fire. They are the first fire functionaries, and as such it is interesting to learn something about them beyond their names. Martin Krieger was the proprietor of a famous tavern opposite the Bowling Green. At a later period, when the city was incorporated and a municipal government formed, he was a member of Governor Stuyvesant's council, and from this time until the capture of the city by the British he filled many important offices. Thomas Hall was an Englishman. Having been captured by the Dutch and paroled, he took up his residence among his friendly captors, and in time became a man of wealth, filling many public offices. He owned a large farm in the vicinity of Spruce and Beekman Streets. This farm in later years passed into the hands of William Beekman, the ancestor of the Beekman family. Adrian Keyser was officially connected with the Dutch West India Company, by whom the New Netherlands was founded. He was afterwards a member of the Executive Council. George Woolsey, like Thomas Hall, was an Englishman. He came out as the agent of Isaac Allerton, a leading Dutch trader. The descendants of these men are to this day honored residents of this city.
A survey of the town was begun in 1654 and completed in 1656. The city was then laid down on a map and confirmed by law, "to remain, from that time forward, without alteration." Streets were also laid out, some of which were crooked enough. The city then contained by enumeration, "one hundred and twenty houses, with extensive garden lots," and one thousand inhabitants. One of the first acts of the city authorities, after the incorporation of New Amsterdam, was the framing and passage of an order similar to the one promulgated in 1648. From this it is inferred that but little attention was paid to the previous proclamation, and as a consequence several fires had occurred, "and further dangers are apprehended." Then the ordinance decrees that it is incumbent on the fire officials "to perform their duties as fire wardens according to the custom of our Fatherland," and names the following as such fire wardens: Hendrick Hendrickson Kip, Govert Loockerman and Christian Barents, "who are hereby authorized to visit all the houses and chimnies within the city jurisdiction."
In 1657 the progress of the city became so marked that it was thought appropriate to give to its thoroughfares the names of streets, which was accordingly done, and they are enumerated as follows:
T' Marckvelt (the Marketfield), De Heere Straat (the principal street), De Hoogh Straat (the High Street), De Waal (the Wall), T' Water (the Water), De Perel Straat (the Pearl Street), aghter de Perel Straat (behind the Pearl Street), De Brouwer Straat (the Brewer Street), De Winckel Straat (the Shop Street), De Heere Graft (the principal canal), De Prince Graft (the Beaver Canal), T' Marckvelt Steegre (the Marketfield Path), De Smits Valley (the Smith's Valley).
The Dutch burghers did not stop here. They had put their hand to the plow and were not going to turn back. In addition to the foregoing measures for the common safety in case of fire, a rattle-watch of eight men was established. The duties appertaining to this watch were imposed upon each of the citizens by turn. Streets were for the first time paved with stone. There were no sewers, and the pavement extended to the width of only ten feet from the front of the houses, the center of the street being left bare for the more easy absorption of the water.
The inauguration of these reforms must have transformed the budding city, from a condition which Governor Stuyvesant on his arrival had designated as "low," into one of comparative order and shapeliness. The hog-pens, and other offensive structures, must have also disappeared from the public thoroughfares, while, no doubt, a more substantial order of buildings had taken the place of the houses which were "built of wood and covered with reeds and had wooden chimneys," for we find the Director-General in a proclamation enlarging upon "the beauties of a well-regulated city, with good dwelling houses and spacious gardens;" and also glowingly dwelling upon "the blessed augmentation of the population and trade of the city."
Towards the latter part of the year 1657 the need of regular leather fire buckets was much felt. None existed in the colony, and the thought of manufacturing them themselves was too visionary and impracticable to be entertained just then. As the Fatherland was depended upon to furnish nearly all the artificial necessaries of life, it was decided to send to Holland for the buckets, as specified in the following resolution:
* * *
Whereas, in all well-regulated cities it is customary that fire buckets, ladders, and hooks are in readiness at the corners of the streets and in public houses, for time of need; which is the more necessary in this city on account of the small number of stone houses and the many wooden houses here; therefore, the Director-General and Councillors do authorize the Burgomasters and Schepens of this city, either personally or through their treasurer, to demand immediately for every house, whether small or great, one beaver or eight guilders in sewant; and to procure from fatherland, out of the sum collected in this manner, two hundred and fifty leathern fire buckets, and also to have made some fire ladders and fire hooks; and to maintain this establishment, they may yearly demand for every chimney one guilder.
* * *
This tax was promptly collected by the city authorities, but the much coveted fire buckets were still beyond the reach of the city fathers. The resolution, quoted above, looking to the mother country for their procurement, was reconsidered, as it would take a long time before they could have reached this country. So, after waiting some months, it was decided to invoke the aid of the city shoemakers. But the shoemakers of those primitive days lacked confidence in their ability to perform the task assigned them. Four out of the seven Knights of St. Crispin responded to the call to meet the city fathers in solemn and serious conclave. The date of the meeting was the first of August, 1658. The views of each shoemaker were solicited. The first declined "the arduous undertaking;" the second declared he had no material; the third, more enterprising, proposed to contract to make one hundred buckets for the consideration of six guilders and two stuyvers each (about two dollars and fifty cents), and the fourth, after much persuasion, consented to make the remaining fifty upon the same terms.
These are the terms agreed upon:
* * *
Remout Remoutzen agrees to make the said buckets all out of tanned leather, and to do all that is necessary to finish them in the completest manner for the price of six guilders two stuyvers each (about two dollars and fifty cents each), half sewant, half beavers, a fourth part of the half beavers to be "passable," three-fourths whole beavers: on these conditions he is to make one hundred buckets, which he promises to do between this and All-Saints' Day. Adrian Van Lair, on the same terms, to make fifty buckets.
* * *
But Rome was not built in a day, and at the end of six months from the date of the above agreement, that is to say, on the twentieth of January, following, the one hundred and fifty leather fire buckets were delivered at the Stadt House, where fifty of the number were deposited. The remainder were divided in lots and placed at the residences of nine of the principal inhabitants, namely:
Numbers 1 to 50, in the City Hall; 51 to 62, in Daniel Litschoe's tavern (present Pearl Street, near Wall); 63 to 74, in the house of Abraham Verplanck, in the Smith's Valley, (Pearl Street, near Fulton); 75 to 86, in the house of Joannes Pietersen Vanbruggh (Hanover Square); 87 to 98, in the house of Burgomaster Paulus Leendenen Vandiegrist, (Broadway, opposite Exchange Place); 99 to 110, at the house of the Sheriff (or Schout) Nicasius de Se'le, (southeast corner Broad Street and Exchange Place); 111 to 122, at the house of Pieter Wolfersen Van Couwenhoven, (northwest corner Whitehall and Pearl Streets); at the house of Jan Jansen, Jr., ten; at the house of Hendrick Hendrickson Kip, Sen., ten, (Bridge, between Whitehall and Broad Streets); at the house of Jacobus Backer, ten, (Broad, between Stone and South William Streets).
The burning of a small loghouse on a bluff overlooking the bay, where Castle Garden now stands, led to the establishment of the first fire company in 1658. This organization, disrespectfully dubbed the "Prowlers," consisted of eight men, furnished with two hundred and fifty buckets, hooks, and small ladders, and each of its members was expected to walk the street from nine o'clock at night until morning drum-beat, watching for fire while the town slumbered.
This company was organized by ambitious young men, and was known also as the "rattle-watch." It was soon increased to fifty members, and did duty from nine P.M. until sunrise, all the citizens who could be roused from their beds assisting in case of fire. One of the first fire buckets is still preserved by James Van Amburgh, of Westchester County, whose ancestor was one of these early firemen. The first serious fire had occurred the year before, in 1657, when Sam Baxter's house caught fire--from a blazing log which rolled out of the fireplace during the night--and was completely consumed. It was regarded as the handsomest dwelling in the settlement of the early Dutch, and its destruction gave the needed impetus for the organization of a fire company.
Even the veteran firemen who still survive would laugh if they would read the manner in which those early fire laddies undertook to provide against conflagrations. One of the rules was that each citizen of New Amsterdam was required to fill three buckets with water after sunset, and place them on his doorstep for the use of the fire patrol in case of need. Another Dutch ordinance directed that ten buckets should be filled with water at the town pump, "wen ye sun do go down," and these were to be left in a rack provided for that purpose, so that the members of the "rattle-watch" could readily lay their hands upon them "if ye fyer does go further yan ye efforts of ye men and call for water."
When the fire was extinguished, the buckets of the citizens that had been used were thrown in a great heap on the common, and the town-crier, mounting a barrel, shouted lustily for each bucket proprietor to come and claim his own. As the stirring nasal cry,
* * *
"Hear ye! O! I pray ye,
Lord masters claim your buckets," penetrated to the suburbs of the town, boys ran from all directions, and fought savagely on the grass at the crier's feet, to see who should carry home the buckets belonging to rich men, knowing that the reward would be a cake or a glass of wine, or a small coin.
The prevention of fire was a subject which caused much anxiety and unremitting attention. To see that the ordinances were carried out, frequent examinations were made of the chimneys and houses. These precautions caused much annoyance to the order-loving Dutch matrons, who, doubtless, regarded such visits as an intrusion. The worthy fire functionaries found their zeal but illrequited. They were often insulted and abused, but they bore it all with true Dutch fortitude, until their female persecutors called them "chimney sweeps." This was the crowning indignity, and not to be borne. Retaliatory measures were adopted. The goede vrouws were summoned before the magistrates and fined for their discourteous conduct. This, it seems, did not mend matters, for the office of fire warden fell into disuse, and the ordinance became a dead letter.
Public wells at this time were found to be no less a public than a private necessity, equally indispensable in time of peril by fire as in the preservation of the public health. The first public well was dug in front of the fort in 1658. This well afforded an abundant supply of spring water, and "it became the great resort of the inhabitants during the remaining period of the Dutch occupation." The public wells were situated in the middle of the streets, and the water was passed from them in buckets through long rows of citizens to the scene of fire. Water was raised from these wells by the old Egyptian method of a balance pole and bucket, a mode still familiar in country parts. So far as drinking purposes were concerned, the water so obtained was very bad.
Dwellings of a more costly character than had previously been known were soon to be erected. In 1657, Peter Cornelisen Vanderveen built a fine house on the present Pearl Street. The year following, Governor Stuyvesant erected a large house in the vicinity of the present Whitehall Street, the name of which street it is alleged has been derived from the white hall of the Dutch governor. Others followed, and the demand thus occasioned induced the establishment of a brickyard in the year 1659, by De Graff and Hogeboom, and brick buildings after this period became the fashion with all who could afford the additional expense. Compared with more recent times, those dwellings must be considered as extremely inexpensive. A house and lot of the value of one thousand dollars of our present currency would then have been of the first class; they rarely exceeded eight hundred dollars. Rents varied from twenty-five dollars to one hundred dollars.
About the year 1656 several merchants had erected stone edifices, and schools had been established. The houses put up in the earliest period were usually one story high, with roofs of straw and chimneys of wood. These were succeeded by houses of brick and tile--the gable end usually to the street; apparently by a succession of steps from the line where the roofs commenced, the wall on the street, from each side tapering to the top at the center, in a point where often was a weathercock. And frequently on the street front, in iron figures, was designated the year in which the house was built. The street door was divided crosswise in the middle, the upper half having a large brass or iron knocker on it. A porch or "stoop" was at the front, on which the street door opened; and on each side was a bench, on which, in pleasant weather, some of the family were wont to sit and pass their leisure hours, often in company with a friend or neighbor. An alley on one side made a passageway to the rear part of the building, where was the family kitchen with its huge fireplace. The plan of the town at that period was substantially the same as is now found in the same locality. The water line, however, has been carried out far beyond its original place. The fort was located just below the present Bowling Green. From the fort a broad, straight roadway, led back towards the cultivated boweries farther up the island. This was from the beginning the principal street of the town, though not a favorite one for residences on account of its distance from the water. The Dutch called it "De Heere Straat," or Main Street. The English changed its name to Broadway.
The Dutch, in imitation of what was done in Holland, built dykes in Broad Street, as far up as the City Hall. The city was enclosed with a wall or palisades from Trinity Church across Wall Street to the East River.
Like most other Dutch villages of former times, the town of New Amsterdam was not wanting in its supply of windmills. These machines played an important part in those days, when there was no water power convenient. The windmill adjoining the fort, and standing upon the present State Street, was the first of its kind erected by the Dutch. Another windmill occupied the eminence on Broadway, between the present Liberty and Cortlandt Streets. Farther eastward on the heights along the East River shore was another windmill, opposite the ferry landing from Long Island. Another stood upon the south part of the present City Hall Park. Yet another was erected on the North River shore, below the present St. Paul's Church. "These, and several others," says Valentine, "erected from time to time, on prominent points of the landscape, were distinguishing features of the Dutch city of New Amsterdam." The first windmill in Broadway, near Cortlandt Street having decayed, it was ordered in 1662 that there be another erected on the same ground, "outside of the city land-port (gate) on the Company's farm."
The vicinity of Chatham Street, south of Pearl Street, was, in its natural condition, very high ground, and was called Catimut's Hill. It had also at times the names of Windmill Hill and Fresh Water Hill. In 1662 a windmill was erected in this vicinity--west of the present Chatham Street and a little north of Duane Street. This mill was in existence for over half a century. An old windmill, erected, it is supposed, at a very early date on the Bayard estate, stood on the easterly side of Elizabeth Street, midway between the present Canal and Hester Streets. It was still standing for some years after the revolutionary war, the last relic, it is supposed, of that kind of structure in this city.
The British seized the Dutch possessions of New Netherland in 1664. This marked a transformation in the municipal affairs of the city government. But those Batavian pioneers have bequeathed to the city many of their noblest characteristics, which have descended to the present day.
Abridgment copyright Â? 2002 by Brian M. Thomsen.
Excerpted from Birth of the Bravest by A. E. Costello. Copyright © 2003 A. E. Costello. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.