Monday, May 22, 2017

Washington Terrace Part 3: Gemstones, Bicycles, and Artwork

Part 3 in the series about Washington Terrace, a small street at 186th Street in upper Manhattan that is off the regular street grid. See Part 1: Murders. Part 2: Survivor.

Gemstone dealer Samuel Lyons cut his daughter Sophia out of his will. 

His decision even made the papers. According to the New York Times, he considered her behavior “unbecoming and unloving,” and he split his estate among his other three children. 

But, he didn't cut Sophia out of the estate completely. He instructed his oldest child, Isabel, to give something to Sophia after his death, but to keep the value under $10. Even in the early 1900s, $10 wasn't much of an inheritance. 

We needn’t worry too much about Sophia. First, she was an adult and she was not dependent on her father’s money. And second, her father changed his mind a few years later and put Sophia back into his will. She still didn't get an equal share in the estate with her siblings, but Samuel left Sophia three paintings that hung in his dining room on Washington Terrace in upper Manhattan. The artist was George W. Platt of Denver.

Washington Terrace at 186th Street these days might not seem like a place where businessmen hang artwork in their dining rooms, but when the half-block stretch first opened in the early 1900s, it was a new street in a desirable neighborhood, and professionals who worked downtown lived there. 
Washington Terrace in 2017. Photo by PBM, used with permission
What caused the fall-out between gemstone businessman Samuel and his daughter Sophia? 

Perhaps Sophia's disinheritance was simply one more difficulty following a decade of difficulties for the family. The 1890s started out with the tragic death of Edgar, Samuel’s son and Sophia’s younger brother. The decade ended with the death of Samuel’s wife and Sophia’s mother.

And, in the middle of the decade, there were the family's bicycle troubles.
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, The New York Public Library. "Ride Sterling bicy[cles]." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1895 - 1917. 
In 1894, Samuel’s son Theo married Mabel, a Manhattan millionaire’s daughter, and Mabel was into bicycles. Bikes were the craze during the 1890s, and both Theo’s bride and his sister Isabel joined fad. Not only did people love to ride, but bicycle racing was a popular spectator sport too.

It wasn’t long before Mabel’s interest in bicycles bothered her new groom. Theo didn’t approve of her “acquaintances made while biking,” as reported in The World. Theo accused Mabel of being “infatuated with the wheel” and with a wheeler named Charles Cafferty, a local champ in the bike-racing circuit. Cafferty denied the accusation, but after Theo divorced Mabel, the bike-racer married her. 

While bicycle drama upset Theo’s marriage, bicycling upset his sister Isabel too. 
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "Woman after falling from bicycle." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1896. 
While riding in their uptown neighborhood on a spring day in 1897, Isabel hit a rut in the road and injured her toe. Blaming the city for the rut, she filed a $10,000 lawsuit, though it didn't go well and the case was thrown out of court.

His children rode their bikes around Manhattan, and Samuel rode the train out of the city. He took two trips each year out West to peddle precious stones. 

The family gem business was headquartered in the original diamond district of New York City, on Maiden Lane in lower Manhattan. In the 1900s, Lyons & Son was in the Diamond Exchange, a building especially made for gem dealers. It was built with extra-strong floors to hold the heavy safes and with big windows for natural light that made the gems sparkle. The building still stands today.
By Unknown - Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide: v. 53, no. 1366: May 19, 1894, Public Domain,

It turns out that Lyons & Son had some financial issues in the 1890s. It wasn’t that the business lacked assets, but, rather, it lacked cash to pay the bills. Samuel sometimes bartered and traded his goods rather than selling them for money. He obtained land out West through trade, for example, and perhaps he traded some gemstones for the artwork in his dining room as well.  

Fortunately, Samuel and Theo convinced their creditors they could pay their bills in full if given some time, and their creditors were lenient with payment schedules. 

It’s possible that on one of his business trips to the West in the 1890s, Samuel Lyons obtained the George W. Platt paintings – the artwork that would be Sophia’s inheritance.

The artist George W. Platt didn’t always live in the West. He grew up in New York and then studied art in Munich and Philadelphia. 

Platt liked the trompe l’oeil technique of creating an optical illusion, making it look like the objects in the painting were actual, three-dimensional objects rather than painted renditions. The American style of trompe l’oeil at the time often featured items from the Western states, such as hunting game and hunting gear.

Trompe l'oeil piece by George W. Platt
The trompe l’oeil painting that was Platt’s most famous was called Vanishing Glories, and it has apparently vanished itself. There is no known record of where it ended up.

Platt himself ended up in Denver, but that was after he taught at the Art Institute of Chicago and married one of his students there. After the couple moved to Denver, Platt taught at the University of Denver and continued painting – mostly fruits and flowers as well as portraits.

I don’t know what paintings by Platt that Samuel Lyons hung in his dining room and left to his daughter Sophia. The history-hunter in me hopes one of them was the missing Vanishing Glories. But, I suppose it’s more reasonable to guess that Samuel Lyons would have chosen still-life paintings of food to hang in his dining room on Washington Terrace rather than trompe l’oeil frontier scenes. 

Whatever the paintings were in Samuel Lyons' dining room, the New York Times reported they were left for Sophia "as a mark of returned love to her" by her father.

Still life by George W. Platt
This happy ending ends the series on Washington Terrace, a short street off the regular Manhattan street grid - a place where we discovered murder stories; a survival story; and this story of gemstones, bicycles, artwork, and reconciliation.

Sidenotes of interest:
  • One creditor of Lyons & Sons was Jos. Frankel’s Sons, the firm that bought the famously unlucky Hope Diamond.
  • Theo remarried after his father died, and he remained in the gem business. On a trip out West in the 1920s, he was robbed of $20,000 worth of his goods.
  • Mabel, Theo's first wife, was the daughter of man who made a fortune in the cracker-making business. Watch for his story down the road on History Underfoot.

Sources are found here.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Washington Terrace Part 2: Survival

In Part 1 of this mini-series about Washington Terrace, Ella, who lived on the street, was found murdered a few miles away. As a reminder, this mini-series is about a little street in Manhattan that was built off the regular street grid.

In the same year that Ella was found murdered, 1907, a young man arrived in New York City as a newcomer from Norway. This story is about the survival of his son, Arthur Wigeland.

Arthur and his older brother Hans grew up on Washington Terrace. Their home was likely a lively place with the two brothers, their parents, two cousins from Norway, and three more boarders - also from Norway - all in one apartment.

Arthur spent his childhood, from the 1920s until he enlisted in WWII, living in this row of houses,
shown here as they appear in 2017. Photo by blog author.

When World War II broke out, Hans and Arthur both enlisted in the Army. Hans was a musician and he ended up playing in an Army artillery band. Arthur, age 21, had a job selling advertising for The New York Times when he enlisted as a private.

Arthur Wigeland. New York Times Studios.

Arthur reported for duty with the Army at Fort Jay on Governor’s Island. The small island is in the upper bay of New York Harbor, just off the southern tip of Manhattan. A United States military post since the beginning of our country’s independence, it was a place for troops to muster before heading overseas during WWII.

Manhattan and Governor's Island. Fort Jay is on the lower left side of the photo,
the structure surrounded by open land.
Plane Flying above Governor's Island, 1935, unknown photographer. 
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Arthur headed to Western Europe with the Armored Field Artillery Battalion, and his job was Forward Observer in a tank. 


In January 1945 Arthur was riding with a small group of tanks in Belgium when he was surrounded by Germans.

Arthur was in Belgium at tail end of the Battle of the Bulge. The battle began a month before, in December 1944, when the Nazis were in a desperate situation, and Hitler launched an all-out attack against the Allies. It was the largest battle on the western front, and it was brutal.

Arthur’s tank was attacked and the driver was killed. Arthur and several others found an abandoned house as shelter, but it didn’t offer them lasting protection. They fought the Nazis from the house but soon succumbed. 

Arthur had been fighting in the war for almost  three years when he was taken prisoner. Whatever bravery he pulled from himself to fight during those years, he would need to pull out even more to survive as a P.O.W. in a German stalag, a prison camp for enlisted troops.

After capturing the soldiers in Belgium, the Germans marched the prisoners to Limburg, Germany. They passed through small towns, and one veteran who survived the march recalled townspeople throwing apple cores at the prisoners to watch them dive for the cores and fight each other over a small bite of food.

The soldiers marched for days and days without adequate meals – often without any food at all. Escapees were shot on the spot.

Stalag XII

Their destination was Stalag XII. The place had served for years as a staging camp where newly-captured prisoners were sent before being disbursed to other places like work camps. As temporary housing for the prisoners, the conditions were stark to the extreme, devoid of anything to make the place habitable.

By the time Arthur arrived in 1944, Stalag XII housed P.O.W.s long-term, though the conditions remained inhumane.

Stalag XII. Photo from

Stalag XII had no lights, no heat, no beds, no blankets. The men slept on the ground – which was cobblestone for those in tents – with lice-filled straw. I’m sure you can imagine the state of the latrines without my description, and many men suffered dysentery. 

Conditions, however, would get worse. 

In March 1944, the Allies progressed closer and closer, and the Nazis loaded the P.O.W.s from Stalag XII onto railway boxcars to move them toward Berlin. The men were so crowded that there was only room for them to stand, body-to-body, though in some cars they were able to rotate rest times when men could sit while others stood waiting their turn. 

The boxcars full of prisoners sat on the tracks for 36 hours. And then they were strafed.

Strafe comes from the German verb strafen, which means to punish. In WWI, the word strafe entered the English language through the Brits when they heard the German phrase, “Gott strafe England,” meaning, “May God punish England,” and strafe was used to describe any type of attack. 

In WW2, however, the word strafe meant, specifically, attacking the ground from machine-gun fire from a plane flying above.

The prisoners in the boxcars were strafed by Allied planes. The cars were not marked with “P.O.W.” as they should have been according to Geneva Convention rules. The Allies had no idea they were killing and wounding fellow countrymen. They thought they were bombarding enemy transport.

The German guards fled. Some reports say the guards opened the railcar doors before they left. Other reports say the prisoners broke free themselves. However the prisoners escaped, they did it while being strafed.

Shirts off their Backs

As the men ran or stumbled or fell out of the cars, leaders among them organized the group. A Scottish military chaplain arranged them into a formation with the hope that it would save their lives.

If the Germans didn’t label them properly as P.O.W.s, they would label themselves. The men were ordered to take off their shirts and bend over, using their bare bodies in the sun to spell out the letters P O W that could be read by the pilots above.  

Completely unarmed and defenseless under fire, they held the formation. The strafing continued. Men were hit, and one man broke formation to run away. Everyone else remained feet on ground, bodies bent over – except the wounded and two chaplains who performed last rites on the dying.

The P47 Thunderbird pilots stopped the attack when they realized the men were prisoners, and they dipped their plane wings in acknowledgement that the message was received. The pilots flew away, but still the men on the ground held position, half-dressed, mostly starved, in the elements, all afternoon. 

Arthur Wigeland from Washington Terrace was among them.

It seems like the next thing I should write is the Allies returned and the man were safe, but that’s not what happened. Instead, in the evening, the German guards returned. The prisoners couldn’t be moved by train, and at 1 o’clock in the morning, the prisoners were ordered to march.

But not Arthur. He didn’t march. He escaped that night, and he wasn’t the only one. 

Escape and Rescue

Another prisoner slipped away when the group started moving, and he found his way to a farmhouse. A woman there gave him coffee and food. The word was going around the town that the Americans would soon be in Limburg.

Meanwhile Arthur met up with some others who escaped and they hid in a house. There was no resident there to feed them, but they found apples in the cellar – the first food they had had in weeks.

After a couple of days, they recognized the sound of American tanks, and the men wept. 

The tanks were part of the “most powerful tank force ever assembled on the western front,” according to The New York Times report. The enemy had destroyed bridges and left rubble in the streets to block the way of the Allies, but the American bulldozers busted through the mess and the tanks rolled into Limburg at 3:45 in the afternoon of March 27, 1945. 

Allies advancing eastward through Germany. Limburg, where Stalag XII was located, is
circled in red by blog author. Berlin is to the northeast. Map from The New York Times, March 28, 1945.

Arthur and the other starving men came out of the house where they were hiding, and the American soldiers in the tanks tossed chocolate, K-rations, and cigarettes to them. 

Arthur had survived. He went home weighing 130 lbs on his 6’2” frame as one of the lucky ones. Maj. David Roberts told The New York Times the survivors of Stalag XII “were in a pitiful state of well-being.”

Arthur returned to the States around the time of the VE-Day celebrations. The war in Europe was over.

VE-Day celebration in Times Square. Photo from

Back in New York City, the New York Times gave Arthur a position again in the ad department, and, over the years, he worked his way up in the advertising industry. 

Arthur left his childhood home on Washington Terrace to fight in a war. Almost twenty years to the day after his capture by the enemy in Belgium, he died in New Jersey at age 43 after a long illness. He left behind a wife, three children, five battle stars, a Purple Heart, and this story of his survival.

After covering murders in Part 1, and war in Part 2 of this mini-series, Part 3 will be about artwork on Washington Terrace.  

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Washington Terrace, Part 1: Murders

This isn't a story about Manhattan real estate. It's a story about murder, money, and another murder. President Cleveland makes an appearance, and there is an exotic lagoon, a neighborhood amusement park, and an insanity case - all with ties to a little street in upper Manhattan.

We'll start with the street because that's where I started, before I knew anything about the murders. I didn't recognize the name, Washington Terrace, and I headed to the place to check it out. 

Washington Terrace

Washington Terrace is a privately-made road off the street grid in upper Manhattan. 

Washington Terrace today, 2017. Photo by PBM, used with permission.
A developer bought the land in the middle of a city block on West 186th Street and built row houses on the lots.

Washington Terrace run south from the middle of the block on 186th Street between Amsterdam and Audubon Avenues. The small street is not part of the regular Manhattan grid. Map detail from The New York Public Library Digital Collections

When Emma and George Dease lived on Washington Terrace in the early 1900s, they were described in the Emma’s hometown paper, Watkin’s Express, as living “in great style in a suburban home.”

Emma and George were among the first renters in the three-story buildings, advertised at $40/month rent and being close to the Amsterdam Avenue trolleys.

A housekeeper lived with Emma and George in 1900, and so did a teenager named Ella. Emma said Ella was her niece she adopted when the girl's father (Emma’s brother) died. 

From Small Town to Big City

Emma's brother, who lived in their hometown in the Finger Lakes Region of New York, was a troubled young man and threatened suicide on a few occasions. Frank once threw himself into a well - to discover the water came up only to his neck, and he survived. He intended to freeze himself to death on a cold winter night, but returned to the house after his feet got cold. And, in a more aggressive attempt, he slit his throat.

Frank died in 1887, at age 32, leaving behind a little daughter named Ella. Emma said she took in Ella and raised her as her own. 

Meanwhile, according to gossip near her hometown, Emma, as a young woman in her twenties, married a New York City banker several decades her senior by the name of Sclier, who passed away not long after the marriage. I can find no evidence for that marriage. In fact, I can’t find any banker named Sclier that fits the story, but I do find someone named E.G. Squier who may have crossed paths with Emma, though he never married her.

E.G. Squier.
Image in public domain.
Squier was a divorced man about forty years older than Emma, and among his many endeavors in life, he was once the charge d’affairs to Central America and was an expert on the Mosquito Coast.

I haven’t sailed off on a tangent here, trust me. 

Mosquito Coast expert Squier died in 1888, and that’s when Emma, along with little Ella, headed to Honduras. They went to the Mosquito Coast to be precise.

I don’t know where Emma got the idea – or the money – to go there, but perhaps she knew Squier in his final years and was inspired by his stories. 

Or maybe it was Charles Renton who was inspired by Squier. Emma and Ella moved to Honduras with Charles. He was a recent widower, a machinist, a naturalized U.S. citizen from England, and a man 20 years Emma's senior. Emma says they were married, and at this point, we might as well believe her.


Charles laid claim on 100 square miles of land on Brewer's Lagoon, now called Brus Laguna in Honduras, on the northern end of the Mosquito Coast. The coastal area was named after the local indigenous people, the Mosquito.

Emma, Ella, and Charles moved to Brewers Lagoon in Hondura. Google map 2017.

Though the place was very remote and sparsely populated, Emma and Charles had neighbors on the lagoon - the English, French, and American men involved with the Brewer's Lagoon Wood and Produce Company. It took a few years of being neighbors before Charles and the company men hated each other.

The story goes that the men from the company routinely trespassed on Charles’ land and he didn’t like it. The disagreement escalated into the company men tearing down Charles’ coconut trees, stealing his cattle, breaking his fences, and setting fires on his property. There weren’t many authorities in the area to appeal to, and the ones who were there were linked with the company. Charles was on his own in the battle.

And a battle it was. 

Eventually the feud turned into gunfire, and on March 15, 1894, Charles was shot clear through the torso during a volley with several men from the company. He didn’t die immediately from his wounds, but the men returned the next day to finish the job. After that, Charles was never seen alive again.

The villains took Emma and 8-year Ella across the lagoon and held them captive for a few days before ordering them to get to Nicaragua on their own. Some reports say that the leader of the company gang gave Emma money to make safe passage home, along with some clothes from her house before they burned the place down.


Once in the USA, Emma immediately alerted the State Department. The State Department took action and urged Honduras to investigate immediately.

The Hondurans did investigate, but at their own pace of “immediately,” and not much came of their efforts. The United States, in response, sent not one but two letters to Honduras to express that President Cleveland himself was not pleased, and the U.S. dispatched Commander Davis on the Navy cruiser U.S.S. Montgomery to Honduras with orders to conduct a thorough investigation of the case.

The U.S.S. Montgomery was dispatched to Honduras as part of the Renton murder investigation.
Image in public domain.
By the time Commander Davis arrived at Brewer's Lagoon, some of the accused murderers had disappeared, and one key witness had been found drowned nearby. Still, Commander Davis was able to conclude that murder and abduction did occur as Emma said it did, and the U.S. once again urged Honduras to take action.

And this time they did. Five men were found guilty of crimes in the case, but the jury did not consider a murder charge because Charles’ body was never found. Witnesses in the investigation stage said his body was dropped piece by piece into the lagoon. Others said his body was thrown into the fire that was set to burn down Charles’ house. Some locals claimed his body, at least his head and torso, were buried. But, at trial, there were no witnesses to murder, no body, no charges of murder, and no conviction for that crime. 

And, at the time of the five men's guilty verdicts, four men had already escaped. 

Honduras considered the case closed.

The Claim

But Emma didn’t consider the case closed. She pressed on and made a monetary claim against the government of Honduras. 

Honduras replied that a government is not responsible for crimes committed by its citizens, and the crimes weren’t even committed by its citizens anyway but by English, French, and American citizens. 

And, there was the delicate issue that Emma might not have been Charles' wife and legal heir, and, thus, had no right to make a monetary claim.

There were a couple of small details, though, that made a big difference. Emma said that when the men abducted her, they held her and little Ella in a house owned by a government official. The official, she said, knowingly looked the other way - at minimum - and his inaction while on duty made the government liable. And, her case stated, governments must actively and competently investigate crimes committed in their territory, which Honduras failed to do.

Emma won the case. 

It took several years, but Honduras agreed to pay Emma about $30,000* (worth over $800,000 today) with a lesser amount of about $4,000 to little Ella. Though, by the time the monthly installments commenced, Ella wasn’t a little girl anymore. And, she never received the full payment.

New York

Emma had legal help in NYC with her claim. She liked the help so much that she married her lawyer and became Mrs. George Dease. The couple, along with Emma’s niece Ella and a housekeeper, moved into their newly-built home on Washington Terrace to live "in great style."

Emma appeared on society pages of newspapers, including a mention of her trip to Washington D.C. to attend a Daughters of the American Revolution conference. Emma was into genealogy. 

DAR congress, 1908. Emma attend the congress in 1907.
Source: Daughters of the American Revolution..

She returned home to New York City from the genealogy conference on April 24, 1907, and one week later, her husband George died of complications from an illness. His obituary mentioned his widow, but no mention was made of Ella.

Ella was, perhaps, troubled like her father Frank who made many attempts at suicide and died as a young man, as you will recall. Ella witnessed the violent death of her step-father and suffered an abduction on the Mosquito Coast, and it’s understandable that tragedy could have affected her mental health. She was said to have fits and outbursts. Maybe she was simply a young woman with a mind of her own and who didn’t get along with her aunt Emma - not everyone thought Ella was a problem. 

Ella's lawyer was quoted in The New York Times: 
"Miss Renton as an attractive girl, she wrote clear business letters and there was nothing apparently wrong with her mental faculties."

But, Emma's lawyer stated Ella
"is of weak mind, and on information she is unclean, untruthful, and there is no hope of her ever becoming any different."
Whatever version was the truth, there was turmoil in the house and Emma wanted it resolved soon as Ella was about to turn 21 and gain control of the money she received from Honduras. Emma petitioned the court to declare her niece Ella insane and to commit her to an institution.

Ella had no intention of being institutionalized. 

On May 17, 1907, ten days after she turned 21, Ella left the house on Washington Terrace. She boarded with Mr. and Mrs. Ross, acquaintances of her aunt. And instead of heading to court to be examined by alienists (the term used for psychiatrists in those days), Ella headed up the street to Fort George.

Fort George was an amusement park on the edge of upper Manhattan bordering the Harlem River, and who can blame a young person set free from strict control wanting to enjoy her freedom. Ella had served in her aunt's household on Washington Terrace, according to her lawyer in The New York Times, as "a household drudge."

Fort George Amusement House, Amsterdam and 190th Street. Seidman Photo Studio, 1908.
From Museum of the City of New York Digital Collection

Unlike the Arrowhead Inn just a mile or so away on the Hudson River that catered to the elite of Manhattan, Fort George had a bit of a seedy reputation. Ella was spotted there on several occasions with men that her aunt Emma did not approve of. Yet, other than asking the courts to commit Ella to an institution, Emma didn’t keep an eye out for Ella that spring. Instead, Emma left the city, as was her routine in the summer, entrusting the insanity case to her lawyer and entrusting Emma’s shelter to the Rosses.

The Rosses did not approve of Ella spending time at Fort George any more than Emma did. After a few weeks of boarding her, Mrs. Ross wanted Ella to leave, and Mr. Ross sent some kids in the neighborhood to find Ella at Fort George and tell her to pick up her truck from the apartment.

Ella didn’t pick up the trunk. She didn’t show up at her court date for the insanity hearing either. Nobody reported her missing, however.

Lost, then Found

Nobody looked for Ella while she was missing, but somebody did find her.

On the morning of July 30, 1907, a police officer on East 90th Street noticed a pair of women’s shoes on the top step of stairs leading to a basement apartment. 

When he looked closer, he spotted blood on the steps and a heap of clothes at the bottom of the landing. It wasn’t a heap of clothes tossed down the stairs, but a young woman who had been murdered and mutilated.

The body was found on East 90th Street, in an areaway of an apartment building.
Detail of map from the New York Public Library Digital Collection.

She had no identification on her. The police released a description of her clothing – cheap and common. She wore a brown shirtwaist, dark skirt, shoes of the type that were found in any inexpensive shoe shop in the city, and tan stockings. Her hands showed evidence that she toiled at physical work, and her stomach had been empty for a couple of days. She was assumed to be a waif.

The day the news hit the papers, a businessman from Harlem reported a possible lead. He was certain he saw the same girl the day previous to the murder, alive but in a heap on the ground at 129th Street and Broadway. The businessman saw a man come out of a house who then retreated back into the house when he saw the businessman watching him. 

Note: North is to the right on this map. The circle at 129th and Broadway shows where the witness saw the victim on the ground the day before she was killed. Note the yellow building on the left inside the circle. The witness spotted a man acting suspicious at that building.  Detail of map from New York City Public Library Digital Collection

Based on the tip from the witness, police interrogated the watchman of the house. He admitted Ella was with him the day before the murder, but said she left alive. No direct evidence could link him to the crime and he was released.

Days passed and news coverage continued, and the neighbors where Ella was boarding told Mr. Ross that they thought the victim might be Ella. Mr. and Mrs. Ross went to the morgue, and they were able to identify her. 

When Emma learned Ella's fate, the aunt thought the murderers were the old gang from Honduras. She speculated they were, perhaps, being forced to pay back Honduras for the claim money, and they murdered Ella to avoid the payment. She said the gang must have forced Ella, who wore only the best and most fashionable clothes, into common clothes to cover her identity. Her story made little sense, but that’s what Emma said.

Whoever committed the vicious crime got away with it. The case of Ella's murder was never solved.

The Past and the Future

Emma remained out of town and did not attend Ella's burial. 

A few weeks later, Emma incorporated a new organization she founded called Daughters of America, with herself as director. The purpose of her genealogy group was for membership to be “pure” with strict rules about who was eligible to join. 

Membership required both parents to be born in the United States, at least one grandparent born here, and at least one-great grandparent who was not only born here but also who was "prominent and respectable," according to Medina Daily Journal. "She said pure blooded American women feel the need of a society of their own."

With that attitude, it must have been exciting for her when she met Mr. Washington, her next husband. Washington is certainly a name that goes along with American prominence and respectability. Her new husband had a son named George, which means Emma was the step-mother to George Washington. Too bad, however, that her husband, named Alfred, was himself born in England. Still, I’m guessing that Emma Washington enjoyed her new surname.

Emma and Alfred Washington didn't live on Washington Terrace after their marriage, but in this apartment building on West 164th Street:

The apartment building where Emma and Alfred Washington lived on W 164th Street,
as seen in 2016 (on garbage pick-up day). Map from Google.

Emma and Alfred's neighbors in the building, Carl and Walborg, would later move to Washington Terrace themselves, to that little street off the grid where Emma had once lived in suburban style. Carl and Walborg had a son, and he will be the topic of the next post in this mini-series on Washington Terrace in upper Manhattan. (Please subscribe to the blog or follow History Underfoot on Facebook or Twitter to get notices of new posts.)


*It's unclear how much the actual payment from Honduras to Emma was. A government document states it was $78,000, but it's possible that two offspring from Charles Renton's first marriage received a portion. I chose $30,000 in consideration that it was a shared payout and as an estimate based on other reports of what Emma received.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Manhattan: Bolted at the Edge of the Grid

I like to look at history underfoot, though this bit of history is 5½ inches above my feet.

The history here is not only precisely 5½ inches above the sidewalk, its elevation is precisely 148.729 feet above sea level, and the historical object has been in place since the 1880s when Alston Culver put it there.

Here’s a closer look at what I’m talking about it.

See it? Not really? No worries – let’s set the scene.

The location where I’m standing is on 155th Street, a significant street in New York City history. In the early 1800s, a Commission was formed to plan the growth of the city, and that plan turned out to be a grid of streets and avenues that reached as far as where I am standing at 155th Street.

After City Surveyor John Randel, Jr. marked the grid on paper in 1811, his next step was to mark the grid on land by placing marble markers at proposed intersections. When markers couldn’t be placed because of bedrock outcrops, he set bolts in the bedrock. He placed a marker at the intersection where I am standing, but it was across the street from my location, and the marker doesn’t exist anymore.

Instead, what does exist is this galvanized iron bolt protruding from the column base.

The red arrow points to the bolt.

The bolt is not a bench mark set by Randel in the early 1800s, but, rather, one set by Alston Culver decades later in the 1880s.

Quite a bit happened in the area between 1811 when the City planned the grid and 1880. One significant change is that the countryside estates and farms around 155th Street were sold off.

One large parcel of land was sold by a box-maker turned land-speculator, named Richard Carman, to Trinity Church in the 1840s, and the church made a large cemetery on the land. The north side of the Trinity Cemetery runs along 155th Street and a stone wall marks the boundary. On the corners of the wall are ornamental columns, and on the base of the column on the corner of 155th and Amsterdam Avenue is a bolt placed there by Alston Culver.

But why? Why was this bolt set here and who was Alston Culver?

Culver lived in Harlem, was involved with Tammany Hall politics, and was the Assistant Engineer for the Department of Public Works. Part of his job was to measure the elevations of Manhattan from Bellevue Hospital downtown all the way to High Bridge Water Tower uptown. To do that, he set markers, called bench marks, at intersections like John Randel, Jr. did years before him. The bench marks were then measured against a set mark to determine the elevation at each location. One of those bench marks is the bolt on 155th Street, on the northeast corner of Trinity Cemetery.

Culver later took a job as Water Purveyor in the city, and he was noticed. The New York Press wrote, “Water Purveyor Alston G. Culver can be seen any day driving the avenue in his buggy on his way to inspect the work under his command.” He then ran, unsuccessfully, for state public office.

A few years later, his name hit the papers outside of New York City in connection with a mysterious death after Roy Culver, Alston’s younger half-brother, was fished out a river upstate. Even though he was found in the river with a weight tied to him, the coroner found no water in the victim’s lungs. There was, however, poison in his stomach. Alston thought his brother was murdered. A clue in the case was a letter signed by “A Stranger” who claimed that he killed Roy, who was obsessed with researching genealogy to prove his right to an inheritance. It seems that a Culver ancestor was an early settler of Long Island and Roy thought he might have a stake in the estate. As far as I can tell, the “Stranger” was deemed to be Roy himself, the mysterious death was officially assumed to be suicide, and there was no long-lost inheritance to be had.

Alston Culver changed jobs within the City and worked for the Finance Department, and he largely disappears from the public eye. 

Meanwhile, the city kept expanding, and 155th Street was finally graded. Eventually the city grew all the way to 220th Street at the upper tip of Manhattan.

As the city grew, a young man named Frederick Koop graduated from Cooper Union as a civil engineer, passed the civil service exam for assistant draughtsman with a respectable score of 92%, and was hired by the City. He shows up in the papers with a bit of mystery too. His roommate accused him of stealing $30, but when the police nabbed Koop that same day, Koop denied the charges, didn’t have the money on him, and said he simply was out having breakfast.

Koop, like Culver, worked on measuring the elevations of the City. By this time, in the early 1900s, however, the City was more than just Manhattan. In 1898, all five boroughs of Manhattan, Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island consolidated into one City of Greater New York. Koop, promoted to Assistant Engineer, set out to measure them all.

To do so, Koop set 1,186 bench marks throughout the five boroughs and also gathered the data from existing bench marks set by others in the past, including the bolt on 155th Street.

In this 1910 photo, you can see the ornamental column to the right of the intersection. This is how the place looked when Koop worked on his measuring project.

Photo by Thaddeus Wilkerson,1910, from the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Over the years, the City used several different sites to measure elevation against. These sites are called datums, and Koop documented all of them, but only one was decided to be the official datum from that point forward. It's called, appropriately, the Standard Datum, and it's defined as the mean sea level at Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The bolt on 155th Street is, therefore, 148.729 feet above the mean sea level at Sandy Hook.  

Koop published his findings, listing all the bench marks in New York City and their elevations, in a publication called Precise Leveling of New York City in 1914. He went on the lecture circuit with it, at least a circuit of fellow engineers, and even illustrated his talks with lantern slides.

The bench marks that still exist are still used as measuring devices throughout the city. They mark history hidden in plain sight, not quite underfoot, but just above it.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Mr. Knapp needs a staff: 165th Street

"New York, New York
So nice they named it twice"
lyrics by Gerard Kenny

But what about 165th Street in New York? It's named twice too.

Two streets named 165th Street, one right after the other. Google map.
Or, rather, there are two 165th Streets, one right after the other. And, the streets - especially the northern of the two 165th Streets -  didn't have the reputation of being particularly nice. In 1912, a New York Times reporter said it was "a useless lane." And Reginald Bolton, local historian, wrote in the 1920s that the street "exists only as a blot upon the neighborhood."

How did the street end up like that?

Going back about 175 years, we'd find a road in this location called Croton Street. But, let's go back further in time and work our way forward.

Before the Europeans arrived, the Lenape Native Americans were the inhabitants of upper Manhattan. The land at what is now 165th Street was a forested spot and with big outcrops of bedrock that jutted out of the ground. 

Later, after the English took Manhattan from the Dutch, land in northern Manhattan was allotted to residents by Governor Dongan, but our plot in question remained in an unclaimed, uncultivated section bordered by farms and estates to the north and south.

In 1712, that uncultivated stretch of land was divided into 12 plots, and our plot was allotted to Captain Johannes Benson, a Scandinavian who had previously purchased land in what is now Harlem. Interestingly enough, Captain Benson served as the Surveyor of Highways in Harlem. I wonder what he would have thought of two streets with the same name?

The land changed hands a few more times, and then, in 1803, George Wear the blacksmith bought the plot and set up shop. The blacksmith's plot was a skinny strip of land, set at angle.

A nearby landowner named Shepherd Knapp purchased a bit of land from the blacksmith, and that bit of land is now the northern of the two 165th Streets. So, why did Knapp need that land when he already had a large estate nearby?

1867 map from New York Public Library Digital Collection.
As a young man, Shepherd Knapp learned the leather tanning business in lower Manhattan. He worked his way up in the city to become the president of Mechanics Bank of New York. He bought land in upper Manhattan to be his country estate.

Image from New York Public Library Digital Collection.

A wealthy landowner needs a staff, and the staff need places to live. So, Knapp purchased land from George Wear the blacksmith and built wood-frame homes on it for his workers.

To access the homes, Knapp cut a road and called it Croton. 

Why the name Croton?

I don't have direct evidence about why Knapp named his street of workers' cottages Croton, but I have a hunch.

The Croton Aqueduct that carried fresh water from upstate New York into Manhattan was a big construction project that was completed in the 1840s, just about the time Knapp purchased land from the blacksmith. Knapp was a leading proponent of building a reservoir in the neighborhood, and that reservoir was indeed built in the 1860s. (It's now Highbridge swimming pool on 173rd Street.)

I have a hunch Knapp named his private street after his interest in the project, the reservoir along the Croton Aqueduct.

Knapp died in 1875 and his estate deeded Croton Street to the city.

The Croton Street name still shows up in 1916, when the city was growing up around it. Pink indicates brick buildings while yellow is for wood structures. Those wood structures are what The New York Times called in those years "ancient shanties" on a "worthless thoroughfare."

1916 map from New York Public Library Digital Collection.

A few short years later, the street name is gone, as are any buildings on the triangle.

1921-23 map from New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Add a soldier's name

Something else happened between the 1916 and the 1920s maps. A local man named William J. McKenna enlisted to fight in World War I. He was sent to France and served as in Company D Anti-Aircraft Machine Gun Battalion. A few months later, he died in action at the age of 30. 

The little triangle was eventually named after him, and the land is now McKenna Square, part of the NYC Parks Department.

In the 1980s, it was updated with a Greek temple structure and new benches. I haven't figured out why a Greek temple was chosen for the park, so I like to think of the ghost-like structure as a memorial to the little wooden dwelling houses that once stood on this stretch of land.

A look at the street over the years

Keep an eye on the building marked with the star. It remains in all the photos. All views are looking to the east, toward Amsterdam Avenue.

Before 1923. The street remained unpaved until the building were torn down.
Photo from New York Public Library Digital Collection.

1941. Note the triangle section is now a seating area with benches in the middle of the two 165th Streets.
Photo from New York Public Library Digital Collections.

2015. The old building is still there! 
The lots on the left are now the site of Gregorio Luperon High School for Science and Mathematics. 
McKenna Park is to the right, out of the picture range.

Old Croton Street and the little triangle park that remains captured my heart when I learned about the place. In fact, the history of that particular place is what inspired me to start this History Underfoot blog, and I use a photo of McKenna Square between the two 165th Streets as the header on my blog and as my Twitter and Facebook logos. History is indeed underfoot, wherever we are.

List of sources.