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Thursday, September 22, 2016

Postcard Thursday: The Fire of 1776

courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Museum

This past week marked the anniversary of the Great Fire of 1776, which broke out sometime after midnight September 20-21.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
The fire started on the evening of September 21, 1776—perhaps in the Fighting Cocks Tavern on the wharf, though that has never been substantiated—and quickly engulfed the city west of Broadway. The churchyard surrounding Trinity Church kept the fire from heading south, but neither Trinity was spared, nor anything between it and St. Paul’s Chapel. St. Paul’s, itself only ten years old, had a bucket brigade manning its roof and was saved. In all, over 400 buildings were gone—nearly twenty-five percent of the city’s structures. 
The British immediately blamed the Americans. (One American blamed by the British was Nathan Hale, who was arrested for spying that same day. Hale, however, had nothing to do with the fire.) General Howe called it a “horrid attempt” by a “number of wretches to burn the town….” As most of the damage happened on “Holy Ground” and other Trinity Church property, some saw it as an explicit attack on the Church of England’s power and influence. In truth, the Americans had contemplated the idea of torching the city if it fell into British hands. One of Washington’s generals, Nathaniel Greene (the “Fighting Quaker”), had pressed Washington in that direction. However, when Washington floated the idea by John Hancock, the Continental Congress immediately nixed it and it is unlikely that either Washington or Greene disobeyed Congress.
The image displayed here, Représentation du feu terrible à Nouvelle Yorck, ca. 1776, is in the collection of the Colonial Williamsburg Museum, and is actually what's called a "cut-out optique view." The print, which was engraved by Francois Xavier Habermann in Germany and is attributed to French artist André Basset, was designed to be displayed in front of a candle.

As the museum's text panel explains, "windows, door, and the flames have been cut out using a knife and decorative punches. The colored paper pasted to the back of the print was thin enough to allow light to pass through the holes. The flicker of the a candle made the blaze come to life for the viewer."

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Our next public walking is Sunday, October 9, at 10:00 a.m. Join us as we explore Central Park and its many representations of Christopher Columbus. Click the link for details:

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Read more about NYC history in

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Upcoming Walking Tour -- Christopher Columbus: Hero or Villain?

On Sunday, October 9, at 10:00 a.m. join us for a walk in and around Central Park as we celebrate Columbus Day and ask the question: Who was Christopher Columbus and Why does he deserve a holiday? As we look at the creation of Columbus Day back in 1892 and the explorer's controversial popularity, we'll talk about the importance of Italian-Americans to the history of New York City as well as looking at how Central Park was created as a social experiment to help the city's immigrants. The tour will last between 90 minutes and 2 hours.

Reserve your place on on before Wednesday, September 28, and the walk is just $20 per person. (Reservations received September 29 and later are $25 each.)

How to book:

Send an email with your name, the number in your party, and a contact cell phone number to

We will get back to you with the starting place within 24 hours.

Hope to see you on October 9!

James & Michelle Nevius

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Henry Hudson's 1609 arrival

As we've noted on this blog before, there is a disagreement among historians about when Henry Hudson arrived in New York Harbor and first spied Manhattan island and the river that would eventually bear his name.

September 13th is the day traditionally held to be New York's anniversary and back in 2009, it was on that date that the city celebrated its 400th birthday, complete with a royal visit from the Prince of Orange (now the King of Netherlands) and Princess Maxima.

In fact, Hudson was already in and around New York days earlier.

For the record, this probably isn't Henry Hudson
We have a detailed description of Hudson's voyage thanks to the journal of his first mate, Robert Juet. Here's Juet's entry for September 13:
The thirteenth, fair weather, the wind northerly. At seven of the clock in the morning, as the flood came we weighed, and turned four miles into the river. The tide being done we anchored. Then there came four canoes aboard: but we suffered none of them to come into our ship. . . .
So, yes it appears that on September 13, the Halve Maen sailed four miles into the river. (A river which would only come to be known as the Hudson many years later; for a great portion of New York's history it was called the North River.)

The day before (Sept. 12), Juet notes:
Very fair and hot....we turned into the river two leagues and anchored.
And here is Juet's entry for September 11:
The eleventh was fair and very hot weather. At one of the clock in the afternoon we weighed and went into the river, the wind at south south-west, little wind. Our soundings were seven, six, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, twelve, thirteen, and fourteen fathoms. Then it shoaled again, and came to five fathoms. Then we anchored, and saw that it was a very good harbor for all winds, and rode all night.

Thus, it would appear that on September 11, Hudson "went into the river" and anchored in the "very good harbor," which means that on September 11, 1609, the Halve Maen was at anchor somewhere in New York harbor. Today, of course, we cannot think of September 11 without turning to more recent New York City events, but there's still no reason not to commemorate Hudson on the day he actually sailed into the harbor.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Labor Day

If you've ever taken our tour of Union Square and environs, you may be familiar with the above picture. It depicts the very first Labor Day parade on September 5, 1882. Though the parade wended its way from City Hall to Union Square and finally up to 42nd Street, it's Union Square that is most associated with the events of that day, perhaps because of this image. (Union Square became so connected to the American labor movement that you will sometimes hear that the "union" the square is named after is a labor union. That's not true: the small square marked the place where Broadway and the Bowery met on the original 1811 grid plan of the city.)

The history of Labor Day in America is muddled. Many -- including the AFLCIO -- claim the holiday was the brainchild of Peter J. McGuire, the founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. Others claim Matthew Maguire of Paterson, New Jersey, was instrumental in getting the holiday adopted. Certainly Maguire led the parade in 1822, sitting beside noted abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher of Brooklyn in the lead carriage.

By 1894, Labor Day was a national holiday, despite the fact that May Day was associated with labor in many parts of the world. Eight years earlier, on May 4, 1886, in Chicago, a rally to support striking workers turned into a riot when someone threw dynamite at the police. Quickly dubbed the "Haymarket Affair," the events became the catalyst for turning May 1 into an International Workers' Day -- a day often marked by protest. To distinguish the new Labor Day holiday from the violence of Haymarket -- and divorce it from any questions of labor unrest -- the Cleveland administration instead picked the early September date of New York's commemoration. Within a few decades, it would come to signal the unofficial end of summer.

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it's the perfect time for a walking tour!

Check out our full menu of options at

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Happy 100th Birthday to New York's National Parks

America's National Park Service is turning 100 years old today. Did you know that there are twenty-two National Parks in the state of New York, with a dozen parks, trails, monuments, memorials, and historic sites in New York City itself? Here are some of our favorites:

courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Hamilton Grange National Memorial

Built in 1802 and home to Alexander Hamilton for the last two years of his life, Hamilton Grange is one of the oldest homes left in Manhattan. With Hamilton-mania sweeping the nation, visitation has increased greatly at the house and there may be a wait for a tour, so schedule accordingly.

While we don't visit the Grange on our walking tour of Hamilton's New York, its makes a great complement to our guided exploration downtown. If you'd like to book a walk that takes your through what Manhattan would have been like during the Revolution and early Federal era, contact us at

courtesy of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum

In 1998, the independently operated Lower East Side Tenement Museum was designated a National Historic Site, four years after having been designated a National Historic Landmark. The best place to learn about the life of 19th-century European immigrants in New York (and, perhaps, in America), the museum also features one of the best New York/history-centric bookshops in the city.

courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
African Burial Ground National Monument

Tucked away at the corner of Elk and Duane streets (near Foley Square), the African Burial Ground actually consists of two parts: an outdoor memorial designed by Rodney Leon, and an indoor museum that is housed in the federal office building that was under construction when the burial ground was first unearthed. The most significant pre-Civil War black burial site in the north, the cemetery saw upward of 10,000 people laid to rest from the 1690s through the middle of the 18th century.

(We write about the African Burial Ground in the Delancey chapter of Footprints in New York.)

courtesy of the National Park Service
Castle Clinton National Monument

For many people, Castle Clinton is just a pit stop to pick up tickets for New York's most famous National Parks, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. But it is worth your time to explore the small museum here and the various displays inside the building's perimeter. One of the oldest structures downtown, the castle variously served as a fortification, a reception hall, a theater, an immigrant landing depot, and an aquarium.

(James's recent attempt to recreate an 1866 walking tour of New York City starts at Castle Clinton -- then known as Castle Garden.)

For a full list of National Parks in New York State visit:

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Postcard Thursday: The 19th Amendment

courtesy of the Library of Congress
On August 18, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, granting women the right to vote across America.

The postcard above dates from ca. 1913, and was just one of many tools used by suffrage activists to convince the general public that women deserved a say in electoral politics. Though women were granted the right to vote in Wyoming as early as 1869, the campaign to open up the polls to all women was a long, hard battle.

A group of men -- and a few women -- gather at a women's suffrage rally at Park Row in Lower Manhattan. (They are clustered around the statue of Benjamin Franklin that still sits in front of Pace University.) Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Of course, on the other side, anti-suffrage activists had long waged a campaign to keep women from the voting booth. In this image from 1880 (below), the illustrator shows caricatures of "women dressing and interacting in society as men; drinking; voting for handsome candidates; driving ugly men from the polls; and a domestic scene showing a man taking care of children."

images courtesy of the Library of Congress

In 1915, the satirical magazine Puck took aim at men who opposed universal suffrage. If voting were opened to women, how many all-male bastions would be left?

The passage of the 19th Amendment was a major milestone, but as Slate recently pointed out, it didn't actual result in universal suffrage: poll taxes, literacy tests, and other barriers made it difficult for many women to exercise their rights.

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Little Syria and Radio Row

Fifty years ago last week, the ground was broken for the World Trade Center. (You can see what the area looked like as construction began, above.)

To mark this anniversary, James wrote a piece for Curbed about the two distinct but overlapping neighborhoods that occupied the western edge of Lower Manhattan before the World Trade Center: Little Syria and Radio Row.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Postcard Thursday: The Black Tom Explosion

First of all -- thank you to everyone who turned out for our talk, "Exploring Hamilton's New York," at the New-York Historical Society last Friday. Around 400 people filled the main theater to hear us give a virtual tour of the city that Hamilton would have known in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. (Here we are wondering "who wore it better?" at the beginning of the talk.)

(Interested in an actual walking tour of Hamilton's city? We give those, too.)

Second -- yes, today is Friday. Postcard Thursday sometimes keeps a schedule all its own.

Last Saturday was the 100th anniversary of the Black Tom Explosion, when German saboteurs blew up a munitions depot in New Jersey. What does that have to do with the Statue of Liberty? Read on:

Sometimes when we are giving tours of Lower Manhattan people will tell us: "I remember climbing to the top of the torch of the Statue of Liberty." This is almost certainly a faulty memory; the torch has been closed to visitors since 1916.

There are many reasons torch access was shut down: 

1) it is very difficult to access; 2) it was never designed for tourists (indeed, none of the statue's interior was built to host millions of visitors, giving rise to many of the statue's structural problems of the last few decades); 3) the climb from the shoulder to the torch was done in near darkness.

But the major reason the torch closed was an explosion on the night of July 30, 1916, on Black Tom Island in New Jersey, where millions of pounds of ammunition was being stored by the National Storage Company and the Lehigh Valley Railroad for eventual shipment to allied forces in Europe. It was the largest explosion in modern history--the equivalent of a 5.5 earthquake--and was felt in five states: Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

Black Tom Island was originally a small island between Liberty (then Bedloe's) Island and Jersey City. By 1916, landfill had connected the island to the New Jersey mainland, and it was used as a major freight depot by the Lehigh Valley Railroad.

On the evening of July 30, the night watchmen noticed that there were fires on the pier where Johnson Barge No. 17 was moored. (The barge--which held 100,000 pounds of TNT--turned out to be illegally berthed there in order to avoid port charges. Even had it been legally moored, it seems like that would have made little difference.)

When it became clear that the fires were too large for the night watchmen to fight on their own, the Jersey City fire department was called in; however, it was too dangerous for them to proceed and at 2:08 a.m. the first of a series of explosions rocked the island. Shrapnel and munitions were blasted in every direction; some lodged in the Statue of Liberty (which ultimately cost $100,000 to repair), some made it was far away as the Jersey City clock tower, stopping the clock at 2:12 a.m.

Almost everyone in Manhattan was awoken by the strength of the blast and there were numerous injuries, mostly from falling glass. As the head of the New York Plate Glass Insurance Company noted the next day, a million dollars of glass had rattled out of its casements in the city, mostly south of West 44th Street. (At least one person was injured from falling glass, however, at Third Avenue and 89th Street.)

At first, the guards at the pier were brought in for questioning, as it was believed that the smudge pots they'd lit to keep mosquitoes at bay had caused the fire. Soon, it became clear that the explosion was sabotage, and suspicion fell quickly on German agents living in the United States. Though the exact identities of the bombers were never known, the Mixed Claims Commission (set up after World War I to adjudicate claims against Germany) eventually decided to fine Germany $50 million for the explosion. The money was finally paid in 1979.

Meanwhile, the management of the Statue of Liberty decided that Lady Liberty's arm had been too weakened by the explosion to allow tourist traffic to continue to climb to the torch; the torch was never reopened.

(This post has been adapted from one that appeared on this blog on October 26, 2011.)

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Time Travel to 1866

Earlier this summer, James took to the streets with a handful of guidebooks written in the 19th century to see if he could reconstruct a 150-year-old walking tour. He walked from Battery Park to Madison Square, examining what was -- and was not -- still visible from the era just after the Civil War.

His write-up of his adventures was published yesterday in Curbed. You can read it at There's also a handy map with some of the highlights from James's reconstructed tour at

One great aspect of these guidebooks are the advertisements.

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We will be speaking at the New-York Historical Society on Friday, July 29, at 6:30pm. The illustrated talk, which takes you through the New York City Alexander Hamilton would have known, is free with museum admission (which is pay-what-you-wish on Friday nights) but the museum would like you to make a reservation. Click this link for all the details:

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Postcard Thursday: New York Skyline, ca. 1900

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

(To see a larger view of this entire postcard, CLICK HERE.)

Today's postcard comes from the vast trove of images at the Library of Congress. Published ca. 1900, the fold-out card shows the downtown skyline. The view, looking at the west side of Lower Manhattan from the Hudson River, shows just how much has changed in the past 116 years.

The tallest building in the postcard (toward the right of this close-up) was also the tallest in the world: The Park Row building, Completed in 1899 by R.H. Robertson, the building's twin cupolas hosted the city's first paid observation deck, a feature that would become a hallmark of every future building to hold the record. The Park Row tower still stands (until recently its ground floor housed J+R Music World), but many others in that part of town are now gone, including another tallest building in the world, the headquarters of the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper. Capped by a large dome (at the left of the above close-up), Pulitzer's skyscraper was the first building ever to boast about its height, though it was -- paradoxically -- also designed to appear short and stocky to passersby. Like much of Newspaper Row, the skyscraper was demolished to make way for the widened approach ramps to the Brooklyn Bridge.

Another familiar landmark on the skyline is the spire of Trinity Church, which was also once the tallest structure in town. (It is the dark spire, above.) Just north of that you can see the American Surety Building at 100 Broadway, Bruce Price's 1896 skyscraper that still stands opposite Trinity's graveyard, though this and any other extant buildings in Lower Manhattan are impossible to see from the river today.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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We will be speaking at the New-York Historical Society on Friday, July 29, at 6:30pm. The illustrated talk, which takes you through the New York City Alexander Hamilton would have known, is free with museum admission (which is pay-what-you-wish on Friday nights) but the museum would like you to make a reservation. Click this link for all the details:

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