Thursday, June 23, 2016

Postcard Thursday: In the Footsteps of Hamilton

Join us on Friday, July 29, at 6:30pm at the New-York Historical Society as we take you on a virtual walking tour of Alexander Hamilton's New York. As a part of the society's "Summer of Hamilton," we've been asked to present an illustrated lecture on what New York would have been like from the era just before the American Revolution through Hamilton's untimely death in 1804.

From the N-YHS website:
New York is overflowing with stories of Alexander Hamilton’s life—but where can we find them? Using the Hamilton chapter in their book Footprints in New York as a starting point, authors James and Michelle Nevius search out the remnants of Hamilton’s New York—from King’s College (now Columbia University), where he enrolled as a teenager; to Wall Street, where he lived and worked; to Thomas Jefferson’s “Room Where It Happened,” where he gave up Manhattan as the American seat of government in exchange for advancing his economic program. Follow in Hamilton’s footsteps during the last weeks of his life, from Fraunces Tavern to Hamilton Grange to the fateful Weehawken dueling grounds! Contemporary photos, historic maps, and images of objects from the New-York Historical Society’s collections will illustrate the journey.
To learn more and reserve a spot at this free lecture, visit

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Happy Birthday to the Roller Coaster

The Cyclone at Coney Island is one of the world's most famous wooden roller coasters, but it was not the first such ride at the amusement parks that lined the boardwalk out there. In fact, the first roller coaster ever built, the Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway, opened at Coney Island in June 1884. (Sources differ as to whether it opened on June 6 or today, June 16).

Modeled on an earlier coal railroad at Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, that had been successfully turned into an entertainment, the switchback was the brainchild of LaMarcus A. Thompson. Visitors would climb to the top of a tower and board a car that then dropped six hundred feet over an undulating track. At the far end the car would be "switched back" to another track and returned to the tower. Thompson envisioned his ride as wholesome family entertainment -- in a period when amusement parks were often seen as dens of sin and iniquity -- and the cars, traveling at an "invigorating" six miles per hour, provided great views of the Coney Island beach and boardwalk.* He charged 5 cents a ride and made back the $1600 he'd invested in the roller coaster in less than three weeks.

It is unclear how long the Switchback Railway lasted at Coney Island (or even precisely where it stood). Despite its early success, Thompson soon faced a host of competitors and his original coaster may only have stood for three years. However, Thompson's career in designing roller coasters was just beginning. Firmly believing that his passengers wanted to see beautiful things as they rode his rides, Thompson went on to create numerous scenic switchback coasters where the cars entered tunnels painted with dioramas of nature scenes. Eventually the painted scenes gave way to dark tunnels, adding to the thrill.

As Thompson built more rides, he improved their technology adding such features as cable pulleys to haul the cars to the top, linked cars to create longer trains, and emergency brakes in case of accident. Though Thompson didn't hold the patent on the original roller coaster,** by the end of his life he had patented more than 30 improvement to the ride and is still known to this day as the "Father of Gravity."

* The ferris wheel -- normally the best place to get a view at an amusement park -- was not invented until the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

** The patents for the first roller coasters were issued in 1872 and 1878; however neither of the original patentees ever built a working model, making Thompson's ride the first of its kind.


We'll be talking about "Alexander Hamilton's New York"
at the New-York Historical Society
on Friday, July 29, at 6:30pm

Details to follow

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Fort Hamilton

Fort Hamilton, 1875. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York
This weekend marks the anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn. On June 11, 1825, construction began on what is now New York's oldest military installation. It is named for General Alexander Hamilton, America's first Treasury Secretary. (This Sunday, the musical based on Hamilton's life is poised to make history by sweeping the Tony Awards.)

Though the fort's position at the mouth of the Narrows makes it a crucial defensive position, it never saw action; however, artillery mounted near the same spot was used during the American Revolution by patriots to attack incoming British vessels.

The home of Robert E Lee, then a captain and the commander of Fort Hamilton from 1841-1846, is still preserved within the grounds.


James has a piece in today's Guardian about the debt Hillary Clinton's historic run for the presidency owes to New Yorker Eleanor Roosevelt.

You can read it at:



is Sunday, June 19, at 1pm

Early bird sign ups end on June 14
Read all about the tour and sign up by


And last but not least


We'll be talking about "Alexander Hamilton's New York"
at the New-York Historical Society
on Friday, July 29, at 6:30pm

Details to follow

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Madison Square Walking Tour on June 19

Thanks to everyone who came out for our Third Annual Alexander Hamilton walk this past weekend. For June, we thought we'd try something a little different and offer a walk that covers a small amount of ground but a wide swath of history:

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About MADISON SQUARE

(but were afraid to ask)

(But were afraid to ask)

author of

Sunday, June 19, 2016 at 1:00pm
$20 per person -- early bird special (reserve on or before Tuesday, June 14)
$25 per person -- for reservations made on or after June 15
*** add a copy of FOOTPRINTS IN NEW YORK for just $15 when you reserve online ***

Madison Square is just 6.2 acres, but contains within its boundaries a fascinating cross-section of New York’s history, from the British-colonial era -- when it was a potter’s field -- to its designation as a military drilling ground on the 1811 street plan, to becoming a center of Gilded-Age high society. Who the heck was Roscoe Conkling? Why is Chester Arthur commemorated here? Why is the Flatiron Building so significant in the history of American architecture? All of these questions -- and many more -- will be answered during our perambulation around the park.
(or email your name, the number in your party, and cell phone contact number to

(You should receive a confirmation within 24 hours; if you haven’t received a confirmation in that time frame, please reach out again.)

You may pay by cash or credit card at the start of the tour.
Meeting place will be sent via email when you reserve.


* * * *


If you couldn't make the Hamilton walk, take our "virtual tour" of Hamilton's city
on Friday, July 29, at 6:30pm
at the New-York Historical Society


* * * *

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Happy Birthday, Brooklyn Bridge

Tuesday passed with very little fanfare, but it was the 133rd birthday of the Brooklyn Bridge, the first of the East River crossings to be built, and the focus of many books, films, and even an Italian gum. (And a full chapter in both Inside the Apple and Footprints in New York.)

May 24 also happens to be the birthday of Queen Victoria, and back in 1883 when the bridge opened, this conjunction of dates proved to be a problem.

Many of the thousands of workers who constructed the bridge between 1869 and 1883 were Irish and they had no great love for the queen. Victoria's ministers were seen as having obstructed aid to the Irish during the great potato famine (which began in 1845) and rumors circulated that the queen had donated only £5 to the Irish -- and on the same day she'd given the same amount to a dog shelter. That wasn't true, but it didn't matter much to New York's large Irish population, who tried to persuade the city to postpone the bridge's opening ceremonies to a different day. The city refused but then began to worry that the bridge workers would cause a disturbance and had to pay for extra police to quell any possible riots.

The grand opening -- an elaborate ceremony that included President Chester A. Arthur, Governor Grover Cleveland, and the mayors of New York and Brooklyn (then still independent cities) -- went smoothly with no violence. Indeed, the biggest problem came a week later when a throng of pedestrians (who had paid a penny each to cross the span) got scared and cried out that the bridge was collapsing, In the ensuing melee, a dozen people were trampled to death.

There's a chapter in Footprints about Seth Low that goes into much greater detail about the bridge's opening day that's worth a look.


for our 3rd Annual Alexander Hamilton Memorial Day Weekend Walk

Read all about it and reserve at

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Postcard Thursday: The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton

Will the real Alexander Hamilton please stand up?

As you can see from these portraits (all drawn from the collections of the Library of Congress), knowing exactly what New York's most famous founding father looked like takes a little bit of guesswork. Look at the fellow in the bottom right corner -- that's a far cry the image we all know from the ten-dollar bill. But is it any less accurate? Portraits -- then and now -- are generally supposed to flatter the sitter. Does the image we know flatter him too much?

This is just one of the many aspects of Hamilton (the man and the musical theater phenomenon) that James will touch on during his Third Annual Hamilton Walking Tour taking place Sunday, May 29, at 1:00 pm.

$25 per person; let us know if you'd like a copy of Footprints in New York for an additional $15 when you reserve.

To sign up, email us using THIS LINK. You'll receive a confirmation within 24 hours with the meeting place. You can pay for the walk when it begins by cash or credit card.

This tour is almost sold out, so if you are thinking about joining us, please reserve as soon as possible.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Postcard Thursday: The Woolworth Tower

Today's postcard comes from 1919, just six years after the completion of the Woolworth Building. As the front of this unusual card notes it was "the tallest and most beautiful office building in the world."

As we write in Inside the Apple
Frank W. Woolworth, the inventor of the dime store in 1878 and the most revolutionary retailer in America since A.T. Stewart, had become rich off a simple notion: low prices and high volume. Not only was everything at Woolworth’s priced at either five or ten cents, all the merchandise was on display. In an era when store clerks normally had to fetch items from the back, the ability to browse store shelves gave buyers greater power over their selections. And, as Woolworth soon realized, it made them purchase more. In 1910, he added the lunch counter to a store in Manhattan—another tool to keep shoppers in the store longer and by 1911, when the Woolworth Corporation was founded, Frank Woolworth was worth millions. 
That same year, the company hired Cass Gilbert to build its new corporate headquarters on Broadway. Gilbert, who had just six years earlier finished his Beaux Arts masterpiece, the U.S. Custom House, gracefully transitioned into high-rise construction. He was one of the first New York architects to embrace the idea that tall buildings should actually look tall, and used a variety of techniques to draw the viewer’s eye from the decorated street-level entrances to the soaring tower. The window bays are separated by vertical piers that rise, almost uninterrupted, from the base to the spire. The building is faced in terra cotta that lightens toward the top of the building, emphasizing its height....
Gilbert’s use of neo-Gothic tracery (sometimes referred to as “wedding cake” Gothic) gives the building a medieval feel and, indeed, led Brooklyn minister S. Parkes Cadman to dub it “the Cathedral of Commerce” at its opening gala. Cadman was not only making a commentary on its architectural style but on the fact that in the battle between God and Mammon, Mammon appeared to be winning....
In the end, Woolworth paid about $13.5 million to build the tower out of his own deep pockets.... He was one of the first to realize the sheer publicity value of building a noteworthy skyscraper, from using its image in advertising to having postcards sent around the world showing off his creation. As with all skyscrapers claiming the title of tallest in the world, the Woolworth tower had an observation deck that drew in over a quarter million people a year until it was displaced by the Chrysler Building in 1930....(Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the government closed the observatory atop the Woolworth Building for fear that the vantage it gave of New York harbor was too strategically important. Later in the war, the copper cladding on the Woolworth’s roof was removed and melted down for the war effort; today, the building is painted green instead.)

Today, the tower of the Woolworth Building is in the final stages of being converted into condos; the observation deck is part of the $110-million penthouse, but it's unclear if it will be accessible.



for our 3rd Annual Alexander Hamilton Memorial Day Weekend Walk

Read all about it and reserve at

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Washington Square and Jane Jacobs

Today's postcard is an aerial view of Washington Square and lower Fifth Avenue. The postcard was sent in August 1928, but the image must be from a few years earlier. Notice that No. 1 Fifth Avenue, erected in 1927 (and pictured below), is missing.

One Fifth Avenue
Also notice that an asphalt road goes through the Washington Arch and continues through to the south side of the square. This was the road the Robert Moses wanted to expand in the 1950s to make the Village more car friendly and to connect uptown traffic to the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX), which was on the drawing board at the same time.

Robert Moses's plans for a highway through Washington Square
The road through Washington Square was blocked by Shirley Hayes and Jane Jacobs, whose 100th birthday was yesterday. As part of the birthday celebrations, James wrote a history of the rise and fall of LOMEX for

You can read the piece at:

for our 3rd Annual Alexander Hamilton Memorial Day Weekend Walk

Read all about it and reserve at

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

3rd Annual Alexander Hamilton Memorial Day Weekend Walking Tour

with JAMES NEVIUS author of "Footprints in New York" and "Inside the Apple"

Sunday, May 29, 2016, at 1PM

Before HAMILTON was a Broadway sensation (nominated for a record 16 Tony Awards), there was Alexander Hamilton the statesman, Revolutionary War hero, and lousy duellist.

Join author and Hamilton expert James Nevius for a walk back in time as we explore the New York City that Hamilton would have known. We'll look at spots important to his life, to the founding of America, and to his untimely death.

The two-hour walk will take place rain or shine on SUNDAY, MAY 29, at 1PM.

$20 per person (EARLY BIRD SPECIAL) if you sign up on or before Tuesday, May 18.
$25 per person for reservations taken May 19 or later.

Need a copy of "Footprints in New York?" Reserve a signed copy of the book when you register for an additional $15 (the book retails for $20), and we'll bring it to the tour.

Payment by cash or credit card at the time of the tour.

Details of where we will meet will be emailed to you when you reserve.



MAY 2016





Copyright © 2016 Michelle Nevius Private Walking Tours All rights reserved. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Happy Birthday, General Grant

Yesterday marked the 194th birthday of Ulysses S. Grant, the general who won the Civil War and later served two terms as president of the United States. Happy birthday, Mister President!

Grant's Tomb, on Riverside Drive, is the largest presidential burial place in the country. But is he buried there? As we write in Inside the Apple:
If you are older than a certain age, you’ve likely heard the riddle: “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” It was a consolation question on Groucho Marx’s quiz show, You Bet Your Life. Like other consolation questions—“What color is an orange?” “What year did the War of 1812 start?”—it was designed to have such an obvious answer that no one could get it wrong. Most people answered, “Grant, of course!” and won $25, though a few poor souls thought it was a trick question. 
But while Groucho would accept that answer, it isn’t correct. Technically, no one is buried in Grant’s Tomb: both the former President, Ulysses S. Grant, and his wife, Julia Dent Grant, are entombed there, above ground, in marvelously monumental stone sarcophagi. So those You Bet Your Life contestants who thought it was a trick question were correct. It was a trick question—no one is buried in the building. 
Grant died in 1885, having lived the last four years of his life in New York. His tomb sits at 122nd Street and Riverside Drive, at one of the highest points in Riverside Park, and is the largest mausoleum in North America. It is also a remarkable testament to the high esteem in which Grant was held after his death (despite two terms as president marked by scandal and perceived mediocrity) as well as to New York’s growing obsession in the 1890s with becoming the premiere American city. First, New York beat out other places Grant had lived—including Galena, Illinois, and St. Louis, Missouri—for the right to bury the president. Then, the Grant Memorial Association held two contests to determine who would design the structure, the second contest being held because none of the entries the first time around was deemed grand enough. The tomb, by John Duncan, is modeled on the mausoleum at Halicanarssus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In 1897, the tomb was officially opened and it fast became the leading tourist attraction in the city. Indeed, more people visited Grant’s Tomb in the early years of the Twentieth Century than went to the Statue of Liberty.

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