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:

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Postcard Thursday: The Crystal Palace

On July 14, 1853, the "Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations" -- better known today as the Crystal Palace Exhibition -- opened in Midtown Manhattan in the small square that would one day become Bryant Park.

Spurred on by London's similar exhibition that showcased the industrial might of the British Empire, the American version of the fair supposedly focused on "all nations" In fact, it was a way for America to show off its growing prominence to the world.

Probably the most famous exhibitor was Elisha Graves Otis, who demonstrated one of the 19th century's most important inventions: the elevator safety brake.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
The idea of the elevator was not new; since antiquity, hoists and pulleys had moved cargo. But ropes frayed and pulleys malfunctioned, which meant that there had never been a viable passenger elevator. Without elevators, commercial buildings were limited to six or seven stories, and rents diminished the farther one had to climb from the street. Otis’s invention was a mechanism to automatically stop an elevator in the event of a fall. And to show the world how much he trusted it, he used himself as the test subject.

One block north of the Crystal Palace grounds stood the Latting Observatory, with a steam-powered elevator which could take visitors up two levels. They would then, however, have to climb stairs to the top of the observatory as no one trusted an elevator to take them higher. For his demonstration Otis got inside the elevator cab, which was suspended from the top of the observatory, and called down to his assistant who—with a dramatic flourish—severed the elevator cable. The cab lurched, dropped an inch, and then shook to a halt, held in place by Otis’ new brake.
The story has, over the past 160 years, developed the mystique of legend. In Gotham, Mike Wallace and Edwin Burroughs write that when Otis's platform "reached the highest level, an assistant presented the inventor with a dagger on a velvet cushion" that he used to cut the rope. In the new book Cities are Good For You, Leo Hollis tells a version where Otis is hoisted aloft with "several barrels and heavy boxes, until [he is]... 30 feet above the heads of the throng. After a dramatic pause an assistance cut the hoists with an axe and the crowds gasped as they anticipated seeing the engineer crash to the floor."

Whether it was a dagger or an axe, it was dramatic, and hundreds of people left the observatory that day having witnessed the future. In 1857, Otis installed his patented safety break in the Haughwout china store on Broadway, and it quickly became a tourist attraction. (The store would also become famous in 1861, when Mary Todd Lincoln came to buy a new set of White House china. That's a story we cover in Footprints in New York.)

After the exhibition had closed, the Crystal Palace -- built of cast-iron, and thus thought to be fireproof -- dramatically burned to the ground on October 5, 1858.

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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 7, 2016

Postcard Thursday: The DUEL! (And more about Alexander Hamilton)

This Monday, July 11, marks the anniversary of the fateful duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (pictured above) at the so-called "dueling grounds" at Weehawken, New Jersey, in 1804.

As we write in Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers:
According to the Code Duello, gentlemen only needed to meet on the field of honor and delope, or discharge their weapons. They could shoot into the ground and the debt would be satisfied. 
Hamilton had resolved before the duel that he would not shoot Burr. In a letter discovered with his will after his death, Hamilton had written: “if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, [I will] reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire.” 
The two men arrived in Weehawken about half an hour apart. Burr and his party, including his second William P. Van Ness, got there first and began clearing the dueling grounds. Hamilton, Nathaniel Pendleton, and David Hosack, a physician, arrived around seven in the morning. By prearrangement, the seconds were to keep their backs turned away from Hamilton and Burr. Since dueling was illegal, this would give them the chance, if questioned, to say they hadn’t seen anything. 
Hamilton, as the challenged, had brought the pistols, and he was given the choice of his weapon. Hamilton took his time getting into position. He cleaned his glasses. He repeatedly tested his aim. Was this a show of nerves—or was he trying to provoke Burr? The pistols belonged to Hamilton’s brother-in-law, and he may have had the opportunity to practice with them. Did that give him an unfair advantage? Even if it did, it turned out not to matter. 
Hamilton fired first. His bullet flew above Burr’s head, lodging in a cedar tree. 
Then Burr fired. His aim was true, and his shot lodged in Hamilton’s spine, having first lacerated his liver. Doctor Hosack, waiting nearby, recalled later: "I found him half sitting on the ground, supported in the arms of Mr. Pendleton. His countenance of death I shall never forget. He had at that instant just strength to say, 'This is a mortal wound, doctor,' when he sunk away, and became to all appearance lifeless…."

Hamilton wasn’t dead—not yet. He was ferried across the river to the home of his friend William Bayard on Jane Street. Bayard was from one of the oldest and richest families in the city—he was the great-great-great nephew of Judith Bayard, wife of Peter Stuyvesant—and owned vast property in what is now Greenwich Village. Hamilton was carried to a second-floor bedroom where Dr. Hosack attended to him. A rider was dispatched to the Grange to fetch Eliza—but only to tell her that Hamilton was suffering from “spasms.” He had hidden the duel from her in advance, but he could hide it no longer.

If you want to see the duel reenacted, they will be hosting a program at The New-York Historical Society on Sunday, July 10, at 1pm and 3pm. Details:

...... and last but not least.....

We will be speaking at the New-York Historical Society on Friday, July 29, at 6:30pm. The talk 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, June 30, 2016

Postcard Thursday: July 2 - July 9 -- Independence Week

A fanciful version of the felling of King George III's statue in Bowling Green

Anyone who's ever taken a tour with James knows he's a strong advocate that we shouldn't celebrate just July 4 as Independence Day but the whole week from July 2-9.

Though, we have always celebrated July 4th as the holiday, the actual date of the vote to declare our break from Great Britain was July 2.

As John Adams wrote in a letter the next day to his wife, Abigail:
"The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival."
Well, he was only off by two days. In fact, only twelve of the thirteen original colonies had voted to declare independence on July 2 -- the delegates from the thirteenth colony, New York (which included such notable citizens as Lewis Morris and Francis Lewis) did not feel they had been invested with such power and retreated from Philadelphia to discuss their options.

Meanwhile, on July 4, the Continental Congress agreed to print the Declaration. Scholars guess that somewhere between 100 and 200 of these Dunlap Broadsides, as they've come to be known, were printed that evening (25 of which exist today), probably under the watchful eye of Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration's lead author. On July 5 and 6, John Hancock had riders dispatch Dunlap Broadsides to colonial cities and on July 9 a copy arrived in New York City, where George Washington's troops were stationed.

That same day, New York agreed to be the thirteenth and final colony to declare independence. (Good thing, since the printed Declaration begins, "The unanimous declaration of the thirteen united states of America.") That night, American troops and the Sons of Liberty tore down the gilded statue of George III in Bowling Green Park, signaling New York's new life as an independent American city.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
The fence that surrounds the Bowling Green today is the original one erected ca. 1771. It is a New York City Landmark and one of the city’s most significant pieces of pre-Revolutionary architecture. If you walk around the outside of the park, you can easily see that the larger fence posts are uneven and that each is rough-hewn in a slightly different way. It is clear that there were once decorative objects at the top of the fence posts, but it remains a mystery what these finials actually looked like, or when they were removed. 
Unlike the king’s statue, the fence is not mentioned in any news reports, diaries or letters of the time. Over the years, it has been posited the finials must have been something round (to be used as cannon balls) or something royal and therefore offensive to Americans. According to the New York Times, during the excavations for the foundations of the elevated railroad in 1878, “one of the round knobs struck from the railing” was unearthed. Later that year it was presented to David van Arsdale, the grandson of a Revolutionary soldier who had a direct role in the end of the war in New York. But that is the only time they are mentioned.
Perhaps one will turn up someday and we’ll see exactly what they looked like.

Until then, it’s worth a visit to Bowling Green during this Independence Week to see—and feel—this reminder of the American Revolution. If you're in the neighborhood, signer Francis Lewis is buried at Trinity Church (as is New York's greatest hero of the Revolution, Alexander Hamilton).


Don't miss our illustrated lecture at The New-York Historical Society on Friday, July 29, at 6:30pm.

Read all about it at:

Please note that the talk is free with museum admission and that museum admission is pay-what-you-wish on Friday nights. The museum would like an RSVP if you are planning to attend, either by calling 212-485-9268, or clicking here.

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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.


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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


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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

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