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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:

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

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