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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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