GET UPDATES IN YOUR INBOX! Subscribe to our SPAM-free updates here:

GET UPDATES IN YOUR INBOX! Subscribe to our SPAM-free email here:

Delivered by FeedBurner

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.

* * * *

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.)

Search This Blog

Blog Archive