Knickerbockers And Their Homes
( Originally Published 1893 )
SUMMER BREEZES AT THE BATTERY-A SOLDIER OF THE LAST CENTURY-KNICKERBOCKERS AND THEIR HOMES-AN OLD-TIME STROLL UP BROADWAY
THE coolest spot in New York in the dog-days is the Battery Park. From some point in the compass a breeze is always blowing among its elms, and the electric lights bathe it in perpetual moonshine. Even on the most quiet of nights the swell of passing steamers makes a ripple of tinkling waters against its granite front, and there is no lack of pleasant companionship to those who recall the feet that in old times pressed its gravelled, walks. Men whose hair is beginning to grow white recall the day when they looked up with pride, not unmingled with awe, to the old Knickerbockers who loved to walk here in the cool of the afternoon, and who showed the gentleness of their blood by always having a kindly word and the benediction of a touch of the hand upon the head for us who were children then. " `Who were the Knickerbockers,' you ask, Mrs. Fribble? No one, my dear madam, in whom you havethe slightest interest."
Let us pass on.
I remember a dear old lady, who loved to talk about this park, and tell of the people she had met here and the scenes she had witnessed ; and of these, one man and one morning's adventure stood out most prominent. A little thing in white, her nurse had brought her to the park to witness a civic anniversary, and the crowd prevented her from obtaining a good view of the pageant. As, with a child's impatience, she tried to press through the throng, a tall and handsome elderly gentleman, clad in a suit of black velvet and with a dress sword at his side, stooped down to her, inquired pleasantly about her trouble, and then lifted her upon his shoulder and held her there until the procession had passed. Delighted with what she saw, the child thought little about the gentleman who had brushed away her trouble, but thanked him when he released her with a kiss and set her down upon the ground. As he moved away, the nurse, in an awe-struck voice, asked the child if she knew whose arms had held her, and then told her that it was President Washington. The little eyes watched him as he walked quietly away, and never forgot his stately appearance. I think that dear old Mrs. Atterbury was more proud of having been the heroine of this incident than of all the social honors that afterwards fell to her lot.
At the Battery the ancient Dutch progenitors of the city of New Amsterdam laid the first foundations of a metropolis for the New World. But the pioneers from Holland were not unanimously of the opinion that it was wise to build their city at this point. A large number of them thought it would be more prudent to pitch their tents at Spuyten Duyvil ; there they had found lovely meadow lands with running water, affording an excellent opportunity to dig and equip canals, and the sight was so shut in by adjacent hills as to be hidden from the eyes of foreign adventurers who might find entrance in the harbor below.
It was not the Indians whom the Dutch feared, but the English. These latter rapacious adventurers were then pushing their expeditions in all directions, and while it was feared that they might turn their guns upon the colony of the Dutch East India Company if it was located at the southern end of the island of the Manhadoes, it was believed that they would sail quietly away again if they found the place bearing the appearance of being uninhabited. These ideas nearly prevailed with the first settlers, but after an appeal to national pride, wiser counsels had their way, and it was resolved to begin operations at the point which is now the Battery. All opposition was silenced as soon as it was demonstrated that a canal could be dug there at once, running through what is now Broad Street, and ending at the city wall, the present Wall Street. This at once lent the charm of home to the chosen site, and all was peace.
Sitting here, with every little wave of the harbor dancing in the sunlight just as it did forty years ago when I played under the elms, with no signs warning one to keep off the grass, I recall the Battery as I first knew it. The park was not then one-half its present size. There was no sea-wall. The tide rippled unchecked along the rocks and sand that made the beach. The walks were unkempt, and the benches were only rough wooden affairs. But the breeze, the fresh sea air, the whispering leaves, the orioles and bluebirds, and the shade were there, and to the boys of the period its attractions were Elysian. Castle Garden, then a frowning fortress still thought capable of service, was reached by a wooden bridge, and the salt-water lapped its massive foundations on all sides. The American Institute Fair was then held within its walls, and on these occasions the boys explored it from the flag-staff to the magazine, and held high carnival there.
A number of the Knickerbocker merchants and lawyers lived in the neighborhood of the Bowling Green and the Battery a generation ago. Stephen Whitney had his home on Bowling Green Place. Robert Goelet lived on State Street, and his brother Peter at No. 32 Broadway. The Rhinelanders had recently removed up-town to Washington Square, the Schermerhorns to Great Jones Street, and the Leroys to Lafayette Place, but a large number of the old families of the city still lingered around lower Broadway and the adjacent streets, and the Battery was always the terminus of their afternoon walk, whether they lived in its vicinity or as far up-town as the centre of fashion, at Bleecker and Bond streets. The day's parade of belles and beaux led past Trinity and to the old trysting-place, under the trees by the water-side.
Stephen Whitney, who was one of New York's few millionaires in his day, was a well-known character in the young metropolis. Had he lived a generation later, " Uncle Stephen," as all the young men called him, would have been a power in " the Street." As it was, he knew enough to hold the money he had made, and his shrewdness was proverbial. When Stephen Whitney was buried from old Trinity, his was the last Knickerbocker house below Broadway. His house was closed, and the current of business buried it under the waves. The old man had dreamed that some day commerce would find it more convenient to occupy the upper end of the island, with Harlem River for a ship-canal and Long Island Sound for the en-trance and exit of its fleet, and so the Battery would again be surrounded by comfortable homes and echo to the feet of the descendants of the people he had known, If his ghost ever walks in that direction, it must shiver while it anathematizes with voiceless fury the elevated railroad structure that defaces the park.
Was it yesterday that I sat on one of the benches in the old Battery Park and listened with rapt attention to Johnny Battin, as he told me of the scenes be had witnessed from that point when he was a young man and wore the red coat of King George. For " Johnny," as everybody called him, had been a cornet of horse in the British Army, and had served Lord Howe as bearer of despatches both to England and many a point in the colonies. He had known Andre, Burgoyne, Clinton, and all the British generals, had fought in the battles of Long Island and Fort Washington, and was the last survivor of those desperate encounters. A man of warm heart, his sympathies at last went over to the side of the colonists, and when peace was declared he made his home here, sought out a pretty Jersey girl for a wife, and made her a happy woman for five-and-sixty years., " Johnny" Battin was ninety-four years old when I was ten, and he lived to be over one hundred years of age, and then went quietly to sleep like a little child. Until he had passed the century mile-post he never passed a day when he did not walk from his hosiery shop (he lived in the same building) in Greenwich Street, near Warren, to the Battery. I can see him now in the old-fashioned cut-away coat of drab, with knee-breeches and gray worsted stockings and low shoes with silver buckles, which he always wore. His hair was white and long, and gathered in a knot behind. There was a snow-white frill in his shirt, and his neckerchief was white also, and ample. In his hand he carried a substantial cane, which he scarcely needed even when he had long passed ninety, so erect was he and soldierly.
"Felix," said Johnny Battin, " I like to come here to the Battery, and think of all the changes I have seen hereabouts in the last seventy years. Yes, it was seventy years ago since I saw the British flag hoisted on the battery that stood back there by the Bowling Green. We camped up in East Broadway the night General Putnam evacuated these barracks and stole up along the Hudson to Fort Washington. That night a terrible fire broke out by the river-side here, and swept up Broadway, carrying away Trinity Church and nearly every other building as far as St. Paul's. It was a terrible conflagration, and lit up everything almost as clear as day. The houses were nearly all of wood, and by daybreak more than a third
of the city was in ashes. The brick houses on Broad-way, opposite the Bowling Green, were all that were left standing, and there Lord Howe made his head-quarters. They are fine houses still, with marble mantel-pieces, and huge mirrors, and great mahogany doors. If you go into the second one some time they will show you the room that Andre occupied for his office when he was adjutant-general, and you will see a slit in the door into which I used to slip his despatches. I was sorry for Andre, but he knew what he was about, and took his chances. In the first house they used to have grand balls, and Lord Howe and Lord Percy and the rest of the noblemen who were fighting against your forefathers, my boy, held a sort of colonial court there which seemed to bewitch the royalist belles. Yes, and they were beautiful, very beautiful-but all dust and ashes now, my boy.
"After the war was ended they swept away the batteries-for there was more than one-and the bar-racks. Then they built a fine large mansion of brick where they had stood. It faced the Bowling Green, and looked up Broadway. The view from the windows was superb, for the ground was rising, and a long, low flight of steps led up to the main entrance. Washing-ton was here then as President, and this was called the Government House, and was intended as his residence. But the Capitol was removed to Philadelphia, and then to Washington, and Washington never occupied our White House. For a few years it was used as a hospital, and then it was sold, and the block of brick houses was erected there, in one of which Mr. Whitney lives.
"It looks like a long way over to Staten Island, but I remember when the bay was frozen over solid from the Battery to what is now the Quarantine grounds. Our troops crossed over on the ice from Staten Island, and dragged their cannon with them. I carried the orders from Lord Howe, and it startled them, I can tell you ; but they came through all right. Did your grandmother never tell you that she had crossed on the ice, too ? Let me see ; it was in the hard winter of 1780 when the troops marched over-a terrible winter, when many poor people starved or froze to death here, and it was thirty years later that the bay was frozen over solidly the second time. My wife went in a sleigh to the Quarantine station, and she took your grandmother with her. When they reached Staten Island they found the snow was so deep that the people had carved a road out under an arch of snow. So many sleighs crossed that a man built a half-way house -just a shanty, you know-on the ice, and made quite a little sum by selling refreshments to the travellers.
"I have seen a great many changes, my boy, in seventy long years, and I am more than ninety-four. But it has been a pleasant and a happy life, and its happiest part has been lived in my little home on Greenwich Street. It won't be long now before -I am called to meet the King of kings, but you will live to see greater changes than any I have known. Love your country, boy, and love your home. It's an old man's advice and the secret of happiness."
I take Johnny Battin's hand as he rises, and we pass out of the wooden gate and up Broadway. He knows everybody that we meet, and all have a courteous word for him. Some of the great men of the day are on the promenade. Michael Hoffman, the Naval Officer, and Surveyor Elijah F. Purdy pass arm in arm, and I look up to them with awe as mighty politicians. Of "Corneel and " Juke" Vanderbilt, who have a steamboat office at 34 Broadway, I have far less fear, for they live on Staten Island, and seem to be but ordinary men. Mayor Havemeyer is a fine-looking man, and walks briskly up to his residence on Vandam Street. &ear the City Hotel, a great hostlery then, we pass "Tommy" Stanford, of the book-publishing firm of Stanford & Swords, on Broadway, near Cedar Street, and he stops to have a chat. A decidedly homely man, he has pleasant manners and a shrewd business look. He knows my father, and pats my head. As we leave him, Johnny Baffin points to the old Dutch Church on Nassau Street, and tells me that he used it as a riding-school seventy years ago. It is a wonderful place to me, open from 8 A.M. to 7 P.M., and sending out its great Northern mail every afternoon at three, its great Eastern mail at the same hour, except on Sunday, and its Southern mail every night, and opening its doors on Sundays for an hour in the morning and afternoon.
When we pass St. Paul's Church the old British soldier takes off his three-cornered hat before the monument to Major-general Montgomery, and tells me of the pageant that marked the bringing back of the dead hero's body. I have often seen President Washing-ton come here to church," he says, " and he walked in very quietly, without any display, and when he was once in his pew he paid no attention to anything but his prayer-book and the clergyman." And then the old man tells me of the church, as he saw it first in summer, surrounded by pleasant fields, and with nothing between its front porch and the river but a stretch of greensward ; for. though St. Paul looks out upon Broadway from his lofty niche, the church itself turns its back upon that bustling thoroughfare. But I am more interested in his story of the suicide's grave that lies directly under our feet. A son of a former rector of Trinity took his own life, and they would not bury him in the church-yard, but laid his poor, mutilated body at rest beneath the sidewalk, just outside of the church's gate. I will never forget this as I pass the spot, though ten thousand other feet pass lightly over the dead man's unconsecrated ashes.
A group of men stand on the front steps of the Astor House, and I look at them with a vast deal of reverence. It is currently re-ported among my school-mates that the guests at their granite hostelry, which rises high above all surrounding buildings with the sole exception to pay one dollar a day for their entertainment. It is an enormous sum to expend for board and lodging, and my boyish mind is lost in contemplation of the amount of luxurious ease which it is possible to purchase with such a price.
My little feet trot along in syncopated rhythm with the nonagenarian's slow pace as we leave Broadway and turn down Warren Street, and it seems almost a long enough journey to have afforded us a pretext for taking a Kipp & Brown stage. But Johnny is an old soldier, and it is a matter of daily duty with him to take his "constitutional." At last, however, we have reached Greenwich Street. There, in front of the modest little store, hangs a gigantic wooden stocking in glaring plaid coloring, and in the doorway stands Johnny Bat-tin's son Joseph, who was the first of the city militia-men to grasp the hand of Lafayette when he landed at the Battery on his second visit to this country, and "Papa, what's the matter-are you dreaming?" It is my little twelve-year-old son who is tugging at my hand and calling to me, and we are standing at the foot of the stairs that lead up to the Warren Street station of the elevated railroad.