Manhattan Birds And Fishes
( Originally Published 1893 )
MANHATTAN BIRDS AND FISHES-FEATHERED DENIZENS OF HELL GATE-PRIMEVAL HAUNTS ON THE CITY'S ISLANDS-A MATTER OF PISCATORIAL CONSCIENCE
IT has been an unending amusement to watch the birds this summer. If I had been able to keep ac-count of their number and variety, the catalogue would have surprised the unnoticing citizen who takes it for granted that the Island of Manhattan produces nothing but an interminable chorus of chattering sparrows. In the early spring the gulls were busy fishing in the waters of Hell Gate, and those brief strips of white cloud circling above the waves seemed at times to keep the whole air in motion. At the same time the crows were holding town meetings in the woods on Ward's and Randall's islands, finding their supper and breakfast on the marshes and sunken meadows, and in the forenoon flying in a great black cloud across the uplands of Astoria, to spend, the day and take dinner somewhere on the shores of Long Island. When the gulls had disappeared, the blue-bird, whom Thoreau paints with a touch as having "a bit of sky on its back," appeared one day on a syringa bush in the garden, and the same week I heard the piping of a robin in the big cherry-tree. Then I lost the record of the procession. In my journeyings up and down the river I have seen the sleek maltese coat of the cat-bird, and frequently caught his song; have heard the bobolink and thrush tune their throats for a dash of melody, and kept still and watched until I could see the little chorister swaying on a bending mullein-stalk or a spear of sumach ; have listened to the blackbird's liquid notes as he darted through the golden haze of sunset and flashed back to my eye the splash of crimson that lights up his sable wing, and once in a while I have detected the black and orange bearings of the oriole, the brilliant uniform of a scar-let tanager, or the blue and white of the swift-darting kingfisher. In these late August evenings, as the sun sinks down to rest, I like to sit and watch the west-ward flight across the Gate of myriads of swallows. They skim across the waters by twos, by tens, by hundreds, dipping with a swift, seemingly uncertain flight, yet moving in a concert of regularity which is a marvel to the dull wits of man. The other evening, as I was returning from my rounds and passed a bit of open land by the river, I saw that the electric wires which traversed it were occupied by legions of swallows, as closely clustered together as soldiers on parade, and as attentive, apparently, to the orders of a busy score of leaders. Presently the cries of the leaders ceased for a second, and the army took to the wing in battalions and brigades, and went through a series of manoeuvres that may have been intended, so far as I know, as a drill for the awkward squad of youngsters who were to take part for the first time - in the annual autumn movements of the New York brigade of swallows. Every night there is the same flight across the waters and over the islands, probably to an eyrie in the Palisades of the Hudson, and every night the same evolutions, as necessary to swallows, no doubt, as to the geese whose migrations in serried phalanx I used to admire last spring, attracted by the shrill cry of the leader, who rang his defiant trumpet high up in air, as if in recognition of the Manhattan he knew in his childhood and was compelled to pass by without pause in his age, and whom we shall see again presently on the return march from northern conquests.
Of great fish-hawks I have seen half a dozen in these waters, and once, I am sure, it was an eagle that soared above the troubled tide to which he had long been a stranger. I could only wish him a safe and prosperous voyage, and immunity from the hands of those who are pleased to style themselves sportsmen. It was only yesterday that my breakfast was spoiled by reading a paragraph which stated that a rich man, who had once been to Congress, and aspired to be a politician, had shot an eagle, and intended to have him stuffed and presented to the Thingamy Association. Shot an eagle, indeed ! Why, after that eagle had lived for a century or two, and died of old age, he ought to have had a public funeral, and half a dozen aldermen for pall-bearers. Shot an eagle, indeed !
I have been making an antiquarian tour of Ward's Island in company with Master Felix, and as I cared nothing for hospitals, asylums, and other such creations of the hand of improvement, I naturally inquired for the oldest inhabitant. He is an individual for whom I have always and everywhere a profound respect. His garrulity may become a bore sometimes, and I may not feel bound to believe half of what he tells me, but my own years are increasing, and there is a possibility that at no remote period I may be called to step into his shoes. When I asked who was the oldest inhabitant of Ward's Island, the answer was, Captain Bill," but it was less easy to discover that his last name was Millner. I found him a man of ruddy complexion, smiling eyes, and ready speech, but, to my surprise, only thirty years of age. His father, " old Captain Bill," had run the first ferry to the island, half a century ago, and his son, who was born in the old cotton-mill, had succeeded to his father's business, and had learned from him the legends of the island and its inhabitants-the people who gave up their homes and disappeared when State and city took their lands for public purposes. Only two or three houses remain of those that were standing fifty years since, and these are so dilapidated that they must soon follow in the steps of their builders. Projected improvements will wipe out the wild features of the landscape that yet remain, and there will be nothing for the antiquary to seize upon for a text here after the next century shall have begun its round.
" Yes, I've seen lots of changes since I was a boy," said Captain Bill, as he came up from the State barge which he commands, and stood at the head of the emigration dock, under corpulent willows that were set out forty years ago, and are already giving signs of decay. I remember when a bluff fifty feet high rose at the end of the island, down there opposite Mill Rock, and this side of it stood the Gibson home-stead. Both have gone, but you can see the cellar walls of the old house under the trees there, and so there have been changes all along the river-side, and if the old people were to come back they would not know the place." He could not spare the time to guide me, but directed me where to go in the search for antiquities, and left us to ramble at our leisure-the boy and I on the site of a buried Troy. Yet it was not a buried city we desired to find-least of all, such as lay at our feet. For, half a century ago, the City of New York purchased seventy acres here-fairer and more picturesque than Greenwood-for a potter's field. Its last place of pauper interment had been on the site of the reservoir at Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street, and of Bryant Square, a site des-tined to become as aristocratic and exclusive for the living as had been the earlier potter's fields at Madison and Washington squares. The records say that 100,000 bodies were removed to this island, and as many more were brought here afterwards, and still rest in their unmarked graves, giving signs of their presence only now and again when the spade and pickaxe are busy among them. They have a pleasant resting-place, and, on the whole, they sleep well. A millionaire- could not find a more picturesque outlook than this slope that fronts on Hell Gate, if the trumpet woke him to-morrow to do his final sum in arithmetic in figuring up the profit and loss of a lifetime.
Our pilgrimage began at the south of the island, on a slope rising twenty feet above the swift tide, under a group of wild-cherry-trees, maple, and ailantus, amid an ancient garden overgrown with blackberry vines, and studded with juniper bushes, marked and guarded by an old apple-tree, near the ruined foundations of a house. It had been a handsome summer residence eighty years before, and when the great, bare slope to the eastward became the city's potter's field, this was the house of the keeper. Its ruins have forgotten the names of its former occupants. It does not take long in a city's lifetime to be forgotten. Not a hundred yards away a ploughshare turned up a huge slab of slate one morning in spring some eighteen years ago. The hind who held the plough was astonished to see a cavern yawning at his feet under the broken slab. He called his fellows, and they began to investigate. There was a flight of stone steps beneath, and an arch of brick above them. Slowly, and in doubt and fear, they descended. It was a burial-vault, carefully built to hold ashes that were to be tenderly kept. Within were fragments of broken wood, a few bones, a rusty coffin-plate or two, the mute memorials of those who. had lived happily in the sunshine above. But the lettering on the plates was indecipherable, and no one has been able to tell the name and story of those they were intended to keep in remembrance.
Beyond the slope to the east lies a swamp, now partly filled in, from which the last of half a dozen great cedars had just been cut. In the middle of this dreary stretch of forty acres is a swamp filled with reeds and cat-tails-the home of a vast colony of blackbirds. A quarter of a century since, this tract was known as " The Cedars," was covered with ever-greens and brambles, and in its by-ways the pedestrian could easily lose himself. It was the home of rabbits and quail, and the local sportsmen here found game to their heart's desire in November days. It seems incredible as I look out on the swampy waste, but it will seem still more like a distant tradition when the tract is covered with stately buildings, as another generation will see it. At the foot of this part of the island the river current rages and swells over the reef known as Hog's Back, and around the dangerous promontory of bowlders called Nigger's Head.
We took no interest in the city buildings and public institutions, but going by the banks of the East River, and past its rocky ramparts that repeat on a miniature scale the wildness of the New England shore, we came to an old house by the shore that faces Astoria, and is occupied by employes of the city. It was the home of the Halliker family, and a generation ago was kept as a public-house by the head of the family, who was known then to the world of fishermen as " Uncle John." In that day the East River at his door was famous for its striped bass. That huge, shy, beautiful, game fish, born and reared where the water is wildest, seeking his food in sunken meadows, and taking his ease on the bottoms of rocky channels, where the current races like a young giant, found in the guests of " Uncle John " the foemen he delighted to meet and fight. Gamest of fish in the water, and most delicious of all fish on the table, Little and Great Hell Gate bred him to perfection, and the stories that veteran fishermen tell of monsters that were drawn out and tipped the scales at forty pounds would excite the derision of all who do not know that the oil-works at Hunter's Point, and the presence of countless fleets on the waters, have driven him almost out of existence. Fishermen still seek and find him here, and they tell me of fish weighing ten to fifteen pounds being caught this season, and that one of twice the latter weight was caught in Hell Gate last year. I can only say that I wish I had been the one to catch him.
Beyond the Halliker house the massive stone foundations of another and larger house can be traced, and a stone wharf, overgrown with grass and shaded by willows, stretches out in front of it and is slowly falling to ruin. This was the locality of the old Red House, built long before the Revolution, and inhabited by the Lynes family. Beyond it, all the way to Little Hell Gate, and back to the Harlem River, used to stretch great orchards of apple, pear, and cherry trees. Most of the land is a waste meadow now, overgrown with wild strawberries and daisies in summer, and we find it just blossoming out in the rare brightness of thirty acres of golden-rod. But, passing this waste tract, we came to a place that was a delight to our hearts and a perplexity to our feet. It was thirty acres of alders, wild-cherries, and elms, ending to the west in a huge grove of wild-cherry-trees that seemed to have been set out by the hands of Druids in symmetrical rings around bowlders of trap and little pools of water. Moss-grown and gnarled, those venerable trees could have told stories if they would-but they were impenetrably silent.
Master Felix and I entered the little wood boldly, and found ourselves in the land of enchantment. The city was a thousand miles away; civilization had been left far out of sight. Under the alders we tramped, up to our knees in strange grasses and forest flowers, finding here a hedge of blackberry-vines laden with fruit, and there a little stream whose banks were hedged with elders and reeds ; seeing all about us beautiful bunches of ferns, and hearing everywhere above us the flitting of cat-birds, thrushes, and yellow-hammers. It was the little lad who suggested that we were Stanley's party, bound on exploration in the heart of Africa, and we could almost believe it, even with our eyes open. And when we emerged and tore our way to the water-side, through acres of bramble, it was still wild and uncanny to come upon the rushing tide careering over black rocks and sending up dashes of spray that recalled the sport of ocean. It is a pleasure to have seen, amid the woodlands of Ward's Island, and along its rocky, surf-swept shores, a last glimpse of primeval Manhattan.