Unsolved Problems Of Life
( Originally Published 1893 )
UNSOLVED PROBLEMS OF LIFE-THE OLD POST-ROAD AND ITS HELL GATE BRANCHES-HOMES OF MERCHANT PRINCES-MANHATTANS BIGGEST TREE
THE old colonel advises me to buy a tub and sun myself in it during these early days of autumn. He found me this morning a perplexed philosopher. I had been troubled by the unsolved problems of life. My opposite neighbor, name and nativity unknown, who lives in a shabby little frame-house, always runs to his door when he hears the sturdy step of Bob, the postman, turn the corner, and hails him as he passes with an inquiry for letters. Nobody thinks of writing to him. He has had but one letter this year, and yet he would as soon think of omitting his breakfast as of letting this ceremonial of inquiry pass. Why he does it is a problem which puzzles me. I put it to the postman, and he figured upon it thoughtfully for a moment and then gave it up; but he also gave it to me as a bit of his experience that the people on his route who seldom received a letter were always the most anxious to learn whether the mail had brought anything for them.
My cheery friend, the postman, found me sitting on the front porch, under the shade of the honeysuckles that threw a shadow on half the porch and have clambered up to the gallery on the roof, and singled out one missive of those that he handed me, and said, "I have brought you a real letter, and no mistake, this time." It was even so. Four sheets of letter-paper, closely written, and from a friend who is the busiest man of my acquaintance, though his years are almost threescore and ten. It was a charming epistle, full of news, and pervaded by his own personality. But he also gave me a problem to solve. He had been able to take a vacation of but three weeks, and on his re-turn it had taken him three weeks more to put his books and papers to rights again. Why is it so? he asked me ; and then he made the assertion that if he had been absent for three months it would have been the work of three months afterwards to get everything settled down again, and he left me to puzzle over the problem. Rejecting the tub idea, the old colonel and I took our chairs out upon the back porch, with the swift waters leaping and sparkling at our feet, twenty feet below the top of the bluff, and a late cat-bird calling in the branches overhead, and talked over the fact that we had learned so much and knew so little. We spoke, as we so often do now, of our childhood, of our school-days, and our playmates; thinking silently as we spoke, perhaps, of another childhood, a school yet to come, and renewed companionships that had been broken in the past. Our talk recalled a picture of the past that had become almost forgotten.
It was of my grandmother-the picture in my library of a dainty maiden in clinging robes and baby waist, and with great sunny curls heaped high above her unwrinkled forehead, is her portrait painted in the day of her belleship-in the later years of her life, when her cap was her care and her knitting was her comfort. " Felix," she said, one day, as she stopped knitting to smooth down the long lace lappets of her cap," I have been thinking while you were at school how little we learn here in threescore years, and yet when we are children we expect to learn everything by the time we are grown up. But we'll know it all by-and-by, that's one comfort, and for a little while it doesn't signify."
It was in the days when young ladies were habited as my grandmother's portrait presents them, and gentlemen of fashion wore the collars of their coats tucked up under their ears and swathed their necks in voluminous silk or muslin neckerchiefs, when among the elders the queue was going slowly out of fashion, and knee-breeches struggled to hold their own against the more democratic trousers, that the glory of the Hell Gate colony was at its height. The members had their stately homes in the city, to and from which they travelled in the chaise, or lumbering coach of the period, or, as the gentlemen usually preferred, on horseback.
At the time of which I write the Hell Gate Ferry was at the foot of Eighty-sixth Street, opposite the extreme northern end of Blackwell's Island, and there was a road to it that started from a point just south of Eighty-third Street. Below this, at Seventy-ninth Street and Third Avenue, was what was known as Odellville in my boyhood. It answered to the definition of a point, being without position or magnitude. West of the road was Odell's grocery store-a two-story frame building, which yet stands, though hum-bled by its brick and stone neighbors. The cottage of " Granny "Gates, a niece of Gen. Horatio Gates, 200 feet distant, and on the other side of the post-road which here passes between Second and Third avenues, has been swept away ; but Pye's Folly, a row of brick houses erected thirty years before this time, which proved a ruinous investment, has survived its project-or, though it has grown aged and shabby of aspect. Connected with the main roadway to the ferry were a number of branch roads, mostly shaded by rows of trees, among which the Lombardy poplar was popular, which led to the country-seats of the gentlemen who always spoke of their places as being on Hell Gate. Commodore Chauncey's villa was south of Eighty-fifth Street, and between Avenues A and B; John Jacob Astor's on the south side of Eighty-eighth Street, his farm extending between Avenues A and B and Eighty-seventh and Eighty-ninth streets; Archibald Gracie's house was east of Avenue B, and north of Eighty-eighth Street ; Nathaniel Prime's comfortable homestead lay north of Eighty-ninth Street, and west of Avenue A; and the farm-house of William Rhinelander stood north of Ninety-first Street, over-looking the bay, which then swept far in shore from Horn's Hook, and looking out upon Mill Rock and the Frying Pan.
Two of these houses yet remain, and yesterday I made a pilgrimage to their thresholds, and then sought the sites of those others which had been swept to destruction by the tidal wave of improvement. The besom of the speculator is implacable. In a few weeks the old house in which I live will be torn down, and modern bricks fashioned into a tenement-house will replace it. When I went into Riverside Park yesterday one of its guardians told me that the old brick mansion which stands in its enclosure, noteworthy for its great hall ending in an entrance-door at either side, is doomed. Thomas Addis Emmet used to spend his summers here, and with Washington Irving was a frequent guest at the house of Archibald Gracie, where not infrequently fifty guests sat down to dinner. The site of John Jacob Astor's home is desolate. A few aged and half-withered trees, some grassy mounds and straggling bushes, give token that the place was once inhabited, but that is all. It is a pity, too. The house-I have a picture of it before me-is a square frame building, with an extension in the rear. The great door of the hall had a window of corresponding size above it, and two windows on either side. The wide, low porch was supported by four pillars, which reached to the roof, and the latter, peaked at the centre, had a single dormer-window in front. The lawn is open in front towards the water, but on either side, and at the rear, are trees of various kinds-evergreens, beeches, and elms. There is no pretension about the house or lands, neither the display of the landscape-gardener or the architect, but the house looks like a fitting nest for the man who dreamed Astoria and penned it. The fact is that the gentlemen of high-collared coats built for comfort and hospitality. Two blocks away is the country home of Nathaniel Prime, the great banker of the firm of Prime, Ward & Sands, who married a daughter of Comfort Sands, and when in town lived in state at No. 1 Broadway. His country seat, which faces to the north-east, looking across Hell Gate and up the East River, is a model of a sub-urban homestead. Its broad porches at the front, side, and rear were made to shelter its great hall and wide rooms from the sun and the winds. The house, which is two stories in height, but is made massive in appearance by its abutting wings, is in an excellent state of preservation, and is now one of the buildings occupied by St. Joseph's Orphan Asylum. Yesterday, as I passed, a score of merry lads were running across the lawn, which stands high above the grade of the street, shouting at their play. As I walked slowly up the street and looked back at the peak of the roof, marking the old-fashioned arched window in the centre of the garret and the quarter windows on either side, I could have wished myself an orphan under its shelter-if only they would let me bring my pipe, two of the cats, and The Boy !
Though the rural homestead of Archibald Gracie still stands in much of its primitive strength and comeliness, it may disappear at any time. The firm of Archibald Gracie & Co. exists as it did a hundred years ago, but the house in which Louis Philippe, John Quincy Adams, Tom Moore, and Washington Irving were guests of its founder long since passed into other hands. Its surroundings are not attractive, and a high board fence is an unpleasant feature, but its grounds are still so spacious, and the memories of those who were sheltered under its roof are yet so tangible, that it is worth a walk on foot from the Battery to Horn's Hook to view it in the golden haze of these autumnal days and hang the picture up in memory's gallery. Beautiful for situation, it stands on a cape that juts out into the river, and its windows command a view of Hell Gate and its rocks, the islands in the upper channel, Long Island's wooded shores, the forests that hang above Oak Point, the growing, throbbing streets of Harlem ; a hundred flashing craft are spread before the eye, and nearer at hand is a lawn that yet has the look of velvet, in which seven great trees and a score of lesser ones stand sentinel. Supreme among the group, a monarch no less by right of his majestic growth than be-cause of his two centuries of years, towers a mighty cotton-wood, which measures fourteen feet in circumference at the height of thirty-six inches from the ground, and lifts itself up fifty feet from the earth be-fore it sends out its branches. Its enormous dome, symmetrical and beautiful, makes a landmark which every man who sails the waters of the East River would miss and mourn if storm uprooted it or axe were laid at its root. The house-large, roomy, fenced round with wide porches that take away from its size rather than add to it-looks as if it might readily accommodate a hundred guests, and were prepared to-day to welcome them. Eighty years ago it was the home of an American prince, whose fleet of clippers with their red and white signals was known in every sea-only a merchant, but hospitable as a king. It seems strange to read in a city newspaper of 1809, published when Mobile was a Spanish settlement, and there was but one steamboat in all the world, and fashionable New York dined at •three o'clock, the announcement that Archibald Gracie, of Mobile, has taken into partnership his son Archibald, and that the business will be conducted under their joint names.
In the son's veins, through his maternal ancestry, mingled the blood of the last colonial Governor of Connecticut, and of Matthew Rogers, who owned and occupied the unique building at No. 8 State Street, facing the Battery.
I sit here thinking of those trees on historic Horn's Hook-trees which stood there when, in 1760, Jacob Walton, a colonial merchant prince, brought hither to his elegant country-seat his fair young bride, Polly Cruger, daughter of Henry Cruger, the colleague of Burke as Member of Parliament from Bristol ; when, fifteen years later, Gen. Charles Lee ordered the house to be vacated, and made it his own headquarters; when, a year later, the British moved up the Long Island shore to Hallett's Point, after the disastrous battle on Brooklyn Heights, and opened a heavy artillery fire upon the American works and garrison at Horn's Hook, and which have witnessed all the changes since. How long have these mute witnesses of the country's glory and the city's growth to live? It was unpardonable stupidity that did not seize this choicest of all points on the East River for a public park ; it will be the height of cruelty to slay these surviving monarchs of the primeval woods that once covered this part of the Island of Manhattan ! Who will dare wield the axe to kill this king of all our trees -the last of the giant cotton-woods? In answer to this question comes a memory of the first school that I attended, when but a mite of a boy. The teacher was scholarly, but eccentric. He should have been a college professor, but was such a child himself that he taught a primary school. One of the larger boys had cut into and partly girdled a maple in front of the school-house, and how the boy did catch it ! The single sentence of reproof has always remained with me: " The boy that would injure a shade-tree would kill a man." I used to make light of the old pedagogue's verdict; now I am afraid that I believe it. The old colonel, into whose protecting lap Martha Washington has climbed, vows that he will slay with his own hand the wretch who dares thrust his steel into the great Gracie tree.