Reminiscences Of The Old Eleventh Ward
( Originally Published 1921 )
MY recollections of the old Eleventh Ward date back to the outbreak of the War of the Rebellion, when I moved into it with my parents from Woodstock, Connecticut.
Neat brick dwelling houses containing at most two families occupied the greater portion of the area lying between Third and Ninth streets and Avenue C and the East River and there were also many such houses in other parts of the ward. A few houses of that kind are still standing in Seventh Street, between Avenues C and D, where I lived for many years; in Fourth Street, between the same avenues, where I lived just after my marriage and where my children were born; in Third Street, between Avenues C and D, and in Seventh Street, between Avenue D and Lewis Street.
It would take up too much time to state in detail the great changes which have taken place in the old neighborhood and the various causes which led to them. They have been the subject of newspaper articles from time to time in connection with the so-called Political Row.
A reading of a few excerpts from some of them will, I am sure, interest all of you:
"The Sun" of September 1, 1895, referring to Political Row, said: "The resistless pressure of population from the teeming region to the southwest of it is pressing in hard, and soon it will be buried and forgotten, with its hideous seven-story monstrosities of brick and iron for its monuments. Already the old inhabitants have begun to move away. * * * East Seventh Street, the Fifth Avenue of the Eleventh Ward, as it was called, still shows catholicity of architecture in its rows of sturdy, roomy brick houses, decorated with vines, and here and there shaded by a surviving ailantus. Political Row' is little known in politics now, though once it was a name to conjure with, but the old names of municipal prestige have given way to new."
An article which appeared in the "New York Times" of May 11, 1902, is of especial interest because it, among other things, mentions our departed friend and neighbor, City Chamberlain Patrick Keenan. Al-though nearly thirteen years have elapsed since his death, his memory is still treasured in the hearts of his old neighbors and friends.
Speaking of Political Row, the article in question states: "None of the old residents of the present day remembers just when the street received that name. Patrick Keenan says that fifty years ago he often heard discussions among the old residents of the district as to the date when the name was applied to the block, but cannot remember that any of the old-timers knew themselves." The article then proceeds as follows ;
"Two score years ago the old Eleventh Ward, which had the centre of its circle in Political Row, was distinctly an American district, and any foreigners who found their way into the ward were promptly made to feel so uncomfortable that they moved out. At that time East Seventh Street was well uptown, and there was hardly a house in the ward that contained more than one family. The streets were then lined with trees covered with luxuriant foliage, and each house had its green patch of yard. Then Avenue D, which now runs between two towering walls of tenements, teeming with men, women and children of foreign birth, was a thoroughfare that was made brilliant every Sunday by a promenade of all the youth and fashion of the neighborhood. Then there were eight churches in the ward : one Episcopal, three Baptist, two Methodist and two Roman Catholic. Now there is but one Methodist church left, which is to be soon given up, as all members of the old congregation have moved away. There is one Catholic church left, St. Brigid's at Eighth Street and Avenue B, but even this church cannot boast of anything like its old attendance.
"The Eleventh Ward was long known as the Dry-dock district. It got its name from the number of drydocks along the river front. At one time there was nothing but shipyards along the East River, including the yards of William H. Webb and John Roach. When these yards were in full blast, according to Mr. Keenan, it was almost impossible to pass through the streets at noon, as an army of from 6,000 to 7,000 men would leave the yards in regiments to go home to their dinners."
The article, again reverting to Political Row, states that it was almost twenty years ago that the residents thereof moved away and that among the first to go was William H. Webb, the shipbuilder, who lived in the ward with his family for many years.
The writer of that article is in error as to the number of Catholic churches which he says had then survived the change. There were then, as at present, two of such churches, viz.: the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows, at the corner of Pitt and Stanton streets, which was erected in 1866, and St. Brigid's church, which was dedicated in December, 1849.
He also forgot to make any mention whatever of synagogues, notably the one in Clinton Street, which is still standing. I may be permitted to say in passing that my wife and I attended many a hassena in that famous house of worship.
The writer also overlooked the German Lutheran church at the corner of Avenue B and Ninth Street, which is one of the few remaining Protestant houses of worship in the ward.
The Jefferson Club house is still an architectural ornament to Political Row.
The old Eleventh Ward Savings Bank building still stands as a monument to the business acumen of the Loew brothers.
The old Eleventh Ward Bank building in Tenth Street is still standing, the bank having in recent years been taken over by the Corn Exchange Bank.
The old Dry Dock Savings Bank building in East Fourth Street near Avenue D has survived the change, but its use for banking purposes ceased many years ago when the bank moved to its new building at the corner of the Bowery and Third Street.
The old Union Market building still stands, but its doors are closed. The old station house adjoining it still continues to be, as it has for many years past, an efficient protection to the inhabitants of the old ward.
The doom of Political Row which the writers of newspaper articles have predicted has not come to pass.
Political Row is still there and it occupies at present a most conspicuous place on the political map!
The leaders of the two great political parties in the district reside there.
Former New York Secretary of State Samuel S. Koenig, the astute Republican leader of not only the assembly district but of New York County as well, lives in the same house occupied by the late Senator Lewis S. Goebel for many years. Commissioner David Lazarus, the alert Tammany Hall district leader, lived in the same house where Coroner Henry Woltman, also a district leader of that party, lived for some years.
Our esteemed friend Judge Benjamin Hoffman continues to dwell in the same house he has lived in for the past quarter of a century. His wife has the honor and distinction of being the women's Tammany leader for the district, while the wife of Mr. Samuel S. Koenig leads the Republican women.
No history of the old ward would be complete with-out mention of the Old Mechanics' Bell. That famous bell, says Mr. A. W. Moynihan in his book entitled, "The Old Fifth Street School," was first rung in 1831, to celebrate the triumph of the workingmen of this city in a struggle for an abridgement in the hours of labor. * * * The bell continued to ring at the usual periods until October, 1880, when it one day suddenly cracked and ceased to ring. Right here it may be well to state that, mainly through the efforts of Mr. Moynihan, the old bell was taken down and. recast and hung once more in the old tower, amid the greatest enthusiasm ever witnessed in the old ward.
The book in question, which was published in 1887, further states, "Though the Old Mechanics' Bell still rings its notes of warning to the sons of toil, the ship-yards which gave employment to thousands are things of the past."
In those earlier days, and in fact for some years afterwards, no attempt was made by the public authorities to remove the snow from the streets and, during the winter months, while the snow was there, sleighs were used to transport passengers on the stage lines and for the delivery of goods.
For some years street cars were heated by coal stoves, which commonly emitted strong fumes of gas. When windows were opened to let the gas out, the heat went with it. In cold weather this method of heating was wholly inadequate and straw was placed on the floor of the cars to mitigate the discomfort of the passengers.
Travel at all times and even in the most favorable weather was very slow in those days. Blockades arising. from various causes were frequent and the cars often ran off the track by accident or were intention-ally forced off by the drivers. Then it became necessary for the passengers to alight in order to help push the car over the rough cobblestone pavement around the obstruction or to get it back on the track. Then there was a scramble to get back upon the car, which often resumed its journey without its full complement of passengers. I remember one indignant citizen who denounced the driver for leaving him behind when he had, as he said, "some gooses on his arm."
Speaking of cobblestones, it should be borne in mind that in the good old days no applicant for citizenship was deemed worthy of admission unless he had previously taken part in a political parade over the rough cobblestones, with which the streets on the east side were then paved, and carried aloft a flaming torch composed of a material which discolored the face and hands to such an extent that it took days of diligent and violent application of soap and water to remove the stains. Needless to add that, when final naturalization papers were subsequently applied for, the applicant was prepared to prove full compliance with this essential prerequisite.
No portrayal of old times is complete without including the volunteer fire department, which was disbanded fifty-five years ago. Most of the brave men who composed it have passed away and the few remaining members are now old and feeble. The cry "Old Times Rocks" is no longer heard, and yet those of us who are old enough to have seen them at work recall them with admiration and respect.
The old ward had its full quota of volunteer companies, scattered in different parts of it. Most conspicuous among them were Live Oaks No. 44, in the lower end of the ward, and Forest Trees No. 3, in the upper end.
The boys of that time were ardent champions of the companies located in the neighborhood where they resided and frequently fought street battles with boy sympathizers of rival companies in which stones and "Irish confetti" were frequently used.
The casualty lists of those battles are incomplete, but I venture to say that many of the more elderly gentlemen present are entitled to wear wound stripes as a result of their participation in the volunteer firemen's wars.
Bells in signal towers located in various parts of the city summoned the firemen to duty. At the first sound of the bell, all business would cease and every one counted the number of strokes of the bell in order to determine whether the fire was within their fire zone and, if it was, there was a wild rush by the firemen for their respective engine houses. After putting on their uniforms, the firemen would take hold of the rope attached to the fire engine and drag it rapidly to the scene of the fire. Bystanders would follow in the wake of the engine and the neighbor-hood where the fire occurred was in an uproar until the fire was extinguished. Conflicts for the possession of a fire hydrant often occurred but, notwithstanding all this, the department as a whole was as efficient as it was brave.
The old-timers no doubt remember the target companies that flourished in the seventies and early eighties. On a fair average, there was at least one of such companies for every square block in the ward. The congenial spirits who composed most of them neither hurried nor worried. They had all kinds of names.
I recall particularly the Ham Guard Warriors, the Gentlemen's Sons and the Eighth Street Guard. All these organizations are now only memories.
In conclusion, let me say that I shall never forget the old ward and the old friends and old associates. There is not a day that my mind does not revert back to the old neighborhood and the pleasant memories that cluster around it.