New York City / State Timeline
from Eagles Byte by David Minor
Year-by-year tracing the growth of the early days of the Republic
Full Steam Ahead
The two potential combatants circle each other warily, looking for weak spots, testing each other's ability and will. The heavyweight, Britain, one hand tied behind its back by Napoleon in the Iberian peninsula, ponders its next moves, as does the bantamweight United States. In March outgoing president Thomas Jefferson, facing rising commercial pressures, exchanges the Embargo Act for the Non-Intercourse Act, allowing trade with all nations except France and Great Britain. The next month Britain makes private noises suggesting the U. S. "might" be allowed access to French seaports in the near future. New president James Madison allows as how his country "might" begin trading with England again. By the second week in August the whole thing's fallen apart. 1809 will end right smack where it began.
In New York this year the hot new topic of conversation is Robert Fulton and steamboats. As the new national administration readjusts itself in April, Fulton is quite busy on several fronts. He puts his pioneering vessel The Steamboat (only later named the Clermont) back into service on the Hudson, now freed of ice. Plush new passenger cabins attract the adventuresome, wealthy traveler. In June he hires Nicholas Roosevelt (yes, THAT family) to survey the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers as possible steamboat routes. In June, Fulton launches a new vessel, the Car of Neptune. The same month rival John Stevens takes his new vessel, the Phoenix, out of New York City and heads for Philadelphia, the world's first ocean-going steamboat. On December 1st the two men divvy up the market. Fulton gets the steamboat monopoly on all New York State waters, the run to New Brunswick, New Jersey, and the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Stevens gets Chesapeake Bay, the Connecticut, Delaware, Santee and Savannah Rivers, and the run from Long Island Sound to Providence, Rhode Island.
Life goes on across the state. In Manhattan Knickerbocker's History of New York, a spoof by young Washington Irving, is published, and John Randall, Jr. is commissioned to map out new streets for the growing city. Elsewhere, Buffalo gets it's first church; Albany a new capitol building; Watertown an arsenal. Lake Champlain even acquires one of the new steamboats, the Vermont.
And death comes this year to two once influential New York residents. In Canandaigua, land speculator Oliver Phelps, promoter in 1788 of the million-dollar purchase of western New York lands, dies in debtor's prison. Down in New York City's Greenwich Village, one of the great enablers of the previous war, Thomas Paine, dies in an alcoholic haze. An atheist, he cannot be buried in the cemetery in New Rochelle, where he resided on a 400-acre farm given him by New York State, so he's buried on the farm property.
Young Men on the Rise
Threats, counter threats and inducements continue flying across the Atlantic and leaping across the English-French Channel, as 1810 rolls along. The Macon Act, the Milan Decree, The Trianon Decree, another non-intercourse act for next year. While the international quarreling gets increasingly out of hand. George III prepares to celebrate fifty years on the throne, even as he begins losing his grip on reality. Back in his former colony, York Staters look forward instead of back.
Robert Fulton certainly smells opportunity in the air for some of his projects. In September he shows a model of his improved torpedo boat (what we today would call a mine-laying boat) in New York's City Hotel. On the 24th and 25th bad weather postpones the demonstration of his floating mine, and on the 28th an experiment with a ship's cable-cutting knife flops. Undeterred, three days later he makes it work.
Entrepreneur John Scudder buys the 1791 Tammany Museum and reopens it as the American Museum. Twenty-six years later, after a number of address changes, it will be sold to a young super hustler by the name of Barnum. Another young-man-on-the-rise named Cornelius Vanderbilt establishes ferry service between Manhattan and Staten Island, charging 18¢ a person, as Fulton's steam-driven ferries begin appearing in the harbor.
Halfway up the Hudson, Amos Eaton, whom we've met before, and will again, begins lecturing at the Catskill Botanical School, and publishes a small textbook on the subject. His interests will one day intersect with those of young politician De Witt Clinton, who this year crosses the state, searching out a possible canal route between the Hudson and Lake Erie. Clinton doesn't pause long enough at the falls of the Genesee to consider the commercial possibilities but another visitor does. Twenty-one-year-old Francis Brown of Rome, New York, truly fits the term accidental tourist. In more ways than one. Currently living in Detroit with an uncle, he decides to return east for a visit. Traveling by way of lakes Erie and Ontario, his boat is wrecked near the mouth of the Niagara River. He barely makes it ashore before collapsing. When he recovers sufficiently, he seeks out some locals and buys a canoe, continuing on his journey. Running into another storm near the mouth of the Genesee River, he once again finds himself beached. While waiting for the storm to subside he decides to go for a short, exploratory walk inland. A walk that takes him the six or seven miles to the river's falls and a failing grist mill owned by Charles Harford. Francis is sure he can make a go of the mill and convinces his brother Matthew, a Rome physician, to form a partnership with Thomas Mumford and John McKay, and buy it. The Brown brothers will succeed where Harford failed and Rochester is on its way to becoming a mill town. This same year, back on Lake Erie, the village of Buffalo is incorporated. Three years later it will suffer a near-death experience.
© 2000, David Minor
The Eagles Byte New York City / State Timeline is from David Minor's radio scripts for Simon Pontin's Salmagundy radio program on WXXI-FM (91.5). David can be heard every Saturday morning at 10:15 talking about various aspects of world history.