The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2003

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New York City / State Timeline

from Eagles Byte by David Minor

Year-by-year tracing the growth of the early days of the Republic

A Harper's Weekly article in 1867 called it "the annual social earthquake." 43 years previously, in 1824, the idea was already a few years old; an idea that went terribly astray when it met reality. Landlords of residential rental properties must have thought it would simplify their lives to have all leases, like the birthdays of racehorses, take place on the same day. Wrong! With New York City's population nearing 123,000 this year of 1824, the chances were that the number of people changing residences as their annual leases expired, could at least number in the thousands. All in lower Manhattan. A large number of those would be of the poorer, non-horse-owning classes, and would need to hire rigs for their moves. They didn't know the term gridlock back then, but that was the result. Annual mass pandemonium. Not to mention the fact that many thought the whole rigmarole was designed just to allow for annual rent increases. New Yorkers are such a suspicious lot.

Perhaps all of this was a good reason for novelist James Fenimore Cooper to move just a few blocks this year when he needed larger quarters. He had plenty of other activities to keep him busy. In January he published his first sea romance, The Pilot, to demonstrate what Sir Walter Scott's The Pirate might have been like if written by a real seaman, which Cooper had been. In August he received an honorary M. A. from Columbia University. He also found time to found, in this case the literary Bread and Cheese Club, so named because new members were voted on in an unusual way. When the vote was counted, if you had received more pieces of bread than cheese in the container you were "in"; the other way around, "out." Which may or may not dovetail with the British equivalent of "too bad"—"hard cheese." Cooper wasn't the only busy New Yorker that year. Whether you had money or not, you could always find something to occupy your free time. January 8th, the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, was the occasion for a swank private military ball to raise money for the benefit of the Greeks, now engaged in their war for independence from Turkey. On April 2nd anyone could go up to Second Avenue near 13th Street and watch as John Johnson arrived in an open wagon, dressed in white trimmed with black, sitting atop his coffin, and go to the gallows for the murder of tourist James Murray last December. Mid-August brought that revered French veteran of the Revolutionary War, the Marquis de Lafayette, an occasion for many grand public events, opened by his procession through the city, preceded by gangs of buglers. A month of parades, balls and receptions followed. And on December 9th, 20,000 citizens made their chilly way down to the Battery to watch as Captain Harris of H. B. M. frigate Hussar, challenged the local boatmen of the city to a sculling match, with a thousand-dollar purse. Captain Harris returned to Nova Scotia with his pockets lighter. There was much else you could take in. There was the new Castle Garden restaurant down at the Battery, Scudder's American Museum (later taken over by P. T. Barnum), a theater near Houston Street with black actors. Edward Windhurst's new Park Row restaurant, and New York's first mummy, on display in the Almshouse basement, just northeast of City Hall. But Fun City's morals were slipping a tiny bit. It was reported in the NY National Advocate that a young man had been seen smoking in the streets as early as nine o'clock in the morning. Deplorable!

New York City in 1824 wasn't just about balls, restaurants, museums, boat races and occasional public executions as mentioned. It was, above all, a working city and a growing commercial center. The city was beginning to receive Erie Canal traffic from as far away as Brockport, other states were beginning to plan canals, usually to expedite traffic to the eastern seaboard. By the end of 1824, Mayor Philip Hone decided to back the proposed Delaware and Hudson Canal, construction would get underway next year, and the Pennsylvania city of Honesdale would be named for Hizzoner. Construction had already begun this year on New Jersey's Morris Canal, to connect the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers to New York.

As always, the business of the city was business. Blank spaces between lower Manhattan and Greenwich began filling in. When Alfred Bridgeman needed land to establish himself as an importer, grower and dealer in vegetables and flower seeds he bought vacant property along Broadway, a few blocks below Washington Square, and opened for business. But it was in the Wall Street area where much of the city's business was conducted. The brokerage firm of J. L. Joseph, agent of the Rothschilds, joined the New York Stock Exchange, probably paying the going rental rate for space in the area of $500 a year. One of the great needs, as new technologies came along, was for utilities. In April a home at 286 Water Street was the first house in the city to be lighted by gas. I. G. Coster brought the city its first anthracite coal, which was used to heat a building at 52 Broadway. And toward the end of September the laying of gas pipes began in some of the major streets. There was even an innovation in the maritime trade, when the New York Dry Dock Company was organized and built two marine railways uptown, between Tenth and Eleventh streets near the East River, creating possibly the first facility in the country for raising large vessels out of the water for repair work.

The New York National Advocate was one of a growing number of newspapers helping to keep track of the city's leisure and laboring activities. It was read by 3,000 subscribers, close to 20% of the city's 14,000-plus newspaper readers. There was much to be reported, including some social progress, such as the incorporation of the New York House of Refuge, a facility housed in an arsenal dating back to the War of 1812, with the purpose of taking indigent juveniles off the streets and providing food and shelter for them. But much of the news focused on various financial shenanigans. A passenger arriving at Fire Island from England with advance notice of the doubling of cotton prices, beat the ship to the city as he traveled in by stage coach and engaged in some lucrative insider trading. Several firms went down the tube when that news came out. The U. S. Government had to bail out several local boat makers who were producing vessels to be sent to Greek freedom fighters. The charges of corruption and overcharging would make today's controversies over September 11th donations pale in comparison. Not all misdeeds reached such exalted levels. When Edward Windhurst opened his restaurant on Park Row, it contained a side door around the corner on Ann Street that wasn't a true entrance. Many of the city's young men would take a hired coach to the restaurant, have the driver wait, and sneak out the side door headed elsewhere, leaving the cabbie high and dry, unpaid.

The Erie Canal was nearing completion in 1824, even as its guiding genius, DeWitt Clinton, was deposed by political rivals as a canal commissioner. He got his revenge at the polls in November, becoming the state's 9th governor (he'd already been the 7th). Aqueducts at Crescent and at Rexford were completed, as was a dam and locks at Tonawanda. On October 26th the final Niagara County excavation shoved through; the canal now stretched all the way from the Hudson River to Lake Erie.

The big celebration was scheduled for next summer, but already Clinton's Ditch was beginning to transform upstate, in ways beyond physical appearance. The small settlement on Lake Onondaga, named Salina for its salt springs, was incorporated as the Village of Syracuse. And towns of Cambria and Royalton gave up some of their lands to form a new town with the five-part flight of locks named, logically, Lockport. The canal would do more than just spawn towns. Most of its designers and builders were self-taught, the project itself acting as the first training ground for civil engineers. The process was institutionalized on November 5th, with the founding in Troy of the Rensselaer School of Theoretical and Practical Science. A brainchild of Stephen Rensselaer and Amos Easton it would one day become Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. One young man in Troy had his eyes peeled for business, not engineering. Local hardware merchant John Spencer died this year. His younger partner would buy out Spencer's heirs and become full owner of the business. Young Erastus would make the name Corning one to be reckoned with in New York, for generations to come. As yet mostly just produce was floating along the canal, but many passengers would soon be coming, and an inventor and publisher named Horatio Gates Spafford was going to ride that wave. He completely revived a work he'd first put out in 1813, and soon his Pocket Guide for the Tourist and Traveler would become the indispensable companion for many an aqueous Sinbad on the Big Ditch.

Rochester continued booming, with the canal already providing markets for its milled and manufactured products as well as the produce from nearby agricultural regions. Local merchants suddenly had money to invest; several got together to help finance a Lake Ontario steamboat, the Martha Ogden, built out of town, up in Oswego. Before long Rochester would build its boats locally. On February 19th its first bank was chartered. Less than three months later the cornerstone of St Luke's Episcopal Church was put into place. The profane and semi-profane mixed with the sacred as the village got its first theater and a visitor was robbed of $1,800 at a gambling shop. The region around Chautauqua lake had to make do without a canal. Back in 1805, Robert Miles had hollowed out a large tree trunk to make a wooden canoe, and he'd been hauling freight on the lake ever since. This year the craft fell victim to a bursting dam. Elisha Allen stepped in to fill the void, building a horse-powered scow to carry passengers and goods (including the area's first wine) from Chautauqua to Maysville.

There were several notable deaths in the state this year. One was the land agent Paolo Busti. The other encapsulated the history of this growing state. U. S. Representative John Harris passed away in November. Before turning to politics he'd operated the first ferry across Cayuga Lake, been an interpreter for the Iroquois, run a store and tavern and served as a colonel in the state militia.

2003, David Minor
1703, . . . 1784, 1785, 1786, 1787, 1788, 1789, 1790, 1791, 1792, 1793, 1794, 1795, 1796, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803, 1804, 1805, 1806, 1807, 1808, 1809, 1810, 1811, 1812, 1813, 1814, 1815, 1816, 1817, 1818, 1819, 1820, 1821, 1822, 1823, 1824, 1825, 1826 , 1827, 1828, Pt. 1
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.
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