Walter Francis Burns, portrait from Captain Otway Burns Patriot, Privateer and Leglislator, 1905, compiled by Walter Francis Burns.

Walter Francis Burns, portrait from Captain Otway Burns Patriot, Privateer and Leglislator, 1905, compiled by Walter Francis Burns.

As a cool autumn breeze settled in on his home among the trees on the western slope of Inwood Hill, Walter Francis Burns awoke from a terrible dream.  Lost in a chilling nightmare Burns had just witnessed his youngest son, Otway, run over by an automobile not far from the family’s northern Manhattan home.

The elder Burns rushed inside from the porch, where he had been napping, to find his eight-year-old boy playing with his brother in the parlor.

The forty-six year old father had never been so relieved to see his children.

The dream had been so graphic…so shockingly real.

Ursula Burns (Source: 1914 passport application)

Ursula Burns (Source: 1914 passport application)

In fact, the nightmare had frightened Burns so much that he mentioned it to his wife, Ursula, later that evening.

Burns, a successful banker from a prominent American family, doted on his wife and kids.

Ursulian Terrace circled on turn of the century map of Inwood Hill.

Ursulian Terrace circled on turn of the century map of Inwood Hill. (Click to enlarge)

His home, named “Ursulian Terrace” as a tribute to his wife, Ursula, overlooked the Hudson River.
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As the population crowds around the park in commercial and residential buildings, this breathing space of exceptional beauty, with its varied topography, will be more and more appreciated and remain a constant reminder of the generosity of the donors and the wisdom of the city officials in accepting and preserving such a noble gift for the benefit of the people of the City of New York.”  -Borough President George McAneny on the gift of Isham Park (New York Times, March 24, 1912)

Sketch of the William B. Isham home, New York Sun, August 3, 1934.

Sketch of the William B. Isham home, New York Sun, August 3, 1934.

An Uptown Oasis

In the summer of 1862, shortly after General Robert E. Lee assumed control of the Confederate Army, a 35-year-old leather merchant named William Bradley Isham rented a sprawling wood-frame house on a verdant promontory on the uppermost tip of the city.

William Bradley Isham portrait from Warrensburgh Historical Society.

William Bradley Isham portrait from Warrensburgh Historical Society.

The rental was intended as a seasonal retreat, but the businessman with the blue eyes, beard and mustache apparently made a connection with the land, for two years later he returned to purchase the home and surrounding property.

For half a century the Isham family tended lovingly to their uptown oasis, in northern Manhattan’s Inwood section, before donating the land to the city for use as a park that would bear their family name.

The Isham Estate

The Isham’s two-story house rested squarely on a hilltop with sweeping views of both the Harlem and Hudson Rivers.

Isham Estate, circa 1905.  The Isham home is located at the rear center of the lawn.  Photo courtesy of Don Rice.

Isham Estate, circa 1905. The Isham home is located at the rear center of the lawn. Photo courtesy of Don Rice.

Dr. Floyd T. Ferris, the principal physician to the Cholera Hospital on Duane Street, had occupied the home until his death seven years before the Isham’s first visit.

Dr. Ferris’ old home, likely built in the 1850’s, was of an unusual design. Three extended wings together formed a cross that maximized both light and ventilation.

Isham mansion in 1934 photograph.

Isham mansion in 1934 photograph.

It is an interesting brick and frame building of peculiar shape, having a spacious central hall with a winding staircase and gallery from which the rooms extend in three wings,” wrote Reginald Bolton, an eminent turn of the century Manhattan historian. (Reginald Bolton, Washington Heights Manhattan: Its Eventful Past, 1924)
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Inwood Serial Killer: “Texas Jim” Baker

Texas Jim Baker

“I had a periodical desire to poison human beings and in killing them in this manner, I derive a certain mental satisfaction.  When this mania seizes me, I want to kill the nearest person to me.” –excerpt from “Texas Jim” Baker’s murder confession. On the morning of December 27, 1928 New York Police responded to […]

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The Indian Caves of Inwood Hill Park

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On the northern tip of Manhattan, a twenty-minute walk from the subway,  is an historical site so rare and unexpected that it warrants a detour on any tourist’s itinerary. The majestic “Indian caves” of Inwood Hill Park were once used as a seasonal camp by the Lenape people who lived in the region before the […]

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Glacial Potholes of Inwood Hill Park

glacial pothole

Just off the path, in an area of Inwood Hill Park known as “The Clove,” are a series of rock formations that have fascinated geologists and hikers for generations. These glacial potholes, which look almost man-made, are the product of glacial runoff that occurred during the last ice age some 50,000 years ago.  During a […]

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The Fort George Hill Climb

Fort George Hill

“How fast can your car make the ascent of Fort George Hill?  The hill is 1,900 feet from base to crown, with a grade ranging from ten to thirteen per cent and averaging about eleven per cent.  It is paved with cobblestones and has two sweeping curves. “ (New York Herald, March 15, 1908) The […]

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Inwood’s Indian Life Reservation

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In the winter of 1926 Inwood historian and local archeologist Reginald Pelham Bolton began work on a curious and eclectic exercise, the creation of an Indian reservation in Inwood Hill Park.   Bolton’s vision was not to be a true reservation, but rather a recreation of what a Native American encampment might have looked like. “The […]

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Gangsters on the Dyckman Strip: 1931 Shootout Makes National Headlines

1931 Dyckman Street shootout

“The final battle in which the bandits were killed was in front of 146 Dyckman Street.  Here the bandits were overtaken in a taxicab driven by William Nugent and occupied by Patrolman Albert Walker of the Thirtieth Precinct, Patrolman Albert Morrell of Traffic Squad H and Detective William Kiley.   The two patrolmen and the detective, […]

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