In a world of helicopter parenting it is hard to imagine letting a child swim across the Hudson River, but in 1939 six-year-old Stephen “Sonny” Kole became a media darling for his dangerous river exploits.

New York Times, September 4, 1939.

New York Times, September 4, 1939.

That September Sonny, a blue-eyed, fair-haired youngster who weighed just 59-pounds, dove into the Hudson River from the ferry dock of the Palisades Interstate Park about a mile north of the George Washington Bridge.

The Dansville Breeze, September 7, 1939.

The Dansville Breeze, September 7, 1939.

Accompanied by Victor Till, former world champion relay swimmer, the boy swam toward the Dyckman Street Ferry slip on the New York side of the Hudson.

Passengers on the ferryboats “Englewood” and “Florida” cheered Sonny on as he alternated between breaststroke, crawl and sidestroke.

Along the way the six-year-old joked with reporters who trailed alongside in canoes, kayaks and motorboats.

How about a beer when we get ashore?” the youngster quipped.

Ride ‘em cowboy,” he exclaimed as he tackled the wakes of passing ferries.

Long Island Daily Press, August 2, 1940.

Long Island Daily Press, August 2, 1940.

Sirens sounded and people cheered as he emerged fresh from the water at De George’s boathouse at Dyckman Street,” wrote on reporter. “His father cheered too and said that Hollywood ought to grab him.

Long Island Daily Press, September 23, 1941.

Long Island Daily Press, September 23, 1941.

Sonny can hurl a wicked baseball, punt and pass a football, do ten kinds of dives, chin himself fifteen times, do sixty pushups, wrestle, box hurdle, sprint, row a boat and paddle a canoe,” his father breathlessly continued.  (New York Sun, September 4, 1939)

Amazingly the Kole’s, both gym teachers from Edwardsville, IL, weren’t the first to encourage their child to take the Hudson River plunge.

In 1925 six-year-old Johnny “Freckles” Devine swam the Hudson River from the pier at 136th Street to the New Jersey shore in just thirty-five minutes.

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The tunnel with its long row of dimly shining electric bulbs becomes a banging, hissing, vibrating pandemonium; a dozen compressed-air drills thud away in all directions, with boys pouring water into the drill holes, and Italians scrape and shovel away the debris at the bottom of the slowly disappearing wall.” (The World’s Work, Vol. III, 1901)

Tunneling the subway through Fort George Hill, The Century Illustrated Magazine, 1902.

Tunneling the subway through Fort George Hill, The Century Illustrated Magazine, 1902.

October 24, 1903

Timothy Sullivan glanced at his watch. It was minutes before ten o’clock. The sliver of a new moon dangled above the camp.

Back to work boys,” the Irishman shouted as he gestured toward the ragged hole at the base of Fort George Hill.

Sullivan, a construction foreman for New York’s ambitious subway system, was in charge of the northern end of a deep tunnel project that would soon stream mass transit riders beneath Washington Heights.  The tunnel would forever change the rural nature of northern Manhattan—with its stables, red brick schoolhouse and quaint country church.  Soon the farm-strewn Inwood valley would be connected to downtown. Speculators were already erecting apartment houses along Dyckman Street.

The project was a tremendous endeavor.  Miners with work experience all over the world signed on for the job.  They spoke in underground jargon and swapped tales of operations in Colorado, Johannesburg, the Klondike and Siberia.  Not one of the men referred to the work before them as a tunnel—below ground everyone called it the “mine.”   When completed it would be the second largest two-track tunnel ever constructed in the United States—surpassed only by the Hoosac tunnel in western Massachusetts.

Fort George tunnel, 1904, NYHS.

Fort George tunnel, 1904, NYHS.

Fort George tunnel, 1904, NYHS.

Fort George tunnel, 1904, NYHS.

The dangerous conditions created by the unpredictable Hudson schist—called “bastard granite” by the workers—and recent heavy rains, caused all sorts of delays.  Three crews worked round-the-clock, in eight-hour shifts, to make up lost time.   General contractor John B. McDonald took a personal interest in the work. McDonald was familiar with the region, having attended Public School 52, just blocks from the tunnel entrance.
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On Thin Ice: A 1932 Drowning on the Spuyen Duyvil

1932 drowning on the Spuyten Duyvil

On Christmas Eve of 1932 some thirty children were skating and sliding on the frozen inlet at the base of Inwood Hill when the ice gave way. Noemie Kennedy, who curated a Native American museum from a cabin near the water’s edge, told reporters that the kids had told her of their plan to play […]

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Inwood’s Dyckman Street Ferry

Dyckman Ferry

On June 17, 1915 a procession of more than fifty automobiles gathered in Inwood to mark an historic occasion—the inauguration of the new Dyckman Street ferry, which would make its maiden voyage across the Hudson River, to the popular recreation sites along the New Jersey Palisades, later that afternoon. “The procession, marshaled by Mr. Thomas […]

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Exile in Inwood: The Max Brauer Story

Max Brauer

In 1933 Nazi storm troopers entered the home of Max Brauer, the Socialist mayor of Altona, a working class German suburb just west of Hamburg. Brauer and other leaders who publicly denounced Hitler had been slated for roundup. But the handsome forty-six-year-old politician with a cleft chin and shock of dark slicked back hair had […]

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Park Terrace Gardens Rises from the Ruins of the Old Seaman Mansion

Seaman mansion, Inwood, New York City

In early November of 1938 newspapers around the globe trained their headlines on a stunning victory on the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland. The heroic story of Seabiscuit, a small, knobby-kneed horse who preferred sleeping to racing, over War Admiral, the four to one favorite, captured everyone’s imagination. The underdog had slain Goliath and […]

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A Buried City: The Blizzard of 1888

Thumbnail image for A Buried City: The Blizzard of 1888

In March of 1888 New York City was slammed by one of the most devastating blizzards in recorded history.   From March 11th to 15ththe city was buried underneath a fifty-inch blanket of snow. The Great White Hurricane, as it came to be known, disabled transportation and telegraph communication from the Chesapeake Bay to Montreal.  Huge, […]

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Inwood Apartment Rentals in 1936

Isham Garden courtyard thumbnail

As many of you know, I both sell and rent apartments in the Inwood area.  So it was a true joy to come across the following article describing the Inwood rental scene of 1936. I am intimately familiar with many of the buildings described below.  Many are still rental properties.  Others have gone co-op through […]

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