“The track of the subway system, crawling on innumerable legs, finds its way toward the northeast in great curves and disappears beneath a distant range of hills. The next station is 207th street. A considerable stretch of unimproved land, unbroken by a single house, intervenes.” -New York Herald, August 12, 1906
In 1906 subway service opened up a great new frontier on the northernmost tip of Manhattan. Intrepid explorers riding the rails to Inwood for the first time described a picturesque wilderness that had somehow remained frozen in an older era. Young boys still tended the fields and herded cattle alongside their fathers in an unbroken and generations old tradition.
But times were changing.
Walking past the chickens, cows and ramshackle barns, down crude ruts that could hardly be considered roads, it must have been clear to even the casual observer change was near.
Surely the newly constructed elevated rails and shiny new subway stations would spark a development boom that would quickly engulf the quaint New York village which looked and felt more like a prairie town than a district of Manhattan.
One could almost feel the vibration of earth moving equipment as the city snaked ever north.
And thus it was that a group of downtown bohemians made the trip to Inwood in the summer of 1906 for an afternoon of adventure and exploration. Their report reveals a sliver of time where past and present meet. The rest, they say, is history…
Orchards and Pasture Lands of Manhattan
New York Herald
August 12, 1906
Justice has not yet been done to the scenery along the subway. There has been much criticism of the temperature of the tunnel, the monotony of its succession of white pillars as they flash past, or its poor illumination. It is said that the prevailing landscape is even tiresome. The only variations consist of a few widely scattered panels in terra cotta at the several stations.
The common mental picture of the subway is of a dark and noisy interior. The name subway itself is deceptive. The average New York man associates the subway with a dirty descending staircase, a stifling odor and crowded, ill lighted cars. In no other railroad in this part of the country at least does the scenery vary so widely. There is a wealth of verdure, a sweep of hills, many a glimpse of restful landscape to be enjoyed from the same car windows, which for so many miles look out on blank walls. Some subway stations, it is true, are narrow, damp and reeking with bad odors, but there are others set down in fragrant apple orchards or looking down upon picturesque streams. At one station there is, to be sure, a crush of many hundreds of hot, perspiring persons, tired and out of temper. There are still other stations where you will see groups of red-cheeked country girls waiting for the train. Such contrasts are to be found within the limits of Manhattan Island.
The subway has opened up a new and almost unknown country. The upper section of Manhattan has remained almost unchanged for half a century. New York, to be sure, has grown by leaps and bounds in all directions, but by an odd chance it has jumped, so to speak, over this section, which has remained stationary, while the country for a radius of nearly a hundred miles has been invaded by commuters from New York. A few years ago, it is true, a trolley line invaded this remote section, and a few New Yorkers have had the curiosity and courage to explore this remote region of Manhattan Island, but to the great majority it has remained virtually an unknown land.
Inwood Still Rural
Many years ago when the New York Central Railroad made the river route its main line a community grew upon the heights overlooking the Hudson River at Inwood. Later when the trains were taken from the road, all but two or three shuttle cars which are run to retain the franchise, the means of communicating with the city virtually ceased. It is amazing to find in New York, within sight of the solid blocks of flats and apartment houses, where ground is so immensely valuable, a simple rural community, which one would expect to see only far from the city. For more than twenty years not a single home has been added to this widely scattered settlement. The little group off houses at Inwood is the only settlement worth the name in this region.
The greater portion of the upper section of Manhattan Island has the appearance of being good farmland. Aside from a few truck gardens and here and there a field of grain, it has, however, been neglected. With people crowded into five story double decker flats and with children swarming in the streets only a few blocks away, here is a great tract of land which has scarcely been touched even by the plough. One may walk for a considerable distance, the equivalent of many city blocks, without seeing a human being. Even the roads have almost disappeared in many places and have degenerated into winding paths marked only by the wheels of a wagon passing at long intervals. There are ranges of hills with valleys between, where one might lose himself.
In the walled cities of the middle ages there was perhaps a contrast between the city and its surroundings much the same as this, but where else in America does the city stop so abruptly? One may step into a subway train, with the roar of the city overhead, and in a few moments be set down in this sylvan solitude of Manhattan. The quiet of the summer’s day hereabouts is broken only by the hum of the insects or the tinkling of distant cowbells. The dry asphalt of the streets gives way to the quiet limpid beauty of lakes and ponds. In place of the shadeless streets one finds quaint old orchards covering the rolling hills.
At certain seasons of the year the St. Gothard tunnel of the Alps makes it possible to pass from a land of winter on the north and emerge on the Italian side into a summer landscape. A comparison is suggested with the Manhattan subway. One enters the tunnel from the most crowded streets in the world, where the passage of trains every few minutes is taken as a matter of course. But in the pasturelands into which one emerges near 200th street one finds himself apparently in some remote retreat. The passage of a train is still such a novelty in this region that it serves as a kind of clock for the simple community. When a boy is sent out into the fields in upper Manhattan to watch the cows nowadays he is told to count the number o subway trains, and after he has watched twenty or some such number go past it will be time to herd the cattle and start them on their slow progress homeward along the winding paths.
A party carrying provisions for a day’s march recently attempted to explore this remote region of Manhattan. They were rewarded by the sight of much wild and unfamiliar country. The explorers, with their baggage, alighted from a subway train at the station where it emerges from the ground below Fort George, and started in a general northerly direction. The track of the subway system, crawling on innumerable legs, finds its way toward the northeast in great curves and disappears beneath a distant range of hills. The next station is 207th street. A considerable stretch of unimproved land, unbroken by a single house, intervenes.
In the lower sections of the city it is common to speak of Tenth or Twentieth street, as the case may be. In Harlem, for the sake of brevity, 110th street is still called Tenth street for the sake of convenience. It is the same in the Two Hundreds. Here 210th street is called Tenth street in the same way.
The station where the subway becomes an elevated line is at Dyckman street, a wide, well-paved thoroughfare. It is, the explorers found, the last cross street, which is worthy of the name. At some remote period an attempt has evidently been made to mark the lines of the future streets. In most cases these lines are so overgrown with vegetation that it is exceedingly difficult to trace them.
There are a few buildings on the border of this plateau, but these serve to accentuate the atmosphere of the region. There is an old church, a wooden structure, with horse sheds about it to accommodate the New Yorkers who still drive to “meeting.” There is also a red schoolhouse of a design, which has long since disappeared even in the smaller towns of the country. A few rustic farmhouses were visible in the distance.
The party toiled along what the map identifies as 203rd, Fourth and Fifth street. The walking was heavy because of the sand everywhere. One’s foot sunk in to the ankle at every step. The country further north was found to be very irregular. Finally, in the cleft of a little hill a farmhouse was discovered, with an old fashioned barn hidden at some distance among the trees. Here a glass of fresh milk was obtained and the party pressed on. A range of sandy hills was reached a little later, from the summit of which a fine view of the general region was obtained.
To the west ran a range of beautiful wooded hills, with here and there a castellated tower rising above the treetops. Northward ran a diversified, rolling country, the distance being hidden by a forest-like grove of trees. Looking toward the south from this elevation one could see the mechanical skyline cut by uninterrupted rows of flat houses in the distance. The Harlem River bounds Manhattan Island on the east. The frequent passage of the subway trains told us meanwhile that the afternoon schedule was on and that time was passing.
The Subway and the Cows
Descending by a long series of precipitate cliffs, the journey was continued northward. After a hard climb, the leaders of the party, who were some distance ahead, called to the rest to hurry on. It was evident that they had found something of unusual interest. They had, in fact, discovered a subway station, almost completed, set down in an isolated position in the midst of a picturesque apple orchard. A blue and white sign announced that we had reached 207th street. We climbed to a slight eminence and enjoyed the view. There were no houses visible in any direction. A few cows grazed quietly abut the steps leading to the platforms. There was nothing to interrupt the calm and quiet of the scene. A photograph was taken of this restful bit of Manhattan scenery.
One of the most beautiful features of the region is the lake (it is impossible to obtain its name), which stretches to the west of the subway tracks in the general region of 212th street. The banks are overgrown with rushes, the uninterrupted growth of many years. The water stretches over a considerable area, as smooth as glass. Great oak trees have grown about its banks, whose branches are reflected in the depths beneath. A herd of cows were standing knee deep in the water. It was as perfect a pastoral picture as could well be imagined. The cows would torn from time to time to look wonderingly at the subway trains as they thundered almost over their heads, but this was the only interruption.
The region to the north was found to be more diversified and more heavily timbered. The sandy ground, which had rendered walking so difficult, gradually hardened under foot. The open country narrows at a turn of the river so that the pedestrian gradually approaches the forest tracts, which completely cover the west bank of the island. Here a number of surprises awaited the explorers. A street has been cut through at this point—218th street. On entering this it was naturally supposed it would lead to the Hudson River. It is a beautiful street, which suggests the entrance to some great estate. The trees meet overhead, forming a perfect natural arch of impressive proportions. It is without doubt the best-shaded street on Manhattan Island.
On reaching the next valley beyond, however, the street suddenly descends into a picturesque old barnyard, a regular blind alley. The explorers climbed a rail fence and proceeded through the meadowland westward until, to their surprise, they found themselves cut off by a considerable body of water. On the other side of this rose a steep range of hills completely covered with forests. The country looked so rough that the party halted to consider. So much time had already been spent in exploring the pathless portion of Manhattan Island that the sun was already beginning to sink to rest behind the western range of hills in the regions of 230th street. The party, who had found their native island so baffling, retraced their steps and followed a generally northeasterly direction in the hope of thus reaching civilization before night.
As they neared the upper boundaries of the island the land underfoot gradually hardened and the pavements began to appear. Further on a paved street was reached, and the now thoroughly tired explorers knew they were at last safe. Kingsbridge station on the subway was reached before eight o’clock, where the party finally boarded a train back for New York. Half an hour later they were discussing their adventure in a favorite Bohemian resort on Broadway.