A Grain Field in City Limits: Inwood, 1895

by Cole Thompson

New York Herald, July 14, 1895.

A GRAIN FIELD IN CITY LIMITS
NEW YORK HERALD
July 14, 1895
It Waves at 211th Street Awaiting the Reaper and Is Manhattan’s Last
IS ON HISTORICAL GROUND
That Part of the Island Was Devastated by Two Armies in the Time of Washington
POINTS OF INTEREST NEAR BY

RIPE and awaiting the scythe of the reaper, what may be Manhattan Island’s last field of grain is waving at 211th street, Inwood, and what an incentive to retrospection there is in that golden expanse on the hillside which seems to be casting a look of sad reproof at that fast approaching town!

What recollections of ancient windmill scenes on tile or canvass come back, what visions of corpulent burghers with enormous buckles on belt and hat present themselves, and what pity arises for that conspicuous emblem on the municipal arms which will be deprived of all excuse for further existence there. Yet, if the truth be told, as history gives it, a bunch of “weed” might more properly have served to represent the leading industry of the colonists.

New York Herald, July 14th, 1895.

It will be news to many that a great part of this island was once given up to the culture of tobacco.  Such was the case, however, and the product was said to equal that of Virginia.  The windmill had many other offices to perform than the grinding of grain.  It sawed wood for the shipbuilder, and incidentally it served to frighten Indians.  Much of the tobacco raised upon the island probably found its way up the river, as a medium of exchange for beaver and other skins.  One of the early Governors stated in his report that it was impossible to trade with the Indians when no tobacco was at hand.

Century House in 1898, Source: NY Public Library.

Adjoining the grain patch on the northerly side is the “Nagle burying ground,” where rest the ancient proprietors of upper Manhattan, while about fifty paces to the westward and just in view above the green sward are several rows of rude, uninscribed stones, which are said to mark the graves of blacks, who tilled the soil for their wealthy masters.  To the eastward is the “Nagle House,” better known as the “Century House,” built in 1736, as the stone recently taken from its front attests.

Isham Park Entrance in 1918. Source: NYHS

Directly to the west of the grain, and set in the wall near the Isham entrance, is the old slab of brown stone which for generations informed the traveler that the now encircling city was twelve miles away. Four city blocks to the south and on the Kingsbridge road is the “old Dyckman house,” the residence of Jacobus Dyckman who owned much of the land on the northern extremity of the island and built the bridge, which bears his name.

General Sir William Henry Clinton (1769–1846). Painting attributed to Andrea Soldi.

Scarcely two months ago there came to light the foundation of an ancient house uncovered at 210th street two old scythes which had probably had been buried above one hundred years, as among the refuse found in company with them were the trappings of officers of the Sixty-fourth regiment of foot and the Eighteenth Light Dragoons—two corps of the British army in the Revolution. Oft had the harvest yielded, no doubt, to these two old blades previous to the coming invaders.  For the seven years following “76” there was little use for agricultural implements in that vicinity.  The meadows of Inwood were one large parade ground for the many regiments assembled at various times near this, Sir Henry Clinton’s headquarters.  No small space was required for the exercise and pasturage of the 984 horses of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Light Dragoons, once stationed at Fort George and Inwood.

Stirring scenes there were in view from this little eminence at 211th street on that eventful day in November when Fort Washington fell.  Posted across this grain field for a while was that same body of Americans who resisted the landing of three hundred Hessians from the English ship Pearl at Tubby Hook.

“Washington’s Parade Ground” the level strip is called.  Possibly the Continentals encamped there for a short space during the retreat from the island, or on their victorious return in 1783.

216th and Broadway in 1895 (Source-Harper’s Bazaar)

Owing to its isolated position, shut in as it is by the Hudson and Harlem, and deprived of any means of communication with the city proper, Inwood has changed little in a generation.  A few new houses have been built: some old ones have been torn down.  The Kingsbridge road, which was probably at first an Indian trail leading down to the valley and then a highway of early Dutch and English colonists, has of late been graded, curbed and sewered, and now awaits the macadam for which the contract has been given.  Ere the final touch is added the road will probably be in the hands of one or other of the cable companies, and then “farewell, a long farewell, to rural Inwood. The time will not be long before the city has made good its claim to the locality, which the aristocratic sponsors so fittingly named.”

 

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