“When the house was built, one of its chief attractions was its site—high on a breezy, grassy hilltop. Flowers grew in the garden about it, and vines clustered on the porch. One could not ask for a more comfortable home.” –New York World, September 30, 1897
In the decade before the arrival of the subway the streets and avenues Inwood were, for the most part, mere lines on paper. Years earlier, as evidenced on the below map from 1879, city planners had divided the area into streets, blocks and lots.
But development was not far behind.
As the turn of the century approached, this last undeveloped sliver of land on Manhattan’s northern tip, found itself under siege.
The once green farmland, formerly home to Native Americans and enterprising Dutch settlers, was undergoing a transformation.
To make the map a reality construction crews dispatched by the Department of Public Works descended on Inwood. Hills were graded to code. Streets were cut. Huge rocks left behind after the glacial retreat were reduced to dust with pickaxes and dynamite.
Deafening explosions rattled the homes and nerves of local property owners who stayed behind as the landscape was reshuffled.
An Inwood Homeowner
Amid the chaos that surrounded him Matthew McQuade, who owned a home on Cooper Street, grew increasingly frustrated.
A carpenter by trade, McQuade and fourteen other family members had lived a quiet and happy existence in their quaint, wood-framed, three-story home.
But then the workers arrived.
Soon the lovely hill where the family had panted a garden and grown flowers had been carved out from beneath them.
A Precarious Situation
Eventually the vibrations from exploding dynamite had rendered their home unsafe.
The Mcquade’s were forced to live elsewhere until the work was completed. McQuade was told that he and his brood would be back in their home in no time.
But after years of empty promises Matthew McQuade could stand silent no more. In the Fall of 1897 he shared his plight with readers of The New York World.
Providing the newspaper with unfettered access, McQuade directed his ire at Department of Public Works Commissioner General Charles Henry Tucker Collis.
A Civil War Hero
Collis, an Irish immigrant born in 1838 in County Cork, had come “to this country at the age of fifteen with his father, who settled in Philadelphia. All the other members of his father’s family, nine in number, perished on their way to America on the ill-fated steamer City of Glasgow.” (New York Times obituary, May 12, 1902)
After a childhood bathed in trauma, Collis served with distinction in the Civil War.
“His service,” according to the New York Times, “was as a Sergeant Major in the Eighteenth Pennsylvania Regiment. Later, under special authorization from the Secretary of War, he raised a company of infantry, which came to be known as the ‘Zouaves d’Afrique,’ with which he conducted operations in the Shenandoah Valley.”
Collis was given the rank of Major General by President Andrew Johnson after the war.
Collis served as New York City Public Works Commissioner from 1895 to 1898. After three years in office Collis retired abruptly amid allegations he had illegally awarded a six-million-dollar paving job to the Barbar Asphalt Paving Company. (A grand jury later dismissed the charges.)
And thus we dissolve to the story of Inwood homeowner Matthew McQuade and his nemesis, Civil War hero Charles H. T. Collis.
New York World
September 30, 1897
Forced Out By Collis
McQuade Is Compelled to Leave Home by Reason of the City’s Negligence
His House Is Almost A Wreck
Work That Was to Be Completed in 100 Days Still Undone After Two and a Half Years
Contract Openly Violated
Public Works Department, Though Repeatedly Appealed To, Declines to Do Its Plain Duty
Matthew McQuade’s house has been of no use to him for two years, because the Department of Public Works has driven him out and kept him out of it. He had photographs taken of it, which he calls “Before and After Collis.”
Mr. McQuade is a carpenter and builder at Inwood-on-the-Hudson. His house is—or was before Collis—a handsome three-story structure, at Cooper and Emerson (now 207th) Streets, one block west of the Kingsbridge Road (now Broadway), and one-quarter mile south of the Harlem Ship Canal.
When the house was built, one of its chief attractions was its site—high on a breezy, grassy hilltop. Flowers grew in the garden about it, and vines clustered on the porch. One could not ask for a more comfortable home.
Then came the Collis era. It was discovered that the hilltop in remote Inwood was too high to conform with the general grade of the city of New York of which it formed apart. It was ordered that the hilltop must come down. Contractor Charles W. Collins was to cut down Cooper Street, and contractor William E. Dean was to cut down Emerson Street. The contracts provided that the work of cutting down and grading must be completed within 100 days. This was in March, 1895.
The fifteen members of the McQuade family were not alarmed by the diggers until August, 1895. Then the contractor’s men began to let off great blasts of giant powder in the rock surrounding the house. The blasts rocked the house from top to bottom, cracked the walls split the chimney and rendered it unsafe for the family to remain in the place. They moved into another house in the neighborhood, and have remained ever since, unable to return or to find out when they may expect to return.
Meantime, the work of grading Cooper and Emerson Streets has progressed with majestic slowness. According to the citizens of Inwood, the contractors have spent more time resting than they have working. Sometimes they rest absolutely for months. The period of one hundred days has passed nine times over and the prospect of finishing the work seems as remote as when it was begun.
Mr. McQuade’s house has been left standing on a rocky pinnacle eighteen feet high, remote and inaccessible, save by balloon or scaling ladder. He cannot use it. The building is beginning to go to pieces, although Mr. McQuade has shored it up in the hope of preventing its being racked into splinters.
“I hope The World will help us to have this thing settled,” said Mr. McQuade yesterday. “We have tried to find out at the Department of Public Works when the work will be finished, but we get no satisfaction. I have called there again and again, but the officials keep assuring me that it is all right. The original contract provided that the grading must be finished within one hundred days. It was begun two years and a half ago and is still unfinished.
“I have called at the Department of Public Works many times and have reported the neglect of the contractors. Mr. Wild and the other officials simply tell me that the law is being complied with!
“I have been kept out of my house for two years, during which I have paid $1,900 rent for another house in the same neighborhood. I can’t do anything with my house until the grading alongside of it is finished. I can’t get any satisfaction from the Department of Public Works. Perhaps if The World turns the light on this business we will have some improvement.”