From Dyckman Street to Treasure Island

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Mrs. Addison J. Rothermel, New York Herald, January 24, 1909.

Near the beginning of the last century, Mrs. Addison J. Rothermel faced both an agonizing loss and a difficult decision.  Tuberculosis had taken her husband and doctors warned that her two teenage boys, Addison Jr.  and Royale Valray, might also succumb to the “white plague” if they continued to live in the cramped and unventilated apartments of the day.

But where to find fresh air in an overpopulated metropolis?

In 1908, the widow Rothermel, and her two boys, took their doctor’s prescription for an outdoor existence quite literally and began living aboard the houseboat “Valray;” which they docked off Dyckman Street on the Harlem River—just a short walk from the newly constructed and elevated subway station.

It was there, among the squatters, construction workers and other house-boaters that the Rothermels found a home.  Interestingly, the move likely had the most profound impact on young Addison Jr., who perhaps stumbled upon a film set somewhere not far from his floating abode.

A film set?

While hard to imagine, some of the earliest known commercial films were shot in the then mostly undeveloped countryside of the Dyckman Valley.  Not only were there movie lots on Broadway, where some of the first silent films were shot, but Inwood Hill also served as a backdrop for many a western scene.

Universal’s first outdoor studio, established in 1909 at Dyckman Street. In this studio the late Wally Reid began his moving picture career as a prop boy and was converted into an actor by Otis Turner, manager of the studio. Others who worked here for Universal were Herbert Brennon, King Baggot, Tom Ince, Mary Pickford, Ben Turpin and the late George Loane Tucker. (UPI stock photo)

While the uptown film scene lasted no more than a couple of years, (they later relocated to Fort Lee, New Jersey and then Hollywood) the timing was just right for Addison Jr. to be discovered.

Thomas Edison examining film in 1912.

In 1912, Addison, was cast in the role of young Jimmy Hawkins in the first screen adaptation of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The one-reel silent film, commissioned by Thomas Edison, was shot in Bermuda and was directed by J. Searle Dawley.

According to newspaper clippings, the entire family made the voyage to the far flung tropical isle for production of  Stevenson’s  classic tale of “buccaneers and buried gold.”

It is likely no coincidence that Addison was chosen for the part.  After all, he was well suited to the role, having practically grown up on a boat himself.

The New York Dramatic Mirror, June 12, 1912.

What a thrill the trip must have been for the two teenagers.  The exotic sandy beaches, new technology and and the hunt for hidden treasure in a fantastic world of make believe.  Truly a far cry from their happy, but dank existence, on the Harlem River.

Treasure Island review, Hartford Courant May 10, 1912.
New York Times, April 14, 1912.

Unfortunately, no known prints of the film survive.

But that was 1912.

Now let’s travel back to 1909, when the socialite widow and her two sons had just settled in on the houseboat Valray; unaware of the adventures that lay ahead.

New York Herald, January 24, 1909.

New York Herald
January 24, 1909
MOTHER WINTERS ON HOUSEBOAT TO SAVE SONS
Mrs. A. J. Rothermel Makes Home in Little Craft Anchored at Foot of Dyckman Street; Happy Because Two Boys’ Cheeks Grow Rosy

Fearing for the lives of her two sons, whose father died last spring from pulmonary affections, Mrs. A. J. Rothermel, formerly of No. 208 West Eighty-third street, is passing the winter with them in a houseboat near the foot of Dyckman street.

Warned by physicians, soon after her husband’s death, there was grave danger of her boys Royale and Addison, in their late teens, developing tuberculosis unless given a practically outdoor life.  Mrs. Rothermel followed her counselors’ advice.  A houseboat was purchased and on it the trio passed the summer in the pleasant environs of Echo Bay, near New Rochelle.  Both of the boys constantly gained in health, to their mother’s great relief.  But the prospect of this winter returning to a city apartment and thus providing chance for a fresh attack from the lurking enemy was a dark cloud of worry which kept Mrs. Rothermel in perpetual torment. Finally she decided to remain with her sons throughout the winter on their floating home, the Valray.

The Houseboat Valray, New York Herald, January 24, 1909.

The craft, which is a stanch little affair some twelve feet wide and about thrice that size in length, was towed late in the Autumn to Sherman’s Inlet—a calm little sheet of water near the foot of Dyckman street and convenient to the subway.  This location appeared particularly suitable to the “Cap’n,” as the boys admiringly call their mother.  Opportunity was thus offered for Royale to be near the New York University and easily go to that institution, where he is taking a course preparatory to entering  medical school.  Addison, too, could quickly reach the Dyckman street station of the subway,  the route leading close to a studio in the centre of the city where he is pursuing his studies in art.

Soon after the reestablishment of her floating home Mrs. Rothermel set about to put it in snug shape, the better to withstand the rigors of a climate which would become pronounced ere the arrival of spring.  Two huge “mushroom” anchors fastened to stout wire cables attached to each end of the Valray provided swaying but secure foundation.  A substantial passageway formed of oaken planks and iron railings was nailed to the forward deck of the boat and the dock, some thirty feet distant.  Bunkers, each large enough to hold a quarter of a ton of coal, where fitted on the deck,  and beneath it a capacious reservoir to hold two hundred and fifty gallons of water was built.  Pipes leading from this convey the water to a cozy kitchenette installed in the other end of the boat.

In this tabloid kitchen was placed a serviceable cook stove, about three feet square, with stubby pipe protruding through the roof.  Thick carpets were placed on the floors of the two cabins, which comprise the living apartments of the “sailors;” an oil heater and trio of kerosene lamps furnished light and extra heat.  Arrangements were made with a milk company to have their distributor on a nearby route leave there each morning the day’s supply, and a news dealer at the Dyckman street station of the subway was willing to deliver the morning papers.

So the life started in.  To the delight of her numerous friends, among them many of the women prominent in several clubs, especially the Minerva and Euterpe, this pioneer in winter house boating has proved capable in cooping with every dilemma presented.  Moreover, Mrs. Rothermel declares herself quite contented in her semi-isolation.  With praiseworthy energy the “Cap’n,” who for the sake of her son’s health has adopted this quasi-nautical life, has arranged very cheery quarters.  One of the cabins is decorated in soft greens, while the other is done in attractive blues.  The oblong windows, six of them, furnish light during the day and ample ventilation at night.  All are adorned with dainty little curtains of silk, and arranged on the ledge of each are pots of fragrant primroses, which give added color to the cabins.  The ceilings of this “house” are an ample seven feet from the floor and are painted a pleasing white.

Valray interior, New York Herald, January 24, 1909.

Pictures, not too many, are arranged artistically on the covered walls.  Two mission style chairs, with a library table in the same type, also a box couch, which is used as a divan by day and the “Cap’n’s” sleeping quarters at night, complete the furnishings of cabin A.  In the boys’ cabin aft is swung a large ship’s hammock, which, they say, “makes a dandy bed.” Besides this there are a table, a chiffonier, corner wardrobes and two chairs.  The kitchenette, or course, is the particular pride of Mrs. Rothermel, who keeps it in tidy and shining condition.  Two steps leading from the boys’ cabin to this niche, for it’s really no more than that, have hinged steps.  Beneath, if you please, is a little “grocery store,” where the flour, sugar and other requisites of cookery are stored.

Royale Valray Rothermel in 1919 passport application.

The rule of fresh air, and plenty of it,  obtains in the ventilation of the Valray, and the boys are thriving upon the abundance afforded.  Royale’s health has consistently improved and he has gained nearly twenty pounds in weight.  This is considered especially satisfactory, for he was the one exhibiting last spring the greater tendency toward pulmonary affectation.  Addison, too, is apparently in the best of health, as is attested by his fast rounding cheeks and sprightliness of step.

“I wouldn’t go back to apartment house life for any consideration,” said Mrs. Rothermel the other morning.  “With my boys progressing so nicely in their fight for health all little inconveniences I undergo count as nothing.

“I surely believe this ‘near’  out of  doors life has all the medicine which physicians prescribe easily distanced.  I am so delighted with the success of my experiment that I hope every mother whose children give evidences of weak lungs will follow the same course.  The expense is not so great, either.  The boat is ample enough for three persons to occupy it in perfect comfort; if necessary more could be accommodated.

“Unfurnished, the Valray cost me in the neighborhood of one thousand dollars, and the man I purchased it from has since tried to buy it back at an advance of $300.  But the Valray and the Rothermels will not part.  The life is delightful.  It costs no more to eat here than in an apartment.  I do all my buying in the city, and of course get the regular delivery service. Then the rent question is beautifully solved.  I am charged $5 a month for tying at this dock and added is the use of storage room for trunks in a building near by.  A few minutes’ walk takes one to the subway.  Indeed, I am an enthusiast concerning the winter houseboat life.  Best of all is the certainty which fills my heart with joy that my sons will escape the dread ‘white plague’ which killed my husband.”

5 COMMENTS

  1. Was this the inspiration for the name of the Valray Rowing Club or was it the other way around? Was the club already in existence in 1909? I remember the club was still there in 1958 or 59 (as kids we used to jump on the big green gate and swing it until someone chased us away).

  2. Thanks for the link to the NYT, that article was amusing. The Valray the old gents replaced was indeed a trailer like building but if I remember correctly the original Valray was a large wooden building (no wonder it burned). It would be interesting to find photos of the club and waterfront. I knew Evald Almann, the boatyard attendant of Sherman Creek and his family, they had a waterfront home perched over the marsh, just around the bend from the boat basin and the Valray was just next door. I love the history of the area and it’s a great tribute you’ve created. You have my sincerest appreciation and thanks.

  3. Great stuff as usual, Cole. In the mid-to-late 1980’s, there were 3, possibly 4, of the boat clubs remaining. The names of the 3 I remember were the Valray, the Non-Pareil and the Empire. The mother of one of the neighborhood kids managed the Empire, and from that connection, we had several parties at what we simply called ‘the Boathouse.’ Pretty cool place to party…there was a bar, a small dance floor, space for a DJ and the open air dock on the Harlem River. Halloween was a popular party as well as New Years Eve. It was out of the way, always a plus. We had one party at the Valray, but all the others were at the Empire. Our softball team, while playing out of Garry Owens was called the Empire, of course. Not sure when the clubs became abandoned and/or burned down, but our parties ended in about 1990 or so.

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