Inwood Hill in the 1920’s

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Seeley cottage

Pop Seeley's Boathouse-Inwood Hill Park 1904There is a turn of the century photo of a small boathouse on the water’s edge in what is now Inwood Hill Park.  The boathouse, run by “Pop” Seeley, supported a houseboat colony far from the noise and bustle of downtown.  It would be many years before these house-boaters, artists and assorted eccentrics were given the boot by the Parks Department.

What follows is a 1921 account of life inside that community written by New York Tribune reporter Eleanor Booth Simmons.

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I have just been to Inwood, looking for a ghost I heard about.

The Pedestrian gave me the tip. The Pedestrian is fond of legging it around Manhattan Island, and in one of his rambles last summer he came across this house that was reputed to be haunted.

The ghost itself he never saw, but he told me about the house the other day, and I went there, but I was not successful in running down the ghost. Consequently this is not a ghost story, but it is, however, the story of something I found there that is worth many spooks, and is almost as remarkable. When, in this year 1921, a group of people can form a colony that is in New York and not yet of it—can beat the high cost of living, twiddle their fingers at landlords, and within fifty minutes of the theater district dwell in perfect simplicity amid surroundings that many a summer resort can’t touch, isn’t it a miracle? That is what I found on the old ghost’s stomping ground.

99Of course, it is too bad that the specter apparently is no longer there. A ghost always lends distinction. But somebody has leased the haunted house and installed modern plumbing, and no spook is going to stand for that sort of thing. Or it may have taken umbrage at some Greenwich Village artists who have been coming around the place, and maidens who have been seen posing in barefoot dances in the greenery. If this ghost is the shade of one of the Indians who owned the region three centuries ago, it has seen some interpretive dances in its time that ought to render it quite indifferent to anything paleface maidens draped in tinted veils could do, but if it is a stern revolutionary-patriot ghost its views would naturally be conservative.

The Pedestrian could not tell me what form the apparition took.

untitled1“There are a dozen interesting things, it might be, for the place,” he said, “is packed with history and tradition. The haunted house is on the northern tip of Manhattan Island, on the edge of what used to be Spuyten Duyvil Creek, but it is now widened and deepened to make the ship canal. Long ago it was an inn with a beer garden, with a fat German for mine host, and rowing parties would come from Jersey across the Hudson and make the forests of Inwood Hill ring with their revels. So the ghost might be a thirsty Jerseyite, haunting the scenes of happier times. Again, it might be the shade of Peter Stuyvesant’s trumpeter, old Anthony Van Corlear, who, according to Washington Irving, was drowned in the creek while crossing to warn the burghers of a British invasion. Or it might be a repentant Hessian, doomed to linger around the spot where he killed some patriot. Or it might be one of Henry Hudson’s party, who touched those shores in 1609, in the good ship Half Moon, and had a sharp fight with the Indians. Look it up, anyway, if you’re collecting ghosts. Take the Broadway subway to 207th Street, walk west to Seaman Avenue, follow the winding cinder road to the boat landing, and a little way ‘round the cove is the haunted house, right in the shadow of New York’s famous 123-feet-high tulip tree that first saw the light in the year 1690.”

I’ll say that that cinder road is a wise precaution on the part of a colony desiring to be quiet and free from the maddening crowd of holiday picnickers. Any lady intending to explore along there is advised not to waste her open-work silk stockings on the trip, for at the end it will be just the same as if she had worn solid black lisle. But mighty trees lean down above the road from the rise to the west, and when you reach the boat landing you forget all about the dust, for there before you is the peacefulist little paradise in the world, a veritable cove of content. When I saw it I instantly began to calculate how long it would take to save up enough dollars to acquire a dog and buy a houseboat or run up a shack, so as to settle down there for the rest of my life.

You cannot live there without a dog. It simply isn’t done. They all have them. You are met at the boat landing by deputations of dogs, a big black Newfoundland, a brown setter, a white bulldog, but the charm of the place is on them, and they come suavely, waggingly, interested, but polite. I counted one on every houseboat, and several enjoying pleasant cruises in small craft on the bay.

9The houseboats lie on the right hand, hugging the half-moon shore, and beyond one sees little yachts and power boats whose owners have been drawn by the beauty and tranquility of the place. Spreading out to the west and north are the waters of the ship canal, leading from the narrow, winding Harlem River to the Hudson. On the other side of the canal, further north, rises Marble Hill, where fine homes stand on the ground over which Knyphausen’s Hessian troops pushed in 1776 to build their earthworks on the rocky summit of Isham Park, in the Dyckman Valley. It was right off Tubby Hook, now known as Inwood Hill, in the curve of which lies the houseboat colony, that the British frigate “Pearl” tacked to a fro in the Hudson, throwing shells across the wooded ridge that Mayor Hylan can have for a public park any minute the Board of Estimate decides to buy the property from the man who owns it.

There is a horrible rumor that when the city does this it will fell those magnificent trees and make neat little grassy terraces all the way down the hill to the water on the canal side. But it doesn’t seem as if even a politician could commit a crime like that.

pic 2Turning from the houseboats I saw a gate to the left which said “Private” in large letters, so I passed through. Inside was a house very old and picturesque in shape, very new and fresh as to the white and green paint. A man with a hammer was putting up curtains, and a woman in a fetching artist’s cretonne apron was assisting. A large white gentlemanly bulldog appeared to be bossing the job. I inquired if they had dispossessed the ghost, but they said no; the haunted house was further along, around the bend of the shore. But it occurred to me that it was too light to hunt ghosts, and I liked the looks of these people, so I lingered, and not being able to get rid of me they gave me tea and told me about the colony.

They had, it seemed, just happened on the place when cruising about in their powerboat last summer. They are Mr. and Mrs. Harry Voorhees and Crew. Crew, the dog, was named that because, Mr. Voorhees being captain and Mrs. Voorhees mate, he couldn’t be anything else. They saw the old house, fell in love with it, rented it, and resolved to start an artist’s colony. Mrs. Voorhees’ proper work is magazine illustrating and pottery making, consequently she is never so happy as when transforming a hut into a studio or making a bout-house into a sleeping lodge. This house, which was falling to pieces, was material that appealed to them both, so they moved right in and had a lovely time remodeling it over their heads. They were so fascinated that they couldn’t leave when winter came, but gave up their city flat and remained, heating the house with kerosene and toting water from the spring. Next winter they will have a fireplace. What they’ve done already would fill pages in an architectural magazine. A crumbling porch has become an open air dining room, and the once ugly kitchen is charming with a gate door, white shelves and picturesque lattices.

8‘What do you do for a telephone?”

“The Reliance Motor Boat Company, which leases this land from the rich man who owns it, has a ‘phone line in its office down the road, and the watchman is always there to take messages. We could have one here but we haven’t cared to.”

“What about a bathroom?”

“We’re going to pipe water from the spring and put in a bathroom. The hill is full of springs, the best water in the world.”

It is. I had a drink from the tin cup that’s chained at the main spring, farther along the path, and if all the water is as clear and sparkling as that, one could almost excuse William H. Anderson.

“Marketing,” Mrs. Voorhees went on, “is easy, the 207th Street shops are such a short walk away, and the fruit and vegetables are so fresh there. And when we get back we have these woods, and the lights on the water, and the heavenly quiet.”

Warm Sundays are the only time when the quiet is disturbed. Then the bourgeoisie finds its way hither from the teeming city, and, bursting through the gate marked “Private,” trails with its numerous offspring along the path to litter the ground under the big tree with pop bottles and banana skins and wiener-wurst ends an picture supplements and burst balloons. Then is the quiet rent by the nasal conversation of Mamies and Freddies, and there is no solitude in the primeval wood because they are reclining everywhere with their arms around each other’s waists.

About the nicest house in the colony is the Roanoke. Mrs. May Waldis is its mistress, and she belongs to the water, for she holds any number of medals she’s won in swimming feats. Her husband, an electrician, built the boat. Inside it’s like a commodious four-room flat, with hot and cold water, a bath room, electric lights from their own battery, a piano, a gramophone, all the luxuries of home. Copper screening encloses the roofed verandas, and Chesapeake, the curly brown dog, guards the place. They had a dance on the boat every week last winter and were as comfortable and gay, Mrs. Walldis says, as if they’d been living at the Waldorf-Astoria, and they were much more free and they put money in the bank!

7I left the Roanoke by the narrow curving gangway that connects it with the shore and rambled along the path, stopping to inspect one or two artist’s shacks, and presently I came to the Big Tree with its protecting fence, and then to the haunted house.

It didn’t look haunted. Carpenters were at work on it. The weather-beaten clapboards were being replaced by new lumber. Out of the back door looked a woman’s rosy face.

“You don’t look like the ghost I was told I would find here,” I said. She stared, and then laughed.

“I did hear there used to be a ghost in this house,” she answered. “But I guess it didn’t like our improvements. I’m Mrs. Carl Freitchie, and my husband and I are fixing up the place to live in. See the large windows we’re putting in and the partitions being knocked out to make a nice dining room. We only lease it, for they won’t sell, but we don’t think we’ll be disturbed and we’ll get, in the pleasure of living here and the differences between apartment house rents and this, everything we spend on the alterations many times over.

‘We’re going to have a garden, though the ground is so full of oyster shells, left, it’s said, by the Indians who held their feasts and powwows here, that it’s not always easy to plant things. “If that ghost comes around here,” I’ll let you know. But I think it’s left for good.”

Near by a man was working on the frame of a houseboat that he is building in odd hours.

“You ought to’ve come around in Pop Seeley’s time,” he said to me. “I’ve heard that Pop and the ghost were on real good terms. Pop was a boatman and a great character, and he always had charge of things in these parts before that motorboat company came. I’m told it was Pop who rowed Boss Tweed, the Tammany ringster, out to the ship by which he escaped to Spain when he was sentenced to imprisonment for embezzlement in 1875. Pop lived in that old house alone, for he couldn’t get along with his family. Maybe he had the ghost for company. But Pop is dead now, and everything is changed.

And that was all I could find out. I gave up the ghost and mounted the trail to a point from which I could watch the evening descend over the colony. Dinner-time was coming; on the little yachts and power-boats men and women brought out folding tables and spread them on the tiny decks. Inviting odors rose from the cook’s galleys. Bright-colored canoes came skimming home, with sun-burned boys and girls in bathing suits at the paddles. No, the Inlet was no place for a ghost. It was altogether too happy.

Inwood Hill Park Boat Basin seen in a 1935 photo.
Inwood Hill Boat Basin seen in a 1935 photo.

9 COMMENTS

  1. In 1948 a girl I went to Good Shepherd with lived in a boat house under the 207th St bridge on the harlem river. I loved going there, it was cozy and immaculate. I often think back and wonder how they came to live there.

  2. In the late 1970’s through the 80’s, when I lived in on Riverside Drive near the Henry Hudson Parkway, I would sometimes hike down to my job on West 40th Street. I’d hike along the river starting at Dyckman Street to the west of the railroad tracks. The river front area between Dyckman and the GW Bridge was, and I suppose it still is, the most isolated on Manhattan island.

    There was a big old wooden boat a little south of Dyckman that burned down in the early 1980’s I think, or maybe it was even the late ’70’s. I used to see old canoes and kayaks stored there and between there and the small boat house just south of Dyckman. I remember noticing Gaelic lettering on some of the canoes at the small boat house. They subsequently all disappeared. That big wooden boat house was called a canoe club and I think there may have been a date by the canoe club sign, 1883 perhaps.

    I too would canoe in the Hudson, , in my ik (inflatable kayak), but further north. Before I left Inwood in Nov. ’96 I saw that they had put up a sign designating the foot of Dyckman St. an official canoe put in place, but then, in the style of the NYC bureaucracy , the sign included forbidden this’s and thats, including inflatables. Maybe not a bad idea, though, since the river bottom there is probably still filled with old debris. When I was a kid, in the late ’40’s or early 50’s, every now and then they used to pull out dead children from the water who had drowned while swimming. I guess they got caught in the debris. When i was seven or so I watched them dredge out a kid at Tubby Hook (we had a different name for it). He was all white and bloated.

    My old hermit friend, who sometimes slept in the indian caves, used to hop in the river by the Inwood Park ballfields in the summer and float downstream towards the bridge. I think he partially inflated his rubber poncho (which he always had with him) to keep himself afloat. He had a lot of innovative ideas. I wonder if he ever finished the book he was writing. I’d like to see it.

  3. What a treat my friend just gave me. She sent me to this website. I grew up on Seaman Avenue in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. The pictures brought back so many memories. We used to climb the hills and explore the Indian caves in the park across from Seaman, went sleding down “deadman”s hill” in the winter, walked across the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge more often than I care to remember. Our old apartment backed up to Good Shepherd where I went to school oh, so many years ago. I can’t wait to send this on to my family

  4. Growing up in Inwood in the 40′ and 50′ gave me many of my most happy memories. But one that I can’t seem to get info on is….in the late 30’s I seen to remember a ferry slip at the bottom of Dyckman St. crossing over to New Jersey. I’d love to get any feedback on that.Thanks

  5. Gloria,

    Possibly by now you’ve read my book, BOATHOUSE DAYS and have learned about the old Dyckman Street ferry. My guesstimate is that the ferry began service sometime in the 1920s and stopped operations during the war years. Two, car-carrying boats cris-crossed the river and were driven by port and starboard paddle-wheels. The steam engines were driven by Fulton walking-beam engines. The fare throughout the thirties was thirty-five cents… as opposed to the new GW Bridge’s fifty-cents. Jim, above, wrote of DeGeorge’s boathouse. I grew up one house north of it, in what first was called West’s; then T. Roberts boathouse.

  6. My parents lived in one of these boathouses on the Speedway and my brother and I were both born there, 1943 and 1945. We later moved to Sherman Avenue but always maintained a sentimental connection to the that special place on the Harlem River. When I tell people that my parents were living on a boathouse on Manhattan Island when I was born, they don’t know what to think. It makes for a great story.

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