Inwood in 1903: The Subway Cometh

3
1977

Inwood. 1903.  Farmers tend to flowing fields of wheat.  Children chase pigs down muddy ruts that appear as streets on maps many residents have likely never seen.  For more than a year now that strange elevated skeleton of steel and wood has crept ever northward like a serpent.

Change is on its way. The arrival of rapid transit, like a rouge wave, is about to dash the final vestiges of rural Inwood into oblivion.

1903 photo of Inwood shot from Fordham Heights. Note the still standing Drake-Seaman arch in the center of the photo.

During this year before the arrival of the elevated trains at “the last stop in Manhattan,” local residents speculate about the change to come.  Even the speculators—real estate developers, potential shop owners and mom and pop private investors—speculate.

The change to come is a foregone conclusion, but what lies in store for this Inwood of the near future?  Will it be a factory town with tenements and shanties?    Will high-class apartments instead beautify the neighborhood?  What about stores and entertainment in this modern city many claim will “spring up in a night.

The below article captures that narrow window in history where farm and city careened towards one another—the transformation was at hand.

The New York Press
November 15, 1903
Modern Magic May Build A City “In A Night” At The Northern End of Manhattan

The New York Press, November 15, 1903.

Within a year, if conditions are favorable in the labor and industrial worlds, a city will spring up like magic in the northern end of Manhattan Island.  It will be the final link in a continuous chain of buildings from the Battery to Spuyten Duyvil, and the last big blank space in the borough will be transformed into a thickly settled district.

The New York Press, November 15, 1903.

Up at the northwestern end of Manhattan, extending north from the Speedway to the Harlem ship canal and east from Seaman avenue to the Harlem River, is a region that for years has been the terra incognita of the island.  Residents of New York know more about Newark and other nearby cities than they do about this strip of land right on Manhattan Island.  Vaguely it has been known to the public through early municipal history as a portion of the old Dyckman farm.  But to the average New Yorker the term has been hazy.

Manhattan Island is said by statisticians to be as congested as Bombay or the crowded streets of China.  Homeseekers have sought every point of the compass in their endeavor to live within a certain radius of New York’s business district.  Long Island, Staten Island, New Jersey and the Hudson River section of New York State have been jammed with the toilers of Gotham. Bridges have been built, ferryboats carry millions yearly, and tunnels have been projected to enable those who live near New York to earn their living in the city.  All this time a tract of land on Manhattan Island large enough to afford homes for half a million people without the crowding prevalent on the East Side has lain undeveloped.  The tide of population has surged up to its very border, leaped over it, and passed beyond.   The Bronx today is dotted with beautiful homes, but the Dyckman tract has been disfigured only by a few shanties.

Lack of rapid transit offers the explanation for the puzzle, just as rapid transit will solve it.    The region has been practically inaccessible.  Even by using the Elevated Railroad as far as 125th street and taking surface cars the rest of the way, nearly two hours are consumed in the journey.  It would take nearly half a day to make the trip in the surface cars from the lower end of the island.  One can make the journey from Yonkers in less than half the time it takes to go from the Dyckman tract by utilizing every means now at hand.

But the completion of the subway next spring will put an entirely different face on conditions.  The northern terminal of the underground system, at least for some years to come, will be at 215th street, at the northern end of what was once the old Dyckman farm.  It will be possible to make the trip from the Battery to this station in 45 minutes by ordinary trains and the express trains will cut several minutes off this schedule.     This means that the district will be open for settlement to the workers of New York, and those interested in the city’s progress say the centre of industrial activity so far as Manhattan is concerned will be in this long-neglected district.

The New York Press, November 15, 1903.

The number of buildings, which will be constructed there next year, has been variously estimated at from 500 to 2,500.  This will give employment to a vast army of workers, and, provided labor problems do not check the operations, it is believed by autumn of next year the hundreds of acres will be transformed from a bare waste into a thickly settled community.

There is nothing of a boom character about the operations in this district.  The boom died out nearly thirty years ago—for along in the seventies (1870’s) an attempt was made to draw attention to this portion of Manhattan as an available home space.  The Jay Gould estate still owns a great many acres as a result of the movement at that time, and others interested were E. C. Potter and J. Allen Townsend.  But the boom was short-lived, for the reason that it was felt the residents of that section practically would be marooned.

The New York Press, November 15, 1903.

Nevertheless, about ten years ago, steps were taken to improve the tract.  Streets were laid off, and many of them have been paved.  A sewer system has been installed. Then came the wait for rapid transit.  When the subway project became an assured fact the real estate speculators got to work, and the prices of lots began to rise.  In some instances they have tripled in value.  Syndicates with millions behind them were formed for the purpose of buying real estate and holding it for at least three years.  Consequently the completion of the subway has been discounted to a great extent by the foresighted speculators, and the edge has been taken off the bargains.

Nevertheless property in this section has been one of the few active features in an exceedingly dull realty market.

Not all those who have bought have been speculators.  Homeseekers of moderate means and with a little surplus capital to invest have been actively in the market.

Larger operators have found it an attractive field.  To them it offers large returns on a proportionately small amount of capital.  It is the character of their operations that will determine the character of this new community.

West 207th Street in 1906.

There is about a mile of waterfront along the Harlem that has been put to little use.  Waterfront is valuable in Manhattan.  It is growing more so every year.  It is too valuable to be put to residential uses, and along the low banks of the Hudson it is doubtful if the homeseeker would find many places where he would care to establish his household permanently.

Consequently it is possible factories will be built, and a new manufacturing centre may be the result.  If the Manhattan side of the Harlem is lined with these establishments the homes will be on a modest scale.  Tenements will be built.  It is for this reason that the big operators are holding back until they see “which way the frog will jump.”  Unquestionably many of them would prefer to have a factory community.  It means tenements of five and six stories built on the ground that cost but a song, and that can be rented cheaply and still return large profits to their owners.  It also means the more rapid development of that region, for many factories and skilled laborers will want to have their own homes near their work.

But there are other elements to be considered and these will work in opposition to the establishment of a purely factory settlement.  On the west side of Broadway, in fact beyond Seaman avenue, rises Inwood Hill, one of the most beautiful bits of high ground in all Manhattan.  It overlooks the surrounding country for miles and affords a commanding view of the Hudson at one of its most picturesque points.

Inwood Hill circa 1910. (Museum of the City of New York).

Inwood Hill has not been neglected for residential purposes. Had it not been for its inaccessibility it would have been as popular as Washington Heights.  The bluffs are now crowned with some of the handsomest homes in New York.  They are small estates owned by persons of wealth, and it is doubtful if they will be cut up into small parcels for years to come.  The owners can afford to keep them as they are.  These estates are in tracts ranging from two to nice acres in extent and are the property of C. K. G. Billings, who also has a $300,000 stable on his premises; Francis A. Thayer, Woodbury Langdon, Mary E. Toppin, Jacob Hayes, the family of Robert Hoe and the estate of James McCreery.

At the southern end of the Dyckman tract is the Washington Heights district.  Property here is held for residential purposes and the lots range in price from $5,000 to $10,000.   The residents of this part of the city as well as the dwellers on the heights of Inwood Hill probably will make an effort to have the lowlands built up in as tasteful a manner as possible, inasmuch   as it gives better surroundings and adds to the value of their own property.

Improvements already have commenced.  The Metropolitan Street Railway Company has completed a big powerhouse on the Harlem River at 216th street.  The plant is in a building 200 feet square.  The company has several powerhouses larger than this, but it can make the others no larger on account of the impossibility of obtaining more ground on which to build.  With the development off this region—not only of the Dyckman tract, but of The Bronx—it will be necessary to increase the size of the plant, and it is possible that in a few years it will be the largest of its kind in the world.  It gives employment to about 150 men already, and they are living in houses built near it, thus forming a nucleus for the working population that is soon to come.

With the completion of the subway The Bronx will be firmly welded to Manhattan, and preparations have been made to meet the conditions that thus will arise.  King’s Bridge, at the upper end of Broadway, will be replaced by a structure capable of accommodating the new traffic demands.  There will be another bridge connecting Manhattan with The Bronx at Fordham Heights, the southern approach being at 207th street.  King’s Bridge, which crosses the ship canal at Broadway, is in good condition, but it is utterly inadequate to meet the new contingencies.  The Bridge Commission has decided to move the draw span to Fordham Heights to form a portion of the structure there. Contracts already have been let for the building of the middle pier on which the span will rest.  The draw span will be lifted off its pivot by barges placed beneath it at low tide and blocked up.  When the tide rises the span will rise with it, and it will be a simple matter to convey it on barges down to 207th street and put it in place on the new pier.

The bridge to tale the place of the old one at the upper end of Broadway will be built under the supervision of the Rapid Transit Commission.  It will be a large structure with capacity for sustaining all the traffic that rapid transit can put on it.

In addition to these links in the rapid transit chain the New York Central, instead of making its long loop from the west, will cut directly across to make a short route where it will connect with the subway.  Passengers thus can be quickly whisked downtown with a minimum of inconvenience.  For the purpose of accommodating the rush of traffic arising from this source the subway station at 215th street will be the largest on the system, more than 400 feet long.  It will be a point where thousands would board the subway trains even should it not serve as a feeder for the immediate vicinity.

Cows in Isham Park, circa 1900. (Source: Museum of the City of New York)

These are some of the conditions that will tend to make the upper portion of the Dyckman tract a sort of half-way station for thousands of traveling daily to and from the city.  “The last stop in Manhattan” will be a shopping and trading centre for suburbanites.  All sorts of establishments will spring up to cater to the needs not only of those in the neighborhood but of those whom the terminal of the subway is but a junction point.  One man in speaking of its possibilities as a trading centre said:

“It will be another 125th street.”

Whether it will equal Harlem’s principal thoroughfare is a question for the future to determine.  That its character will be somewhat similar seems practically certain.  Among the permanent investors who have bought lots are many grocers, butchers and small tradesman who have stated their intention to be among the commercial pioneers in the new district.  Not only cheap homes attract them, but they see a chance to get in “on the ground floor” in a virgin trading centre.

Nor will there be any lack of amusements—a failure never overlooked by the true New Yorker.  Fort George can be reached by a short ride, and it will not be long before the new community will have its own resources in this respect.  Residents of The Bronx can go there to the theatre just as Harlemites patronize the playhouses on 125th street.

While it now seems almost certain that the waterfront will be taken up with factories and that a certain number of tenement houses will be built to accommodate the employees, some investors are of the opinion that first-class apartment houses will offer a good return on the capital put in them. One operator already has made arrangements for the construction of two such buildings early next year in case the labor outlook is not threatening.

Two portions of Manhattan are awaiting the completion of the subway to proceed with their development.  One is Washington Heights and the other is the Dyckman tract.  Millions have been invested in both districts already, and many more millions will be poured into them.  Real estate experts say that of the two sections the lowlands will be the quickest to respond to the influence of rapid transit, and that under its magic “a new city will spring up in a night.”

3 COMMENTS

  1. Each story of Inwood added by Cole just gets better and better. I’m amazed that the bldg I grew up in at 130 post Ave. still looks good after the 65 years since we moved in there. If Inwood was not built up yet in 1903, that means only 40 something years later it was finished. Amazing. As I wrote earlier the bldg at 130 used to be a hotel and it still had a doorman and a switchboard operator. Thanks Cole.

  2. That is a fascinating tidbit about the W215th St subway station, which has never made much sense being located on a nearly nonexistant street in an area zoned only for auto and industrial uses. To think that it was originally going to stretch up to the bridge and provide the connection to the trains below….

    In the end I suppose they either added 225th St station or figured it would be the better transfer point. A shame that the commuter train platforms were later moved and the stairs made so much longer – must have been quite convenient originally.

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