“With the usual brilliant consistency of nomenclature of places, the plot is called Inwood, probably because it is neither in nor near any wood of any sort and never could have been, and when the name of Inmarsh would have been infinitely more appropriate if not picturesque.”
In 1881, Inwood, of all places, was in the running to host the World Exposition of 1883. To many, especially those living in the region, the notion of the tiny little village on the edge of Manhattan hosting an international event seemed preposterous. After all, Inwood, at the time, had no modern infrastructure. The place was a swampy mess, lacking sewers, proper roads and regular railroad service.
Nevertheless, in the winter of 1881, the New York Daily Graphic dispatched a reporter to the region to see for himself what the area did have to offer.
And while Inwood would never host a World’s Fair, in fact the 1883 Expo was canceled all together, the reporter’s descriptions provide a unique and wonderful glimpse into life in Inwood nearly two decades before the turn of the Twentieth Century.
THE DAILY GRAPHIC
January 29, 1881
A VISIT TO THE INWOOD SITE
HOW THE PROPOSED LOCALITY FOR THE FAIR APPEARS IN WINTER
THE IMMENSE EXPENDITURE THAT WILL BE NECESSARY FOR DRAINAGE AND TO MAKE THE PLACE ACCESSIBLE
The desirability of the Inwood site for the purpose of the World’s Fair is still a subject of discussion, and there seems to be much to be said on both sides. The site is a charming one to look at, but is said to be difficult to drain and to be filled with malaria. While much of it is high and available, a great deal is low and marshy, and covered by tidewater twice a day. It may be made accessible but it is not so now, and on the contrary is one of the most difficult points in the city to reach. Not one in 100 of the population of New York City has ever been near it, and not one in 300 has ever seen it. In point of time, today it is nearly as far away as Philadelphia. The land is valueless for agricultural purposes; and has only speculative value as building property. The fair alone will make it valuable in the next fifteen years.
Much has been said about the undesirability of having the fair anywhere off of Manhattan Island, there are many points on the former Westchester County shore, and on Long Island and Staten Island, today nearer both in distance and time. It can, however, be made accessible if the railroad and steamboat companies become interested, it can be made available for building purposes with some outlay of money, and it can be suitably drained at a considerable expense. It furnishes an opportunity for excellent landscape gardening. With the usual brilliant consistency of nomenclature of places, the plot is called Inwood, probably because it is neither in nor near any wood of any sort and never could have been, and when the name of Inmarsh would have been infinitely more appropriate if not picturesque.
THE GRAPHIC’S wire man started out the other day on a tour of investigation, and jotted down what his eyes told him. His first experience showed two ways of reaching the ground, one by the Hudson River Railroad from Thirtieth street to Inwood station, and the other by the same road from the Grand Central Depot to Kingsbridge. The infrequency of trains by both routes was most alarming, and from either station the distance to the fair site involved a long walk. Arriving at Kingsbridge, which is distant an hour in time from the City Hall, at a cost of 25 cents, a winding and picturesque road, bordered by eminently impracticable footpaths, leads to the bridge itself. This is a cheap wooden structure, with nothing regal about it, spanning the shallow running water of the Spuyten Duyvil Creek. A quarter of a mile below this on a gradually ascending road is the northern end of the proposed plot. The strip of land is very narrow here and the distance from the roadway to the marshy bank of the Harlem River is not more than 150 yards. This is supposed to be the line of Two Hundred and Nineteenth street, which at present is, however, only an imaginary line. From here the site extends for a mile and a half down the river to a point near the old Fort George and immediately opposite to and but a mile distant from the pretty little village of Inwood, which lies on higher ground near the Hudson.
The ground widens as the Kingsbridge road gradually leaves the river at an angle, and at the entrance of the so-called Sheppard’s Creek, a low, marshy saltwater inlet, it is half a mile in width. The road is lined with stone walls, some old and picturesque and some new and handsome, and with the growing and unpicturesque nuisance of telegraph poles. The only things which show the stranger that he is in a city and not in the country are the occasional mounted policeman and the widely separated gas lamps. Above the roadway and on much higher ground, a mountain indeed, compared with the low land along the river border, are the fine old trees and handsome residences of Washington Heights, with their pretentious porters’ lodges and the sheltered conservatories on the southern slope. The dilapidated farmhouse of the old Isaac N. Dyckeman (sic) estate is about midway of the plot and about 200 yards from the river, with a long and crooked lane leading to it from the road. From the lane entrance an excellent view of the whole place can be had. Looking north or east or south the ground slopes in every direction, and is filled with irregular knolls, which are high enough for all building purposes and could be easily drained, and which are separated in fifty places by ground so low that it does not seem to allow the water to flow off. At all events, the rain and slush and melted snow of ten days ago lie in the glittering and frozen ponds, affording excellent skating, and on some of which the ice would seem thick enough to make it worth cutting for marketing purposes. These low spots connect with each other and run in irregular curves in every direction towards the marshy ground about the river.
Directly east is an inlet which has at one time been cut off from the land by a stone embankment through which it has, however, broken many years ago, and through which flows with every tide into what is almost a salt meadow covered with the usual marsh grass. Further north, and at the end of the section, is an immense inlet running half around the great rocky knoll of old Fort George, and covering 50 to 100 acres of land with every tide. High tides, indeed, run over the low land for more than half a mile, and almost reach the edge of the highway. At the time off this visit herds of cattle were sunning themselves on the ice, which covered many acres and which seemed to have some attractions for them which the snow did not possess. The extreme point, where the inlet enters, is known as Bronson’s farm, a venerable and dilapidated canal boat along the shore, where some of the necessaries as well as the luxuries of sporting life are furnished to chance fishermen and boatmen. Along the higher ground, near the wall north of the Dyckeman lane, is the graveyard where are buried the generations of the old Dutch family, who have always owned the land since it had a title deed. Portions of it have, however, been sold in late years ostensibly for building purposes, but really to be held for speculation. No new buildings have ever been put up, and the old ones have apparently been allowed to go to pieces in the expectation that they would not be much longer wanted. A peculiar feature of the landscape is the number of isolated plots, surrounded by stout fences and not under cultivation. They lie in the midst of farms and meadows, and can only be approached by going over the fields. They are, however, on the lines of imaginary streets, which have an existence on city surveyors’ maps, and their owners will be fortunate if they can sell them for the purposes of the fair.
The reporter descended the long and crooked tree-bordered line between ice ponds and through herds of milk cows to the old homestead which is now occupied by John R. White, a sturdy old farmer of the old English north country stripe. He has some opinions about the site which are not ambiguous. He thinks it can be made all that is desirable, but that at present it is far from suitable.
“I’ve lived here these fifteen years,” he says, “but I’m ready to go when they want the land, and my lease is only from year to year. The land is worth nothing to farm. Below it is all marsh and half covered by the tide, and above there’s so much sand in the loam that it would cost more for fertilizers than the crops would be worth. A man would starve to death if he tried to get his living out of the land.”
“But you succeed in doing so?”
“No; I make my living, but nothing more, out of the milk and I get the milk by feeding my cows. The place is good enough for the cattle to run in, but they’d never get their living off the place. We buy our feed, which is an expensive way of keeping cattle. If I had to pay freight or cartage on my milk I could make nothing off it, but I am near enough to the city to carry and sell the milk direct, so I make a living. I get some bedding for the cattle and a little grazing off the land, but that is all.”
“Is there much marsh?”
“Well, the land is low in places and the water does not drain off readily, and yet the river water does not flow in. Down below where the old stone dyke is the tide comes through twice a day and covers about fifteen or twenty acres. On extreme high tides it comes way up around the house to the willow trees at the end of the lane and almost reaches the manure heaps by the barns. That is the worst of the water here, although down by Bronson’s it runs in, a regular swamp, with a sedge grass, for the water is salt.”
“Do you think it can be drained?”
“Yes. Most of the land is high and extremely sandy. The water flows off easily enough. If the knolls were graded off and the banks filled in I think the sewage could all be carried off without any trouble, no matter how many people were here. It would cost something, though, to do it. You see there’s about six feet off tide with a strong flow, and it could be depended on to carry off everything and not bring it back. The flow is not so great, perhaps, but it is stronger than it is in the Hudson, and there would bee no difficulty except the cost of carrying off all the sewage. In the summer nine-tenths of the whole land is high enough to drain itself, and is very dry. It looks handsome and green from the road, and you ought to see it in the spring. But it looks better than it is.”
And the reporter decided in his mind that the place could be made very handsome as he slid over pond after pond in crossing the fields to the roadway and walked towards the Inwood station.