"Pop" Seeley: The Old Man of the River

2
2008
“Pop’ Seeley’s cabin at the foot of Cold Spring Road in 1893 photograph by Ed Wenzel. (Source: New York Historical Society)

Sometime before the turn of the twentieth century, on the northernmost tip of Manhattan, a folksy, business savvy and somewhat mischievous fellow named “Pop” Seeley set up shop in a quaint little cabin in the shade of a mighty tulip tree on the shores of a then meandering and muddy creek called the Spuyten Duyvil.

Today the location of the tulip tree, allegedly the spot where Peter Minuit swapped the island of Manhattan for a handful of trinkets, is marked by a boulder with a plaque proclaiming: “According to legend, on this site of the principal Manhattan Indian Village (Shorakkopoh), Peter Minuit in 1626 purchased Manhattan Island for trinkets and bead then worth about 60 guilders. This boulder also marks the spot where a tulip tree (Liriodendron Tulipera) grew to a height of 165 feet. It was, until its death in 1938 at the age of 280 years, the last living link between the Reckgawawanc Indians who lived here.

Seeley cabin in 1906 photo.

A stone’s throw west of the tulip would have been Seeley’s cabin…

Former resident Aimee Voorhees, who would later construct a pottery works a short distance from the Seeley cottage, described “Pop’s” home as a “small white frame house more than a century old. It was built for a retired sea captain seeking a snug harbor. We have never been able to find but his name…but Pop Seeley told us stories about him. Pop lived here until he died.” (Helen Worden, Round Manhattan’s Rim)

Inwood Hill Park, as we know it today, wasn’t even a spark of an idea when “Pop” Seeley moved into the peaceful cove now buried under a soccer field made up of landfill from later subway digs—at the time, Inwood Hill was referred to locally as Cold Spring Mountain.

So who was “Pop” Seeley?  That is truly is a question for the ages.

How or even when “Pop” Seeley arrived on the banks of the Spuyten Duyvil remains a bit of a mystery.  A popular fellow with fisherman and reporters alike, the details of his early life remain somewhat murky.  “Pop,” it would seem, had a different story for nearly every person he encountered. He told some writers his name was Abraham, others Lynch, but his real name, most likely, was Andrew Jackson Seeley.

According to a New York Times article dated July 3, 1910,  “If you are lucky you may run across ‘Pop’ Andrew Jackson Seeley working at his boats along the creek front.  ‘Pop,’ as he is affectionately and familiarly called by most everybody in that neighborhood, is sort of a self-constituted ‘guardian’ of the old tree, and, in his way, almost as interesting.  He doesn’t have a whole lot to say to a stranger at first, but if you can get him to talking he may tell you that he has lived within the shade of that old tree for more than a score of his eighty years.  He may tell you, too, just how much he loves and protects it from vandal hands.”

The Old Man of the River,” The New York Times reporter continued, “has been most everything—soldier, sailor, fireman.  Fought many a good fight back in 61’, was a member of the New York Fire Department for seventeen years, and as a sailor has been over many a foreign sea.”

“Pop” simply reveled in spinning fantastic yarns—and from there his legend just grew.

Boss Tweed climbs into rowboat before fleeing to Spain. Could the boatman have been “Pop” Seeley? (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Dec 18, 1875)

In 1921 an old-timer would tell reporter Eleanor Booth Simmons that Seeley “was a boatman and a great character, and he always had charge of things in these parts…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.”

Something of a curmudgeon, “Pop” was known to complain bitterly about his ill treatment as a non-union man working the docks— but where?  A well-worn Brooklyn directory from the years 1889-1890 lists an Andrew J. Seeley, occupation “boatman,” as being employed by Bush C. Hicks.  Could this have been “Pop?”

Even his time in the neighborhood, if you could call the undeveloped swampland a neighborhood, remains in doubt.

In 1915, the year of Seeley’s death, writers of his various obituaries couldn’t even agree on how long he had lived in his little hideaway nestled between the Hudson and Harlem Rivers.  Had he lived there all of his life or just a “score” of years?  No one seemed to know.  That his obituary was published in no less than three New York papers stands testament to his influence on those who passed through the region—many returning year after year just to have a talk with “Pop.”

Regardless of his sketchy origins, “Pop” Seeley would become the unofficial mayor of the marshy shallows of the area then called “Cold Spring.”

In choosing his homestead, Pop carefully selected a shady spot close to a spring from which once flowed water so sweet and icy-cold that its presence was well-known throughout the region. Seeley would initially list has address as being at the base of Cold Spring Road.

From James Reuel Smith’s “Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx, New York City, at the End of the Nineteenth Century.”

On November 13, 1897 amateur historian James Reuel Smith would write, “The ‘Cold Spring’ is some eight hundred feet south of the most northern point of Inwood, and on the east side of it.  It is about one hundred feet from the shore of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, or as it has come to be known as in it’s enlarged and modernized condition, the Harlem Ship Canal.  It is some six feet long east and west, and three feet wide north and south.  Its water comes out from under a piece of rock, and a springhouse is built over it of just the dimensions of the spring and some six feet high.  From this house a pipe runs the distance of some ten feet into a barrel sunk in the ground.  The overflow runs out of the barrel near the top and into the Creek.” (The Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx, New York City, at the End of the Nineteenth Century.)

But Pop’s oasis had so much more to offer than just crisp and natural water that was fit to drink— it had long been a favorite among anglers who knew the Spuyten Duyvil to be flush with striped bass.  The marshy waters were also a choice locale for oystermen who used the fertile creek to seed their oyster beds before taking the young bivalves elsewhere to mature.

Seeley Cabin in 1904 photograph.

So, it was in this tranquil oasis that “Pop” Seeley had the idea to open a boathouse complete with a modest marina where he would sell and repair old yachts—a marina that would flourish well into the early twentieth century.

Not surprisingly, Seeley’s business endeavors did not end there. In addition to his boat business, “Pop” operated a store on the shore where fishermen and sun-scorched day-trippers could purchase refreshments for steamy summer afternoons on the water spent, rod in hand, swatting flies and discussing the state of the Union.

And, in those pre-prohibition years, it is safe to say that “Pop” Seeley likely sold more lager than bait.

An inset in the below photo, snapped in 1906, indicates that “Pop” was an official distributor for the A. Liebler Bottling Company—which bottled, among other things, a product many still drink today.

Seeley Cabin in 1906 photo.  (Note inset with Liebler Bottling Company sign.)
Seeley Cabin in 1906 photo. (Note inset with Liebler Bottling Company sign.)

Incorporated in New York City in September of 1887, the A. Liebler Bottling Company, did a brisk business from their plant on 128th and 10th Avenue “bottling, selling, and delivering lager beer, soda-waters, and aerated waters, with its name and certain marks and devices blown and impressed thereon.”

At the time, the company’s top-selling product was Yuengling beer.  Still in business today, the popular brand holds the distinction of being America’s oldest brewery.

Turn of the century postcard for the Liebler Bottling Company.

Of course there was the matter of “Pop’s” water supply. Seeley himself, who, by some accounts, would have it plugged, because it competed with his flourishing beer and soda sales, controlled the cold spring.

In June of 1898, Smith, who had visited the spring just a year earlier and described it as “the largest…within the corporate limits of the City of New York,” would lament: “As this spring interfered with Seeley’s sale of soft drinks to boatmen, he put a padlock on the spring house, and filled in with earth the space where the water appeared outside, so that the overflow runs into the creek below the level of the tide.” (The Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx, New York City, at the End of the Nineteenth Century)

Smith would later describe local reaction to the closing of the well as “incendiary.”

Nevertheless, “Pop” would remain, until his death, a well-liked character despite his many flaws and eccentricities.

Pop Seeley obit The Sun February 13, 1915.

According to his obituary, published in the Sun on February 13, 1915, “Andrew J. Seeley, often referred to as ‘The Old Man of the Hudson,’ since he spent eighty four years on the banks of that river, dropped dead yesterday at a lunch wagon at Broadway and 216th Street.  Mr. Seeley was one of the most picturesque characters of the Inwood district and was a favorite with many boaters, who visited him yearly. In his heyday he was considered one of the best scullers on the Hudson, often winning the admiration of other experts by his agility in falling out and climbing into a frail scull without upsetting it.  He lived with his eighty year old wife at the foot of Cold Spring road and the Hudson River.”

Pop Seeley obit from the New York Herald, February 18, 1915.

Another obituary, published in the New York Herald would report, “Andrew J. Seeley, the aged boatman of the Spuyten Duyvil and known to everyone in that vicinity as “Pop” Seeley, stepped into a coffee wagon at Broadway and 216th Street last night and after ordering a sandwich dropped dead.  He was eighty-five years old and it was said his death as the result of general collapse.

Despite his age “Pop” Seeley could row a boat as strongly and skillfully as he did many years ago when he had a reputation as a sculler.  In the last forty years the police have credited him with numerous rescues off drowning persons in Spuyten Duyvil.  Only a month ago he saved a woman and her child.

His specialty was the rescuing of boys who insisted on swimming in the dangerous channel.  His boat was always at the ready for an emergency, and he pulled many of them out of the water.”

What follows is a description of an encounter with Pop Seeley written by a first class passenger on the electric launch Aria after the vessel made a stop at Seeley’s boathouse in 1904.  On October first of that year the account was printed in a periodical titledOur Paper.”

On the northern end of Manhattan Island will be found a place marked on the map as Spuyten Duyvil.  Although a part of the great New York city, it has not kept place with the populace’s grand march onward, but retains a great deal of its original simplicity.

Very near here is the King’s bridge of the Revolutionary time, which marked the outer barriers of the British forces and which was very carefully guarded by them.

Spuyten Duyvil Creek, itself, can be entered from both the Hudson and Harlem rivers and is a convenient thoroughfare for the smaller boats.

Here are planted the tiny oysters, and from here, when of the right size, millions of them are taken to larger beds.

No wise person ever attempts to swim across the Creek, as there are many treacherous little eddies and under currents to hamper the swimmer.

The story runs that way back in the time when the Dutch held sway over the island, a German was left by his fellows of one side of the Creek.  When he discovered their departure, heeding no warnings, he threw himself into the water, exclaiming, “I will swim across it in spite of the devil!” and away he went to his own destruction. Since then the place has born the name of Spuyten Duyvil.

On one side of the Creek is the Cold Spring Mountain—so named from the many springs of pure, cold water, which bubble out among and over the rocks.  Here, over the mountain, the Indians used to stealthily approach and make their mightily raids upon the unsuspecting villagers, and then, with a fierce war-whoop, triumphantly return, laden with their spoils.

But, in spite of all the wonderful happenings there in by-gone days, Spuyten Duyvil would be to us but simply a place of interest which we visited, had it not been for two personages whom we met there—known far and near in this region as the ‘powers that be’ of the Creek—Pop and Ma’am Seeley.  They are types of those kind-hearted people one sometimes meets in little out-of-the-way places—ignorant of the ways and workings of the great world, but well versed in local legendary lore and the simple mysteries of their own home life.

It was Pop who met us with outstretched hands, not a haughty New York shake, but a warm grip.  As an especial proof of good fellowship, according to his custom, he first made a pretense of spitting on his hands before extending them cordially.

It was Ma’am who welcomed us no less warmly and invited us to call, treating us with as much consideration as though we had been her especial guests.

A simple, kind-hearted old couple are they, who although not given to worldliness, live quiet, helpful lives, enjoying what pleasures come to them, without trying to seek outside interests.  Although living right in the shadow of New York city, Ma’am solemnly informed us she had never been to a theatre or a picnic in her life.  Her careful training has evidently extended to her daughter, who recorded but one picnic on her list of pleasures, and who, until her marriage, had never seen the inside of a theatre.

Pop seemed to delight a good deal in telling how he escaped the strict clutches of his better half.  Among his escapades was a visit to Coney Island by night, and one to the Aquarium at the battery by day.  He declared that Ma’am lay in wait for him with a broom when he at length stealthily returned.

Pop was a non-union man and gave us quite a spirited talk on the far-reaching powers of that organization.  A large building had to be left uncompleted because its builder did not “belong.” Other buildings put up by independent parties, were injured almost beyond repair.  No boats could get loads unless they were unionists.  He told the story of a thirty five cent pet-cock, which rapidly increased to a dollar and a half because it could not be sold unless a man went along to fix it.

The Seeley home is a small, unpainted house, presenting a better appearance inside than out.  The front commands a view of the wharves with their numerous houseboats, waiting for chance buyers or for some repairs. A little to the right of the house is the inevitable hen yard with its few tenants.

Following the well-worn path, protected by the many trees, you come to one of the famous cold springs and near it—if you please—is a building no less important than the one in which A. J. Seeley supplies his customers with tonics and a few of the luxuries of life.

Here you may find Pop at almost any hour, and here it is that pleasure parties stop to refresh themselves, or eat their luncheon and, as he would tell you, “to see Pop.”

Just back of the store stretches a long line of woods, and pedestrians may find many pleasant and well-beaten paths to take them to the top of the mountain. It is an ideal place to reach on a hot day.

Our memory steals back to the time when we left Spuyten Duyvil and our friends there.

It shows us Pop, leaning over a large pan, with a huge piece of watermelon in his hand.  Next we see Ma’am, with hands upraised and eyes turned heavenward, devoutly thanking God that a boat, stolen while left in her care, had been recovered.  There is Annie, earnestly telling of her miraculous escape from the owls of the wood, and of her thwarting their attempts to pick out her eyes by throwing her apron over her head.  The sleepy, frightened eyes of the tired little boy follow us wistfully.  Last, but not least, we recall the members of the crew returning to the Aria laden with their spoils, watermelon and tonic, so generously provided by the Seeley’s.  Then farewell to Spuyten Duyvil.”

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