Prehistoric Inwood: Mastodons in Our Midst

0
2038
baby-mastodon
Niagra Falls Gazette, March 26, 1925.
Niagra Falls Gazette, March 26, 1925.

In warm weather the Dyckman Strip is a lively scene replete with music, the clink of cocktail glasses, laughter and animated conversation.  As brunch winds down, the crowd migrates west to the marina, on the banks of the Hudson River, to marvel at the view—a nearly unblemished vista that has changed little since Henry Hudson and his Half Moon sailed past Tubby Hook and the Spuyten Duyvil some four hundred years ago.

But skip back in time some 15,000 years and the vibrant locale is a very different place.   Gone are the trendy new bars and cafes, replaced by the salt meadows that proliferated after the retreat of the glaciers thousands of years before.

Baby Mastodon roaming down Dyckman Street.
Baby Mastodon roaming down Dyckman Street.

Lumbering down what will, one day, be Dyckman Street, near Seaman Avenue, appears what would be an astonishing sight to modern city inhabitants—a baby mastodon, brunching on the tall grass and enjoying his day in the sun.

“Bones!”

On March 25, 1925 construction workers toiled 22 feet below ground, digging out the foundation for #2 Seaman Avenue.  The extension of the subway system, today’s A line, would arrive in Inwood within the year and West of Broadway was being hurriedly developed.

Deep in the pit, worker Mangillo Domenico’s shovel struck an object in the soft, wet clay.   According to a news report,  “when his shovel cut through chunks which resembled rotten planks.  He examined them and shouted ‘Bones!’” (New York Times, March 26, 1925).

The commotion attracted Domenico’s boss, contractor Ambrose Conforti, who also took a look at the curious discovery. Soon a small crowd had gathered around the find.

According to the Times, “The men picked up the chunks, which resembled the fragments of ship timbers and crumbled between thumb and finger.”

“They must be elephant bones,” said Conforti.  “We’ll have to give them to the museum.

Mastodon Found on Dyckman Street, The Sun, March 25, 1925.
Mastodon Found on Dyckman Street, The Sun, March 25, 1925.


Conforti quickly marshaled a small gang of workers to see if other parts of the skeleton might be uncovered.  In quick time the men filled a large box.  The find included fourteen giant teeth with “massive irregular cusps and long roots.”

Soon, it seemed, all of Inwood had descended on the site as word spread that the bones of an ancient beast had been found on Dyckman Street.

Could the skeletal remains of a mastodon remain buried beneath this building located on Dyckman and Seaman Avenue, now the home to the popular restaurant Mamajuanas?
Could the skeletal remains of a mastodon remain buried beneath this building located on Dyckman and Seaman Avenue, now the home to the popular restaurant Mamajuanas?

Leary of the crowd, Conforti posted an overnight watchman to keep an eye on the dig site, but by morning the crowd had become impatient.

Conforti, apparently, allowed the crowd to have a look inside the box.  Then the trouble began.

A milkman, of all people, pulled one of the giant teeth from the wooden box and announced to the crowd, I want this for Hazel. It’ll be a corking thing for whatnot.”

Before Conforti could utter a word, the crowd, who managed to abscond with all but three of the precious teeth, set upon him.

Dr. C.C. Mook, standing, Cass City Michigan Chronicle, September 30, 1927.
Dr. C.C. Mook, standing, Cass City Michigan Chronicle, September 30, 1927.

Shortly after this regrettable incident, a representative from the American Museum, Dr. C.C. Mook, arrived to examine what remained of the discovery.

One can only imagine the scene as the dismayed contractor handed the plundered box containing the three remaining teeth to Dr. Mook, an expert on mastodons who must have been quite excited about the discovery.

“These and the bones were presented to the museum by Conforti,” the New York Times reported,but before Dr. Mook could carry them to an automobile, two of the teeth had been stolen, so that the museum got but one.  As atrocious luck is supposed to attach to such relics in private hands, it is possible some of the others will be given to the museum later. 

The lot where the remains were found is in a gully, which runs between the old Billings estate and the proposed Inwood Park from Broadway to the Hudson River.  Just north is a thirty-foot cliff.  After a superficial examination of the site, Dr. Mook said that the remains came from Pleistocene clay, which was laid down about 10,000 years ago.  The mastodon, because of its weight, might have been mired in the marsh.”

A Baby Mastodon

It would seem that some guilty soul must have returned one of the teeth, because the following month the New York Times updated their original story stating, “The bones of the prehistoric mammal which were recently unearthed near Broadway and Dyckman Street, have been identified as a young mastodon.  Two molars, which are described as “milk teeth” by scientists of the Museum of Natural History, furnish the basis for belief that it was a baby of the species…”

The remaining teeth and bones were put on display inside the museum where they were  “viewed with interest as the first remains of a Mastodon to be found on Manhattan Island. “ (New York Times, April 16, 1925).

But, in fact, they were not the first.

The Ring Garden Discovery

Forty Years earlier, in 1885, a grammar school principal, Elisha A. Howland, made a similar discovery, on what today is a community Garden, the Ring Garden, practically across the street from the 1925 find.

Inwood's Ring Garden, site of the 1885 Mastodon find.Of this discovery, Professor R. P. Whitfield would write, In April 1885, Elisha A. Howland, then principal of grammar school No. 68, at 128th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, brought and donated to the museum the lower extremity of a mastodon tusk, nearly 15 inches long by 4 in its greatest diameter, which had been found shortly before at Inwood, N.Y., while cutting a ditch through a peat bed near the Presbyterian Church at that place.  The fragment shows fresh breaking at the upper end, and was undoubtedly much longer when first found.” (The Mastodons, Mammoths and Other Pleistocene Mammals of New York State, Chris Andrew Hartnagel and Sherman Chauncey Bishop, University of the State of New York, 1922)

The Spuyten Duyvil Find

In 1891 workers widening the Harlem River Ship Canal found the remains of another Mastodon.   According to one account, “While laborers were working in the Harlem Canal, near Dyckman’s Creek, King’s Bridge, recently, they uncovered a mastodon’s tusk.  Assistant Engineer Doerflinger had it removed with great care, and it was found to be in a great state of preservation. It was four feet long and six inches in diameter at the larger end.  The tusk was sent to the curator of the geological department of the Museum of Natural History, New York.” (The Highland Democrat, December 19, 1891)

Timeline of finds

1885: Ring Garden
1891: Harlem River Ship Canal
1925: 2 Seaman Avenue

NO COMMENTS