There was a time when everyone in northern Manhattan was familiar with the name William Ladd Flitner. He was after all a bona-fide sea captain who lived on Dyckman Street several blocks east of the Hudson River.
Early in his career Flitner, who captained a commercial vessel called the Choktaw on transatlantic voyages, witnessed the brutality of slave trafficking in Gambia, a nation immortalized as the homeland of Kunta Kinte in author Alex Haley’s Roots.
In 1840 Flitner reported that “British cruisers are very busy on the (Gambian) coast endeavoring to destroy the slave trade.”
“The slavers in some cases,” Flitner stated, “have adopted the plan of sailing in companies of five or six vessels, only one being loaded with slaves. Should a cruiser overhaul them they all take separate courses, and the cruiser not knowing which one to pursue, the loaded slaver has a fair chance to escape.“
Flitner stated, in a report delivered in New Orleans after a three-month voyage from the African coast, that the Gambian slave trade was becoming increasingly unstable. Already, Flitner stated, “two slave factories have been burned by British cruisers.” (Daily Pittsburgh Gazette, July 10, 1840)
In 1856 Flitner, who descended from a Maine seafaring family, built for his wife and children their home on 17 Bolton Road overlooking Dyckman Street. Until his retirement in 1868 Flitner transported passengers and cargo, usually coal, between Liverpool and New York City.
During Flitner’s downtime between voyages on the “Enoch Barnard,” the “Escort” and the Irish Famine ships “Constellation” and “Clarissa Currier,” he likely enthralled his uptown neighbors with tales of high seas adventures.
One can imagine him spinning fantastic yarns inside Robert Veitch’s redbrick general store near the Dyckman Street marina (then called Tubby Hook).
Captain Flitner and his wife Louisa raised five children in their wood-frame house just west of Payson Avenue. All in the family were active members of the Mount Washington Presbyterian Church; then located just blocks from their home. The Flitner kids, William, Walter, Clara, Albert and Charles, all attended Public School 52, a hulking brick structure on Academy Street and Broadway.
The Flitner’s opened the region’s first public library within their Inwood home.
The Flitner’s lone daughter, Clara, a schoolteacher at P.S. 52, her alma mater, maintained the library. Of the several thousand books in the collection, some 700 were on loan from the New York Public Library, which lacked a facility in this northern hamlet of Manhattan. According to a history of the Inwood library published in the 1920’s the Flitner’s reading room was “a favorite resort of the children of the neighborhood…its beautiful location on the hillside, commanding a very charming view of the Hudson River, and its cheerful accommodations rendering it very attractive. Of its 2,000 volumes, as many as 1,000 have been taken out by its patrons in a single month.”
Charles Flitner followed his sister in securing a teaching post at P.S. 52, though he initially worried that he was “poorly equipped” for the position. Dr. George Shipman Payson, pastor of the Mount Washington Presbyterian Church, allayed his fears by taking the young teacher into his tutelage. “Dr. Payson saw my need,” Flitner wrote, “induced me to study, taught me Latin at his home, and made a lifelong student of me, for which I owe him a debt of gratitude which can never be paid.” (Forty Years in the Wilderness, 1914)
Young Charles Flitner would eventually find his groove among the blackboards and inkwells and bear witness to the development of Inwood as it grew from farm to city.
When his pastor, the Rev. George Shipman Payson, retired in 1914, Charles Flitner offered a tender description of the mid-nineteenth century Inwood of his youth for his pastor’s farewell ceremony:
“In my boyhood on the East side of Kingsbridge Road (now Broadway) from 187th Street there were but seven buildings,” Flitner wrote. “Of these the schoolhouse, the gashouse and the Sowerby house are still standing, and even these will soon be a memory. Only one road led east; going to the Century House on the line of 212th Street, and to the private cemetery situated near it. On the west, the only road led to the railway station of the Hudson River Railway and a dock at which coal barges landed and schooners from Maine loaded with cordwood and lumber. The name of the railway station had recently been changed from Tubby Hook to Inwood. From this road, almost at its junction with Kingsbridge Road and directly opposite the church, a shady lane wound up the hill.
As this community was isolated from the great city, its social life was unique. From my earliest recollections the social event of the whole year was the winter skating. A brook ran north of Inwood Street (now Dyckman Street), went under Broadway and continued eastward to the Harlem River. About 300 feet east of Broadway it ran between two small hills. Here, early in December we built a dam, and by Christmas we generally had an acre or two of good ice. During the rest of the winter nearly the whole community including old men and children gathered on the pond in the evening – about the only social life of the community. We assiduously gathered firewood and bought barrels of tar, and on Saturday nights had special ‘illuminations,’ outrivaling, as some of us would maintain, the brilliance of electricity.
In the summer the river was a constant delight and attraction. Our favorite swimming ground was in Spuyten Duyvil Creek beyond Mr. McCreery’s. Here the boys would gather at high tide for all kinds of swimming ‘stunts.’ Many of us had boats, and on moonlit nights we would go up or down the river or into Spuyten Duyvil Creek. By day we would make longer excursions, and many all-day trips were made.
The rapid transit of those days consisted of two trains that ran back and forth between 30th Street and Spuyten Duyvil along the Hudson River. Most of the men in the community found it convenient to go to business on the 7:53 train. So we met one another for a few minutes at the station every morning, and we were not so absorbed in our newspapers that we lost interest in one another. Groups were formed on the platform or in different corners of the waiting room for the discussion of current events, and we had our regular partners with whom we shared our seat on the train and confided our hopes and fears of the day. Even the conductor seemed to belong to our social group and ran his train, not by his watch, but by the appearance of certain tardy ones.” (Recollections of Charles Flitner, Forty Years in the Wilderness, 1914)
In 1908 a black sheep son of the sea captain, William Jr., an attorney-at-law, was convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to six years in the penitentiary on New York’s notorious Blackwell Island. The courts ruled that Flitner had defrauded two sisters of $2,500 in the course of a stock swindle.
Flitner’s sentence was reduced to a year behind bars, but the conviction cost him his license to practice law.
Captain Flitner died on May 27, 1889. Charles Edward Flitner, the school teacher, died in 1930. His sister, Clara, died two years later in 1932.
In 1930 the Flitner home, which had provided refuge to sea captains and school children for nearly seventy-five years, fell victim to fire.
Historical Documents to Explore: