In 1840 a Scotch Irish builder by the name of Samuel Thomson bought a huge tract of woodland on the northern end of Manhattan. Thomson christened his new estate “Mount Washington” in honor of what had been a Revolutionary War outpost. On the property, today known as Inwood Hill, Thomson and his wife Ann, would build a magnificent home in which they would raise ten children.
Samuel Boyd Thomson was born in Baltimore, Maryland on June 15, 1784. As a youth Thomson apprenticed in a tannery, but quickly grew bored with the work. An uncle named James Thomson would later take young Samuel under his wing and teach him the carpentry trade. In 1804 Thomson moved to New York where he would earn a reputation as a first rate builder.
A deeply religious man, Thomson would devote much of his labors to constructing houses of worship for the Presbyterian Church.
In building circles he was best known for his unfinished work on the Custom House, also known as Federal Hall. After a famous dispute with his superiors Thomson walked off the job after completing only the lower level. He took all his plans with him forcing his replacement to start from scratch.
On February 2, 1807 Thomson was married to Ann Strean, a distant relative of his mother, by the Rev. Dr. Samuel Rudd, at Elizabethtown (now Elizabeth) New Jersey.
“During the War of 1812,” wrote a descendant, “Mr. Thomson served as lieutenant in the 3rd New York Volunteer Heavy Artillery. The regiment was stationed at Fort Gansevoort, on the banks of the Hudson River near the present foot of 14th Street. As the British did not come to New York during the war, the regiment was never in battle.” (Notes on Samuel Thomson written by Clement Rutter Thomson, New York, in March of 1881.)
Thomson also served as an early director of the Merchants Exchange Bank and was involved in the establishment of the New York Life and Trust Company in which he was a trustee until his death in 1850.
“In 1835,” according to a family history, “he removed his family to that most northern point of the present city limits, now known as Riverdale, on the banks of the Hudson River, got a temporary residence; whence in 1840, he removed about two miles below, purchasing a lofty wooded tract of land immediately south of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, called “Tubby Hook” but Thomson changed the name to Mount Washington. The purchase consisted of eighty odd acres, and was thickly covered not only with the native forest growth but also with gigantic rocks innumerable and had never known a plough or the habitation of men, with the exception of the temporary occupation of its northernmost point in 1776, by a small detachment of Americans to defend a redoubt placed there called “Cock Hill Fort.” Mr. Thomson, built a large house, laid out walks and otherwise beautified the place.
The family had just taken up their residence in the new house when it was found that the roof leaked. Atin Smith was sent for. He carelessly left the furnace full of glowing coals on a beam while he went for dinner. On his return he found that the beam had caught fire, but if water had been applied promptly, no great damage would have been done, but the man being dilatory, the consequence was that the house and most of its contents were destroyed. The ashes hardly had time to cool when a new house was in the process of construction.
It is related that the man, frightened at the consequence of his carelessness, went to Mr. Thomson and begged him to intercede for him with his employer. He was told, without the slightest shade of anger in voice or manner, “If you do not fear to meet me you need not fear your employer.” (Notes on Samuel Thomson written by Clement Rutter Thomson, New York, in March of 1881.)
Building a Church
As construction on his new home was underway, Thomson would often pass his neighbors working the fields of the then rural area while on his way to worship.
The nearest Presbyterian Church was some four miles away and, being a man of means, the handsome builder set to work building a beautiful wooden chapel for the benefit of his Godless neighbors.
The Mount Washington Presbyterian Church, which once stood on Thomson’s property at the current confluence of Dyckman Street, Broadway and Riverside Drive, held its first service on August 18, 1844. The sermon was devoted to the Biblical passage, “Who hath despised the day of small things.” (Zechariah 4:10)
Inwood In 1844
In 1844 Inwood, or Tubby Hook, as the region was commonly referred to until the 1850’s, was a rural outpost of the city to where folks from downtown rarely ventured.
“A stage then ran from the Battery to Harlem,” wrote a church historian, “and people wishing to reach Tubby Hook had to walk from that point, or to ride on their own conveyances.”
“Thick woods covered all this upper part of the island,” the writer continued. “A lovely country road wound about the heights above the Hudson and through the dales and copses of the historic grounds near Fort Washington. No more beautiful drive could be found than that along the old Bloomingdale Road… It was affirmed that it would require centuries for the city to cover such a vast territory.” (The Story of Mount Washington, 1844-1932, Published by the Mount Washington Presbyterian Church, 84 Vermilyea Avenue, New York City)
A Glimpse of Mount Washington
In March of 1844 twenty-two year old Walter Carter, whose older brother Robert had married Thomson’s eldest daughter, Jane, came to New York after being extended an offer of employment working alongside his sibling.
Walter Carter was immediately impressed by the family patriarch and was eventually invited to visit the family compound.
“One day in May,” Carter recalled, “he invited me to visit his family and home at Mount Washington, and my heart rejoiced. The Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway), in that day was the loveliest drive near the city; at that time it began at Madison Square, and as a good macadamized road, extended twelve miles to Kingsbridge, a lovely, shady road all the way. As at the time the Third Avenue and the Boston Post Road were the only avenues to the end of the Island, it was full of carriages and horsemen. With Mr. Thomson’s company, the ride was a rare treat. He called my attention at 65th Street that the little Dutch Reformed Church was the only Evangelical Church from there to Yonkers on that road. As we entered his gate at the road, we seemed to leave the world behind us, as it was one-half mile though the primeval forest to his residence. As we wound slowly up the hill, the view at the top, down over New York Bay and Staten Island, and up the river to the Highlands of the Hudson, amply repaid the fatigue of climbing. I was cordially received by the family and felt at home at once and ever afterwards. In the morning I rose early and rambled through the woods an in the lovely garden. As I passed an open window I saw Mr. Thomson with his large Bible in his hands and his face beaming with delight, as he drank in the promises and rested on the Word of God.” (The Story of Mount Washington, 1844-1932, Published by the Mount Washington Presbyterian Church, 84 Vermilyea Avenue, New York City)
A Name Fades Away
When Samuel Thomson died of apoplexy, inside his residence on June 10, 1850 at the age of sixty-six, all ten of his children were at his bedside.
“The closing scene,” wrote a church biographer, “was truly touching. On the morning of the day of his death, unfavorable symptoms showed themselves, all the members of his family gathered around his bedside. About nine o’clock he inquired, ‘Were they all here?’ He was answered in the affirmative. Again he asked ‘How many?’ He was told ten. ‘It is right,’ he said. ‘I love them all.’” (The Presbyterian, June 22, 1850)
The family would soon sell the home and by 1856 the name “Inwood” would replace “Mount Washington” in church records and descriptions of the region.
Samuel Thomson’s Legacy
In 1927 Thomson’s little church in the valley was condemned to make room for subway construction.
The original church was demolished and a new house of worship was constructed on 84 Vermilyea Avenue near 204th Street.
And, while Thomson’s “Mount Washington” home since vanished, the woods of Inwood Hill have changed little since this founding father occupied his home on the ridge.
Thomson’s churches, like the one in Inwood, were made of wood and one by one vanished from the cityscape. One, however, did manage to survive.
Portico Place, located at 143 West 13th Street in Greenwich Village, is a former Presbyterian Church built by Thomson in 1846. The Greek Revival style structure, which was converted into condominiums in 1982, is the spitting image of Thomson’s former Mount Washington home.