The churches were in fact the glue that held this fragile little community together and some of the best descriptions we have of the era come from the Reverend George Shipman Payson, pastor of the Mount Washington Presbyterian Church from 1874-1920.
“The little Mount Washington Church, located in the Inwood Valley, was the center of a little rural population. On the west was the beautiful Hudson, on the east the less pretentious Harlem, on the north and south were high hills, and scattered here and there upon those hills were beautiful residences of those who made up his (Payson’s) congregation. Homes of refinement and affluence they were, and among his flock some of the most prominent and influential people of our city.
During those years and under his pastorate, the Mount Washington Church was the banner church of the Presbytery of New York, giving more per capita to charities and benevolences than any other church within its bounds.
Then, suddenly, a marvelous thing happened. These beautiful homes one by one were deserted and one of the fairest regions in the state became in a few years a veritable wilderness. The splendid residences were occupied solely, if at all, by caretakers. Instead of a natural increase of the population as one would expect here on Manhattan Island in the City of New York, there was an actual decrease, so that, for a quarter of a century following, there were only about fifty Protestant families living within two miles of the Church, and these very poor.
The place became, as I say, a veritable wilderness, isolated from the rest of our city. There were no means of communication with the exception of a dilapidated branch of the New York Central, which ran an occasional train between Spuyten Duyvil and West 30th Street, provided the fireman or conductor were not otherwise engaged. There was no post office, no telegraph station, no telephone, no electric light—absolutely none of the modern conveniences enjoyed by a rural town. The nearest drugstore, the nearest market and the nearest doctor was two or three miles away.”
In a booklet titled “Forty Years in the Wilderness,” published in 1914, Payson describes Inwood in the late 1800’s as a new century rapidly approached.
“Recent years have wrought great changes at Inwood. The last decade especially covers its transformation from village simplicity to metropolitan complexity and confusion.
Cable-cars reached Fort George in 1892, but Fort George was a mile and a half away. The Broadway trolley line was laid though Inwood to Kings Bridge in 1900, and then, for the first time, the moribund real estate of Inwood began to show signs of life and slowly to bestir itself. In 1905 subway trains reached Dyckman Street, and subsequently ran to Van Cortlandt Park. Inwood then began to grow: and since then…it has grown rapidly. After 1905 the population increased so much that….there are now living in apartment houses east of Broadway, and between Arden Street and 213th Street, 1,421 families.”
The arrival of the subway truly changed the face of Inwood. Large apartment buildings sprang up around the neighborhood, new streets were graded, sewer lines and sidewalks were added and before long there was even a Woolworth’s Department store on the newly christened Dyckman Street. (Earlier maps list the “the Dyckman Gap,” the natural valley that extends from the Harlem River to the old Englewood, NJ ferry terminal at Tubby Hook as “Inwood Street.”)
While most of these early sites were obliterated by the sands of time, some curious little structures remain, like this old wood store, shown in a 1932 photograph, now a Pentecostal Church.
This little building, unnoticed and frozen in time, is one of the few survivors of another Inwood in another era.