William Louis Calver: An Archaeologist and Historical Celebrity

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William Calver digging in an Inwood shell midden.

For more than thirty-five years spanning the late 1800’s well into the early 1900’s amateur archeologist William Louis Calver led a happy band of weekend explorers through the trenches and wilds of a rapidly developing northern Manhattan.

A thin man with a long angular nose Calver was a railroad engineer by trade, but whenever a free moment presented itself he was out in the field with pick and shovel rewriting the history of a forgotten New York.

A true history buff if ever one existed.

An expert on the Revolutionary War and an unabashed relic hunter, Calver often spoke before hushed rooms of academics gathered around his Magic Lantern projector, the bespectacled audience mesmerized by the glow of the photographs of Calver and company exploring in the field.

There, before them on the screen, were images of Indian caves, pottery, arrowheads, Hessian Huts, buttons, bullets, shell pits and skeletons.

A man so knowledgeable, entertaining and enthusiastic about New York history was a rare thing indeed.

This was Indiana Jones cut from a different cloth.

And so it was, in 1918, despite a complete lack of formal training, Calver was tapped by the New York Historical Society to become Chairman of its newly formed Field Exploration Committee.

It was a title he would hold until his death in 1940.

William Calver standing on far right overseeing a dig. Reginald Bolton is seated in the pit. The digs often became community events replete with children and picnic baskets.

Described in a 1922 New York Times article as “Emergency Historians,” Calver and six members of his team were often dispatched, at a moments’ notice, whenever anything of historic or archeological interest was uncovered.

If the case be urgent one or more of the experts are summoned by telephone and hurried to the scene of the discovery,” the Times reported.

More often than not these reports came from northern Manhattan where the rapid development of subways, roads and apartment buildings resulted in a staggering number of finds.

And so it was, this grand old man of urban archeology became a familiar face in Inwood and the surrounding region.

Bolton on left, Calver on right exploring dig site.

Faded photographs invariably show him, accompanied by friend and colleague Reginald Pelham Bolton, at dig sites wearing a starched white collared shirt, formal jacket and tie.  The idea that dungarees and work boots might be more appropriate attire for these messy affairs likely never occurred to “Mr. C.”

Truly a man of a quickly fading Victorian era—“old school,” if you will.

The Field Committee, Source: Valentine’s Manual, 1919.

Drawing on various professional backgrounds, the members of this Field Exploration Committee made up the rules and tools of their emerging science as they went along.

Bolton, for example, had a full time job as civil engineer.  He also penned elevator manuals and other mundane documents when not in the field.

John Ward Dunsmore was a respected artist with a passion for recreating scenes from the American Revolution.

Samuel Verplanck, like his father before him, had served as President of the New York Historical Society after pursuing a career in astronomy.

Reginald Bolton’s cane which concealed a thin steel rod used in probing for artifacts.

Perhaps the teams’ most ingenious invention, elegant in its simplicity, was a hand-tooled metal rod Bolton kept concealed in the hollow chamber of the cane he was rarely seen without.

Handy, practical and always at the ready.

By probing the earth with this primitive steel device members of the group were able to determine, when the rod met with resistance, if anything lay beneath the soil.

In a 1923 paper describing the rod, Bolton explained, “Practice gives considerable sense of the character of the object with which it may come in contact.  Thus weed or roots can be distinguished from stone, and such objects as shells or bone are recognizable by their penetration while it become possible to recognize glass and crockery.”

Hessian Hut under reconstruction by William Calver (standing with straw hat) behind the Dyckman House in 1916.

It was with this rod that the group discovered the Hessian Hut, today reconstructed behind the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum.

What follows is a profile of Calver’s “other life” working for the railroads.

That he had time for outside activities, namely re-writing the history of early Manhattan, is, well…mindboggling.

Interborough Bulletin
August-September 1921 issue
An Archaeologist and Historical Celebrity
Research and Exploration Work of W.L. Calver, an Interborough Employee

William Louis Calver, The Interborough Bulletin, August:September 1921.

W.L. Calver, the General Foreman of the Shop Manufacturers at the 98th Street Shop, is in several respects an interesting character, if not a remarkable man. As a machinist Mr. Calver is all that is implied in the term “old-time mechanic.”  He has had 47 years’ experience at the trade, and has worked over 35 years for the Manhattan Elevated and I.R.T. companies. He is thorough and conscientious in his work and has always been loyal to the interests of his employers.

Mr. Calver did not “pick up” the trade, but started in at a regular apprenticeship and saw it through, working six years as an apprentice, under instruction with a qualified draughtsman before he ventured forth as a journeyman.

It was in 1872 that Mr. Calver made his start at the trade in the old shops of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Company at Scranton, Pa., and it will be inferred from this that “W.L.C.” s today somewhat advanced in years, but he resents the insinuation that he is an “old man.”  He started in at the tender age of fourteen years and was, consequently, “out of his time” at an age when the “boys” of today are thinking of picking up the trade—at a man’s rate of pay.

In the railroad shops at Scranton back in the 1870’s there was a force of old English and Scotch mechanics.  They were some of the first crop of machinists that came in with the locomotive, and from these associates Mr. Calver became imbued with the “traditions” of the trade.  There was no side stepping, or letting “George do it” in those times; and it used to be the boast that every graduate from the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western shops came into authority sooner or later.  While ordinarily Mr. Calver’s duties as a manufacturer of an almost infinite number of parts would be an arduous task, by system he has reduced his labors to something like mere routine.  He has the “faculty” of “sizing up” or placing a proper value on men, and no faithful and capable hand will go long without his deserts in “Mr. C.’s” department.

In his dealings with those with whom his duties bring him in touch, Mr. Calver is tactful and he will outdo you in courtesy every time.  Don’t try to “put anything over” him or treat him rough; and no “bull,” or you lose out.

So much for “Mr. C.” professionally; outside of the shops his versatility manifests itself.  He is quite handy as a photographer, especially in “copying,” or “taking” small objects.  He is an accomplished speaker—quite at home on a real platform, with a real audience, and speaking on his favorite subject—American History; for on the military history of the American War of Independence there are few who exceed him.  Mr. Calver has a magnificent set of slides illustrating his forty years of exploration work within the American and British camps of the Revolutionary War period. In recognition of his historical research work Mr. Calver was constituted a “Life Member” of the New York Historical Society, and is the only person so elected directly into that Society for work performed.

As Chairman of the Field Exploration Committee of the New York Historical Society Mr. Calver has, with his associates, recently made many discoveries in the Hudson Highlands, where the committee has located several lost camps of the American troops in the Revolutionary War, and where the committeemen have recovered numerous mementos of the soldiery who occupied the camps.

William Calver explores Inwood shell midden.

Mr. Calver shines also as an Archaeologist and is a “Life Member” of the Indian Museum—“Heye Foundation”—at 155th Street and Broadway, in this city.  With a companion Mr. Calver unearthed many reminders of Aboriginal life on upper Manhattan Island, including half a dozen Indian burials, the only authentic discoveries of their kind on the island.  At 114th Street Mr. Calver discovered a large Iroquoian Indian Pottery vessel, one of the finest specimens ever found in the East.  This find Mr. Calver almost duplicated in the large pot, which he discovered at the opening of 231st Street, west of Broadway.  The former pot is now in the American Museum; the latter is in the Indian Museum.

In addition to all the foregoing, Mr. Calver is an able writer on a variety of topics and we hope at some future date to publish something from his pen.

Reverting to his experiences at the trade, we would add that after quitting the Scranton shops in 1880 Mr. Calver journeyed westward, working at times in the N.Y., P. & O. R.R. shops at Meadville, Pa., in the Pittsburg, Fort Wayne & Chicago shops at Fort Wayne, Ind., in the Lake Shore shops at Elkhart, Ind., and in the Kansas Pacific shops in Armstrong, Kans.  In the early part of the year 1883 he was foreman in the Canadian Pacific shops in Winnipeg, Manitoba, but left the northwest to return to his native city, New York.  He obtained employment at the Elevated Shops July 2nd, 1883.  In the summer of 1885 he crossed the Atlantic and traveled in England, Scotland, and France, and then resumed his labor at 98th Street, where he has been employed quite continuously ever since.  He claims that during his thirty-five years of service his record for punctuality is 100 percent perfect.

Author’s note:

Calver later collaborated with Bolton on a book titled  “History Written with Pick and Shovel” in which the pair chronicled their archeological discoveries.

Today, a handful of Calver and Bolton’s finds can be viewed in the Relic Room of the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum on 204th Street and Broadway.

Poem discovered in the personal effects of the late William Calver. (Housed at the New York Historical Society)

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