“The Harlem Ship Canal was formally opened yesterday with elaborate and imposing ceremonies. The day was the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, and these two great events will now go down into history linked together, although separated by an interval of 120 years.” (New York Times, June 18, 1895)
“It was a great day for upper New York. The joining of the waters of the Hudson and East Rivers was celebrated as no similar event has been celebrated since the Erie Canal was opened in 1825.” (Newburgh Daily Journal, June 17, 1895)
The Harlem Ship Canal
On a brilliant spring morning in 1895 thousands of New Yorkers gathered along the shorefronts of the Harlem and Hudson Rivers for the grandest celebration northern Manhattan had ever seen–the opening of the Harlem Ship Canal.
Most on hand saw the new waterway as a boon to commercial activity on the oft overlooked northern end of Gotham. The Ship Canal would turn Manhattan into a true island and shave some twenty-file miles off the distance ships had to travel from the Hudson River to Long Island Sound. A full 10 miles of new wharves could soon be added to the Manhattan’s waterfront.
The operation, decades later, would surgically remove Marble Hill from the main island.
A scribe from the New York Herald captured the scene on the Harlem River that glorious day:
“A sun not too hot, a blue sky, with enough fleecy clouds to please a painter: rivers sparkling in the sunlight, foliage dotting the sides of the gracefully rising hills of the upper Harlem, verdant banks coming down to the water’s edge, evidences of a thriving commerce in the lower stretches of the river, stately warships, with the black and warning muzzles of their guns protruding from their snowy sides: steamers, tugs launches and boats of every description, decked with the gayest bunting, and thousands and thousands of men and women to see them and applaud...” (New York Herald, June 18, 1895)
A simultaneous land parade snaked its way north in preparation for the opening of the canal; scheduled for noon.
“From the time the first line of boys in blue came in sight until the very last float had passed there was not a moment when you felt able to take your eyes off the spectacle. To do absolute and impartial justice to the pageant would lame all the laudatory adjectives in the dictionary.” (New York Herald, June 18, 1895)
A more exciting day the region had likely never seen. Every window along the route was draped in red, white and blue bunting. All levels of society gathered for the event. It was, after all, a celebration for all New Yorkers. “No matter how poor a man he still waved the flag,” the Herald reporter continued. “And certainly some rich men will have to go without truffles and terrapin for months to make up for their lavish outlay on decorations.” (New York Herald, June 18, 1895)
The land parade featured a seemingly endless calvacade of floats that celebrated the industry and commerce organizers hoped would result from the opening of the new canal.
“They were all handsomely decorated,” wrote the New York Times. “And each was drawn by four powerful horses. On these floats many interesting trade operations were carried on. There were brewery exhibits, showing the brewing of beer, and refrigerating machines illustrating the method of making artificial ice. Small cakes of ice manufactured on the spot were distributed to the people along the route of the parade. On one float was a group of women making cigarettes. Wagon building, house construction, piano making, and many other interesting trade operations were shown. In addition to the men and women on the floats, there were at least 2,000 workmen accompanying the floats on foot.” (New York Times, June 18, 1895)
The crowds burst into hurrahs and and wild cheers as a succession of marching bands advanced ever northward. “Especially when the Hebrew orphan boys and their band–the youngest performers in the United States–marched past.” (New York Herald, June 18, 1895)
“Pickpockets were busy during the celebration, and several of them, all professionals, were arrested and locked up at Police Headquarters. Several watches and pins were found upon them. They were known to police as James Hill, alias ‘Whitey’ Ryan; James Bates, alias ‘Williams;’ John Bush, Henry Miller, alias ‘Link;’ William J. Williams, George Wilson, alias ‘O’Brien;’ George Jones, alias ‘Roseman;’ Joseph Carney, Thomas Flynn and Joseph Unger.” (New York Herald, June 18, 1895)
Which Way Do We Go?
As early as 1829 the concept of a ship canal connecting the Harlem and Hudson rivers had been explored on the northern tip of Manhattan. If the challenges of cutting through the solid rock, which surrounded the narrow and winding Spuyten Duyvil Creek, could be surmounted, then Manhattan would finally become a true island.
In an age of ship travel such a shortcut would have great commercial benefits. Large vessels, instead of rowboats, could easily pass through the canal on their way to and from Long Island Sound.
But first a route needed to be chosen.
On March 3, 1881 Congress passed the River and Harbor act and called for a survey of possible routes for the proposed canal. Four possible paths were considered:
“First: By way of Sherman’s Creek to Inwood or Tubby Hook, on the Hudson.
Second: From Sherman’s Creek to a bend of Spuyten Duyvil Creek near Johnson’s Foundry.
Third: By a cut through ‘Dyckman’s Meadows to the Spuyten Duyvil.
Fourth: Through Spuyten Duyvil Creek by way of Kingsbridge.” (Annual Report of the Chief of Engineers, United States Army to the Secretary of War, 1885)
Ultimately, it was decided that the cut through “Dyckman’s Meadows” would be both the easiest and least expensive route. The work, which included the daunting task of rerouting and contouring the Harlem River, came with an estimated price tag of $2.7 million dollars.
According to an article published in 1890, the canal would “save millions of dollars and thousands of hours every year in the conduct of commerce by water in and about New York…develop the villages of Spuyten Duyvil, Kingsbridge, Morris Dock, High Bridge and the entire upper portion of our city…make transportation in New York Harbor near the confluence of the North and East rivers safer and more rapid by giving to the canal-boats, freight flats, tugs and the small fry of the river trade a better passage about New York City than that around the Battery; to make Manhattan literally the island that it has always been pictured, and give it a complete framework of busy docks slips and bulkheads–this, in a general way, summarizes some of the magnificent results to come from the combined efforts of leading civil engineers, uncouth mud-drenchers and dangerous-looking blasting trappings, whose presence in the picturesque valley between Kingsbridge and the Spuyten Duyvil has for months attracted the attention and inquiry of passengers flying by on the New York Central road on the one side or the Northern road on the the other.” (New York World, January 19, 1890)
The Corps of Engineers carefully studied the tides and water levels of the Hudson and Harlem Rivers. One can only imagine their relief when the draftsmen realized that a wedding of the waters was not only possible, but nature would actually lend a hand in making their project a reality.
“It was found that the mean high water in the Hudson is nearly a foot lower than it is in the Harlem, and that the mean rise and fall of the tide in the big river is over two feet less than in the smaller stream. And it was also demonstrated that high water occurs one hour and four minutes earlier in the Hudson than in the Harlem. The difference will give a free flow of water east and west, dependent upon the stage of the tides, the natural and necessary preponderence being toward the Hudson. Had it been otherwise it would have been practically impossible to have kept an open and unobstructed channel. Had the difference been too great the operation of the tides rushing in and out would have made navigation difficult and dangerous, if not impossible. So much has nature come to the assistance of the skilled engineers in working out the problem.“(New York Herald, April 15, 1894)
Navigating the Curve
Today, the Harlem Ship Canal cuts a near straight line from the Harlem River to the Hudson, but initially, the Spuyten Duyvil followed a more circuitous route.
The “island” where more recent generations of children have played baseball, was once the tip of a peninsula.
This peninsula, which resembled the state of Florida on a map, once extended from the high cliff wall to the north; today decorated by the giant aquamarine “C” painted by Columbia University students in 1952.
From an engineer’s perspective, the obvious choice would have been to blast through the protuberance and create a straight line from river to river. A direct passage would have been significantly easier to navigate, but the peninsula was home to foundry of great military significance.
Constructed in 1853, the Johnson Ironworks was a key component of the American war machine. Producing guns, shot and shells for the United States military, the foundry was considered too important to condemn for the sake of a shipping canal, so a decision was made to go around the facility. As a result, the original path of the canal followed a semi-circular bend around the ironworks.
If the goal of the canal had been to make commercial marine activity more convenient, than many wondered why such a winding path had been chosen.
An 1890 issue of the Real Estate Record and Builder’s Guide accused the Corps of Engineers of being penny-wise and pound-foolish, “It has been often wondered at that the Harlem River Commission did not condemn these mills, so as to be able to cut through in a straight line from river to river. The reason given is that the engineer officer in charge laid down the lines of the improvement so as to avoid excessive costs, which would have been quite severe if the lines had been laid through the rolling-mills. This will save money but it will cause considerable inconvenience to vessels passing through in future years. It is not yet, too late to make a change in the plans by condemning this property and running through in a straight line to the Hudson River.” (In 1923, decades after the Canal opened, the Ironworks were condemned. In 1936 a direct cut was made through the peninsula leaving behind the “island” we see today. It is important to note that, although geographically separated from the island, Marble Hill is still considered part of Manhattan.)
Making the Cut
On January 9, 1888, a group of some two hundred, mostly Italian laborers, under a charter granted to the “Harlem River Canal Company,” set to work on the proposed canal amid the green farmland known as “Dyckman’s Meadows.”
To make the 1,200 foot cut the workers erected dams on either end of the Spuyten Duyvil–one dam at the eastern end of the small stream, where it poured into the Harlem River, and another on the western end along the Hudson. Between these two man-made structures, designed to keep the water out, laborers blasted away the surrounding hills and burrowed through solid rock to create a channel 350 feet wide and 85 feet deep.
Making the cut through the near-solid dolomite required considerable manpower.
“All vehicles were horse-drawn,” wrote Bronx historian William Tieck, “All apparatus was steam-powered. Much of the work was back-breaking muscle-splitting, manual labor. To loosen the rock, a blasting agent known as for Forcite was set off in holes made by steam drills. The loose debris was then hauled on steam-driven tramways to an inclined trestle at the southwest end of the cut; from there it was dumped on land leased from Isaac M. Dyckman as a storage site.” (Riverdale, Kingsbridge, Spuyten Duyvil: A Historical Epitome of the Northwest Bronx, William A. Tieck, 1968)
Some of the debris found its way into local construction sites. The lower portion of Saint Stephen’s Methodist Church in Marble Hill contains rock unearthed in the great dig.
In 1891 workers widening the Harlem River Ship Canal found the remains of a 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)
The tusk was uncovered sixteen feet below the low tide near the Harlem River where it rested securely in a ancient bed of peat. “The exact location,” according to a report by the Museum of Natural History published in 1891, “of it’s occurrence is in the canal, about fifteen feet from its northern side, and about ten feet west of the center of Broadway.” (New York State Museum Bulletin: The Mastodons, Mammoths and Other Pleistocene Mammals of New York State, January-February, 1921)
Other mastodon remains were uncovered near the Ring Garden on Dyckman Street near Broadway in 1885 and again on Seaman Avenue in 1925.
From the very beginning, the dams, designed to keep the water of the Harlem and Hudson Rivers at bay while workers chiseled away deep inside the giant trench, proved ill suited for their all-important task.
The westerly dam, along the Hudson River, “consisted of a reinforced double row of piles faced with tongue-and-groove sheet piling and banked over with marsh sod to a width of about six feet on top,” wrote Tieck, a Bronx historian. “As the mud which covered the bedrock adjacent to the dam was pumped out, the soft ooze beneath the barrier began to move into the cut, causing part of the dam to tilt over and rupture. Thereafter it required constant attention.” (Riverdale, Kingsbridge, Spuyten Duyvil: A Historical Epitome of the Northwest Bronx, William A. Tieck, 1968)
On March 16, 1889 a north-easter roared through the valley and swamped the western dam. Work was delayed for ten days as engineers slowly pumped the unfinished canal dry.
Another dam breach occurred on October 24, 1890.
During a record high tide on the night of April 20, 1893 another north-easter tore across the Spuyten Duyvil. The results were disastrous.
At about 1:30 A.M. “the night watchman, Michael Sullivan, who was attending the engines in the cut, was surprised by the pouring of torrents of water over the tops of the dams,” a reporter for the Times wrote in a breathtaking description. “He ran for his life and attempted to scale the excavation.
Twice he was hurled back into the canal by the force of the waters. On the third attempt he reached the summit, much bruised and battered. At this moment both dams collapsed before the enormous pressure, and the waters of the two rivers mingled with a mighty rush…Had the accident occurred at the time of the day tide, when 200 men are employed in the cut, the loss of life would have been appalling.” (New York Times, April 22, 1893)
While the contractors had nearly finished extracting the rock from the canal, most of the machinery sitting on its bed lay ruined beneath the briny water. Engineers were then left with two choices: “rebuild the dams and pump the water out so that the work might be finished on dry ground, or to let things remain as they were and complete the blasts underwater and dredge out the machinery and rocks together. The contractors decided to follow the latter plan. There was about six thousand cubic yards of rock removed in this way.” (New York Herald, April 15, 1894)
In fact, divers operating pneumatic drills toiled beneath the swift and dangerous currents until the project was complete.
A Mischievous Little Tugboat
While most new Yorkers were in favor of the canal, which in theory would bring industry and commerce to a long neglected district of the city, some viewed the project with disdain. The naysayers felt the canal was unnecessary, cost too much money and that the only people who stood to benefit from the operation were those who had purchased large swathes of real estate along the proposed route. Perhaps the largest investor of such property was John Jacob Astor IV, one of the wealthiest men in America.
Everyone working on the canal project knew that Astor had hopes of developing unimproved land on both sides of the Harlem after the project was completed. The possibilities seemed almost endless–the business of wharves, warehouse and factories beckoned.
And Astor, given his investments, fully expected to be the first to pass through the nearly completed project. “His intimate friends knew this,” wrote a reporter from the New York World. “So did the contractors and the workmen employed on the extensive work.
The workmen had all understood that as soon as a sufficient depth had been reached in the rocky bed a launch guided by the millionaire’s white hands would pass through and be greeted with cheers. They supposed that many bottle would be opened to celebrate the event and that the launch would be trimmed with gay streamers and bunting. The workmen knew it would be a great day for the Astors when the first steam craft went between the high rocky bluffs from the Hudson to the muddy Harlem, and they looked forward to the gala day.” (The New York World, February 28, 1895)
But Astor’s private celebration was not to pass.
At 1:30 P.M. on February 27, 1895, more than three months before the official opening, “a blunt-nosed little tug, the Lillian M. Hardy, went puffing through the waterway, bumping against big cakes of ice, down into the Harlem.
She piped three little, shrill pipes, the captain smiled and the workmen scared up a faint cheer, when they realized that after years of work a steam vessel had passed over the rocky bed without touching. But there was no Astor, no bunting, no bottle.” (The New York World, February 28, 1895)
In the end, Astor would have to await the official opening like everyone else. He would later perish aboard the R.M.S. Titanic.
Opening the Canal
June 17, 1895:
Early Monday morning boats began to gather on the Hudson River, near the mouth of the Spuyten Duyvil, awaiting the signal to enter the newly completed canal.
“The United States Cruiser Cincinnati, her brass guns shining brightly in the sun, lay near the New York shore, a little above the drawbridge, and around her the tugs and launches and the private yachts and excursion steamers collected, waiting for the signal to start.” (New York Times, June 18, 1895)
“The fleet of vessels made a pretty sight in the Hudson, waiting for the signal to start. The tugs, of which there were two dozen or more, were all profusely decorated with flags. The little steam and electric and naphtha launches puffed around here and there like brilliant-hued Croton bugs, while the Stiletto, the Now Then, the Vamoose, and other marine fliers cruised about on the western side of the river. The police steamer Patrol arranged the boats in the order in which they were to go throughout the canal.” (New York Times, June 18, 1895)
Promptly at noon the big guns of the Cincinnati exploded giving the signal to raise the railroad drawbridge permitting the flotilla to enter the Canal. The whistles of every ship within earshot responded immediately and the reports of small arms fire from the decks private vessels also soon filled the air. Other boats included the police tug boat Scandinavian, the tugboat Baltimore, the steamer General Meigs, the William H. Wickham and a seemingly endless string of steam yachts, police patrol boats and private vessels of all shape and size.
Onboard the flagship vessel, the Elaine, William Lafayette Strong, the 90th Mayor of New York City, beamed from behind his thick, salt and pepper mustache and beard. The former dry goods salesman from Ohio had done much for the city. A member of the Fusion Party, a coalition of Republican and anti-Tammany Democrats, Strong created parks, established the Department of Corrections and the Board of Education. And while the canal predated Strong’s tenure as Mayor of New York, he certainly cherished his role in this momentous day in New York’s history.
The Wedding of the Waters
Onboard the Elaine, little Grace McVeigh, the daughter of a member of the North Side League, stood beside Mayor Strong holding a small keg of water draped in the Stars and Stripes.
The child then “preformed the impressive ceremony of wedding the water at the starboard bow of the boat. A jar of water taken from Lake Erie at Buffalo was produced and the lid being raised, the little goddess of Liberty poured the contents into the East River through the folds of an American flag. Mayor Strong stood beside the child and when the jar had been emptied he inscribed his name on the empty vessel.” (Elmira, New York Star Gazette, June 22, 1895)
If published reports are to be believed, a crowd of some half million had gathered along the shorelines of upper Manhattan to witness the spectacle.
“At Spuyten Duyvil a force of 200 police under the the command of Captain Schmittberger, of the Kingsbridge police station, were on duty to preserve order and take care of the crowds which gathered upon the railroad docks along the riverfront and the wooded slopes of the bluff which stretched back from the shore.” (The Evening World, June 17, 1895)
For a few brief moments a small setter-type dog upstaged the festivities.
Frightened by gunfire, the dog had leaped off the deck of a tug into the swirling waters. Another tug, following in the wake of the first tried, but failed, to pull the terrified pooch aboard. After several harrowing minutes, “a boatman put out from shore, and with some difficulty pulled the dog into the boat, while the onlookers applauded heartily.” (The Evening World, June 17, 1895)
Fishing and Fireworks
During a ceremony later that afternoon Mayor Strong told the citizens of northern Manhattan that, “Too few New Yorkers realize the importance and the extent of the great uptown district. I am gradually appreciating it, and I want to tell you boys that I have a great mind to move up here…”
An avid angler, he also lamented having to sacrifice a favored retreat for the construction of the canal, “This canal has spoiled my fishing ground, but still, I am willing to do away with another fishing ground upon account of the city of New York.”
He was not alone in his lamentations. The previous winter the New York Herald brought attention to the environmental catastrophe looming for the fragile ecosystem that had once existed in the Spuyten Duyvil: “The life of the bobtail clam, which has had its haunts in the marshy meadows of the Harlem River, is fast drawing to a close. Within six short months the luscious bivalve will cease to exist there, except in the memories of the inhabitants of Fordham Heights, Kingsbridge, and vicinity. No more will the blithesome clam digger, clad in long rubber boots, a short fustian coat, and a red necktie, tie himself to the flats when the tide is out and dig himself a bucketful of this fruit for breakfast. The removal of dams in the long talked of ship canal will put an end to his occupation. It will take away the vocation of the angler for eels, and from a romantic, placid, lagoon-like estuary it will transform the stream into a canal with swift-running currents, in which few of the present inhabitants of its waters can exist. Here and there along the banks of the big ditch a few small submerged nooks may be left in their pristine state, but the locality will never again be the happy hunting ground it has been in the past.” (New York Herald, 1895)
The day ended with a magnificent display of fireworks. New York Governor Morton, Mayor Strong, and other dignitaries were silhouetted by the light-show from the grandstand “in outlines of sizzling flame, while squirming fires for two miles along the Harlem waterfront turned night into noon-day.” (New York Herald, June 18, 1895)
When the fireworks ended at ten o’clock the crowd dissolved into a “wild, jolly jumble in which men, women, children, carriages, bicycles and policemen were thoroughly mixed up and well shaken. The marvel is that no one was seriously injured in the crush and darkness.” (New York Herald, June 18, 1895)
1829– Charter granted to the “Harlem River Canal Company” to open the river.
March, 1873– River and Harbor Act, passed by Congress, directed that a survey be made of the Harlem River, near the East River, “for the removal of rocks therefrom.”
1874– Congress again directs an examination of the area with the purpose of establishing a navigable water connection between New York’s two great boundary rivers.
1875– Lieutenant Colonel John Newton of the Corps of Engineers surveys the area and delivers his report to Congress.
March 3, 1881– Congress approves River and Harbor Act and calls for a complete survey of the area including alternate cuts for the proposed canal.
May 1887– After years of legal wrangling and appraising land held by private owners, proposals are sought from contractors for the $2.7 million project.
January 9, 1888– Some 200, mostly Italian, laborers begin clearing an estimated 300,000 cubic yards of rock from the area then know as “Dyckman’s Meadows.”
February 28, 1895– Tugboat “Lillian M. Hardy” makes first ever passage of the canal.
Monday June 17, 1895 – Canal opens amid grand festivities and splendid weather.
1916– Part of the old Spuyten Duyvil Creek is filled in. Marble Hill becomes part of the mainland.
1923– Decades after the Canal opened, the Johnson Ironworks were condemned.
1936– A direct cut was made through the peninsula leaving behind the “island” we see today.