The Undiscovered Country: Northern Manhattan in 1904


In 1904 Inwood’s first modern apartment building appeared on the corner of Dyckman and Broadway (then still referred to by many as the Kingsbridge road). The erection of the Solano and Monida Apartments should have have served as warning that the agrarian lifestyle residents had known for so many generations was  nearing an end.  So too should the serpentine-like framework of the elevated subway which appeared, almost overnight, through the quiet, daisy strewn meadows of the Inwood valley.

The Solano and Monida Apartments stand alone in the distance on Dyckman Street in 1904, Source: Museum of the City of New York

But most in the lush pastures were too busy tending to wheat fields and livestock to realize the significance of the changes already taking place all around them.

The below article captures Inwood in those last,  precious and innocent moments before the sleepy fields and roadhouses were engulfed by the greater City of New York.  A city which had once seemed so far away.

New York Herald, October 9, 1904

New York Herald, October 9, 1904
An Exploration of Northern Manhattan
The Wild Country On Manhattan Island Which New Yorkers Will Discover When The Subway Trains Are Running: Historic Sites

New York Herald, October 9, 1904

“Waiting for the rumble of the first train to awake it to urban ways is a region not far away which is soon to be transformed from woodland and meadow into a part of the teeming city.  Nearly three hundred years have passed since Henry Hudson landed on Manhattan Island, yet in its northern reaches the cold springs still murmur over the living rock, remains of Indian villages are visible and the sward still bears traces of forts which bore the attack of Hessian mercenaries.

Other parts of the island have been crowned by the habitations of men, and busy factories and giant stores have risen to the skies, yet this spot is still largely given to the pursuits of agriculture. There the estates of country gentlemen may still be seen; and the houses of a century ago are nestled amid the trees or grace the mountain heights.

New York Herald, October 9, 1904.

Bells on Sunday morn call good men to church, and the echo of chimes may be heard over miles of green fields and amid forest clad hills. The principal fruit of the trees is signs of real estate dealers, for often as many as ten of these indices which point the way to a new era may be seen upon one oak.  Inwood is a restful spot, and Marble Hill has just begun to come out of the apple orchard.  There has been little activity in real estate there for half a century.  Generations have come and gone, following the primitive pursuits of man on an island which bears a large part of a world city.  The inhabitants in the region still speak of going down to New York, all unmindful of the fact that the city has stretched far beyond them and at the Bronx side has grown almost to the Yonkers line.  There are those who wander among woodland paths who have not seen the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan and know the city only by occasional newspaper articles.

An Unknown Land

This until recently undiscovered country may be described as extending from 180th street to 221st street, and as bounded on the east by the Harlem River and on the west by the Hudson.  It is now penetrated by a trolley line, which takes on passengers at Eighth avenue and 125th street and conveys them past the meadows and the forests to old Kingsbridge.   On the right of the tracks are miles of flat lands, on the left the wooded heights and the green hills over which now graze kine.

Upper Manhattan Island was once spoken of as a summer resort, and it is still for that matter. A generation ago men who had business in the city went by steamboat through Spuyten Duyvil Creek and landed at the Battery or at the middle of the island.

Others who owned horses preferred to drive to Kingsbridge, there to proceed by train to the Grand Central Station, and in more recent days those who dwell there drive down to the elevated 155th street, and go to their places of business in the “city.”  Its inaccessibility has retarded the growth and development of that end of the island, and the stimulus which it will soon receive from the opening of the subway will make it an integral part of the municipality.  The tunnel which pierces the Dyckman hill will be an artery through which will flow a new tide of population.  The subway trains will emerge upon the elevated structure which is completed as far as Marble Hill and is waiting the construction of a new bridge to be carried on through Kingsbridge.

New York Herald, October 9, 1904

The iron way stands out as though it were the backbone of the skeleton of a new body, for it will be hidden before long by the sinews of a new settlement which may be the home of a population of one million souls.

Were it not for that long spur of steel which stretches out along the Harlem, the power house of the subway, which rises at the base of Dyckman Hill. And the ever present real estate signs, the casual observer might get little idea of the sun of a new order of which the first rays are to be seen.

New York Herald, October 9, 1904

Broadway at that point is an ordinary country road and only recently has paving been begun.  West of Broadway, concealed by trees, runs the Boulevard Lafayette, now connected by viaduct with Riverside Drive and the Speedway, which terminates at Dyckman street.

Hills Still Uncleared

To the left, as the explorer goes by trolley car, may be seen the pastures and the meadows, half concealed by hedges and straggling trees. Here are cliffs overgrown with pine and scrub oak, and long stretches of sandy soil.  Far back from the road are manors where the old families lived—the Dyckmans and the Seamans and scores of others whose names are kept green in the titles of rudimentary streets.  Many of the younger generation are traveling or are living in apartment houses and gilded hotels on the lower part of the island, for they do not care for the homes of their ancestors in fall and winter. The roads were too muddy and they were so far away from the city, although pocketed within it, that they grew tired of country life.

Holyrood Church, New York Herald, October 9, 1904

Here is Holyrood Church, built of stone, a long, rambling structure which rises from a land once the battleground of the armies of the Revolution.  Within it is a mantel built of bowlders (sic) and of muskets and swords and cannon balls gathered in the fields over which the British drove the Continental army from its last stand on Manhattan Island.

Nestled at the base of Dyckman Hill is Mount Washington Presbyterian Church, which looks as though it were carved from wood and set as a landmark of another time.

Changes have taken place in recent years in the conformation of the land about the venerable edifice, so that it is now in a hollow.  The congregations are not large these days, but every Sunday finds a line of carriages before the door and in the yard.  The parishioners are wealthy and the church is well supported.

Churches and road houses are signs of a well regulated and attractive country, and upper Manhattan has many houses of entertainment near its driveways.  There is the Abbey, which lifts its walls of gray stone and its parapets above the high cliffs which overlook the Hudson, and not far from the old Kingsbridge road, now called Broadway, are houses which resemble old English inns.  At the foot of Marble Hill stands the old yellow tavern which generations ago was a stopping place for those who traveled north.

Many Local Improvements

Modern improvements were not neglected here, and that is why the residents of Inwood once had their own gas company.  The tank stands not far from Broadway, rusted and idle, for a giant corporation has absorbed the company which once purveyed illumination to Inwood.  The office where the superintendent once directed operations is now almost hidden by weeping willow trees.

Perkins Academy, at which the sons of the residents of that neighborhood were educated, is being changed into a public school for the city.  John B. McDonald, the contractor for the subway, formerly Corporation Counsel, were among those who drank at this font of learning.

Old Dyckman Homestead, New York Herald, October 9, 1904.

Dyckman is a name well known in the upper part of Manhattan, and the old estate stretches for many a furlong along Broadway.  Isaac Dyckman lived in what was known as the Old Homestead, at Marble Hill, built in 1812, which has been torn down to make room for the cut being made by the New York Central Railroad.  The other Dyckman house, which later took the title of the Old Homestead, stands well back from Broadway, surrounded by green lawn and flower beds. Near it are the houses of retainers who were attached to the Dyckman family. 

Seaman-Drake Arch and horses grazing in the Inwood valley, New York Herald, October 9, 1904.

Over the entrance to the Seaman estate is a high marble archway erected to the memory of a dog.  Here there was once a club house of the Riding and Driving Club, but it was found that the roads were often too muddy to make equestrian sports enjoyable, and other quarters were found for the organization.

New York Herald, October 9, 1904.

On the heights are several public institutions which were driven years ago by the growth of the lower city to the country.  The trustees believed that the time would never come when they would be disturbed by the march of progress.  It is likely that before many years these institutions will again be on the move, forced by that gentle compulsion so well known in the world of real estate.  When the value of their property rises so that the trustees may sell for enough to build new structures further up the country and gain a substantial bank account besides, there will be an exodus of the various institutions from the neighborhood.

Once a Tide Mill

Marble Hill, where once an apple orchard stood, is the tip of Manhattan Island, and indeed it may now be called an island, too, for the cutting through of the ship canal has surrounded it entirely by water. The swift flow of the current through there has wrought two changes greatly deplored by the inhabitants, for the tide mill in Spuyten Duyvil Creek is now out of commission because the water is not swift enough and eels may no longer be caught by the village blacksmith, Patrick Malone.  On many a day he sat on his back porch and drew the wriggling prizes from the depths below.

The old general store may one day become a great department emporium, and they who casually drop in to clip a bit from the convenient cheese and to speak of the latest gossip over the cannon stove in winter will be seen no more.

For the old inhabitants of the upper end of the island new conditions of life are shortly to come.  Landscape gardening, the raising of vegetables, the tending of herds are occupations which will not be required in the economy of the settlement which is to follow the subway.  The stands for the sale of sandwiches and soda water and cigars which have sprung up about the sylvan places will give way to the drug store with its onyx fountain, and the restaurant and hotel will follow the trend of population.

It is hard to predict what the years will bring, yet it is likely that another decade will see the low tract along the Harlem filed with flat houses, while piers and warehouses will appear at the water front.  Two parks will grace the city which is to take its place within a city.  The heights of Inwood will be covered, no doubt, by the homes of the wealthy until they resemble the present Riverside Drive.  The institutions will withdraw in the natural course of events, and about the parks, as about Morningside Park, will be thousands of dwelling houses and hundreds of stores.  The country house will not be known in that region in the days which are not far distant, and from the Battery to Yonkers will stretch one continuous and mighty city.” 

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