Now and then when I feel that Indiana Jones-like urge to dig deep into Inwood’s history, that primal need to explore that cannot be quelled through an Internet search or a trip to the library, I’ll often take a stroll in Inwood Hill Park.
For planned excursions I’ll stuff a knapsack with printouts from old books or maps to see if I can pinpoint the exact spot of a long forgotten spring or well.
Other times I’ll examine the root structures of overturned trees after a storm. Sometimes the most amazing historical relics cling to the tendrils of these ancient guardians of the wood.
On these trips I’m usually accompanied by another “Weekend Archeologist,” be it a willing volunteer or a conscript.
During these wanderings we’ve encountered the foundations of fabled homes and institutions and countless other structures.
Accompanied by close friend Tim Hurley, not long ago, we found a ceramic lid, once the top of a nineteenth century toothpaste pot, protruding from a clump of soil that dangled from the upturned root of a recently fallen tree. The discovery, so badly damaged, was, in the beginning, a true mystery.
But after a bit of research on the Internet and some deductive reasoning our find came into focus.
Embarking on an amateur water survey, sans divining rods, neighbors Don Rice and Betty Lee helped uncover a half dozen wells, some located on the ridge of Inwood Hill. In some of these long forgotten watering holes, now rediscovered after laying undisturbed for nearly a century, water still flowed cool and clear.
Thus it came as no surprise to discover that we had followed in the muddy footprints of others, a long string of others, inspired to explore their surroundings for traces of the past. A sacred quest.
Who was here before us and what traces will we leave behind?
The below article, printed nearly a century ago, introduces us to an intrepid set of weekend explorers whose findings helped write the history of our handsome little burg.
New York Evening Post
December 17, 1924
SOUGHT, SEEN HEARD
New York’s “Weekend Archeologists” Are Successful in Finding Many Revolutionary War Relics
Archeologists somehow have come to be associated with distant lands. The word calls up a picture of sand-swept Egypt and the tombs of the Pharaohs, or clattering Rome where alongside a modern street shovels find buried remnants of other days, or sun-baked Tripoli where at the present moment men are plunging down to find the ancient baths of Leptis Magna.
But archeologists somehow seem strangely out of place in New York, where stand so many lofty structures that there is scarcely enough land to dig for fish worms, let alone sunken marks of a previous civilization.
There is in the city, however, one group of “weekend archeologists” who for the past twenty-five years have been carrying on excavations within the city with amazing results. By piercing the surface of the earth a scant five or six feet they have gone back hundreds of years, possibly thousands, and brought to the eyes of man traces of days so distant that history’s record of them is painted in faint and fading strokes.
They are all busy men, busy throughout the week with the ordinary tasks of New York. Chief among them perhaps is Reginald Pelham Bolton, a consulting engineer. Among the others are William L. Calver, John Ward Dunsmore the painter, Oscar T. Barck and Dr. William S. Thomas.
“We began,” says Mr. Bolton, “with a simple curiosity in the history of the city. We hunted up all the relics of other days that were on the surface and then we naturally turned to those below the surface.
“First we searched in the falling banks along the Harlem River, in washouts and in new cellars that were being dug. What we found encouraged us. Then Mr. Calver and I invented a steel rod by which we have been able to continue the work without the loss of valuable time.
“It is a three foot instrument, sharp at one end. With it we pierce the ground. Experience has taught us how to tell when we strike something of value. Wood is tough to the rod. Bones are soft and spongy. Shells are brittle. And we have found that whenever we pierce oyster shells we usually find something interesting. In Indian days and even in the early settler days bodies were surrounded with shells when buried.
“We have found many skeletons. Some of these have been human skeletons, others those of animals. Evidently the Indians buried dogs, turtles and even snakes with religious ceremonies. Dogs are found all curled up and surrounded by oyster shells.
It is to Revolutionary lore, however, that the “weekend archeologists” have made their greatest contribution. By patient and painstaking work they have located and recovered scores off “dug out” huts used by American, British and Hessian troops during the Revolution.
“In the Inwood section, near Seaman avenue, “says Bolton, “We found sixty-five such huts, with their fireplaces almost intact. In some were the ashes of the last fire and about these fireplaces we have found countless possessions of the soldiers themselves.
“When the site of Fort Washington was opened at 183rd street we carried on extensive excavation work. We found, for instance, more than 900 military buttons which had been lost by soldiers encamped at the spot.
“By checking up with these buttons we are able to place regiments on Washington Heights of which historians have failed to tell us. We have learned that the British kept from 5,000 to 7,000 of their troops there. This out of a total of 32,000—almost one-fourth. Now we know why the British didn’t get ahead.
“It was a military mistake and so grave a one that it probably cost the British Empire the war. Here is history that would never have been fully known but for digging in the ground.
“Fort Washington is a site we should not lose to the spread of apartment buildings in this section. It has been reported that Rodman Wanamaker, who now owns the ground, is planning to sell it. New Yorkers should join in urging him not to do so. True, it was the scene of a disastrous American defeat, but excavations have proved that in that very defeat lay victory in the British mistake to which it led. It should be preserved.”
Mr. Bolton and his fellow archeologists have made fascinating excavations on the old Dyckman farm property. They have virtually been able to reconstruct pictures of the farm life of the day through the things they have come upon, rusted and worn, far underneath the surface. At one site they found bits of plows, scales and hinges, a horseshoe, the ring off a crab net, a carving knife and even the old farmer’s spectacles.
Vast treasures are lost to them through the fact that skyscrapers have been reared over the lands which hold them. If they could only explore downtown New York as they have Washington Heights they might piece together bits of history of the Dutch regime that would be invaluable.
“I stopped alongside a sewer that was being dug in a downtown street one day,” said Mr. Bolton, “and in five minutes had picked out of the earth that was thrown out by workers coins and other valuable relics that gave a mere indication of the treasures that might be found. But it is too late for that now.”
Mr. Bolton is a graying man with the keen eye of a discoverer. He has written prolifically regarding his work. He comes from a family of writers—his father and other forbearers left many volumes. His son is Guy Bolton the playwright. The engineer archeologist’s home is on West 144th street. His rear yard was once the garden of Audubon.
“Its better than gold-mining,” he says of his weekend forays. “In gold-mining you know what you are looking for, but we never know what we’re going to find.”