Sunday, November 10, 2013

99. Along the Docks, circa 1870

     This post will take us on a tour of the North River (Hudson River) and East River docks on a summer day circa 1870.  Our waterfront today has been prettified with parks and bike paths and dog runs and tennis courts.  Now we’ll see what it looked like circa 1870.  We’ll start on the North River at 34th Street and stroll south along West Street to the Battery.

     34th Street, North River.  Moored beside a pier is the offal boat, a small sloop piled high with the smelly carcasses of horses, cows, pigs, dogs, and cats that died in the city’s streets.  Scattered on the pier, barrels and tubs and hogsheads of blood and entrails from the slaughterhouses.  The offal boat will take this smelly cargo upriver to a bone-boiling plant that will turn it into leather, manure, soap, fat, and bone for soup and buttons.  So 1870 New York was recycling already.  Nothing for us to worry about today, since the internal combustion engine has supplanted horsepower in all but name.  Or is there?  What becomes of all those derelict cars and trucks?  Have you ever seen an automobile graveyard with its acres of rusting vehicles?  Those graveyards are always expanding, taking ever more space.  Will there always be enough space?  How will it ever end?  Hmm…  But let’s get back to the 1870 waterfront.  It’s rather smelly here on this pier, so let’s move along.

     Below 34th Street.  Brigs unloading bushels of potatoes.  Workers taking loads of cabbages from canal boats and tossing them into wagons.  Unloaded heaps of fruit.  Hungry street kids snatch a peach or two and flee.

     A mammoth grain elevator, a huge hulking wooden structure that dwarfs every 
other building in sight, where a steam-driven belt with buckets scoops up loose grain from the hold of a canal boat and hoists it up into its cavernous interior, where it will be stored temporarily in bins, then delivered through spouts into the hold of an ocean-going steamer for delivery to the England and Holland and Germany.  So grain from distant Ohio and Indiana, tens of thousands of bushels of it, finds its way to New York by barge via the Erie Canal and is hauled down the Hudson River by tugs to New York, where it is transshipped and sent to Europe to feed hungry populations no longer able to feed themselves.  New York City is essential to global trade.

     Farther along, everyone looks black, like a team of grimy demons: men in undershirts, smirched with coal dust, in the hold of a canal boat, shoveling coal into buckets that are raised mechanically to the dock.  That coal from the mountains of Pennsylvania, brought to the city via the Delaware and Hudson Canal, will be carted off and dumped in cellars, then fetched up in buckets and pails to burn in fireplaces with an orange glow, giving heat.  Or shoveled into furnaces to heat the boilers that make steam to drive the pistons of steamboats and locomotives, becoming power and speed.  Like all Americans, New Yorkers are awed by power, while speed makes them giddy and drunk.

     Next, an iron works.  From the outside we see flames leaping in a dark interior, and hear giant machines screech and groan and pound.  Iron from western Pennsylvania, to be shaped into shafts to reinforce buildings that can  now be taller and feature large glass display windows to tempt hordes of shoppers along Broadway.  Or made into boilers and propellers and sugar mills and lathes, or steel rails for railroads sprinting across prairies and deserts and mountains all the way to the blue Pacific.  Or melted and poured from vats into molds for marine engines with a white-hot hiss and glare that parches the face of onlookers and inspires in them visions of hell. 

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Inside an iron works: the forges.

     And now a lumberyard with whining steam-powered saws.  And a monster of a cotton press, its giant jaws clamping on a bale of cotton, compressing it to one foot thick.  Seventy bales an hour of Southern cotton to be shipped to the mills of Manchester and Leeds to be turned into muslins and calicoes that will be shipped back to New York and sent by rail to the rest of the nation.  Likewise shipped to New York will be silks and ribbons and laces from Lyons for the adornment of ladies of fashion, of whom New York has an inordinate number, all inordinately eager for the latest French fashions and frilled bonnets whose cost puts a grievous dent in their husbands’ budget but proclaims to the world that they are in the vanguard of fashion, they are chic, they are “in.”

Fashions of the 1880s, or, why the textile mills of Europe kept busy.

     Sugar refineries towering twelve stories high refining raw sugar brought to the city by brig and schooner from the slave plantations of Cuba; piles of brownstone and brick hauled in by sloop from the nearby counties, to be used in the elegant houses of the affluent; and distilleries producing tiger’s milk, diddle, or the oil of joy (we had countless names for it) to sate the lusty gullets of Americans.

Inside a sugar mill: cooling and barreling the sugar.

     The “Hotel de Flaherty,” a tin-roofed shed patched together with wood, stone, mud, and plaster, offering overripe apples, dusty candy, and smoked sausages at 2 cents each, while hogs grovel outside by the door.  Mr. Flaherty’s establishment doesn’t tempt us, we move on.

     Ice wagons loading ice from barges at a dock.  The ice, harvested the previous winter from the upper Hudson by ruddy-faced men with hand saws who cut it into chunks 12 inches thick, has been stored in sawdust-insulated huge dark riverside barns and now, tugged downriver on hundreds of barges, it will be hooked into wagons and hustled off by whip-cracking drivers through the steaming summer streets, to be tonged into homes or slid down ramps into cellars of fancy restaurants and hotels.  Even without refrigeration New Yorkers will have their frothy cold schooners of beer in beer gardens, their fine white wines at Delmonico’s, the prince of restaurants, and the chilled lemonades and tinted sherbets that they sip and nibble genteelly in ice cream parlors on Broadway.

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The New York City ice trade, all phases.

     18th Street.  The looming retorts and gas holders of the Manhattan Gas Company.  Ugly, sprawling, and smelly, gas works are located on the waterfront, far from the city’s fine residences.  Here, coal is scooped into red-hot retorts and burned there and 

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Inside the retorts of a gas works.  Not something you would
want near your residence.
its vapors carried off to be stored in gas holders, giant bulbed bellies of iron, then conveyed through underground pipes to hotels and restaurants and the bibelot-crammed homes of the rich.  There it becomes light, glowing from globed chandeliers, or from polished glass boxes of streetlamps along the Fifth Avenue and Broadway and other thoroughfares where lamplighters light them at twilight and snuff them at dawn.  Thanks to gaslight, pickpockets work in the evening, hotel lobbies glow, and Fisk’s Opera House presents in a stellar glare imported Spanish dancers, music by Offenbach, and cataracts with real water, climaxed by 100 Beauties 100 hiking their ruffled skirts, as 200 shapely legs kick high in that talked-about scandal from Paris, the  TERPSICHOREAN  AEROSTATICS  OF  THE  DEMON  CANCAN.

Yes, gaslight helped.

      Just offshore, a towering floating derrick with cables and pulleys that with only 1 horsepower and five men has lifted a sunken boat laden with 300 tons of coal.  Once again, the machine has triumphed.

     11th Street.  You think you’ve experienced noise and bustle so far?  Hardly.  Here we leave the quieter docks – yes, quieter -- dealing with grain, lumber, sugar, iron, and ice, and come to the docks of the shipping lines linking New York to Boston and New Orleans and San Francisco and Liverpool and Le Havre and Hamburg and Canton and Jakarta and Bombay. Surging across West Street come arriving and departing travelers, porters carrying baggage, and clerks with letter bundles scurrying after captains toting mailbags, all of them fighting past wagons blocking horsecars blocking stages amid shouts and curses of drivers, lumber spilling from a cart, mountains of barrels and bales, a black-garbed minister distributing tracts and Bibles to whoever will take them, and smells of fish, brine, tar, and molasses.

     The oyster market.  Rows of anchored oyster boats where men pry open oyster shells with knives, toss the oysters in pails of water.  Wagons take on loads of baskets of oysters that will be consumed by New Yorkers everywhere, in fine and not-so-fine restaurants, in oyster cellars, and even at stands in the street, as they relish glistening blue points on crushed ice with a wedge of lemon, or plump saddle rocks plucked from the groin of the sea.

     Slips where Coney Island sand is stored, so housewives can scour their pans and kettles and keep them bright.  Sand too for the floors of saloons, where untutored males of the lower classes, and even some tutored males of the upper classes, still have a habit of spitting. 

     10th Street.  Winches rattle, tackles run, officers whistle and gesticulate and halloo, as a gang of men in a hold strain to hoist a huge mahogany log out with tackle.  Mahogany from the steaming jungles of Honduras will be used in the fine furnishings of the palace steamboats of the People’s Line, where ordinary Americans can revel in luxuries reserved for the wealthy and titled in Europe.

     Under the piers of these docks are dense forests of pilings that only the smallest skiff can negotiate, a hidden world shadowy even by daytime where harbor thieves hide stolen goods that they hope to sell to licensed junkmen in boats who ask no questions.  From time to time policemen search under the piers and clean out the stashes of stolen goods, but more goods will be stashed, and the game goes on.

     Below Canal Street, a garbage dump where a long line of carts on a high pier dump refuse onto a lighter moored below.  Crawling over the huge mound of trash like a horde of maggots are men, women, and children scavenging bones, coal, rags, and old metal to sell to peddlers, and even scraps of food that they devour greedily.  Smells of burnt wood, ashes, shit.

Stock Photo #4048-6369, Poor people scavenging garbage dump looking for rags, coal, and bones, on a barge docked at the foot of Beach Street, New York City.

     The Albany boat landing, where fashionables leaving for Saratoga scramble aboard amid the hubbub of cart drivers, cabs, baggage men, vendors, and the roar of escaping steam from the boats.  By August, everyone who is anyone flees the heat of the city, leaving behind the budget-strapped unfortunates who can only pull their front curtains shut and avoid being seen on the street, so the neighbors will think that they too are enjoying the amenities of Long Branch or Saratoga.  So it is in this distant time before air-conditioning.

     The Washington Market, between Vesey and Fulton Streets.  A sprawling old structure topped by a belfry.  In the early morning, a jam of wagons heaped high with meat from the Jersey slaughterhouses, produce from the garden patches of uptown shanty dwellers, and butter and cheese from Westchester farmers, all of them clattering down the narrow muddy lanes between the stalls where their crates, baskets, and barrels are unloaded while geese honk and chickens cluck.  

Gray-smocked vendors hawk their wares: dangling from hooks, carcasses of beef, deer, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, even the huge shaggy bulk of a bear; glistening heaps of silver-gray fish; huge yellow mountains of cheese; and baskets of peaches, plums, onions, and potatoes attended by ruddy-faced market women in broad-brimmed hats.  The first buyers flock: caterers from the best restaurants and hotels, among them Lorenzo Delmonico in a dark coat and top hat, scrutinizing the soft velvet plumage of a heap of fowl, pinching and sniffing, then tossing one bird, then another, into a wicker basket, his spoils destined for the tables of the city’s fanciest restaurant, the fabled Delmonico’s on 14th Street.  There, railroad men and politicians and foreign visitors and the city’s elite dine genteelly in the evening in a high-ceilinged room lit by crystal chandeliers, at tables with gleaming crystal and silverware, served by waiters who glide noiselessly over deep-pile carpet.  Yet even as Lorenzo Delmonico makes his careful selection, barefoot boys and old women pick at garbage sweepings nearby that even dogs reject. 

     At last, an island of silence, a plenitude of calm: the Battery, with its fine view of the river and harbor, where smoke-belching steamboats mingle with  three-masted sailing vessels and smaller schooners and sloops, and ferries plying to and from Brooklyn and Jersey and Staten Island, and even rowboats here and there.  But did I say peace and quiet?  An old woman tending a peanut and pineapple stand suddenly erupts at some visitors: “Get out wid ye, spittin’ all over me pineapples!  Do yees think I’ve got nothin’ to do but be washin’ me slices all day after yees?”  We move on.

The Battery, 1872.  A Currier & Ives print.  

     From here we’ll continue our imagined walk up South Street along the East River circa 1870 and see what today’s South Street Seaport, a historic district with renovated commercial buildings and sailing ships, can only give a hint of.

     North of Market Street, bowsprits of anchored sailing vessels jut high in the air overhead, while stevedores hustle huge bales and barrels and crates onto wagons and off of them, and iron-wheeled drays clatter on cobblestones amid smells of whale oil and sawn wood and brine.  Facing the docks are rows of old brick buildings housing sparmakers and riggers, and sailmakers’ lofts over the offices of shipping lines, and ship chandleries with everything needed for a ship: barometers and sextants and quadrants; cordage, paint, canvas, and oils; buoys and bells, windlasses and bilge pumps; and even cutlasses and axes that conjure up visions of seamen in old sailing vessels fighting off boarders from a British man-o’-war, or hordes of pirates armed with poisoned darts in the Sunda Straits.  Forges glow in ship smith shops where hammers clang on anvils, saws whine in spar yards, as shipwrights shape long timbers into spars, and a crowd of ragged boys watch, wide-eyed, as an aproned figurehead carver with a hammer and chisel hews out the shape of a bare-breasted sea nymph to adorn the bow of a ship.  Here, even in this age of steam, the age of sail still holds.  
South Street, 1827.  The heyday of sail, before steamships began crossing the Atlantic.

     Above Wall Street, a brig from the Guinea Coast of Africa, having survived the deaths of a mate and two crewmen from yellow fever, unloads palm oil to be used in soaps and as a lubricant, and ivory needed for billiard balls, fancy buttons, jewelry, and the keys of pianofortes, fingering which young ladies in hushed parlors demonstrate their genteel accomplishments to guests.  (Which brings to mind an old joke:  “What do you think of her execution?”  “I’m in favor of it.”)

     At the foot of Pike Street, huge dry docks side by side.  Using a steam engine, four men jerk a ship up out of the water for repairs.  In the next dock over, two hundred workers peg away at a steamer’s bottom, scraping off barnacles, cleaning and repairing it. 

     Pier 54, at the foot of Grand Street.  Huge blocks of Italian marble are hoisted from the holds of vessels by creaking windlasses, to be taken by cart to the marble cutters, who will saw and hew them into smaller blocks and slabs that will become ornamental fronts of houses, baptismal fonts for churches, and monuments to the dear departed.  But some blocks are destined for studios where home-grown Michelangelos will labor to transform the frumpy consorts of Chicago hog butchers and Pennsylvania oil barons into sculpted magnificence, into music of stone.

     Near 12th Street, a sudden hush: the coffin of a skipper dead of a fever at sea is being borne down the gangplank of a ship.  Stevedores stand silent, hats off, until a hearse bears the coffin off.  Then, just as suddenly, the noise and bustle resume.

     We could go on a bit along South Street and see more shipyards and iron foundries and gas works, but this would simply repeat, and it’s late in the day and we’re tired, so we’ll end our tour here.

     Day’s end: sunset on the North River and East River docks.  In the fading ruddy glow, piers grow dim and anchored ships loom with darkened hulls and rigging, and water shines with the blackness of night.  Straggling teams pass with the last loads of the day, then silence.  Watchmen make their rounds, yawning; suspicious shadows skulk; gruff sounds from a groggery; ragged street kids fall deep asleep on cotton bales; harbor thieves in small boats glide noiselessly, on the lookout for unguarded spoils.  A brief repose for the docks until, in the wee morning hours, the first market wagons lurch and grate and creak.

     Such were the docks circa 1870, when city and nation were in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, with machines taking on more and more tasks once performed by men and horses and mules.  At the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, multitudes flocked to Machinery Hall to see machines press bricks, pump water into thundering Niagaras, spin cotton, print newspapers, drill metal, grind bone into dust.  And some giant Krupp cannon as well.  “What will you do with all these things?” wondered Thomas Huxley, the English champion of Darwinism.  Today we might ask the same of cell phones and laptops and tablets.

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Krupp artillery at the Exposition.  What will you do with all these things?
In this case, the answer came in 1914.

      But the New York of 1870 knew what to do with machines and ships and docks.  It was not neat or subtle or just, but it did things.  It transshipped huge quantities of goods and turned iron into boilers and sugar mills, marble into memorials, ivory into piano keys, offal into leather and glue, and smirchy coal into the miracle of light.  Then as now there were thieves and cheats and manipulators, but the city did things, and did them big.

     Today the waterfront has dog walkers, joggers, cyclists, and sunbathers, but no grain elevators, sugar refineries, iron works, or dry docks.  What happened?  First, competing ports offered services at lower cost; New York  always was – and still is – an expensive place to do business.  Next, railroads, and later trucks and airlines, took on traffic that once went by water.  In the twentieth century racketeers got control of the unions, with little concern for maintenance of the waterfront, or for damage to the port’s reputation.  And from the 1950s on, containerization came in, requiring more space than the port of New York could offer, so that a lot of business went to the vast facilities of the port of Newark.  After that, much of the waterfront fell into decay, until the current movement to restore it and use it for recreation.  Once dirty and cluttered and busy, now it is clean and green.
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Containers at the Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal.  New York could offer no
such space as this.

     Source note:  Much of this post is drawn from my unpublished historical fiction, which draws on primary sources that include old prints of the time and two articles by journalists who described a day’s walk along the docks.

     Election results:  As expected, New York City has a new mayor – a Democrat, after all these years!  Bill de Blasio, who stands 6 foot 5, promises many longed-for changes, and multitudes cheer.  This is the honeymoon; it won’t last long.  Being mayor of this city is not the pleasantest job.  New Yorkers love to croak and complain, and the mayor spends half his time in Albany, begging the governor and legislature to let him raise a tax or two or otherwise attempt to govern.  And it’s a dead-end job: to my knowledge, no mayor has ever become a presidential candidate, whereas many a New York State governor has aspired to the White House, and a few have even succeeded.  So we’ll see how our 109th mayor fares.

     Coming soon:  Guzzling New York, and why Prohibition has never succeeded here; the city’s long-term romance with the oil of joy.  After that: mayors of New York, including the most honest, the most corrupt, the most elegant, the most good-looking, the most fun-loving.  In the offing: Lighting in the city; from candles to neon signs. And transportation: how New Yorkers did – and didn’t – get around; gigs and landaus and broughams, horsecars and stages, races and jams (not the kind you eat), the first gas buggies, the horrors and delights of the subway. 

     ©  2013  Clifford Browder


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