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At Last, The Thirtieth Street Depot

After years of searching, finally I’ve located a photograph of the Hudson River Railroad’s Thirtieth Street Depot. This is the station that once occupied part of the area where the Morgan General Mail Facility now stands on Tenth Avenue. It’s the train station that received, as its very first passenger, President-elect Abraham Lincoln, who passed through on February 19, 1861 en route to Washington, DC for his inauguration. I post here a photograph taken in April 1902, looking West down 30th Street:

The NY Central & Hudson River Railroad 30th Street Station, April 6, 1902, looking West. The New-York Historical Society, used with permission.

It’s a bit less grand than the illustration I’ve been relying on to tell the story of this spot, made by an artist for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper after Lincoln’s visit:

Abraham Lincoln’s Special Inaugural Train at the Hudson River Railroad Depot, 1861. From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, courtesy the Library of Congress

It was also here that, four years later, President Lincoln’s body was transferred to a funeral train headed north on the Hudson River Railroad, after the cortège had reached New York on another railroad line. The Hudson River Railroad was designed to link New York with Albany, and from there connect with other roads heading west across the country. At 144 miles in length, the line opened in October of 1851, and while it took a good five hours to travel from Manhattan to Albany, the new railroad beat the fastest steamships by at least two hours.

Those interested in a detailed account of the obsequies and “Sombre Grandeur of the Funeral Pageant” will find a long, moving series of articles in the New York Times issue dated April 26, 1865, beginning with the “dense masses of immovable people” who turned out at City Hall to file by the President’s corpse and pay their respects. His body had reached New York at noon on Monday, April 24th, and lay in state at City Hall until Wednesday the 26th. At 12:30 on that day the funeral car arrived at the Hall, drawn by sixteen “magnificent gray horses, led each by a colored groom.” After what the Times reporter called “a vexatious delay,” a bugle sounded and the funeral procession — with countless regiments from every part of the military, an Invalid Corps and a battalion of police officers — finally made its way up Broadway toward the railroad depot at Thirtieth Street. Joining the procession was Bruno, who came to be known as “the dog mourner.” He was a large Saint Bernard who bolted from his owner, Edward H. Mostly, just as the funeral car passed the corner of Broadway and Chambers Streets, and followed along underneath the coffin for many blocks. “By what instinct was this?” the reporter asked, and then provided the answer: “Bruno was a friend and acquaintance of Mr. Lincoln’s, and had passed some time with him only a few days before his death.”

At 2:30 an aide “came galloping down Ninth Avenue” to report that the cortège was approaching. Shortly thereafter, and to “the thrilling roll of drums, the clash and swell of music, and the quick, sharp sound of the ‘present arms,'” the procession reached the station. Inside the depot was “a knot of wounded soldiers…[who] sat, poor fellows, fighting their battles over again. ” Lincoln’s catafalque was transferred to the Union, a “splendid locomotive” that had conveyed the President-elect three years earlier on his triumphal progress from Springfield to Washington for his inauguration. It was now draped in funerary cloth, its lamp decorated “with a magnificent wreath of living flowers.” Inside the funeral car Lincoln’s body was accompanied by that of his young son, Willie, who had died in February of 1862.

A bell rang, the conductor called out “All aboard!” and at 4:15 pm the Union pulled out of the Thirtieth Street Depot. Mourners were lined all along Tenth Avenue; they removed their hats as the funeral train emerged from the gate, and then disappeared around a curve.

Today, standing sentry over this hallowed ground, is “Brick House,” a 16′ high bronze sculpture by Simone Leigh that, according to Friends of the High Line, “encompasses several architectural and cultural references in tribute to the strength of Black female beauty.”

Simone Leigh, “Brick House” on the Tenth Avenue Spur

Read more about the Morgan General Mail Facility

Read more about President Lincoln’s Dangerous Day in Manhattan, 1861


The Rise of New York Port: 1815-1860, by Robert Greenhalgh Albion

The New York Times, April 26, 1865, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1865/04/26/88155015.html?zoom=15.36

Christopher Gray, “Where Lincoln Tossed and Turned,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/realestate/27scapesready.html



The Spur and the Hallowed Ground it Crosses

Abraham Lincoln’s Special Inaugural Train at the Hudson River Railroad Depot, 1861. From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, courtesy Library of Congress

Tomorrow the Tenth Avenue Spur opens, marking the completion of the High Line after twenty years of labor and love. There will be much to say about this new space once the public is welcome, but first, perhaps, let’s linger on the past, and the original purpose of this steel bridge that crosses Tenth Avenue into what is today one of the largest mail sorting facilities in the country. The history goes all the way back to the 1860s, when a train station owned and operated by the Hudson River Railroad stood on this ground. Its very first passenger was Abraham Lincoln, who passed through on February 19, 1861, en route to his inauguration in Washington, D.C. That hopeful, optimistic moment was captured in the illustration above, which appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. It shows the depot in the background and President-elect Lincoln being escorted to his carriage by the superintendent of the Metropolitan Police. What’s so haunting about this story — and this spot along the High Line — is that four years later, on April 25, 1865, Lincoln’s funeral train passed through the depot on its westward journey to Springfield, Ill.

Now towering above this hallowed ground is the Morgan General Mail Facility, completed in 1933 with funds and labor from the New Deal’s WPA program. It was designed to carry the parcels and letters of some 8,000 mail trains that crossed the country each year on an intricate network of rail lines, before they arrived at this destination on 30th Street and Tenth Avenue. This aerial photograph from 2012 shows the passageway, now blocked up, in the north corner of the massive structure, which was once used by the mail trains to enter the building:

The Morgan General Mail Facility, October 2012, © Annik LaFarge

My photo also captures another unique element of this facility: its enormous green roof — one of the largest in the United States. For photos taken on the roof (including a jolly family of Canada geese who passed through during the period I was photographing) see my longer piece about the Morgan, part of the High Line Architecture series on this blog. The High Line is, of course, one long, linear, green roof — and it’ll be just a bit longer as of tomorrow, when the new section opens. The Morgan’s roof is not accessible to the public, but you’ll find lots of photos here, including a special little plant — the Tragopogon dubious, aka yellow salsify, that hitchhiked its way on a puff of wind from the High Line up to the Morgan, cross-pollinating its sister roof and creating a horticultural connection between these two important landmarks of American history and culture.

So the story of the High Line continues.



Goodbye, Lumberyard

During the era of the Industrial Revolution, the way-West Side of Manhattan was exploding with enterprise: ironworks, grain elevators, lard refineries, stockyards, abattoires, printing presses, candle factories and manufacturers of everything from cigars to pianos. The trains of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad rumbled up Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues, carrying many of these goods north along the Hudson River towards Albany, where they eventually connected with the newly-laid tracks of the Transcontinental Railroad and would make their way to towns and cities across the country.

The machines of the Industrial Revolution ran on steam, and in our neighborhood there were acres of lumberyards with steam-powered sawmills. One of the most common sites, as described by a New York Times reporter who made an excursion through the ‘hood in 1883, was “endless piles of lumber.”  He observed that “the Leaning Tower of Pisa has been copied as nearly as possible in the architecture of these piles.”

In my book about the High Line I described this area as “New York’s Lumberyard,” and there was a factory just half a block from the park on West 22nd Street. I’ve written about ghost signs before on this blog, and the one for “kiln-dried lumber” on the side of a condo known as the Eagle Building has long been one of my favorites. When I moved here a decade ago there was a short, nondescript, brick building occupied by the Balenciaga fashion company. A neighbor on the block used to stand on the loading dock and hurl a tennis ball up the cobblestoned street — then basically (blissfully, I should say) free of vehicular traffic — for his dog to fetch.

542 W. 22nd Street in 2012, © Google Maps

That low-slung building was recently torn down and the lot is now an active construction site. I’ve been photographing the old ghost sign over the past few months as the floors of the new building rise to cover it. Which, floor by floor, they now have done:

542 w. 22 Street, site excavation, July 2017

542 W. 22nd Street, June 2018

542 W. 22nd Street, July 2018

542 W. 22nd Street, 3 days later in July 2018

542 W. 22nd Street, August 2018

Adieu, friendly ghost sign.





When people in West Chelsea think about railroads these days they usually think about the High Line, that famous “park in the sky” built atop the New York Central Railroad’s old freight viaduct. But last summer an artifact of another railroad came to West 22nd Street, and it’s worth stepping off the High Line to see it in person.


Historic bridge plaque from the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway

This plaque, which now graces the exterior wall of sculptor Silas Seandel’s studio at 551 W. 22nd Street, traveled across the ocean from England, where it once adorned the side of a railway bridge. According to the National Railway Museum in York, the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway (LB & SCR) existed from 1845 – 1922, operating services from London to the south coast of England. The Museum was unable to confirm which bridge Silas’ plaque came from, but since the main bridges of the LB & SCR spanned the River Thames in London, they speculate his may have come from one of those bridges. Railways in England only used plaques like these on important bridges, so they are rare. Particularly in America.

[continue reading…]


History Sailing By the High Line

Starrett-Lehigh (center) flanked by two other railroad warehouses: Central Stores (at right) and B&O (at left)

Starrett-Lehigh (center) flanked by two other former railroad warehouses: Terminal and Central Stores (right) and B&O (left)

One of the great monuments in view of the High Line is the Starrett-Lehigh Building, a behemoth that straddles the superblock between 26th and 27th Streets on Eleventh Avenue. Look at it for more than a minute anytime, day or night, and you’ll most likely see a light flashing in one of the eight miles of windows that circles this enormous building. That’s because it’s filled with design, magazine, new media and advertising firms, and many of its offices double as photo studios.

But in 1931 this 2.2 million square foot building served a very different purpose: it was a terminal warehouse for the Lehigh Valley Railroad, built with funds from the Starrett Investment Corporation. It played a vital role in the Lighterage Era, a time before bridges and tunnels enabled food and commercial goods to be swiftly transferred across the Hudson River. The workhorses of that era were the railroad barges, giant floating platforms that could carry as many as a dozen boxcars from terminals in New Jersey to warehouses in Manhattan. Known as “lighters” or car floats, they were a fixture of the Hudson River landscape for decades. In the 1930s, National Geographic reported that as many as 5,000 barges crossed the Hudson every day. Phillip Lopate, in his excellent book Waterfront, observed that “In their heyday, the barges were almost as synonymous with New York’s iconography as its skyscrapers.”

Railroad car floats in New York Harbor. Photo: New York State Archives

Railroad car floats in New York Harbor. Photo: New York State Archives

But not every barge carried actual boxcars; a significant number of vessels in the lighterage system were constructed of wood and ferried “less than carload lots” of perishable goods like coffee, flour, rice, sugar, and spices in their protected spaces. Goods were brought on board by longshoremen at a railroad terminal or were transferred on the water from a ship. These tug-powered barges were the only link between ships and railways, allowing cargo that had traveled across oceans to be offloaded and transferred to a railroad terminal like the one built for the Lehigh Valley Railroad on the Far West Side of Manhattan. Once inside, the goods could be stored, re-packed and re-shipped to their final destination.

In the days before trucks hit the newly built Interstate Highway System and airplanes took to the skies, the lighterage system was a vital part of America’s commercial transportation network. It was how stuff got from one place to another.

Later this month millions of us, from the Hudson River’s southern gateway all the way north past Albany, will have the chance to witness a rare and exciting event as the 101-year old Lehigh Valley No. 79, the only surviving all-wooden unit from the Lighterage Era, makes a 35-hour voyage up the river to a dry dock in Waterford, New York. Visitors on the High Line will have the opportunity to watch a very particular bit of history in action as the barge passes three former railroad warehouses located between 26th – 28th Streets: the Baltimore & Ohio (now the site of Bedrock Mini Storage at 241 11th Avenue); the Starrett-Lehigh and the Terminal & Central Stores complex (home to shops, art galleries, and a furniture company). [Note: click on the first image in this post to enlarge it and see all three.]

The Waterfront Museum. Photo by David Sharps

The Waterfront Museum. Photo by David Sharps

Today the barge is the Waterfront Museum, founded in 1986 and dedicated to promoting an understanding of New York’s maritime history and the ecological importance of the Hudson River estuary. It’s also the home of David Sharps, a former cruise ship entertainer who rescued the barge from the place where it lay grounded in New Jersey, cleared 300 tons of mud that had settled in the hold, and restored it to seaworthy condition. He raised his two daughters on the barge and still lives there at Pier 44 in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Sometime in the next week the Lehigh Valley No. 79 will depart Red Hook and begin its voyage north. There are countless spots on both sides of the Hudson River, from Brooklyn to Waterford, where you can watch this marvelous historic barge pass by. The actual date will be announced soon, but for now there’s a 7-day window, beginning June 23rd. Follow @museumbarge on Twitter or the official Facebook page for details about timing and location. Folks traveling on the barge will Tweet constant updates so you can position yourself on a bridge, at a park, on a mountaintop, or anywhere along the river to take your photo and share it with the world.

The Lehigh Valley N0. 79 has made only three trips up the Hudson River. This summer’s passage was mandated by the U.S. Coast Guard, which ordered the vessel to be dry-docked and inspected after Hurricane Sandy. Any necessary repairs will be made in Waterford and then the barge will return to its home in Brooklyn. It’s an expensive project, and the Museum is gratefully accepting donations; go here if you’d like to contribute. I just donated $79 in honor of the official number the barge was assigned by the Lehigh Valley Railroad when it rolled off the Perth Amboy Dry Dock in 1914 and assumed its role in the vibrant marriage of river and rail that constituted the Lighterage Era.

For more information about the Waterfront Museum and Lehigh Valley No. 79, visit the official website here, or download the National Register of Historic Registration form [PDF] which includes architectural details about the barge and history of the Lighterage Era.



Ancient Footfalls Beneath the High Line

Manhattan Island's 1609 shoreline, with the Lenape trail passing under today's High Line

Manhattan Island’s 1609 shoreline, with the Lenape trail passing under today’s High Line

Of the many additions to the revised & updated version of On the High Line, one of my favorites is a new map created by Maps For Good co-founder Marty Schnure. It uses data from the Welikia Project to show the path of an historic Native American Indian trail that once cut below today’s Gansevoort Woodland in the High Line park. (Click the image to enlarge it.)

Four hundred years ago, before the first Europeans arrived, this area was a prime hunting and fishing grounds for the Lenape people. From the estuary of the Hudson River they pulled 12″ oysters, 6′ lobsters and more than 70 species of fish. On land they hunted countless species of mammals including deer and bear.

In those days, the river was a bit closer to today’s park. We’ve been expanding the borders of our island for centuries; Marty’s map shows the original 1609 shoreline, which the High Line roughly follows. Intriguingly, the line bisects the Western Rail Yards at exactly the point where the temporary path in section three of the park will begin once it opens in the Fall. This path will lead visitors through the still-wild landscape that emerged after the rail line was abandoned, and toward a glorious view of the river — all of which takes place on modern landfill.

The second edition went on-sale this week, and continues to peel back the layers of landscape around the High Line, offering historical and cultural context for readers interested in the story of this fascinating place. [continue reading…]


The Funny Thing About Landfill

These guys are swimming on land. Or, more precisely, on landfill.

Workers in the Hudson River on 50th Street

Men working in the Hudson River/59th Street

And, on an unseasonably warm December day, they seemed to be enjoying themselves as they went about their business repairing giant piles that help support a roadway that’s shared (and not always so nicely) by joggers, bikers, bladers, pedestrians, baby strollers, cars and giant garbage trucks on West 59th Street. Let me illustrate this spot a bit more clearly:

West 59th Street, courtesy Google Maps

West 59th Street, courtesy Google Maps

I was riding my bike downtown when I stopped to see what was going on.  After being told about the pile repair, I remarked that we humans are re-asserting our claim to this patch of “land” once occupied by the Hudson River. One of the workers replied that the Hudson River was actually the one doing the reclaiming. It was, after all, part of its watery domain before we came along and started filling in the edge of our prosperous island. Have another look at the same spot, courtesy of Oasis, the mapping organization that works in cooperation with the Center for Urban Research at CUNY to provide the richest source of community maps for New York City (as always, click an image to enlarge it):

Manhattan Island with the 1609 shoreline. Courtesy of Oasis & the Mannahatta Project.

Manhattan Island with the 1609 shoreline. Courtesy of Oasis & the Mannahatta Project.

[continue reading…]


New Kid on the Avenue

The former R.C. Williams warehouse, now Avenues School

Today is the first day of classes at Avenues, the new “world school” whose campus is located in a stately former warehouse on Tenth Avenue between 25th & 26th Streets. Over the next few years the school, a for-profit venture conceived by Benno Schmidt (former head of Yale University) and Christopher Whittle (founder of the Edison Project), will open additional campuses in Beijing (2014), Sao Paolo (2015) and London (2016).

A hallmark of the internationally-focused school is multilingualism. What’s unusual about the language approach is that Avenues is committed to making every student fully bilingual within seven years. If you walk through the new building you’ll see that every bit of signage, from elevators to bathrooms, is written in English, Spanish and Mandarin.

Like many people who spend a lot of time on the High Line, I watched the renovation of the old warehouse with great interest. When I was writing my book I did a bit of research into the R.C. Williams Company, the wholesale grocer that commissioned it, but as the renovation neared completion I found myself eager to learn more. With luck I discovered a company history, published in 1936, and it turns out that this firm has a long and rich history as innovators in the wholesale food industry. But the thing I found most intriguing, given the present use of the warehouse, is that from its very first days, beginning in 1809, R.C. Williams was a global enterprise. [continue reading…]