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President Lincoln on a Dangerous Day in Manhattan

I’ve written about Abraham Lincoln many times on this blog, always identifying as sacred ground the spot where the Morgan General Mail Facility now stands. This is because Lincoln passed through the area twice in the 1860s when it was the site of a train station, owned and operated by the Hudson River Railroad. The first time was on February 19, 1861, when the President-elect was en route to Washington, DC for his inauguration. Three years later, Lincoln’s funeral train passed through the depot on its long journey west to Springfield, Ill.

The first occasion was memorialized in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. The illustration shows the depot with three large American flags in the background; in front of the station Lincoln is being escorted to his carriage by superintendent Kennedy of the Metropolitan Police. [click the image to enlarge it and see Lincoln in his signature top hat and beard.]

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

Last week at the terrific Walt Whitman show that’s currently on view at the Morgan Library I learned some intriguing new details about Lincoln’s visit to New York. Earlier that same day, February 19, 1861, Lincoln addressed a large crowd from the Greek revival portico of the Astor House, at the time considered New York’s finest hotel. Harper’s Weekly, the “Journal of Civilization,” put the story on its front cover in the issue dated March 2, 1861:

Harper’s Weekly, March 2, 1861. New-York Historical Society

The Morgan’s exhibit explains that Lincoln’s appearance came at “a time of immense danger to the country and to him personally.” Later, according to the curator, it was revealed that a spy named Kate Warne had traveled to New York to warn Lincoln of an assassination plot. She may even be visible in one of the windows in the background of the Harper’s drawing.  Warne, who was the first female detective in America, worked for the Pinkerton Agency and had gone undercover in Baltimore to investigate the threat. She disguised herself as “a flirting Southern Belle,” gained confirmation of the plot, and reported it to authorities in New York. Also present that day but not in the Harper’s Weekly illustration: Walt Whitman, who in true New York style was stuck in traffic on an omnibus nearby.

Later that day Lincoln continued his journey, in the presence of a strong police force and via the Hudson River Railroad’s brand new station. He was the very first passenger to use what was clearly an enormous and grand structure. The illustration in Frank Leslie’s newspaper is the only image I’ve been able to locate of this long-lost beauty. Many years later it was torn down and replaced with a massive sorting facility. In the freight rail era of the High Line, which began in 1934, boxcars filled with letters and packages from across the United States made the final leg of their journey over the spur that crosses Tenth Avenue, passing through the (now bricked-up) openings in the northwest corner. The photo below was taken just before construction was completed:

The Morgan Postal Facility, photo by George Fuller. Kalmbach Publishing.

Standing sentry on the just-opened Tenth Avenue Spur of the park that succeeded the railroad 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.” The architects, as per tradition on the modern High Line, have left the original train tracks in place, so today they bracket this imposing, and inspiring, work of art.

Sacred ground indeed.

Simone Leigh, “Brick House” on the High Line’s newly opened Tenth Avenue Spur

Here’s an earlier, aerial shot that shows the wider landscape:

The Morgan General Mail Facility, on ground once occupied by the Hudson River Railroad © Annik LaFarge

 

SOURCES:

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

The Morgan Library, “Walt Whitman: Bard of Democracy,” June 7 – September 15, 2019 https://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/walt-whitman

Wikipedia, Kate Warne, and Barbara Maikell-Thomas, “Kate Warne: First Female Private-Eye,” by Barbara Maikell-Thomas, http://www.pimall.com/nais/pivintage/katewarne.html

 

 

 

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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.

 

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High Line Architecture: Morgan General Mail Facility

501 West 29th Street, standing defiant

Morgan General Mail Facility, from the Ohm apartment building, November 2012

This third piece on High Line architecture focuses on the Morgan General Mail Facility on Tenth Avenue between 28th and 30th Streets. Of the buildings I’ve covered so far in this series (the Westyard Distribution Center next door and the former R.C. Williams warehouse a few blocks south) the Morgan has the oldest and richest back-story. Spanning three centuries, from the 1860s to the second decade of the 21st century, this massive structure and the land it sits on offer up many threads in the history and culture of New York City.

The photo above, taken from the roof of the Ohm apartment building on Eleventh Avenue, reveals much of modern story. Completed in 1933, the Morgan was built with funds and labor from the New Deal’s WPA program. It was designed to connect with the High Line and create a seamless path for the more than 8,000 mail trains that crossed the country each year on an intricate network of rail lines before ultimately proceeding south alongside the Hudson River on tracks of the New York Central Railroad into Manhattan. The last 30 feet or so of their journey took them across Tenth Avenue on a specially constructed spur that led directly into the postal facility. My photo was taken hours after the first snowfall of 2012, and you can easily see the rails on the abandoned spur and the bricked-up siding where the trains once entered the building.  The photo below is from the West Side Improvement Brochure and shows the Morgan in the year it was built. Look closely and you can see a locomotive motoring through the siding (as always, click a photo to enlarge it). [continue reading…]

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