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tenth avenue spur

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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Remembering the Last Urban Cowboy & His Final Ride

Seventy-five years ago tomorrow, the world’s attention was focused on events overseas. The Nazis had just bombed an English port, and the Axis powers were gaining momentum. On the front page of the New York Times Sunday edition for March 29, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called on the American people to stand firm in support of its Allies who were blocking “dictators in their march toward domination of the world.” Readers today won’t recognize the political climate; looking back on the recent presidential election, FDR praised his opponent, saying “The leader of the Republican Party himself — Mr. Wendell Willkie — in word and action, is showing what patriotic Americans mean by rising above partisanship and rallying to the common cause.”

Meanwhile, back at home women were buying Easter hats – just $19.95 at B. Altman. The first Peabody Awards, dubbed “Pulitzer Prizes of air,” had just been announced; the Book-of-the-Month Club featured Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls; and a two-room studio at the Chelsea Hotel could be had for $19 a week. Budd Schulberg’s novel What Makes Sammy Run? was reviewed in the Book Review, and an article in the Magazine explored the question: “Are Movies Good or Bad” for children?

And then there was this photograph, which ran under the headline “Last ‘Cowboy’ Rides Over Tenth Ave. Route; Tracks Now Elevated, Horses Get New Job.”

George Hayde, the last West Side Cowboy, on March 29, 1941. Copyright Times Wide World/The New York Times/Redux. Used with permission

George Hayde, the last West Side Cowboy. March 29, 1941. Copyright Times Wide World/The New York Times/Redux. Used with permission

The picture captures George Hayde, age twenty-one, who became New York City’s last urban cowboy with this final ride up Tenth Avenue. He and “his faithful bay, Cyclone” were leading a line of fourteen rail cars loaded with oranges. They were performing, for the last time in history, a unique job created by an 185os city ordinance that permitted freight trains to share the busy streets with pedestrians, dog-carts, bicycles, cars and trucks, on condition they observe a speed limit of six miles per hour and that “a proper person… precede the trains on horseback to give necessary warning in a suitable manner on their approach.” [For rare video of the West Side Cowboy riding up Tenth Avenue, click here.]
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