New York’s rival coastal cities, badly undercut by the Erie Canal and facing commercial catastrophe, retaliated by building their own canals, but frenzied ditch digging availed them little. Boston was just too far from the western wheat fields, and its capitalists shifted their funds into manufacturing. Philadelphia’s businessmen, lacking New York’s break in the Appalachians, redirected their investments into mining. Baltimore was closest to the fertile West, but constructing a canal proved prohibitively costly. With the daring of desperation, at a town meeting in 1826, its citizens decided to build a railroad. In 1827 the Maryland legislature chartered the Baltimore and Ohio, and on July 4, 1828, Charles Carroll, last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, broke ground for the B&O amid fireworks, floats, and speeches.
The B&O planned to use horses for motive power. Locomotive engines had been around since England’s Richard Trevithick had built the first one back in 1804, but as of the mid-1820s they were still cumbrous affairs, suitable only for hauling coal cars. Then, at trials on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in the fall of 1829, George Stephenson’s Rocket proved astonishingly successful, confirming that the future belonged to steam. The B&O, realizing it had to switch from horses in midstream, turned for help, oddly enough, to a New Yorker.
Peter Cooper, of mixed Dutch, English, and Huguenot ancestry, was the son of a Methodist hatmaker who had moved his family down to the city from Newburgh in 1808. After trying his hand at hatting, brewing, coachmaking and cabinetmaking, young Peter made a go of selling a cloth-shearing machine he’d developed. In 1816, however, Britain’s postwar dumping spree drove his customers out of business, and the twentyfive-year-old Cooper opened a grocery store in Bowery Village. He also continued tinkering with mechanical devices; among his inventions was an endless chain for drawing Erie Canal boats, which won De Witt Clinton’s applause but was never used.
In 1821 Cooper bought a glue factory at Sunfish Pond, amid clover fields and buttonwood trees near the village of Kip’s Bay. When the new Bull’s Head market opened nearby, providing a plentiful supply of cows’ and calves’ feet, Cooper devised new methods for using them to produce glue, gelatin, household cement, isinglass, and neat’s-foot oil. He thus became the premier supplier of such items to the city’s tanners, paint manufacturers, and dry-goods merchants. He also became a pioneer polluter: his factory so fouled the pond’s waters that it had to be drained and filled in 1839.
Cooper invested his profits in land purchases around town. In 1828, convinced the proposed new B&O would send Maryland’s land values skyrocketing, he purchased three thousand acres near Baltimore and began large-scale development there. While leveling hills and draining swamps, he discovered iron ore. Immediately he set up furnaces and forges, positioning himself to sell rails to the B&O.
When the company on which his future depended ran into technical trouble, Cooper promised to invent them an engine. “I got up a little locomotive,” he later explained, cobbling it together from old wheels, musket barrels, and a small brass steam engine he’d built in New York City. In August 1830, with Cooper at the controls, Tom Thumb hauled a carload of B&O officials at the breathtaking speed of eighteen miles per hour. Investors now snapped up B&O bonds, and the B&O used the proceeds to buy Cooper’s iron rails, making him his first fortune.
Now it was New York that faced a threat to its canal-based preeminence, and powerful Manhattanites quickly jumped into railroading. By 1831 the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad Company—with Stephen Van Rensselaer as titular head, John Jacob Astor an active director and major stockholder, and officers and promoters with such august names as Jay, Fish, Stuyvesant, Schuyler, and King—had completed a link between the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, connecting Albany and Schenectady.
Its success sparked a rail boom. Entrepreneurs and communities deluged the legislature with requests for corporate charters. Funds flowed into lines linking other Erie Canal towns, and within a decade through service was available from Albany to Buffalo. In 1832 New York City promoters won a charter for a New York and Erie line that would cut out Albany and slice diagonally across the state to Dunkirk, on Lake Erie, from Piermont, on the Hudson. The Erie’s backers—including leading merchants (Eleazar Lord), bankers (James Gore King), and land developers (Samuel B. Ruggles)—also had the clout to win three million dollars in state credits toward construction.
While these distant enterprises were getting under way, closer to home another set of investors had set out to connect the two ends of Manhattan Island. Banker John Mason and two large landholders interested in promoting their uptown real estate won a charter in 1831 for a New York and Harlem Rail Road, and its initial stock offering of $350,000 was immediately oversubscribed. The Common Council granted the NY&H the right to operate cars over a double track from City Hall to the Harlem River along Fourth Avenue—and did so with great good cheer, as most of the incorporators were associated with Tammany, and many of the aldermen received blocks of stock as thankyou presents. Workingmen’s spokesman George Henry Evans protested this cozy symbiosis, arguing that while the road was a good idea, it wasn’t necessary to “give a regiment of rich aristocrats the exclusive privilege of increasing their wealth by the profits of it. We have already too many laws to favor capitalists.” In 1831, however, the Court of Chancery upheld the legislature’s right to delegate the power of eminent domain (an attribute of sovereignty) to a railroad (a private corporation), even if that company would permit only its own cars to use its tracks.
Construction of the Harlem began in February 1832. The rails were bolted not to wooden ties but to foot-square granite blocks, which, as they rose several inches above street level, made crosstown traffic a teeth-jolting ordeal. In the meantime, John Stephenson, a local omnibus operator, built the John Mason, which closely resembled a traditional stage, driver perched above in front. In November 1832 horses pulled the John Mason along the Bowery from Prince Street (near old St. Patrick’s Cathedral) up to 14th Street, speeding its thirty passengers along smoothly at a seven to twelve miles per hour clip. Soon the New York and Harlem’s tracks reached Fourth Avenue and 27th Street, where the line built a depot complex that included company offices, a produce terminal, and stables for the horses.
In the fall of 1833 the tracks reached their first formidable obstacle, Murray Hill; driving a tunnel (still in use) through solid Manhattan schist from 32nd Street to 42nd Street would take until 1837 to complete. In the meantime, tracks were laid on wooden ties through mid-island rural terrain and the village of Yorkville, near 86th Street. Between 92nd and 94th streets, another tunnel was cut (in 1836) through the domelike rise of Mount Pleasant, where the line opened the Prospect Hall hotel, in hopes of enticing passengers to visit the fields and woodlands bordering the East River. Finally the engineers and laborers forded Harlem Creek and adjacent marshlands with a 658-foot timber viaduct, and from there reached the Harlem River terminus by 1837.
By 1838, therefore, it was possible to travel from City Hall to Harlem for twenty-five cents, but south of 27th Street the cars were pulled by horses. The NY&H had intended to use engines all the way, but a clamor against noise, smoke, sparks, and danger—one blew up in 1834—led to a city ordinance requiring the line to use horses in its lower regions. At 27th Street, just before diving under Murray Hill, the horses were unhitched and a little steam locomotive hooked up (to the chagrin of Peter Cooper, whose house at Fourth Avenue and 28th Street, once amid open country, now lay a block from the station and the railroad’s cattle pens). Downtown the Harlem’s cars—the first street vehicles to be operated on iron rails in the United States—became known as “horsecars,” and, along with the other lines that soon followed, they became a regular part of the downtown transport system.
In time the horsecar would challenge the omnibus for control of the city’s streets. It was more stable, easier to pull, more maneuverable, and lower to the ground, and it could negotiate cobblestoned, potholed thoroughfares far more smoothly. In the thirties, however, omnibuses still ruled the roads. There were eighty in service by 1833, 108 by 1837. Indeed the New York Gazette and General Advertiser suggested in 1834 that New York might well be termed “the City of Omnibuses,” as they generated much of downtown’s “noise and bustle.” Asa Greene, in his guidebook, A Glance at New York (1837), reported that it was “almost as much as your life is worth” to cross Broadway south of City Hall Park. “To perform the feat with any degree of safety,” Greene counseled, “you must button your coat tight about you, see that your shoes are secure at the heels, settle your hat firmly on your head, look up street and down street, at the selfsame moment, to see what carts and carriages are upon you, and then run for your life.”
Negotiating Brooklyn’s streets was nowhere near as hazardous, but there too the transportation revolution had arrived. In 1832 the state legislature chartered the Brooklyn and Jamaica Rail Road, with the aim of linking the two oldest communities on the western end of Long Island. In 1834 (the same year omnibuses were introduced to Brooklyn) the line received permission to lay track down Atlantic Street. But it had barely started running its first locomotives (in 1836) when it was subsumed by the far more ambitious Long Island Rail Road (LIRR). The LIRR, chartered in 1834, was intended in part to foster the economic vitality of Kings, Queens, and Suffolk counties—whose farms were being outpaced by the fertile enterprises of Genesee and Cayuga counties now accessible via the Erie Canal—by enhancing the exchange of market garden produce for urban manure. Primarily, however, the LIRR was intended to speed travelers between New York and Boston, through the center of the island, by connecting Jamaica with the harbor at Greenport. Most local traffic in Brooklyn and Queens would continue to be handled by stagecoaches traveling along turnpikes (privately owned toll roads), though a glimpse of the far future arrived in June 1833 when Charles Durant lifted off from the Battery in a balloon and sailed eastward to a safe landing in Jamaica.
SMOKESTACKS AND SPECULATORS
Peter Cooper wasn’t the only one who realized that railroads needed tracks, engines, and boilers. New York’s iron foundries and machine shops, already flourishing in tandem with the city’s shipyards, expanded to meet the new needs. Happily, the local iron furnaces could now count on expanded and regular deliveries of coal, as the completion in 1832 of the Morris Canal across New Jersey had linked New York’s harbor to the Lehigh River. In 1830, moreover, a German-American ironmaster had smelted iron ore with anthracite coal at a laboratory furnace in the city, a process he patented in 1833, thus helping launch a new era in the commercial manufacture of iron.
Demand generated additional supply. The Allaire Works, hitherto the city’s biggest, faced new competition from the Novelty Iron Works (1830), Browning and Dunham’s North River Iron Foundry and Locomotive Engine shop (1837), and the Morgan Works (1838). Harmon Hendricks’s Soho Copper Works boomed as well with the demand for boilers, flues, and boxes. Hendricks, joined by his sons, Uriah and Henry, had moved their operations to Belleville, New Jersey. Eventually, most railspawned metal and machine work would follow them across the Hudson—Paterson, in particular, would lead the country in producing locomotive engines—but for the moment New York City remained a major site of industrial production and innovation.
The coming of the railroad also revitalized the city’s capital markets. Transactions had been relatively sedate on the New York Stock & Exchange Board (NYS & EB) in 1830, when shares of the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad first traded there. By 1831, however, with investors scrambling after the NY&H offering, a frenzied boom in stocks of the new technology got underway. By 1835, at the height of the mania, rail trades had outstripped those in all the NYS&EB’s hundred-plus listed stocks and bonds. Total volume reached six thousand shares a day, with orders pouring in from across the country.
Much of the investment business was handled by private bankers and loan contractors who bought up trustworthy securities and sold them to investors seeking safe and steady dividend income. The city’s most substantial investment banker, the so-called king of Wall Street, was Nathaniel Prime. Reputedly the third wealthiest man in New York in 1830, Prime avoided speculative operations, and his conservatism appealed to continental capitalists who, frightened by the Revolution of 1830, were seeking a secure haven for their funds. Europeans who had soured on Latin American loans and been excited by the Erie’s success now joined English investors in pouring cash and credit into the U.S. market. Much of this new money was channeled by the House of Baring into state (especially New York) and federal bonds. Even during the runaway market of 1832-34, when the Barings curtailed their involvement in anticipation of a crash, the house continued to deal with substantial firms in New York City, primarily Prime, Ward and King.
Browning and Dunham’s foundry stood on the Hudson River shore at the foot of North Moore Street. Water color, 1837. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Edward W. G. Arnold, 1954. The Edward W. C. Arnold Collection of New York Prints, Maps and Pictures)
The Barings were right to be cautious, for the rail boom had provided an opening for traders far less circumspect than Nathaniel Prime. Younger men, despised by their seniors as gamblers, seized on the opportunity for speculative scheming. Playing the stock market, after all, was much easier than dealing in real estate. Securities could be bought and sold quickly, and the invention of “margin trading” (a form of securities purchase on credit that was indigenous to the United States) allowed one to play at the table without anteing up huge sums: five dollars to a broker could buy fifty dollars’ worth of stocks.
Railroad issues were risky, glamorous, and potentially highly profitable—perfect for the adventurously inclined investor. But speculative traders didn’t often bother with assessing a company’s real-world chances. Instead they manipulated the virtual reality of the market itself. By the early thirties warring cliques of bulls and bears were driving prices up and down, using underhanded maneuvers that were not only legal but were widely admired for their daring.
Jacob Little, the New York stock market’s first full-time “operator,” was one of the most famous and successful of the manipulators. Little, a tall, tense, preoccupiedlooking man, started out on Wall Street clerking for a private banker. He opened his own office as a money broker in 1822, joined the NYS&EB in 1825, and by the 1830s was known as “the Napoleon of Wall Street.” In his heyday, 1832-35, Little speculated in cotton, securities, canals, and above all railroads, with spectacular success.
Little was credited with inventing—and was certainly a master of—the “manipulated short sale.” He would promise to sell someone shares of stock, shares he didn’t yet own, for delivery in, say, sixty days. Then he would launch a campaign to drive the price of the stock down, perhaps by planting false rumors about the company’s impending insolvency. If all went well, just before the sixty-day limit expired, he had forced the shares well below the price he had promised to sell them for. He could then buy the shares, make his delivery, and pocket the difference between what he had paid for them and the price the buyer had obligated himself to pay. The spread could be enormous.
Politicians who could influence a railroad’s destiny were quick to follow Little’s lead. State Senator Kemble made a speech opposing any enlargement of the NY&H’s capital. When the news of impending scarcity hit Wall Street, the price of Harlem stock rose. At the top of the market, Kemble’s broker sold short. Kemble then pushed a bill through the legislature enlarging Harlem’s capital, and the price plummeted. As these were early days, and such behavior was still considered inappropriate, Kemble was expelled from the Senate.
Bulls countered such bearish tactics by trying to “corner the market” in a contested stock. If they could round up most available shares, they could block bears from buying the amount of stock necessary to fulfil their contracts. Better still, if they secured a complete monopoly, they could hoist the price as high as they chose, forcing bears to buy at the inflated price, then sell at the lower, promised one—likely driving them into bankruptcy. Profits of 200 percent were routine for successful corners. In the 1830s boom, corners were common.
Little was a master of this tactic too. In 1834 he drove Morris Canal and Banking stock from ten dollars a share to $185, the price at which shorts were forced to buy from him. The following July he cornered NY&H—with the road itself still only in construction—and realized a profit of over 60 percent. These unearned windfalls enraged many, and in 1836 it was proposed to outlaw such practices. But the NYS&EB argued that regulation would only drive business to Philadelphia, and the legislation was not passed.
Speculation raised moral hackles, but it also helped the city’s economy by generating a volume of trade that, together with respectable investment transactions, kept New York’s financial markets extremely “liquid.” Both buyers and sellers knew that the NYS&EB could execute trades at short notice. New York thus became ever more a pacemaker of the nation’s financial activities. Its market quotes were reproduced in Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore. Its brokers became the country’s largest traders in state, federal, bank, canal, and insurance company offerings and the primary promoters of new issues. More than any other economic factor, railroad financing helped solidify New York City’s role in the national credit system.
PIONEERS OF CAPITAL
Those seeking less volatile outlets for accumulated pools of capital turned to western land. In the Black Hawk War of 1832, the Sac and Fox Indians were defeated in their attempt to reoccupy former homelands, paving the way for a burst of settlement into Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory. Along with the Conestoga wagons came New York money men—pioneers of capital—eager to speculate in western acres.
In 1833, with the embers of war still warm, Charles Butler and Arthur Bronson traveled by steamboat, horse, and canoe, loaded with cash and connections to local notables like General Winfield Scott, military commander in the area, who pointed out choice sites. Butler and Bronson (son of Isaac Bronson) bought town lots in as-yetlittle-known places like Chicago (population five hundred), picked up great swatches of rich agricultural land in Indiana, Illinois, and the Michigan Territory, and constructed a network of agents—leading citizens, Indian agents, and military personnel—to handle their buying in the future.
John Jacob Astor garnered western holdings too. At first Astor had been hurt by the wars, which by driving the Indians west cost his American Fur Company its cheap labor supply. But when many of the locals who had been dependent on the now defunct fur trade went bankrupt, they paid their debts to Astor with land claims, leaving him in possession of prime real estate just as immigrants began to swarm in.
Settlers and speculators ignited a land-buying frenzy. In 1830 the U.S. government had sold a respectable two million acres of public land. In 1833 it moved nearly four million acres, in 1835 over twelve million went, and in 1836 twenty million followed. For the easterners who had gotten there first, average net proceeds (after deducting agent’s share, lawyers’ fees, travel, and other administrative costs) hovered close to 20 percent, though windfall profits of 100 to 500 percent were not uncommon, especially on city property.
Much of the New York capital flowing into western lands traveled via the medium of trust companies, financial institutions established to manage old Knickerbocker and recent Yankee fortunes. These outfits were always on the lookout for prudent long-term investments—they happily settled for modest dividends of 6 to 9 percent in exchange for stability of income—and western real estate seemed like just the thing.
The New York Life Insurance and Trust Company, one of the earliest such institutions, was established in 1830. The company was dominated by conservative bankers, merchants, and land investors, many from the city’s highest social and economic echelons. Individual investors like Astor, Bronson, Kent, Lorillard, Prime, and Stuyvesant anted up a million dollars for the capital pot. Banks and foreigners added an additional five million (England’s House of Baring, with fifteen hundred shares in 1834, was by far the largest single holder of its stock). New York Life and Trust then invested judiciously in farm mortgages. Its agents examined the value of the land each borrower proposed to buy, checked the borrower’s status and character, and refused loans to pioneer settlers, subsistence farmers, or “men who are irresponsible, improvident and intemperate,” in Charles Butler’s words.
Twenty-five more such trusts were set up in the 1830s. Some of them competed to boom the value of their respective properties. In 1835-36 a Bronson-led firm built up Cassville, Wisconsin, laid out streets named after its New York investors (Prime, Ward, Arthur), and tried to make it the territorial capital, but a rival consortium, led by John Jacob Astor, succeeding in getting the governmental seat awarded to Green Bay (then called Astor).
New York land speculators were hard at work in the South too, especially after gold was discovered on Indian lands and President Jackson picked up the pace of forced dispossession. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 secured the evacuation of remaining Choctaw and Chickasaw by 1833, and the Cherokee were gone by 1835. In the latter year, the coast now clear, Butler formed the American Land Company. Pooling a million dollars from wealthy men and politicians in New York City, Albany, and Boston, it soon owned about 350,000 acres in eight states, 70 percent in cotton lands. A similar entity, the Colorado and Red River Land Company, had amassed half a million acres by 1835.
Texas proved particularly attractive. Samuel Swartwout, collector of the Port of New York and a close friend of Sam Houston, created the New Washington Association in 1834 to purchase and develop Texas land. Swartwout and his Manhattan associates strongly supported the “Texian” revolt against Mexico, and after Houston’s victory at San Jacinto in 1836, a Swartwout-convened meeting of four to five thousand people in Masonic Hall backed recognition of Texas.
New York’s growing financial, landed, and political involvement in the South and West provoked mixed responses there. Many local merchants, bankers, and agricultural entrepreneurs relied on eastern capital for new infrastructure, long-term mortgages, and credit for land and slaves. They considered the charges for procuring capital and marketing their commodities to be reasonable, or at least unavoidable, costs of doing business.
Others feared the political consequences of financial dependency. Southern planters remembered their subordinate position in the British Empire and worried about falling into a neocolonial relationship with northeastern capital. Some westerners feared they were in one already, pointing to the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company as evidence. Ohio Life was the West’s largest financial institution, but 70 percent of its stock was controlled by easterners, primarily New Yorkers. Branson and Butler had written its charter, selected its officers and stockholders, raised its capital, and won an amazingly nonrestrictive charter from Ohio (in part by liberally dispensing stock to influential Cincinnatians). As the state had bound itself not to repeal or even amend this charter until 1870, one opponent worried that by that time “it will have so wormed itself into the vitals of the land, that nothing short of revolution can put it down.” Outcries appeared regularly in Ohio newspapers against the “Wall St. Gentry of New York,” noting that in 1836, with other easterners, they owned over 70 percent of all bank stock in the state. Such protests were met with blunt rejoinders from New Yorkers, reminding westerners of the stark facts of economic life. Ohio, having rejected public financing of internal improvements, was “an interior state new and without surplus capital [and] could do nothing without the aid of capitalists of the City of New York.”
For all the grumbling about Wall Street, the country’s most vigorous protests were still directed against “Chestnut Street,” for it was in Philadelphia that the country’s most powerful financial institution—the Second Bank of the United States—made its Greek Revival home. The BUS was the only bank in the nation with a federal charter, the only one allowed to have branches in more than two states, the only institution in which the U.S. Treasury deposited its funds. It was, as its name implied, the government’s fiscal agent, and it had the de facto authority of a central bank.
Since his accession to power in 1823, Nicholas Biddle, the bank’s brilliant and wellborn president, had skillfully forged a reliable national currency, sustained an ample but controlled growth of credit, and provided some security against economic fluctuations by acting as lender of last resort. These accomplishments—and the prosperity associated with them—had won him many supporters.
They had also won him enemies. Westerners and southerners seeking rapid development disliked his tight control over credit, and President Andrew Jackson saw in Biddie’s bank a Money Power that menaced the republic. In 1829, though the bank’s federal charter still had seven years to run, Jackson announced his preference for having a publicly owned and treasury-operated institution at the helm of the country’s finances. New York City’s leading Tammany politicians quickly concurred, as did upstate Democrats led by Martin Van Buren.
Many Wall Street financiers were also vexed by the Philadelphia institution. They bristled at what James Hamilton (Alexander’s son) called its ability “to exercise a dangerous power over the monied and mercantile operations of the great city of New York.” Wall Streeters also resented competition from the BUS, which had a branch in Manhattan itself. It galled them, too, that as the federal government’s official depository, its coffers and profits were swelled by customs revenues extracted from New York merchants. A lot of money was at stake. In 1828 New York custom duties paid all federal expenses apart from interest on the debt, and receipts were rapidly increasing. The Custom House staff was growing rapidly, and in 1834 the U.S. government would break ground for a grand Greek Revival headquarters, designed by Town and Davis at Nassau and Wall (today’s Federal Hall). Leading bankers, it was reported to Jackson, were unhappy at “the wrong done to New York in depriving her of her natural advantages by the legislation of Congress, which undertook to make Philadelphia the financial centre of the Union.”
Nevertheless, the Bank of the United States had powerful supporters in New York City—bankers, politicians, and conservative businessmen who had developed ties to Biddle’s operation because it was an inescapable fact of financial life, and who applauded Biddle’s demonstrated wizardry at stabilizing national money markets. Some key journalists backed Biddle too, in part because he lucratively backed them. After receiving a “loan” from Biddle, James Watson Webb of the Jacksonian flagship Courier and Enquirer took his paper into the camp of those supporting the bank. Tammany Hall denounced Webb as a traitor, and William Leggett, an assistant editor of the Democratic Evening Post, approached him on Wall Street, saying, “Colonel Webb, you are a coward and a scoundrel, and I spit upon you.” They exchanged blows until a crowd pulled them apart, but not before Leggett scored with another gob. Political editors were a truculent breed. Leggett’s boss, William Cullen Bryant, took a cowskin whip to William Leete Stone of the Commercial Advertiser in 1831, who riposted with a sword cane, a thrust Bryant parried with his whip until onlookers broke them apart. In 1836 James Watson Webb would assault James Gordon Bennet in the middle of Wall Street.
By 1831 Jackson’s various opponents had coalesced into a new political party, the National Republicans, which nominated Henry Clay to run against the president in 1832. Clay got Biddle to apply for an early recharter, which Congress granted, only to have the president veto it. In New York, Tammany firmly supported the veto and held an enormous antibank rally on Jackson’s behalf. George Henry Evans and former members of the Workingmen’s Party supported the president too, believing that many of the artisanate’s problems stemmed from the control of finance by a privileged class. Many Workies advocated eliminating all banks, not just Biddle’s, and relying on “hard money”—a purely metallic currency.
The alliance of Jacksonians and Workingmen alarmed conservative Democrats like John Jacob Astor. Many broke ranks and condemned Jackson’s veto, thus splitting the Democratic Party. Jackson triumphed nevertheless in his 1832 reelection bid, winning 59 percent of the vote in New York City, and promptly declared full-scale war on Biddie’s “Monster.” He announced he would soon remove all U.S. funds from the BUS and transfer the money to selected state bank depositories.
During May and June of 1833 Jackson toured the Northeast to test his policy’s popularity. Huge and affectionate crowds turned out—nowhere more so than in New York City. When the president landed at Castle Garden, a hundred thousand people jammed the Battery and its adjoining wharves and housetops to watch Jackson mount a horse and lead a procession of cabinet members, governors, congressmen, and mayors across the wooden causeway connecting the old fort to Manhattan. Unfortunately for his followers, the moment Jackson reached dry land, the bridge collapsed behind him, tumbling the assorted notables into the shallow waters. No one was seriously hurt, and the grand parade of dripping-wet dignitaries proceeded up Broadway to City Hall Park, led by the president on horseback, with the crowds huzzahing lustily for Old Hickory. And when seven state banks were chosen to receive the federal deposits, three of the “pet banks” (as his enemies dubbed them) were in New York City.
Biddle struck back. Convinced that only a massive economic crisis would galvanize the citizenry into demanding that Congress overrule Jackson, he jammed on the fiscal brakes by engineering a credit contraction. Withholding loans and calling in debts, Biddie singlehandedly deflated the national economy, producing widespread financial prostration, especially hi New York. By Christmas, stocks on the NYS&EB were plummeting. “Panic prevails,” wrote Hone, who himself lost thirty thousand dollars in two months. With many dealers and merchants verging on bankruptcy, disaster rippled through the city; laborers were discharged by the hundreds.
Biddle remained remorseless. “All the other Banks and all the merchants may break,” he said, “but the Bank of the United States shall not break.” As he hoped, delegations of businessmen now descended on Congress with pleas to restore the deposits. The president declared that the distress was only affecting “brokers and stock speculators and all who were doing business on borrowed capital” and that “all such people ought to break.” When New York financiers went to plead with him in person, an angry Jackson thundered, “Go to Nicholas Biddle,” as he was the one with the millions.
Jackson’s opponents—National Republicans and Conservative Democrats—denounced the autocratic “King Andrew” and coalesced into a new “Whig” Party. The name, first suggested by Colonel Webb in the Courier and Enquirer, invoked Revolutionary-era resistance to King George III and gained rapid acceptance. In April 1834 the fledgling Whigs entered the political lists in New York City.
On the morning of April 8, voters slogged their way to the polls through rain-muddied streets. Over the next three days, for the first time in the city’s history, they would be casting ballots in a mayoral election; the city charter had been amended in 1833 to finally give New Yorkers the right to elect their own chief magistrate. With the Bank War at its height, the city’s election was widely viewed as a referendum on the president’s policies. Daniel Webster declared that Whig hopes for winning national power “rely mainly upon the success of the great struggle which is to take place in New York.”
The election would also measure the ability of Whig amateurs to compete with Tammany professionals. The new party’s inner circle was comprised chiefly of merchants, bankers, and rentiers—powerful paladins like Philip Hone, Arthur Tappan, Samuel Ruggles, and Cornelius Vanderbilt—but they were not seasoned political operatives. The Whigs chose the ruddy-faced Dutchman and former Democratic congressman Gulian C. Verplanck as their mayoral standard-bearer.
Democratic orators branded Whiggery a tool of the city’s elite and portrayed the coming contest as “one of the rich against the poor” (William Cullen Bryant) or the “bank aristocracy against the people” (George Henry Evans). Whigs retorted that Democratic ranks too were laced with men of wealth and position—starting with the Democrats’ mayoral candidate, banker Cornelius Lawrence—though they did not deny their party’s affiliation with the rich and influential, and indeed denounced Lawrence as a traitor to his class.
Whigs were well aware, however, that winning the mayoralty would require popular support. Some Whig employers bluntly relied on economic muscle, threatening to dismiss employees who voted Democratic. Others solicited support on the basis of converging class interests—the old Alexander Hamilton strategy. At a Masonic Hall rally Whigs appealed to the traditional interdependence of merchants and “all trades connected with commerce”—winning some converts among cartmen, draymen, porters, sailors, ship carpenters, coopers, stevedores, riggers, and longshoremen. Whigs also appealed to American-born workers’ growing resentment of the Catholic Irish. Tammany, they said, was using the new immigrants to consolidate municipal power, and in fact Irishmen had flocked to the party that had courted them.
With the stage thus set for confrontation, James Watson Webb, the combative Courier and Enquirer editor and former soldier, took command of Whig troops. On Tuesday, April 8, pro-Whig sailors fitted out a float-size frigate. They named it the Constitution, mounted it on wheels, attached Whig pennants to its rigging, and hauled it through the streets with two bands and five hundred seamen following along behind. The parade marched through Broadway and Greenwich Street, picking up a thousand more supporters from among the vast pool of idled employees (Whig employers had decreed afternoon business shutdowns for the duration). After being vigorously cheered at the Merchants’ Exchange on Wall Street, the crowd headed into the heavily Democratic Sixth Ward. At the polls there, Whigs insulted the locals, with one invader shouting, “We should get along well enough if it were not for the low Irish.” Words led to blows, and the Whigs were driven from the area. Webb proclaimed the repulsion a “REIGN OF TERROR” in his Courier and Enquirer, and at a Masonic Hall conclave that evening, Whigs resolved to march en masse into Democratic terrain the next day.
On Wednesday hundreds of Whigs proceeded “in military order” into the heart of the Sixth Ward, bellowing epithets such as “damned Irish.” Gaelic Democrats retaliated by attacking Whig headquarters on Broadway. In the ensuing battle, shots were exchanged and many were injured. The Tammanyite crowd then headed to Wall Street, determined to destroy the Courier and Enquirer’s office. Webb, forewarned, erected a barricade of bundled papers and retired to the roof with thirty young merchants, seventy muskets, one hundred pistols, and six loads of paving stones. When rioters filled the street below, Webb threatened to shoot the first man who moved toward his property, and eventually the crowd dispersed.
On the third and final day of the election, fifteen hundred Whig freemen again did battle with Jacksonians armed with clubs and brickbats, and when the mayor tried to intervene he was knocked to the pavement and struck on the head with a stick. Hundreds of youthful Whigs now cleaned out the gun shops on Broadway and marched to the state arsenal at Elm and Franklin streets, led by such prominent merchants as Simeon Draper. They broke in and began passing out arms. Irishmen raced to the site. Soon an estimated twenty thousand merchants, mechanics, cartmen, and laborers filled the area. “We were indeed in the midst of a revolution,” said the Sun. With Armageddon in the offing, the mayor called out the troops—twelve hundred infantry and cavalrymen—and order was restored.
The election proceeded with military guards stationed at the arsenal, City Hall, Merchants’ Exchange, and the local branch of the Bank of the United States. Huge crowds milled around Masonic and Tammany halls while the votes were counted. Finally it was announced that Mayor Lawrence, the antibank Democrat, had defeated Verplanck, the Whig, by the whisker-thin margin of 180 votes out of thirty-five thousand cast, but the fledgling Whig Party captured a majority of the Common Council.
“THE CITY IS REDEEMED,” crowed the Commercial Advertiser. To celebrate what Hone called a “signal triumph,” the Whigs threw a Castle Garden banquet on April 15. Tables were set for ten thousand, but the multitudes jamming the Battery were great enough to require several shifts. Hundreds of boiled hams and rounds of beef, along with three pipes of wine and forty barrels of beer, disappeared down the collective gullet. Afterward, thousands marched up Greenwich Street to where the visiting Daniel Webster was quartered; he gave a fiery speech of congratulations. The later inauguration of Mayor Lawrence was the occasion for a turbulent gathering of his Democratic supporters, but Tammany had been badly shaken.
Happily for the Democrats, the Bank War now moved to a victorious conclusion. Biddle had overplayed his hand, his colossal arrogance alienating even his supporters. When elder statesmen like Albert Gallatin and Isaac Bronson demanded Biddle relax the pressure, the Philadelphia!! refused, and New Yorkers mobilized to fend off his attack. The Safety Fund made available a multimillion-dollar line of credit to member banks, enabling them to defy Biddle and stabilize the markets, and another state agency, the Canal Commission, permitted the banks maximum use of its massive revenues, further helping undercut Biddle’s strategy.
With New York holding the line and angry denunciations of Biddle’s abuse of power sweeping the country, House Democrats mustered a majority for a resolution upholding removal and opposing recharter. Even Whig politicians felt compelled to abandon the BUS. By summer Biddle had given up, his bank was on the road to extinction, and New York City had emerged from the crisis as the undisputed financial capital of the country.
Business revived quickly, and in New York City support for Whigs eroded just as rapidly. Aided by a burgeoning labor movement, Tammany swept the fall 1834 elections. Discouraged by their swift rise but even swifter fall, downcast Whigs didn’t even contest Mayor Lawrence’s reelection bid in April 1835.
The Bank War interrupted the 1830s boom but failed to stop it. With the dramatic imbroglio over, stock speculators, railroad promoters, and real estate investors resumed their fevered dealings. Land developers, in particular, set a torrid pace, especially in New York City itself, and speculative building emerged as one of Manhattan’s (and Brooklyn’s) largest enterprises. Annual investment in new construction exceeded three million dollars, rivaling the stakes in shipbuilding, shoemaking, and clothing manufacture.
Ground zero for the building boom was the commercial area at the island’s lower tip, as a rapidly expanding mercantile and financial community tried to elbow itself into the seventeenth-century streetscape. Lot owners petitioned for wider roads, and the city responded with a massive program of prying open narrow and gloomy lanes. Between 1831 and 1834 Pine, William, Ann, Cedar, Hanover, and Exchange Place were among the many streets that had their residential houses relocated or, more often, torn down and replaced by purely commercial structures. The successful conclusion of the Bank War galvanized the process, with the victors determined to build a central business district worthy of the city’s new status. The year 1835 brought a surge of street widenings—Mill, Stone, and John streets were among the stretched thoroughfares—and a new surge in the erection of Doric banks.
Uptown, a residential-based boom was underway, spurred by developers seeking to profit from housing the exploding population. Manhattan had contained roughly 124,000 residents in 1820, 167,000 in 1825, and 200,000 in 1830. Fed by a tripling in the rate of immigration, by 1835 the population topped 270,000, and with the annual overseas influx doubling again, Manhattan was headed toward an 1840 total of 313,000. During the 1830s New York was the fastest-growing city in the United States, and at some point during the decade it surpassed Mexico City in population, becoming the largest city in the New World.
Between 1821 and 1835 the population of every ward tripled or quadrupled, generating crowding, congestion, and soaring real estate prices. The value of land in Manhattan went from $64.8 million in 1826 to $87.6 million in 1830 to over $143 million in 1835—then shot to $233 million within the next twelve months, for a total rise of 280 percent over the previous decade. These numbers reflected both speculative expectations and actual improvements. Developers built commercial structures and private dwellings at a fantastic pace. In 1834, 877 commercials and 654 residentials went up; in 1835, 1259 and 865 of each were added; and in 1836, 1826 and 868. Buildings grew taller, too. In 1824 three-fourths of all new buildings had been two stories high, and none was over three; in 1834, a third of the structures surpassed three stories, and over two-thirds of the city’s new stores (15 percent of all new construction) had three or more floors.
The money for all this flowed in from private investors, many of them old landed families. Stuyvesants, Livingstons, Roosevelts, Goelets, Cuttings, Rhinelanders, Lenoxes, Lispenards, Brevoorts, and Bayards plunged into the real estate market, as, of course, did John Jacob Astor. Financial institutions also invested, after New York State removed restrictions on banks’ ability to make loans on urban land. Merchants, professionals, and shopkeepers, too, combined their savings with mortgage-backed loans to build speculative housing on an ever larger scale. A survey in 1831 showed that over six and a half million dollars had been loaned out on mortgages, two-thirds of it from individuals residing in the city, another third from “incorporated companies.”
Most actual construction continued to be undertaken by small, independent contractor-entrepreneurs, who put up perhaps one to three houses a year and operated on the thinnest of margins. But a handful of developers emerged on the order of London’s Thomas Cubitt, a carpenter who had risen to preside over much the biggest construction firm England’s capital had ever seen. Cubitt supervised the raising not of single buildings or even rows of them, but whole ensembles of houses, arranged in squares, crescents, and terraces—the grand estate developments like Bloomsbury, Belgravia, and Pimlico that blossomed in the 1820s and 1830s.
The New Yorker who most closely approximated Cubitt’s accomplishment was Samuel Bulkley Ruggles, though his social status was quite different from the Londoner’s. Ruggles, born in 1800 in New Milford, Connecticut, grew up in Poughkeepsie, where his father was a prominent lawyer. After graduating from Yale in 1814, he studied law, moved to New York in 1821, set up his own practice, and married Mary Rosalie Rathbone, daughter of a rich merchant. Her financial and social patrimony helped him establish close ties with the old Knickerbockracy, many of whom found payment of taxes and street assessments on their inherited estates to be a growing burden. Ruggles suggested he could turn their assets into profitable sources of income. Noting that canal development had helped push the value of Manhattan’s taxable real estate from fifty-two million dollars in 1825 to ninety-five million in 1831, he predicted that the impact of railroad construction would be even greater. “Within five years after the railroad from Albany shall reach Lake Erie,” Ruggles declared, “the real estate upon this little rocky island will be taxed at 250 millions of dollars.” It made sense, therefore, to buy and build. Ruggles had used his wife’s inheritance to purchase farmland from the Stuyvesants and other families, often drawing them into jointly financing his speculative ventures. In 1831 he gave up law altogether and plunged into real estate full time. By 1833 Ruggles had purchased over five hundred building lots, many of them in contiguous bunches, most of them heavily mortgaged.
One such pieced-together block of land covered roughly the area between 19th and 22nd streets and Third and Fourth avenues, with the former Gramercy Farm as its twenty-two acre core. The terrain—swampy in spots, hilly in others—was traversed by the spring-fed Crommessie Vly, which over the years had gouged out a gully almost forty feet deep on its way to the East River at 18th Street. In the early 1830s Ruggles undertook a mammoth landscaping job that eventually required moving approximately a million horsecart loads of earth, at a cost of $180,000.
At the center of his rearranged domain, Ruggles laid out Gramercy Square. Inspired by the example of Trinity’s St. John’s Park, he deeded the square collectively to the owners of the sixty surrounding plots he had platted out. Ruggles sought taxexempt status for the private park, and the Board of Aldermen agreed (in 1832), expecting that it would soon be surrounded by valuable (and taxable) properties. They were right. By 1833, when the square was fenced in, most of the lots had been sold, despite their distance from town. Actual housing construction, however, would be delayed until the 1840s.
To enhance access to Gramercy Square, Ruggles prevailed on the state legislature to insert a new north-south artery between Third and Fourth avenues. He named the northern extension Lexington Avenue, for the famous battle, and the southern strip Irving Place, honoring Washington Irving, though the writer never lived there. Irving Place served another function for Ruggles, as it led to his second mammoth enterprise, Union Square.
Union Place, as it was known until Ruggles got it changed to Union Square, was situated, as the name implied, at a junction of many roads. Left open by decree of the grid commissioners, it remained in the early 1830s a collection of vacant lots—apart from some shacks and a potter’s field. In 1832 Ruggles obtained a fifty-year lease on most of the area between 15th and 19th streets, then got the city to approve opening Fourth Avenue north of 17th Street. In 1834 he convinced the Board of Aldermen to enclose, regulate, and grade the square (with much of the cost assessed to the Ruggles-owned land between there and Gramercy Park). Finally, Ruggles built curbs and sidewalks along the new streets. Then he sold most of his leases and, in 1839, built a four-story house for himself on the square’s east side, into which he moved from his Bond Street quarters. In time Ruggles would be surrounded by affluent neighbors, but, as at Gramercy Square, actual construction would await the next decade.
Due west of Gramercy Park, on Manhattan’s Hudson River side, another grand project was afoot on the domain of Father Christmas, Clement Clarke Moore. Once his resistance to lower Manhattan’s northward sprawl proved futile, Moore had decided to make the best of things and systematically developed Chelsea as a fashionable quarter, anchored by the green grounds of the General Theological Seminary. Working with James N. Wells, the Hudson Street carpenter who had developed Trinity’s St. Luke’s property, Moore laid out streets. Again, smoothing out Manhattan’s cragginess took heroic efforts: Eighth Avenue had to be beveled down by six to twelve feet to reach the required grade. By 1832, his friend John Pintard noted, Chelsea was laid out with streets “where, but a few years ago, all was open country.” Soon Moore was leasing lots, with restrictive covenants to guarantee the proper tone.
Laborers excavating Union Square, engraving by James Smillie, c. 1831. The leveling of Manhattan’s original terrain for real estate developers like Samuel Ruggles was done by pick and shovel. This view looks south from what is now 18th Street, with Broadway on the right and Fourth Avenue on the left. (I. N. Phelps Stokes Collection. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)
Way across town, where the high, dry land west of Second Avenue tumbled down into marshes that ran on to the East River, the Stuyvesant family took the lead, albeit reluctantly, in developing Tompkins Square. For quite some time, they and other swamplords (including Pells, Fishes, and Astors) had refused to underwrite the mammoth job of draining and filling their boggy empire. At one point they threatened to dump the property back on the city as not worth improving. Thus prodded, and having taken note of the “depressed.state of property in this part of the city,” the municipal authorities allocated sixty-two thousand dollars of taxpayers’ money to compensate the landowners (in particular, the Stuyvesant family) and set aside another twenty-two thousand to transform the muddy flat into a park. Opened in 1834, Tompkins Square was surrounded the following year with an ornamental cast-iron fence, then studded with shade trees. This upgrade immediately lofted the value of all the swamplords’ nearby holdings, and boosters predicted a brilliant and genteel future for the neighborhood.
The city supported the Stuyvesant and Ruggles developments so handsomely largely because it was running out of money. As expenses for infrastructure and poor relief soared, traditional revenues had failed to keep up. For over a century the municipal corporation’s treasury had relied mainly on rental income from its own property (water lots, wharves, common lands) and on license and franchise fees. By the 1820s, with these sources no longer generating sufficient revenues to cover expanding costs, city officials relied more on property taxes.
Previously, property (especially “farmland”) had been taxed lightly or not at all, one reason eighteenth-century merchants had regarded it as such a good investment. But as land values catapulted, the city began to demand a portion of the profits, and total assessments leapt from just over two hundred thousand dollars in 1830 to over $1.1 million in 1837. With their fiscal fate now tied to the value of private holdings, aldermen adopted a policy of aggressively enhancing the value of private property, in the name of promoting the public good.
Street openings were central to this strategy. The municipality’s Street Committee steadily expanded its building program, and in 1835, responding to numerous complaints about limited access north of 14th Street, it decided to open all grid-plotted thoroughfares up to 42nd Street. Ignoring the grid designers’ egalitarian inclinations, however, it began subsidizing creation of elite neighborhoods. Partly this was simply a matter of sanctioning exceptions in street design, like the creation of residential squares—elements that enhanced a location’s status and raised its values. Occasionally this entailed actively constructing new spaces with public money, as at Washington Square, which now completed a thirty-year transformation from ugly duckling to civic swan.
Originally sodden marshlands, the area had been drained in the 1790s and become a graveyard for paupers and fever victims, receiving more than twenty-two thousand bodies over the next two decades. It also served occasionally as execution ground, with prisoners carted up Christopher Street from Newgate Prison and hanged from an elm before jeering crowds (the resident gravedigger doubling as hangman). After the yellow fever epidemic of 1823, with Greenwich booming just to the west and Bond Street burgeoning just to the east, the city barred further burials and routed new corpses north to what is today Bryant Park. In 1826 the city purchased additional land here (paying a hefty seventy-eight thousand dollars) and created the Washington Parade-Ground, a setting for militia exercises. It opened to the public that July 4—the Declaration’s jubilee anniversary—with an old-fashioned fete in which two roasted oxen, two hundred hams, and a plentiful supply of ale were disbursed to the crowd of ten thousand.
Though heavy guns sometimes caved in the parade-ground’s surface, exposing the yellow-shrouded corpses of fever victims, it quickly became a plebeian gathering spot, attracting visitors from nearby Greenwich. Almost immediately, however, developers began raising handsome new town houses along the square’s southern border. Then, from 1828, northside farmers and estate owners began subdividing their property and erecting aristocratic rowhouses. In 1831 Sailors’ Snug Harbor leased a northside stretch from Fifth Avenue to University Place to developers, imposing restrictions to guarantee homogeneity. By 1833 another Greek Revival terrace had emerged, spanning r to 13 Washington Square North, known collectively and colloquially as “the Row.”
Washington Square, like its Hudson Square prototype, drew posh residents. Many decamped uptown together from homes near the Battery. Bankers and merchants predominated, including former mayor Allen, who arrived in 1835. Most families came from New England or Scottish backgrounds and worshiped at the Presbyterian Church on Christopher Street.
Rising out of Washington Square like a thermometer from its bulb, Fifth Avenue was not yet an address to boast about, having only recently graduated from open stream to muddy rutted road. In 1824 Fifth was opened to 13th Street, covering over the Minetta Waters that continued (as they do today) to course beneath its surface. The road reached 21st Street by 1830, and 42nd by 1837, but remained sparsely populated, certainly by gentry. The first sign of its future eminence was the construction in 1834, by Henry J. Brevoort Jr., of a Greek-ornamented mansion (perhaps designed by Town and Davis). It lay at the northwest corner of Fifth and Ninth Street, in the midst of what remained of the farm that Henrick Van Brevoort had bought back in 1714, and it represented the profits the family had accrued by selling off portions over the years and investing the proceeds in the stock market.
New York’s gains, at first, seemed Brooklyn’s loss. Manhattan’s expansion had created a powerful up-island real estate lobby of landowners, speculators, developers, and politicians, and this phalanx was determined to thwart any move by New York’s increasingly feisty neighbor to lure potential customers across the East River.
One mechanism for stanching any such outflow lay in New York’s continuing control of the river and its ferries. Under its colonial charter, the municipal corporation’s boundaries lapped to the shores of Long Island. It also had exclusive authority to license ferries across the East River. It used this to ensure that its lessees remained untroubled by competitors, thus allowing them to keep both their fares and payments to the city high.
Brooklyn villagers pleaded with New York’s Common Council to award leases to men who would run the ferry as a public utility instead of charging whatever the monopolized traffic would bear. They petitioned as well for boats to go to new locations, like Atlantic Street. Manhattan dismissed such requests. As one alderman baldly admitted in 1834, he legislated for New York, not Brooklyn, “and if I shall think that the establishment of this ferry will abstract from the southern extremity of New York and centre of its commerce of population which would otherwise reside upon this island, I am bound to vote against it.”
In 1834 Brooklyn abandoned direct appeals and turned to the state for support. Fashioning novel legal weaponry, the villagers attacked New York at a vulnerable spot, the independent authority of its venerable municipal corporation. Chancellor Kent had justified its right to control water traffic as being in the interest of the public, by which he meant residents of the city. But Brooklynites argued that the “public” encompassed the entire state and that the ferry’s paramount function was to serve that public’s convenience, not generate revenues for the corporation by exacting tribute from its smaller neighbor. New York should be made to treat its franchise as an administrative responsibility delegated by the state—of which, they pointedly reminded Albany, it was but a creature—or to transfer its ferry-licensing power to a state commission. If the courts accepted this reasoning, one of the last perquisites of the “private” corporation would vanish.
In March 1835 stockholders of Fulton Ferry decided to compromise. They agreed to permit New York City to grant a license to a different group of investors. The Common Council agreed, though it designated the new ferry’s terminus as Whitehall, Manhattan’s most remote and inconvenient point. Tensions eased. New York had bought itself a ten-year truce in the ferry wars. (Concessions were made on the Hudson side too: in 1833, New York and New Jersey settled their boundary dispute by fixing Manhattan’s boundary in midriver, not at water’s edge as long claimed.)
New York proved unable, however, to stave off Brooklyn’s emergence as a full-fledged city. Since its formation, the town around the ferry landing had been growing at a rate exceeding Manhattan’s. The Village Council wanted enhanced authority, both to press disputes with its bullying big neighbor and to promote local development by installing street lights, clearing pigs from the streets, and cleaning up grogshops. The council also sought more substantial headquarters, cramped as it was in the upper floor of the Apprentices’ Library, which, since a fire in 1832 had destroyed the new Flatbush courthouse, it had been forced to share with the county government as well.
In 1833 a bill to incorporate Brooklyn as a city passed the Assembly. New York’s opposition killed it in the Senate. In 1834 Brooklyn tried again. New York officials countered with a remonstrance requesting that all of Kings and Richmond counties be made part of New York City. Brooklyn won, aided by upstaters. An act passed April 8, 1834, invested their community with the privileges of a city. But Brooklyn’s charter was quite different from New York’s. This city was to be an administrative agency, not a private and propertied corporation. It had specific responsibilities, as well as things it was forbidden to do—like regulating the prices of any commodity except bread, or infringing the chartered rights of the Corporation of the City of New York. The new city promptly set up wards, elected aldermen, and chose its first mayor, George Hall—son of a Flatbush Irish farm family, an Erasmus Hall graduate, and a leading temperance advocate.
In July 1834 a town meeting began to talk of building a City Hall that would outdo New York’s. This suited Hezekiah Pierrepont perfectly. In 1833 Hezekiah had sent his son Henry Evelyn Pierrepont to Europe to study cities. Like Ithiel Town, he came back enamored of crescents and squares. The Pierreponts decided to map out the old Livingston lands behind Brooklyn Heights in the same grand manner. The terrain was still open country, however, and nearly a mile from the waterfront. To lure commercial and professional interests it needed an anchor. A grand City Hall would do nicely. In May 1835, accordingly, the Pierreponts and Remsens sold Brooklyn a triangular site at the intersections of Fulton, Joralemon, and Court streets. In 1836 a cornerstone was laid for a Greek Revival structure. It would be by far the most conspicuous building in Brooklyn, rivaling anything in fashionable Manhattan.
The formation of the City of Brooklyn stimulated the cupidity of many local landowners and touched off an extravagant binge of speculation in town lots. This fever soon spread way beyond Brooklyn proper. For miles in all direction, farms were surveyed, subdivided, laid out into streets, and sold off at auction sales—at the manic pace of the land booms in Manhattan and out west.
To the north, on the other side of Wallabout Bay with its Navy Yard, flourished Williamsburgh. Incorporated as a village in 1827, Williamsburgh extended its borders in 1835, set up a board of trustees to manage itself, built large wharves along its stretch of the East River, and started a new ferry to Peck Slip (over the strenuous opposition of New York). In 1836 a company of gentlemen purchased a farm and estate traversed by the present Grand Street. There they erected fourteen first-class model homes for a planned model city, which they trumpeted in lithographic property maps as a great investment opportunity. The population jumped. Merchants established residences along the shore. And just to Williamsburgh’s north, the village of Green Point experienced a similar heightening of expectations. In 1832—34, Neziah Bliss, a Connecticut Yankee ironworker who married into one of the original Dutch families, bought up farmland, had the area surveyed, and laid out streets and lots.
Activity was equally frenzied below the City of Brooklyn’s southern border of Joralemon’s Lane. Two and a half miles from the ferry lay Hoyt’s (or Prospect) Hill, where Charles Hoyt had planted streets back in 1826. By 1833, amid a marketing blitz of lithographic maps and auction sales, Hoyt was harvesting his speculative profits. At the same time, the hills, marsh meadows, and mill ponds of Red Hook were fetching astonishing prices: one ten-acre patch went for forty-seven thousand in 1833. In 1834 the old Van Dyke lands were transmuted into the Red Hook Building Company, which issued stock on Wall Street. In 1835 poplars, cedars, locusts, and sassafras were hatcheted down. Hills were tossed into marshes, and old mill ponds, like that on which Nicholas Luquer had raised oysters and ground grain for Pierrepont’s distillery, passed into history. The Red Hook Building Company’s ambitions outpaced its abilities, however, and in 1835 it was taken hold of by Messrs. Voorhees and Stranahan, who organized the Atlantic Dock Company, which in the next decade would construct an engineering masterpiece.
Still farther south, across Gowanus Bay, the land rose again toward the wooded Heights of Gowanus. It was here, in 1832, that Henry E. Pierrepont proposed to build a city of the dead. Pierrepont had been inspired by a visit to Mount Auburn Cemetery, the country’s first rural, parklike necropolis, which had opened in 1831 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was also inspired by a vision of the fortune he could make importing corpses from Manhattan.
New York had banned burials south of Canal Street, and by 1830 several enterprising businessmen had opened New York Marble Cemetery as a profit-making venture. The city’s first nonsectarian cemetery—its 156 underground vaults were open to the wealthy of any faith—was situated on a half-acre plot just west of Second Avenue between Second and Third streets. An inscription blazoned on its east wall read PLACE OF BURIAL FOR GENTLEMEN. It was so successful they opened a second one, a block east, in 1832. Further annexes were ruled out the following year by the real estate boom, which drove the value of downtown lots to such heights that the City Council extended the ban on new interments north to 14th Street. Pierrepont saw an opportunity here and, once Brooklyn had become a city, proposed creation of Green-Wood Cemetery, a plan that would come to fruition in the next decade.
Below the Heights of Gowanus, Brooklyn rolled south to the sea. Here the landscape of scattered farms and villages was largely untouched by the 1830s boom, with one exception. At its southwestern rump, across the Narrows from Staten Island’s easternmost extension, federal defense spending catalyzed new development. On June 11, 1825, the cornerstone was laid for Fort Hamilton, commencing a seven-year, half-million-dollar construction project. Wharves rose along the shore for landing supplies. Fort Hamilton village, also known as Irishtown, grew up on the bastion’s northwestern side. Its shacks housed construction workers, many of them recent immigrants, and the Irish women who did laundry and opened small stores. By the mid-1830s stage service connected the fort with New Utrecht, two and a half miles away, and from there, via Gravesend and Flatbush, with the City of Brooklyn.
In November 1831 Fort Hamilton received its first garrison, the fifty-two men and two officers of Battery F of the Fourth U.S. Artillery Regiment. During the peaceful 1830s the citadel remained undermanned, but the village continued to grow. There was only one church, however—Dutch Reformed—so many soldiers had to travel to Brooklyn or New York to worship. In 1834, accordingly, soldiers and locals joined in building St. John’s Episcopal Church just outside the fort (its cornerstone was laid in 1835). In 1836, seeking to supplement its grandly named dirt roads, the city engaged a company to build a railroad from Brooklyn to the fort, then on along Gravesend Bay to New Utrecht, Bath, and Coney Island.
Grand schemes were conceived far to the east of Brooklyn too. For a century and a half the conservative farmers of New Lots had gone about their traditional business. In 1835 things changed abruptly. John R. Pitkin, a wealthy Connecticut merchant, began buying up large portions of land (above today’s New Lots Avenue) from local villagers. He intended to found a great city—East New York—that would rival Manhattan. The new metropolis would have access to cheap food from local farmers, low rents that would allow manufacturers to undercut competitors, and a vast transportation center all its own along the shores of Jamaica Bay. By 1836 Pitkin had assembled a vast tract, laid out streets and lots, and prepared a prospectus that spoke glowingly of future buildings, markets, factories, parks, and schools.
In 1835 Pitkin had jumped border boundaries to Queens, where he launched another model village, Woodside (later Woodhaven). But the county in general remained unaffected by the boom. Flushing’s population remained stable at about two thousand and was only incorporated as a village in 1837, while Jamaica’s railroad-spurred growth remained in the future. Staten Island too remained largely isolated from the speculative fever. One group of speculators formed an association to develop the island’s northeastern sector as a resort center, to be named New Brighton. They borrowed $470,000 from bankers and erected a large hotel and some houses, but the enterprise didn’t get much farther. The area did attract “Commodore” Vanderbilt, however; in 1835, now among the city’s richest men, he built a porticoed and Corinthian-columned house on the family farm, between Stapleton and Tompkinsville.
Philip Hone, an active player in the real estate game, was a very happy man in 1835. Land values, he noted elatedly, had soared “beyond all the calculations of the most sanguine spectators,” with the consequence that “immense fortunes have been made and realized within the last three months.” Abounding in newfound wealth, Hone set out to enjoy himself.
New York’s boom-era Knickercrats spent their off-work hours differently than did their evangelical class counterparts. While Arthur Tappan and his colleagues were stamping out sins, Philip Hone and his comrades were merrily indulging them. Hedonism was not universal, to be sure: reaction to good fortune varied with the individual. Old Nathaniel Prime had speculated heavily in stocks, bonds, and real estate and had won big. He retired in 1832, vastly wealthy, his sons well launched, his daughters well married. But Prime became seized by a strange fantasy. He grew convinced he was becoming poor and would die in the almshouse. Unable to shake this monomania, he cut his throat with a razor and died instantly.
Something akin to Prime’s anxiety infected even Hone’s optimism, for the noted bon vivant’s pursuit of the good life mixed celebration of pleasure with a search for security. He and his peers fashioned one enclave after another dedicated to gregarious fun—men’s clubs, opera houses, pleasure gardens; each was as much a sanctum as a playpen. They were places, as were the elite’s exclusive neighborhoods, where a newly flush bourgeoisie could experiment with an aristocratic lifestyle, safely segregated from the hoi polloi of an increasingly democratic city.
In June 1836 a little group met at the athenaeum and formed the Union Club, choosing as first president Samuel Jones, chief justice of the Superior Court of New York City. As Hone explained to his diary, the intention was to create an establishment of four hundred “of our most distinguished citizens.” It would “be similar in its plan and regulations to the great clubs of London, which give a tone and character to the society of the London metropolis.” The Union Club was an instant success. Merchants and lawyers from the city’s established families flocked to it. Even James Gordon Bennett was asked to join, though he declined, publicly and noisily, in the pages of his Herald, on the grounds it refused to admit females (“Society without woman is a farce,” he declared). Undeterred, the Union Club leased the Le Roy house at Broadway and Leonard, where local businessmen, out-of-town visitors, and bachelor men-about-town could entertain in exclusive and comfortable surroundings, which included the services of a chef from Paris and a cellar stocked with excellent wines.
Not all Knickerbocker nightlife was so relentlessly male. Soirees were all the rage in the boom era, as gentry couples gathered at the homes of their friends for late supper, music, and games. Hone regularly invited sixty or so to evenings featuring tableaux vivants. Costumed ladies and gentlemen arrayed themselves before elaborate backdrops as “Madonna” or “Lady Jane Grey” or “Highland Chief” or formed groups to depict a “Scene from Waverly” or “Cato’s Death.” Women also attended the round of elaborate parlor parties customarily triggered by society weddings, such as the 1834 union of Charles Augustus Heckscher with the daughter of John G. Coster, which dismayed even Hone with its costliness.
In 1833 the Knickerbockracy flirted with grand opera. Lorenzo Da Ponte, librettist of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, had introduced the masterpiece to New York in the mid-1820s, arranging a staging of it thirty-nine years after its world premiere. (Da Ponte translated his libretto into English and sold copies in the lobby.) Opera had not proved a social success, however, which the dogged Da Ponte put down to the absence of a proper theater. He therefore convinced a group of patricians to subscribe $150,000 and construct the Italian Opera House, the first building in the United States designed exclusively for that purpose. But its multicolumned, Greek-white exterior and sumptuous, gas-lit interior drew but a few hundred regular attendees. The first season ran a deficit; the second was a terminal disaster. New York simply lacked the social and cultural structures—state subsidies, aristocratic patronage—that underlay Europe’s operatic system. Its burghers were prepared to consume culture as aristocrats did, but not to underwrite it as aristocrats were expected to do. Besides, the whole business still seemed a bit culturally rich for Knickerbocker blood. No matter how much they envied European elites their prestigious cultural emblems, Knickerbockers were not yet prepared to emulate them. The New York Opera Company was liquidated, its palace sold off.
Pleasure gardens were more the local style, and here too exclusiveness was key to success. After 1830 the upper classes deserted the déclassé Vauxhall and turned to William Niblo’s new concern, established in 1828 at the northeast corner of Broadway and Prince. Niblo’s Garden surpassed all others in elegance and respectability, its status sustained by high entrance fees, expensive food, and urbane entertainments. Its only competitor for posh patronage was Contoit’s New York Garden, across from the Park, a cozy and quiet resort for wealthy and well-bred ladies and unchaperoned genteel couples. Waiters in white jackets and aprons dispensed lemonade, pound cake, and vanilla, lemon, or strawberry ice cream of a Sunday afternoon, and from sundown to midnight it was illuminated by colored whale-oil lamps on stanchions and branches of trees.
Broadway, etching by Thomas Horner, 1836. This view, looking north from Canal Street, captures the fast pace of Manhattan’s principal artery during the 1830s boom. Niblo’s Garden can be glimpsed in the distance, on the corner of Broadway and Prince Street. (Eno Collection. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)
From the pleasure gardens to the blooming new gentry preserves, from Vanderbilt’s mansion to the rising village of Harlem, from one side of the harbor to the other, the sound of hammers and saws was everywhere as the rail and realty boom shifted into hyperdrive. But the feverish “good times,” hailed so exuberantly by those who underwrote the construction and investment boom, were experienced quite differently by many other New Yorkers.