The Newtown Pentacle

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Archive for June 4th, 2009

The Cemetery Belt

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City of stone 1

Visible from space, the Cemetery Belt  is contained entirely within the Newtown Pentacle – First Calvary, Second CalvaryCypress Hill’s, St. Michael’s, Mt. Olivet, and Mount Zion represent the interments of tens of millions of New Yorkers. Three million lie in new Calvary alone. The estimated number of those at rest is triple the live population of Queens.

The vast majority of these graves were laid down in the first half of the 20th century. The names on the headstones are the names of forgotten celebrities, politicians, mobsters and molls. The movers and shakers of their time, many had elaborate mausoleums and tomb markers built for themselves- but the vast majority of those who lie here were ordinary people. Old Calvary in particular is home to some of the most interesting stone work in the entire city. However, like much of the Newtown Pentacle, respect for the dead didn’t hinder Robert Moses from pushing through.

Old Calvary looking toward Newtown Creek

this is a stitched panorama- check out the huge original at flickr. (click “all sizes”) The funeral scene in “the Godfather” was filmed at Old Calvary for instance, not too far from the spot pictured above.

City of Stone 2

Mount Zion

Cemetery Statuary, Mt Cavalry 3

New Calvary

The vast Necropolis was built in response to deadly outbreaks of cholera in Manhattan’s tenements in the 1830’s and 40’s. At the time, cemeteries were all over the place- including back yard plots and storefront church cellars, and the belief amongst the body politic was that these bodies were poisoning the ground water and causing the cholera. Thus, a proclamation (the Rural Cemeteries act of 1847) that no new cemeteries would be allowed in Manhattan was announced, and the creation of the Cemetery Belt began. What’s more, between 1854 and 1856- the exhumation, transport, and reinterment of nearly 15,000 bodies from Manhattan to Queens was accomplished. Here’s an article from newsday about it.

 Kosciuszko bridge

This is fairly close to, if not the actual location of the ferry dock and LIRR train station and fairly close to the spot where Penny Bridge crossed the Creek. photo by Mitch Waxman- this is a stitched panorama- check out the huge original at flickr. (click “all sizes”)

Death was and is big business, and Long Island City was and is all about business. Ferry service ran from Manhattan and Brooklyn bringing the bereaved up Newtown Creek to the New Calvary Pier in Blissville.

The Long Island Railroad maintained a station at Penny Bridge carrying mourners from all points east. Funeral processions involved marching bands and extensive paegentry. A trip to the graveyard was like visiting a sculpture park for the whole family, with exquisite landscaping and an arboretum of exotic trees and flowering plants sprouting from a grassy hill. Clothes were crisply laundered in boiling water (using lye as a detergent), children ordered to behave or else . What a change, if only for a few hours, from the gaslit darkness of Manhattan’s tenement alleys. A beautiful day with the family, spent at the Newtown Creek.

Old Calvary, Memorial Day 2009 longshot

Old Calvary

from bridge over BQE

St. Michael’s

Quoting from James Riker Jr.’s “Annals of Newtown”, here’s how the area around Calvary came to be called Laurel Hill. from Brooklyn Genealogy

This village is located in the extreme northwestern corner of the town of Newtown and is separated from Brooklyn by Newtown Creek, which is spanned at this point by the old “Penny Bridge” built in 1836. A large portion of the land included in the village plan was formerly a part of the Alsop property. Here was the home of the Alsop family- a family now extinct in Newtown, although for more than two centuries they were among the most prominent residents of the town. Edward Waters once owned a farm here of a hundred acres, which he sold in 1852 to Jacob Rapelye. Augustus Rapelye, his son, became owner of seven or eight hundred acres of land here, and in 1853 laid out the first village lots. His map is known as “the four hundred lots.” George W. Edwards in 1845 bought a portion of the Alsop property, and subsequently that was laid out into building lots. The laboring people, who compose a large part of the population of the village, are principally employed in Calvary Cemetery, located here, and in the marble works in the immediate vicinity. In 1858 Henry Schafer established his cabinet manufactory here, and for several years manufactured a general line of cabinet ware; but for the last ten or twelve years he has made a specialty of children’s cribs and cradles, in which he and his sons are doing a business of considerable proportions. The shirt manufactory of Edward H. Inglis furnishes employment for twenty or thirty female operators. A post-office was established here in the summer of 1881, with James Duffy as postmaster .

THE LAUREL HILL CHEMICAL WORKS. These works were established in 1866, by C.W. Walter and A. Baumgarten, but remained comparatively small for several years. In 1871 G.H. Nichols and W.H. Nichols entered the firm, and A. Baumgarten retired. In 1872 their first oil of vitriol works were erected. The acid gave such satisfaction that increased manufacturing facilities were required, and one factory after another was erected, until now the works comprise the largest plant for the manufacture of oil of vitriol in the United States. Muriatic, nitric and other acids are made in quantity, as well as Paris white and whiting. The proprietors have recently purchased a copper pyrites mine in Canada, and intend taking the ores to Laurel Hill, extracting the sulphur in the manufacture of oil of vitriol, and smelting the copper in works about to be erected. In May 1875 Mr. Walter and his family were lost on the “Schiller,” and the works have since been the exclusive property of G.H. Nichols & Co., and are only one of several enterprises in which they are engaged. The superintendent of the chemical works is J.B.F. Herreshoff; of the whiting warks, E.V. Crandall. The analyist is Lucius Pitkin. The buildings shown in the illustration, where the business is now conducted, have all been erected by the present proprietors, the first plant erected by Walter & Baumgarten having been entirely removed. The present buildings cover one block, 200 by 300 feet on one side of the railroad and on the other side 200 by 240 feet, with a dock frontage on the creek of about 400 feet. The capacity of the works at present is the production daily of about 600 carboys of oil of vitrol, besides muriatic and nitric acid made from sulphuric acid as a base. The whiting works produce about 10,000 bbls. annually. Forty thousand pounds of sulphur is burned daily in cold weather, but less during the summer months. The business employs from sixty to seventy-five men steadily. The manufacturers are redeeming several lots now under water, and contemplate a new dock on the creek, to cost from $5,000 to $6,000, on which they are to erect copper furnaces for smelting ore. CALVARY CEMETERY. This cemetery, which is located at Laurel Hill, was set apart and consecrated in 1848. It is one of the most accessible rural cemeteries near New York, and it would be difficult to select a lovelier or fitter spot as a place of sepulture. The old ground comprised one hundred and ten acres, but in 1853 a charter was obtained from the State by the trustees of St. Patrick’s cathedral, New York city, for 250 acres; 165 acres of this are now enclosed. The artesian well in that part of the enclosure called New Calvary was sunk in 1879. It is 606 feet deep and 6 3/4 inches in diameter, and was bored in white granite for a large part of its depth. Last year 32,000 persons died in the city of New York, and of this number 15,500 were buried in Calvary. The cemetery keeps one hundred and fifty men regularly employed, and two hundred more are kept at work by the relatives and friends of the deceased. Here may be found some of the choicest of materials and the finest models in monumental structure; and here we may mention as worthy of note the vault and chapel built by John Johnston, at a cost of $75,000, and regarded as one of the finest to be found in any ground. This cemetery is to the Catholics of New York what Greenwood is to the Protestant population. Since 1872 Hugh Moore has been the general superintendent, and to his ability much of the beauty and attractiveness of the place is due; he has been assisted by Michael Rowen. The mortuary chapel, of fine architectural design and finish, was built in 1856. The present chaplain is Rev. M.J. Brennan.

Written by Mitch Waxman

June 4, 2009 at 7:52 pm

Posted in newtown creek

The Night Soil and Offal Docks, and Jell-O

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Not Furmans Island, but pretty close by in 2008

Newtown Creek from Maspeth 02

I was seeking out some information on a shunned 1960’s religious group which had headquartered at a disused 19th century Satmar Yeshiva (which burned to ash in 1973) over on the Greenpoint side when I read about “Conrad Wessel’s noxious and pestilential night soil and offal dock on Furman’s Island, along the Newtown Creek”. This reference was connected to Gov. Flower’s “smelling committee” which traveled up Newtown Creek in a steamboat during the summer of 1894 to confirm that the waterway did, in fact, smell. The Smelling Committee placed much blame for the miasma which permeated Long Island City, Dutch Kills, and Greenpoint at the doorstep of the bone boilers on Furman’s Island. 

A muddy patch midway at the branch of Maspeth Creek with the main waterway, Furman’s (originally Smith’s) island was connected to the shore by a plank road. This plank road would later become Maspeth Avenue. At the corner of Gardner, where the Maspeth Tanks towered until just recently- was Peter Cooper‘s Glue Factory. This picture is from the Brooklyn public library:

Cooper- as in Cooper Union- and Canton Iron- as in B&O Railroad- as in the first transatlantic telegraph wire- was a brilliant chemist who worked in the “we use every part of the pig but the squeal” days of the American meat industry. By 1870, his operation specialized in the refinement of glues, albumen, and aspic from bone and inedible parts of animals. He invented the process by which gelatin can be powderized, flavored, and shipped to waiting consumers. His product- jell-O brand gelatin (patented 1845), is just one of the many everyday items invented and originally manufactured on our troubled newtown waters. One of New York’s greatest  men, Cooper’s factory was nevertheless a gigantic animal tissue distillery which was spewing a plume of grease and acid directly into the Newtown Creek. Dead animals were collected all over the greater New York area (these were the horse and buggy days) and loaded onto barges headed for Furman’s Island. Also, human and animal poop littered the streets of Manhattan in those days.

The classic Sanitation man, in white uniform with a pail on wheels and armed with brooms and brushes- the sort you see show up in old warner bros. cartoons- was part of a nocturnal army who would open hydrants and water mains on top of the hill at 5th ave. and sweep the filth down to the rivers. This accumulation was in turn loaded on barges destined for… you guessed it… Newtown Creek. This is also where your grandmother’s threats about becoming a street sweeper if you didn’t do your homework come from. I grew up in the 70’s, and “garbage man” was a solid, well paying, union job.

Cooper’s men would first boil the organics and by-products, reducing them to fatty acid kept near boiling, then the foul chowder would be pumped through ceramic pipes to become constituents for whatever use Mr Cooper, or later his nephews Charles and George, desired. A reading of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, which is admittedly based in Chicago, gives a fairly good taste of what life must have been like on New York’s own bubbly creek back then. Compare with “How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York”  by Jacob Riis for the New York slant.

Cooper was the largest of the bone boilers, but not the only one. His plant was considered a model as compared to the Fertilizer and Rendering Works of Peter Van Iderstein, Jr. or Fred Heffner’s fat rendering operation. Also present along the Creek was the aforementioned Conrad Wessel’s Offal Dock, along with wire manufacturers like William Grossback and Co., and Charles Tendele’s Provisions dealership. Thousands of small operations worked in barns and sheds shoeing horses and building crates and barrels.

For a free historic New York Times column on the Smelling Committee and it’s findings- click here (registration required)

Its not the oil spill you should worry about folks, for things darker than petroleum flow beneath the gentle waves of the Newtown Creek.

Also, if anything you read here is contradictory to something you know, leave a comment and let’s talk about it… 

Written by Mitch Waxman

June 4, 2009 at 4:22 am

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