The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

shining city

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

Gantry Plaza State Park, along the waterfront in the Tower Town section of Long Island City, offers fine panoramas of the shield wall of Manhattan’s east side. Some of my friends tell me that Long Island CIty is best exploited photographically in the early morning, when the burning thermonuclear eye of god itself is still in the east, illuminating the Shining City. For me it’s sunset.


Gantry Plaza State Park is a 12-acre riverside oasis that boasts spectacular views of the midtown Manhattan skyline, including the Empire State Building and the United Nations. Enjoy a relaxing stroll along the park’s four piers or through the park’s manicured gardens and unique mist fountain. Along the way take a moment to admire the rugged beauty of the park’s centerpieces – restored gantries. These industrial monuments were once used to load and unload rail car floats and barges; today they are striking reminders of our waterfront’s past. With the city skyline as a backdrop and the gantries as a stage, the park’s plaza is a wonderful place to enjoy a spring or summer concert or to enjoy the Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks display.Recreational facilities include basketball courts, playgrounds, handball courts, and a fishing pier with its own cleaning table.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The funny thing, of course, if that if a 19th century citizen of the independent cities of Long Island City or Manhattan were to observe the modern scene- their first question would be “What happened to all the ships and factories?”.


Shipyards lined both the Manhattan and Brooklyn banks of the East River. In the heyday of New York’s port, the ships being built were primarily square-rigged crafts made of wood, especially oak. The raw materials for ships were readily available on the mainland and the labor force in New York did not lack members, especially during the 19th century, when immigrants were pouring in from Europe en masse. While Europeans experimented with the building of iron ships, Americans perfected the art of building the wooden ship.

Renowned for the quality and style of the ships it manufactured, the Port of New York was also known for the sheer quantity of ships that were built there. The East River was the most concentrated area of shipbuilding in the United States. The three greatest shipyards of the East River were probably the Webb-Eckford yard, the Bergh-Westervelt yard, and the Brown-Bell yard. These produced some of the most famous ships and made a fortune in the business, but they represent only a small fraction of the multiple and diverse shipyards dominating the East River.

Commercial yards made up a vast majority of the East River shipbuilding industry, but the government also took advantage of the area to establish a shipyard. The New York Naval Shipyard was established on the site of a former mercantile shipyard, located on the Brooklyn bank, in 1801. It built and outfitted approximately 100 vessels during the War of 1812 and was called upon again during the Civil War to build nine-gun steam sloops and eight-gun side-wheel double-enders. Established by John Quincy Adams, the New York Naval Shipyard continued to build ships well into the 20th century, until it was finally abandoned in 1966.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The East River was once bursting with industry, and was lined by docks. Famously dangerous, the docks of New York and its corollary municipalities were the first melting pot. When a ship’s cargo was being unloaded and a new one loaded, a process that might take as long as a week, the crews of itinerant sailors would pass the time in flophouses and bars which lined the waterfront. Established society shunned the waterfront, with its temporary populations of tattooed sailors and the mongrel contagion of ideas and exotic possibilities they carried with them.


At about 8 o’clock P. M., two lines of people were formed to march each side of the street. Wax candles, about three inches in circumference and four feet long, were now lighted, and given into the hands of each man in the procession. The corpse, which was richly dressed, and adorned with fresh flowers, was placed in a little basket with four handles, four little boys carrying it. It looked like a sweet little child asleep. The procession, with the priest ahead of the child in the middle of the street, and two long lines of men with lighted candles on each side, was rather an imposing sight in the dark night. The walk was about one mile and a half, to an ancient-looking stone church in the upper town. As we passed into the church I saw one of the flagging stones of the floor raised up, and a small pile of bones and dirt beside it. The consul told me the little child was to be put in there. The child was set down by the altar. The priest occupied but a few moments in speaking, then took up a long-handled cup or ball, perforated with holes like a grater, through which, as he uttered a few words, he sprinkled the child with what they call holy water, some of which, whether by accident or otherwise, feel on us who stood at the head of the procession. After this part of the ceremony, all but the child returned in order with the procession. Mr. Harden, the consul, on returning, told me how the child would be disposed of. Two black slaves would strip it of all its clothing, cover it with quick-lime to eat off its flesh, then pound it down in that hole with the other bones and dust, until the stone would lie in its place again. They would have its clothing for their labor. Thus, in this dilapidated charnel-house, and place for divine worship, they disposed of their dead. I was told that Paraiba was one of the oldest towns in South America, being of nearly three hundred years’ standing.

After disposing of our cargo here, we invested our funds in hides and skins, and sailed for New York. After a pleasant and prosperous passage of some thirty days, with the exception of cold, freezing storms on our coast, we arrived at the quarantine ground several miles below the city of New York about the last of March, 1826. As we had no sickness on board, I was allowed the privilege on Sunday of taking my crew with me to hear service at the Dutch Reformed church. This was the first religious assembly I had met with since I covenanted to serve God, and I enjoyed it much. It seemed good to be there. In a few days we were relieved from quarantine, and I was made glad in meeting my companion and sister in New York. My brother F. took my place on board the Empress for another South American voyage, and I left for Fairhaven, to enjoy for a season the society of my family and friends, after an absence of some twenty months.

Written by Mitch Waxman

May 22, 2010 at 5:00 am

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