New York City / State Timeline
from Eagles Byte by David Minor
Year-by-year tracing the growth of the early days of the Republic
Cold Time in the Old Town
When fire broke out in lower Manhattan on January 24, 1821, the sudden heat was almost welcome. Three days previously the lower Hudson River, known locally as the North, had frozen over and now ice had begun to thicken. Snow lay so deeply in the streets that the chief commissioner of the Fire Department had temporarily consolidated two area companies into one, to facilitate movement of the hand-pulled fire wagons. Sources of unfrozen water were especially scarce now. Under these conditions, compounded by wooden building construction, it seems somewhat miraculous that the flames were confined to the block bounded by Front, Fulton and South Streets, where the seaport museum stands today. The following day temperatures dropped to 14 degrees below zero and New Yorkers began gingerly walking out on the ice, then crossing to Jersey City, Brooklyn and Governor's Island, as they grew bolder. The harbor iced over and the next day daring souls were crossing from Brooklyn to Staten Island.
Real estate prices in the area continued to increase, with 12 lots in nearby Liberty and Greenwich streets going for close to $48,000. Rising young political aspirant Philip Hone, a future mayor, bought a home at 235 Broadway for $25,000. He would sell it 15 years later for $60,000. And vacant land didn't remain vacant for long. As soon as the fire's debris had been cleared, new construction began on Fulton Street for a market to replace a smaller one down on Maiden Lane. The immediate area would soon take on a distinctly fishy bouquet that would linger for the next 18 decades.
Building crews had been busy all over the city for the past several years and 1821 would see the completion of a number of projects. A group of merchants, seeking to improve the education of their employees, opened the Mercantile Library in February. Soon 150 subscribers were working their way through a 700-volume collection. After May 7th, if all that studying overtaxed your brain you could get away from it all and check into the new Bloomingdale Insane Asylum up in the country near the village of Harlem. It was the state's first mental hospital. For those requiring less drastic measures, a number of churches were also completed this year, including St. Luke's in the Fields and three Presbyterian churches.
By autumn New York was on its way to becoming a theatre town. A brand new Park Theatre opened on the first of September, with a stage measuring 45 by 70 feet and a seating capacity of 2400. The distinguished English Shakespearian actor, Junius Brutus Booth, arrived in America a few months previously at Norfolk, Virginia, was drawn northward and opened on October 5th in Richard III. He soon returned to England, but was back in 1824 and soon became a favorite with Manhattan audiences. Acting was still not accepted as a quite respectable profession, but Booth and his sons, Edwin, and John would go a long way toward changing that. There was other Shakespeare available, performed by a rather unusual company for a year when the state had just declared slavery illegal. Promoter William A. Brown founded the African Theatre off lower Broadway this year, creating a repertory company of black actors performing a season of pantomines, musicals and Shakespeare, including Richard III and, of course, Othello. New York had its first Negro Theater.
While Manhattan's residents were walking across their frozen-over waterways in January of 1821, up in Albany many Federalists found their political ice getting precariously thin, as the legislature began a purge. They still had an ally in governor DeWitt Clinton, but the nominally Democratic Republican was more interested in getting his canal built than in party loyalty. Still, many Federalists benefitted handsomely from Clinton's patronage. And the work on the canal was proceeding rapidly.
This year would see a contract put out for new excavation way over in Niagara County, and for a 900-foot long dam nearer Albany at Fort Edward to create a feeder for another project, the Champlain Canal, even now cutting its way across Saratoga County for a connection with the Erie at Waterford. The Seneca Canal portion of the Erie was completed this year, as well as the Utica-to-High Falls portion and the section through Rochesterville, where one of the more spectacular feats was the aqueduct carrying the canal over the Genesee River. The record-setting 802-foot stone arch bridge had been designed by engineer Benjamin Wright and built by contractor William Britton, who had recently completed the prison at Auburn, 30 convicts labored on the structure. 30 returned to Auburn afterwards. When Britton died in December, Alfred Hovey took over his position. In a few years Hovey would prove to be more careless with his felonious crews. Canals may have been popular, but there was a limit to the enthusiasm. A number of investors based in Canandaigua subscribed $20,000 for a Ontario Canal Company, but their plans never matured.
New York State was also occupied in modifying its constitution, as legislative hearings got under way at the end of August. The result, completed in November, banned the use of lotteries (sorry, Yolanda Vega), and reduced property qualifications for white males. If you were black you could vote, but only if you owned $250 worth of property. A writer to the New York Tribune would put it in perspective in 1869. "The simple question to be decided by the People is—Shall a very inconsiderable fraction of our People continue to be deprived of the Right of Suffrage for want of $250 worth of dirt? If so, on what principle? Their black skins do not in any event disenfranchise them: Shall their poverty do so? Poor men! Consider!"
Another disenfranchised group, women, at least found educational opportunities beginning to open to them, as the Albany Female Academy was incorporated this year and Emma Willard founded the Troy Female Seminary, the first woman's school to offer scientific and classical studies on a collegiate level.
For all of the progress being made across the state there were still pockets of settlement where existence was lived on a more basic level. Down in the Southern Tier's Cattaraugus County the residents of Connewango battled elements and wildlife. Newcomer John Darling went out to his sugar house after dark one night and was about to go back when the howling of wolves nearby changed his mind. He spent the night out amidst the sugaring equipment. And John Farlee's wife died in the late autumn, the first in the village to do so. They buried her in her garden. A raging snowstorm prevented the arrival of the minister. A friend offered up a prayer.
© 2002, David Minor
The Eagles Byte New York City / State Timeline is from David Minor's radio scripts for Simon Pontin's Salmagundy radio program on WXXI-FM (91.5). David can be heard every Saturday morning at 10:15 talking about various aspects of world history.