Riding upstate on the Hudson River Day Line

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During the last half century, an escape to upstate New York has usually meant a drive up the Thruway or Taconic, or a train ride on Amtrak or MetroNorth. But in the early 20th century, ferries shuttled New Yorkers between Manhattan and points along the Hudson, from Indian Point to Albany.

I was reminded of this earlier this month when, on a road trip upstate, I came across a postcard depicting the Hudson River Day Line Steamer “Hendrick Hudson.” Sent to a Mrs. R Tyde in Stephentown, NY, on July 26, 1950, the back of the card reads, “Dear Folks, Spending the day in Bear Mountain. We had a nice trip up and a nice dinner when we got here. Love to all, Claire, Eleanor and Margie.

That nice trip came near the end of a long, slow decline of a Hudson River steamer industry that had peaked a quarter century earlier.

Launched on March 31, 1906, the $1 million Hendrick Hudson was billed as the “grandest and swiftest river steamer in the world.” At 400 feet in length and 82 feet wide, the steamer had six decks and could hold more than 5,000 passengers, “a capacity equal to that of the five largest hotels in New York City.”

A booklet announcing the launch continued, Continue reading

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Hotel Seville and Lower Madison Avenue

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“During the last ten years Madison Avenue has undergone a very great change. It was formerly one of the fashionable districts for residence purposes, second only to Fifth Avenue in its desirability, especially in the section south of Forty-second Street. With the rapid improvement of Fourth Avenue and also the development of Fifth Avenue, a number of the owners of Madison Avenue properties realized that it could be improved to advantage with high-class commercial structures.”

This was the lead from a June 1, 1913, New York Times article that bore the headline, “Rapid change from a social centre to a section of small, high-class shops.”

The article went on to quote Lawrence B. Elliman of the firm Pease & Elliman, who said “In the section between Twenty-third and Thirty-fourth Streets, the private character of the section has practically disappeared and there are only a very few of the old residents still occupying their homes in this district.”

While it may be difficult to imagine a Madison Avenue of private homes and estates, such was the character of the neighborhood at the turn of the 20th Century. Among the first buildings to herald a change to a more commercial character was the Hotel Seville. Completed in 1904 at Madison and 29th Street, the hotel still stands there today, though it was renamed the Carlton in 1987.  Continue reading

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Passing through New Brighton on a trolley ride to Port Richmond

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More than 100 miles from home, in an antique shop in the Hudson River Valley, I discovered this postcard with an image of a street just a few blocks from my office in St. George, Staten Island. Mailed from Port Richmond on July 18, 1908, the postcard depicts a scene from Richmond Terrace, in New Brighton, Staten Island.

“We are out on a trolley trip to Port Richmond, Staten Island. Passed through this place,” wrote N.A. Chase to a Miss Elsie McKay in Fishkill-on-Hudson, New York.

I stared at the image, looking for clues as to which block this postcard depicted. It is clearly not the Richmond Terrace of today, which is largely lined with industry on the North side, facing the Kill van Kull, and residential developments on the South Side. The postcard looks more like a scene out of Brooklyn, lined with two- and three-story buildings—businesses on the lower floor and, presumably, residences above. Power lines, trolley tracks and horse-drawn carriages line the middle of the street.

I shared the postcard first with colleagues who are longtime New Brighton residents. They were stumped. I then shared it with a local author and preservationist. He, too, could not identify the block, but he promised to do some research and, sure enough, he got back to me with a letter from the chief curator of Historic Richmondtown/Staten Island Historical Society.

If you look carefully at the left side of the street, you can see the inscription “Wanty/Harness” on the front of one of the buildings. Joseph Wanty was a harnessmaker who was located on Richmond Terrace in New Brighton. Here’s some of the information we have about him.

The Richmond County Fair program for 1895 has an ad: “All Grades of HARNESS / Every Article necessary for / HORSE, / CARRIAGE and / STABLE. / Joseph W. Wanty, / 371 Richmond Terrace, New Brighton, S.I. / ALL GOODS / CARED FOR AND DELIVERED / FREE.”

He had a full page ad in the 1905 Richmond County Agricultural Society program: “J.W. WANTY, / Hand Made Harness for all Purposes / A GOOD STOCK OF BLANKETS, WHIPS, BITS, / COLLARS, SADDLES AND STABLE UTENSILS, ETC. / 371 RICHMOND TERRACE, NEW BRIGHTON, N.Y.”

The Richmond Borough Directory for 1912 lists Joseph W. Wanty under the category “Harness Makers,” with an address of 509 Richmond Terrace, New Brighton.

Both of his addresses, 371 Richmond Terrace and later 509 Richmond Terrace, are close to the foot of Jersey Street.

Mystery solved, thanks to some sharp eyes and diligent research from Historic Richmondtown!

Now, my only question is, why was N.A. Chase going to Port Richmond?

Today, you would have to look closely for clues to know Port Richmond’s rich history as a commercial and industrial hub. Port Richmond was settled by Dutch and French colonists in the 1690s and early 1700s. Aaron Burr, our nation’s third vice president, died there in 1836—around the same time that the neighborhood’s street grid was laid out.

When N.A. Chase visited the neighborhood more than 70 years later, trolley lines connected it to St. George to the east, and Bulls Head to the South. Port Richmond Avenue, known then as Richmond Avenue, was on its way to becoming known as the “Fifth Avenue” of Staten Island, a designation that slipped away as the shopping hub shifted to the Staten Island Mall in the later half of the 20th Century.

Though it may not seem like a destination today, chances are, N.A. Chase was en route to do some shopping in what was then a bustling neighborhood of Staten Island.

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Note from an electric light factory worker

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“My dear aunt: Just a postal to let you know I am still alive and well. I work every day in an electric light factory. Would like to see you very much. With love, I remain, your loving niece, Dollie Kane.”

I found this note on a postcard sent Monday, Jan. 31, 1910, from Newark, N.J., to the sender’s aunt, 150 miles away in Hallstead, Penn., not far from the New York border. The note sounded sad, and I wanted to know more about Dollie Kane.  Continue reading

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Madeline, The Carlyle and Hotel Bemelmans

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“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.” These words have been etched in my memory since I was a teenager, reading this book to my younger brother, then just a toddler. He was too young to read, but smart enough to have the book memorized. All I had to do was turn the pages, and he could recite every word.

As an adult, the more I read about the Austrian-born author, Ludwig Bemelmans, the more convinced I am that his more grown-up writings are one of the best kept secrets of 20th Century American literature. His Madeline books are well known to a few generations of Americans. New Yorkers may also know him for Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle on the Upper East Side. Some of us may also remember the New York Historical Society’s 2014 exhibit, Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans. But his writings about food, travel, restaurants and the hospitality business in 1930s New York City seem to be widely unknown.

I recently finished reading Hotel Bemelmans, a series of autobiographical stories chronicling Bemelmans’ time working at New York City’s Ritz Carlton Hotel or, as he calls it in the book, the Hotel Splendide. From Anthony Bourdain’s introduction to a 2002 reprint of Hotel BemelmansContinue reading

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Americana Across the Empire State

Olcott Beach Carousel Park

Like a boomerang, I completed a 33-hour trip across New York State and back last weekend, leaving Penn Station on Friday at 1:20 pm on a Buffalo-bound train, returning by car to Staten Island at 10 p.m. Saturday night. The Hudson River Valley, Albany, Rochester, Syracuse, downtown Buffalo, Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes all sped by in an often-rainy blur–but there were plenty of highlights.

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Lost Restaurants of NYC: The Lobster

The Lobster

“There is no other like The Lobster!”

The year 1920 marked the beginning of the end of many New York City restaurants. By the end of the decade, the effects of Prohibition would force many restaurateurs to close their doors. But for Max Fuchs and Simon Linz, this decade marked the beginning of a successful business known simply as the Lobster Restaurant.

I discovered this restaurant through a book of matches that I picked up at an antique store in Lambertville, NJ, for less than a dollar. The matchbook reads, “The Lobster. Our policy of serving only FRESH IN SEASON SEAFOOD has not been changed in more than 35 years of continuous service to the public of New York.”

In the same neighborhood where grand “lobster palaces” flourished two decades earlier, Fuchs and Linz opened the Lobster Restaurant — at 145 West 45th St. Very little is written about The Lobster in the pages of the New York Times, but Rian James gives a solid two-page review in the 1930 edition of his Dining in New York.

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