Chapter 01: The Beginnings and the Growth of New York City

From nycsubway.org

Rapid Transit in New York City and in the Other Great Cities · Rapid Transit Commission, 1906

Henry Hudson. In the early part of the seventeenth century the Dutch were wonderfully prosperous, dealing on a large scale with the entire world. Motley mentions, in United Netherlands, that they had 10O,000 sailors and 3,000 ships. Bryant, in his History of the United States, remarks that "The Dutch East India Company, the first of great trading monopolies, was formed by the consolidation of several small corporations, its charter granting it sole permission to trade for twenty-one years to the east of the Cape of Good Hope, and to sail through the Straits of Magellan." The Magellan route was long, and it became important to search for a passage across the northern hemisphere. Many expeditions were sent forth. So firmly rooted had become the belief that a passage existed north of the continent that one explorer, Henry Hudson, sent out by the Muscovy Company of England, had been instructed "to proceed directly across the pole." This was the second voyage of Hudson for the company.

In 1609 the Dutch East India Company engaged Hudson to make a third attempt. The ship Half-Moon, a vessel of 80 tons, was fitted out. The contract stipulated that Hudson was to receive a sum equal to $300 of our money for expenses and for the support of his family during his absence. If he did not return, his widow was to be paid $80 to indemnify her for his loss. If he found the passage, he was to receive a suitable reward, the exact terms of which were not stated in the agreement. He was instructed to proceed "around the north side of Nova Zembla"; also he was "to think of no other routes or passages, except the route around by the north and northeast above Nova Zembla."

Hudson's Voyage. The expedition sailed April 4, 1609, and early in May had reached the neighborhood of the island. Ice barred further progress in that direction, and, as the crew were insubordinate, most of them being unused to the extreme cold of that region, Hudson decided to disobey orders and sail west for the American shore. He skirted the coast of Newfoundland and New England and reached a point as far south as Chesapeake Bay; and returning sighted the Navesink Highland in September. Before he sailed for home the Kills were explored, and also the Hudson to a point above Troy. The adventurers were delighted with the beauty of the country, and with its possibilities for agriculture and for trade with the natives.

The Dutch Government did not take advantage of the discovery to claim the territory; neither did it make an attempt, until long after, to develop and colonize it.

Manhattan. But the merchants of Amsterdam were not so indifferent. Two or three years after Hudson's visit they occupied the southern end of Manhattan Island, building there a crude fort and huts for the first settlers.

It did not call for the exercise of much insight on the part of the pioneers to appreciate the wonderful advantages of the location. While doubtless they never dreamed of the vast and thriving population that would in time occupy the Island of Manhattan, they knew that the harbor was not surpassed by any in Europe. They knew that the river would provide communication with a vast interior region. They knew, in some part, that the natural resources of the land were very great.

The Island of Manhattan was a rocky ridge extending north and south. The southern part was easily defensible. The country to the north was fit to be cultivated. The adjacent land in Jersey, Staten Island, and Brooklyn was of like character. The settlers sent their boats up the Hudson as far as the stream was navigable, south along the coast and north through the Sound, and rapidly established an extensive trade with the Indians. They entered also, in a modest way, upon the tillage of the soil.

The growth of the place was rapid. In 1700 the population was about 21,700. In 1800 it had grown to 60,489; in 1820, to 123,706. At this time the population of the State of New York was 1,372,812.

The Erie Canal. At the date last mentioned a movement was set on foot to connect the waters of the Hudson with the Great Lakes by the Erie Canal. Mention of this enterprise is to be found in the minutes of the Chamber of Commerce of New York of January 3, 1786. In a memorial addressed to the Chamber by Christopher Collis he asks aid for the enterprise in the following prophetic language:

"Your memorialist has formed a design of opening an intercourse with the interior parts of the United States, by an artificial inland navigation, along the Mohawk River and Wood Creek to the Great Lakes, a design which must evidently extend the commerce of this city with exceeding rapidity beyond what it can possibly arrive at by any other means; a design which Providence has manifestly pointed out, and which, in the hands of a commercial people, must evidently tend to make them great and powerful; and which, though indefinite in its advantages, may be effected for a sum perfectly trifling when compared with the advantages."

Chamber of Commerce. The memorialist declared that he had examined the ground "at the Cohoes, the Little Falls, and Fort Schuyler, and found that no considerable difficulty existed," and that he had secured "a number of respectable gentlemen as subscribers." He asked for the countenance and aid of the Chamber of Commerce. That body responded that, while it entertained a high idea of the feasibility of the scheme and wished it all success, it had no funds that could be applied to the purpose.

The physical features of New York and the value of this canal were summarized by the late Abram S. Hewitt when Mayor of the city. In a message to the Board of Aldermen in January, 1888, he said:

"The State of New York owes its pre-eminence among the States of the Union chiefly to the physical fact that within its territory the great Appalachian chain of mountains falls off, so that communication between the Great Lakes and the ocean may be secured on grades so low as to offer but little resistance to the tide of commerce in both directions. The City of New York owes its precedence among the cities of the Union to the fact that it has a great ocean harbor of unequaled proportions and of inexhaustible possibilities. These great natural advantages were turned to account by the foresight, genius and energy of one man, whose monument is to be found in the Erie Canal, and in the vast increase in the wealth of the city and State of his birth."

DeWitt Clinton. "The name of DeWitt Clinton, the first graduate of Columbia College after the Revolution, Mayor of this city and Governor of this State, will always be held in grateful remembrance by the generations who enjoy the fruits of the incalculable benefits which he conferred upon the commonwealth. He laid the foundations of its prosperity upon an enduring basis. Since his day the introduction of railways has lessened, but has not destroyed, the natural advantages which New York possesses in low-grade lines to the interior, over other cities of the Atlantic seaboard."

Clinton started to dig his "ditch," 363 miles in length, on the 4th of July, 1817, amid much ridicule. But the undertaking, stupendous as it was, was pushed to completion in October, 1825.

Railroads. Thirty-five years later the construction of railroads that were to constitute great trunk lines was begun. The successive lines completed added to the importance of New York City as a commercial center. Its precedence, indeed, became such that railroads built between other seaboard cities and the West were obliged to ask for differential rates favorable to themselves. These rates were secured, and have lasted until our day. They have tended to build up other lines of transportation, but have not so far prevented the development of our city and commerce as to be the occasion of serious complaint here. The system of differential rates is, however, abnormal, and cannot be allowed to stand indefinitely.

Local Problems. The people of New York City, while giving attention to problems of transportation between their city and other sections of the country north, west and south, have been obliged to meet local problems due to the physical conditions of their vicinage. The first settlement was at the extreme southern end of the island of Manhattan. This section remains until our day the center of the activities of our people. Population has increased year by year, and it has covered successively the district south of Wall street, south of Canal street, south of Twenty-third street, south of the Harlem, and it now extends north of the Harlem along the Hudson toward Yonkers, and along the East River toward the Sound. A great city has grown up on the Bronx. Neighboring great cities have grown up across the North and East Rivers. Our municipal government rules to-day the affairs of four millions of people. The metropolitan center, including the nearby cities of New Jersey, embraces a total population of four and three-quarter millions. It is the largest center in the world, save only London.

The growth from south to north to a distance of more than ten miles, always within bounds made by arms of the sea, and the growth across the waters contiguous to the island-- the centre of commercial activity on the island itself remaining constant to its more southern parts-- has created the local problems mentioned, and caused developments of a progressive nature that will be treated of in the following chapters.

Developments. In a way the successive developments made have served to fix the commercial activities at the southern end of the island. It has been a case of "all roads lead to Rome." And this again has caused developments there that could not have been dreamed of in earlier days. One of these is a form of construction that permits of building to the height of twenty stories and more. This form of construction has gone forward so rapidly and to such an extent that it may be true to-day that the section of the city south of the City Hall gives accommodation to twice as many people as it contained twenty years ago.

A factor which should not be overlooked in the study of a problem of this nature is "the flat," which has done for certain residential districts what the skeleton-framed skyscraper later did for the commercial and financial district-- increased the capacity of the ground area. One of these "Parisian novelties" had been built in 1865, and in 1870-71 two large apartment houses were erected on Eighteenth and Thirteenth streets. From this initiative the style spread, and has had much to do with increasing the density of population.

nycsubway.org is not affiliated with any transit agency or provider.
Not mobile.