“It seems hard to believe that Twenty-third Street—which is the first street in the city of which I remember anything, could have changed in so short a time,” wrote Edward Eugene “Gene” Schermerhorn in an 1886 letter to his young nephew, Phil.
“The rural scenes, the open spaces, have vanished; and the small and quiet residences, many of them built entirely of wood, have given place to huge piles of brick and stone, and to iron and plate-glass fronts of the stores which now line the street.”
It was the first of 10 letters Gene would address to his nephew, recently collected in a thin, enchanting volume, Letters to Phil, published by New York Bound in 1982.
Each chronicles his memories between 1848 and 1856 of a small-scale New York that had yet to experience the enormous growth that made it an international capital by the 1880s.
Gene’s city had a population of about 500,000 and a northern boundary barely exceeding 14th Street. A descendent of a prosperous family that came to Manhattan in the 17th century, he shows what it was like to be a curious, privileged boy before the Civil War.
“Twenty-third Street and in fact all the streets in the neighborhood were unpaved,” he wrote. “There was plenty of room, plenty of dirt (clean dirt), and plenty of boys; what more could be desired!”
Gene writes of the games he and his friends played: marbles, “base ball,” and kite-flying. The also chased the pigs that ran around Sixth Avenue.
His Manhattan was a rural paradise. “Up town at this time was almost inaccessible. Of course there was no Central Park. Third Avenue was open to Harlem passing through Yorkville which was quite a large village about 86th Street. . . .”
Chelsea was located to the west of Gene’s home; Murray Hill, to the east. “Eighth Avenue was open to Harlem, and in connection with the Harlem Lane (now St. Nicholas Ave.) was the great road for fast driving.”
The business district, at City Hall, contained “none of those magnificent buildings now so common in the lower part of the city. A building of any kind six stories high was very rare.”
Downtown had all the theaters, as well as Barnum’s Museum. “It was a delight to go there on Saturday afternoons.”
The rough side of town was at Broadway and Houston Street, the site of St. Thomas’ church. “[Sic] Opposite to it was a row of small two-storied wooden houses; many of them low grog shops—a very bad neighborhood.”
Gene and his brother skated on ponds at 32nd and Broadway and Sixth Avenue and 57th. They headed over to Park Avenue south of 42nd Street on Saturdays and “played among the rocks and watch[ed] the trains.”
“Sometimes we would walk in the region which is now the Central Park. It was a very rough and rocky place, with plenty of woods and scattered trees and very few houses except ‘Squatters’ shanties.”
New York’s industry centered around transportation. The East River housed “Dry Docks” and shipyards. “On the Bowery at 6th Street was the ‘Hay Scale’ where the loads of hay brought in on that side of the city were weighed.
“Facing this was the ‘Gotham Inn,’ quite a noted sporting tavern. On the corner of 3rd Avenue and 13th Street stood an old pear tree, which was planted on Gov. Stuyvesant’s farm in 1647.”
Gene gives a wonderful account of a free-range boyhood in a slower-paced city. But what he did with his life isn’t clear. He apparently never married; he may have lived a life of leisure. He died in 1922.
His nephew Phil is also a mystery. His 1952 obituary in The New York Times, however, says he lived on East 78th Street, was survived by a wife, and became a painter.
[Map of NYC in 1842; images from the NYPL Digital Gallery]