Posts Tagged ‘New York during the Revolution’

The two vintage cannons on a Central Park bluff

June 13, 2016

Hike up a steep walkway below Harlem Meer on Central Park’s east side, at the site of a colonial road known as McGowan’s Pass, and you’ll end up at a magnificent bluff that puts you at eye level with Fifth Avenue apartments.

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On that bluff, you’ll also find two 18th century cannons—one aimed north, the other to the east.

Cannonmap1814What are they doing there? These examples of artillery commemorate Fort Clinton, a military command post built to defend the city from this high point in the hinterlands of Manhattan well before Central Park existed.

The British occupied the site during the Revolutionary War.

“The British built a fortification here in 1776, following their invasion of Manhattan, as part of a defensive line extending west to the Hudson River,” states the Central Park Conservatory.

During the War of 1812, fearing a British attack that luckily never happened, the U.S. made it a fortification (along with nearby Fort Fish, see map) and named it after DeWitt Clinton, then mayor of New York.

“In the 1860s, the designers of Central Park recognized both the scenic and historic value of this location, and retained the original topography and remains of the fortification,” states the Conservatory.

Cannonfortclintonnypl

The two cannons weren’t actually part of the fort. They were artifacts salvaged from the wreckage of the H.M.S. Hussar, which sank in Hell Gate in the East River, reportedly laden with gold, in 1780, writes Sam Roberts at the New York Times.

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Donated to the park in 1865 after 80 years in the river, they harken back to the post-colonial city and serve as reminders of the bluff’s military past.

In the 1970s, vandalism and neglect led the city to put them in storage. Since 2014, they’ve been back on the bluff, on a granite base with a commemorative plaque.

The cannons are not far from another remnant of the War of 1812: the stone Blockhouse Number One, also in the northern section of the park.

[Illustration of Fort Clinton, 1828, NYPL]

The “hangman’s elm” of Washington Square Park

October 11, 2012

Was the gorgeous elm tree at the northwest corner of Washington Square Park (at left in 1936) used for public executions?

It’s a legend passed down over the years.

On one hand, a Parks Department web link seems to imply that people were indeed hanged from the 110-foot tree, estimated to be at least 300 years old.

“The [sic] English elm (Ulmus procera) at the corner of Waverly Place and MacDougal Street acquired its reputation during the American Revolutionary War,” the site explains. “According to legend, traitors were hung from its branches.”

In 1797, the city acquired the land for a potter’s field. “The field was also used for public executions, giving rise to the tale of the Hangman’s Elm. . . ” another Parks Department link states.

In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette, visiting from France, supposedly witnessed the hanging of 20 highwaymen here in 1824.

Newgate State Prison was just a stone’s throw away on Christopher and 10th Streets; inmates sentenced to death were reportedly walked over and hanged here.

Newspaper archives through the 19th century contain several stories that refer to the “hanging elm.” But perhaps the articles simply repeated the legend.

The only actual recorded execution in the vicinity was of a young woman named Rose Butler, convicted of arson and strung up on a gallows across the street in 1820.

Here’s the story of the city’s other most notorious tree . . . until it was knocked down.

[Top photo: NYPL Digital Collection; middle photo: Wikipedia]