Sunday, December 03, 2006

First-Hand Tales of Old New York!

In the days before the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age, there were the Merchant Princes. These men were captains of industry in the first half of the nineteenth century, and a number of them were devout Christians. Unlike the Robber Barons, they abided by Judeo-Christian ethics in their business dealings. William Earl Dodge, 1805-1883, was among them. He joined his father-in-law as a partner in one of New York's most lucrative companies: Phelps, Dodge & Co., which manufactured copper and brass, among other endeavors.

Since Dodge had been involved in business in NYC since the age of 12, in 1880 he was invited by a group of merchant colleagues to describe the many changes that had taken place in NYC over the years. The result was a lecture delivered on April 27th, 1880, which Dodge also pubished as a monograph entitled Old New York. Below are several excerpts.

Around 1819, Dodge remembers: "I carried bundles of goods up Broadway to Greenwich village ... crossing the old stone bridge at Canal Street. This had long square timbers on either side in place of railing, to prevent a fall into the sluggish stream-some fifteen feet below-which came from the low lands where Centre street and the Tombs (the city's prison) now are. It was called the Colic, (though its true name was Collect, as it took the drainage of a large district), and was the great skating place in winter. Turning in at the left of the bridge I took a path through the meadows, often crossing on two timbers laid over the ditches where the tide ebbed and flowed from the East River. At the time there was no system of sewerage (sic), but the water which fell was carried off by the gutters and by surface draining."

Dodge later continues: "There were no police in those days, but there were a few watchmen, who came on soon after dark and patrolled the streets till near daylight. Their rounds were so arranged that they made one each hour, and as the clocks struck they pounded with their clubs three times on the curb, calling out, for example, 'Twelve o'clock, and all is well,' in a very peculiar voice. They wore leathern caps such as the firemen now use."


Martyn, Carlos. William E. Dodge: The Christian Merchant. New York: Fund & Wagnalls Company, 1890. Photo from frontispiece.

Dodge, Phyllis B.. Tales of the Phelps-Dodge Family. New York: New-York Historical Society, 1987.

Dodge, William E.. Old New York. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1880.

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