The Birth of Greenpoint Shipbuilding

From 1850 until the end of the Civil war in 1865, Greenpoint was one of the major shipbuilding areas in the world. For almost a half century after the Civil War, Greenpoint continued to build ships and nautical supplies and the area was rapidly populated by shipbuilders and their families. Shipbuilders also used their skill with wood to build many of the area’s first homes, some of which still stand today.

There was an era when the Greenpoint waterfront was lined with shipyards and the shore rang out with the sounds of sawing and hammering. The Greenpoint yards built some of the largest wooden craft ever built in the United States, including graceful clipper ships, three masted schooners and much smaller wooden craft. However, more importantly they built iron warships that helped the North win the Civil War. Shipbuilding did not come slowly to Greenpoint. It exploded quickly and totally transformed the neighborhood forever, yet wooden shipbuilding began to fade quickly too and the only shipbuilders who lasted were those who built iron ships.
A number of forces drove shipbuilding from Manhattan to Greenpoint in the eighteen forties. The first force that would drive shipbuilding to Greenpoint was the explosive population growth of Manhattan. The Erie Canal transformed New York in the years after its opening in 1825 into the most important city in the United States. Shipping in New York was booming and shipbuilders were vying with shippers, traders and other commercial interests for limited space on the waterfront. Shipbuilder realized that their industry would have to move somewhere else and that place was the western shore of the East River, Brooklyn. Greenpoint and Williamsburg had perfect shorelines with deep draft of up to twenty-five feet so that shipbuilders could launch ships even at low tide. All the conditions were right for the area to become a shipbuilding center.

The development of shipbuilding in Greenpoint coincided with a huge demand for sailing ships. Trade with China and the gold rush in California created a massive need for ships and New York City became the nation’s largest center of shipbuilding. In Manhattan, there were 33 shipyards on the East River alone. This was the era of the graceful clipper ships. They were the largest sailing vessels of the time. They had sharp graceful hulls and towering rigging. However, this era would prove brief. The first Clipper ship built in New York was launched in 1846, yet a mere twenty years later these wooden ships had become obsolete.
Shipbuilding came first to Williamsburg and shortly thereafter to Greenpoint. In 1845 Jabez Williams opened the first yard there, but he and others had their eyes on the undeveloped shoreline north of Williamsburg along the East River in Greenpoint. and it was only a question of time until it arrived in there.

In 1848 New York shipbuilder Samuel Sneden and machinery builder James Cunningham,in association with Williams purchased a large parcel of land in Greenpoint, at the junction of Bushwick Creek and the East River. The “land” that they bought was actually marsh so they began a process that would alter the lay of the land in Greenpoint. They threw up a bulkhead and hired hundreds of men to fill in the land. They took down the Noll where two centuries ago Dirck the Norman had built the area’s first home. The land they created covered more than ten city blocks and cost $220,000 a huge sum at that time. Constructing a shipyard was very unusual for the period, but it would make the investors rich men shortly after when they used the land to set up shipyards. A great advantage in building vessels there was the great depth of water there: over 25 feet deep at low tide enabling builders to launch a steamer or packet ship at almost any hour of the day.

Although Sneeden and his partners were the first to buy land there,they were not the first to set up a yard there. George Collyer and Eckford Webb opened their new yard at the foot of G Street (Green Street today) in August 1850. For the next twenty years more than a third of the people in Greenpoint would work in shipbuilding and the owners of the shipyards became rich men.

George Collyer was one of six shipbuilding brothers from the Hudson River town of Ossining. He had already built a number of vessels in New York City. Eckford Webb came from one of the most prestigious shipbuilding families in America. He was the younger brother of William H. Webb, whom many considered the foremost naval architect of his generation. Their father Isaac was also a skilled shipbuilder who had apprenticed under the famed Scottish shipbuilder Henry Eckford who emigrated to America and became a shipbuilding legend. Isaac Webb would later run Eckford’s New York yard and name his son in honor of the Scot. Webb’s sons also apprenticed in the Eckford yard, as did other future Greenpoint shipbuilders, among them Donald McKay and John W. Griffiths. Shipbuilders were a close community and word traveled quickly that the area was ideal for shipbuilding Collyer would eventually leave the firm and start his own business, but the firm he founded had the honor of building Greenpoint’s first ship in 1851. It was a small ship called the Honda.
At one point there were a dozen shipyards lining the Greenpoint waterfront and there were a number of related plants like rope works. sail makers and Chandlers.
Already in the 1850’s forces were at work that would force shipyards out of business. The amount of wood needed to build these ships was huge and whole forests would be felled to supply the wood for these clipper ships. Soon, the price of wood would make these ships too expensive and make the construction of metal-hulled ships more economical. Competition from British shipbuilders who used iron instead of wood forced prices down and squeezed profit margins too low for some firms to stay profitable.

The movement of the Williams family from Williamsburg to Greenpoint was a major turning point in the history of Greenpoint shipbuilding. They bought land and set up yards next to the Rowland’s works. They were a major New York shipbuilding family and the father Jabez was an esteemed master of the trade. The Williams family initially dominated shipbuilding in Greenpoint. The shipyards of the Jabez and his and sons were right next to each other. Edward F.’s yard was at the foot of Quay Street, adjoining that of Jabez to the north. John T. shared Jabez’s yard which ran to the foot of Calyer Street. They all turned out huge schooners. In 1853 John T. built the first three masted schooner produced in Greenpoint; The Kate Bingham. These three master schooners were a regular feature of the Greenpoint water front well into the nineteen twenties.

Other shipbuilders set up yards and in five years the shoreline changed from pristine sandy beach to a beehive humming with the sound of shipbuilding. When Neziah Bliss established regular ferry service in 1852 it allowed many Manhattan shipbuilders to commute to Greenpoint. Other workers could take the new stagecoach along Franklin Street and cross the bridge over Bushwick Creek into Greenpoint. Men from the shipyards would quickly buy lots and build houses in the growing new town. Sneeden built four ships in the year 1852 and the other shipbuilders were also getting orders for ships. This was the heyday of the clipper ship and Jabez Williams and his son launched a monster sized clipper ship in 1852 called the Tornado. Sneeden’s yard also produced another huge clipper ship in the same year.

In 1854 a nautical disaster affected Greenpoint. The Grand Republic was built in Boston and arrived in New York harbor. She was a huge four masted schooner, 325 feet long, with a 53 foot breadth of beam, and 39 foot deep hold, including 4 complete decks. It was moored near a bakery in Manhattan that caught fire. The fire spread to the ship and most of the ship was destroyed. After the fire, the boat — or rather its hull and three remaining decks – was towed across the East River to Greenpoint and it was rebuilt in Sneeden’s yard. The Great Republic was the largest wooden merchant vessel ever built and took two years to rebuild.

In 1852 Eckford Webb proved worthy of his famous family name. He built three East River steamboats for the Catherine and Bridge Streets Ferry Company. He built three other sidewheelers in that year finishing the year with the 410-ton sidewheeler Metropolis, for the Wall Street ferry. He would build three more sidewheelers the following year and hisyard employed hundreds of men.
The year 1853 closed with the sounds of shipbuilding reverberating in all of the Greenpoint yards. It was a busy year for shipbuilders in general, having been one “of unusual profits to Ship-owners, a large business having offered at rates much above the ordinary average. This has given an impulse to Ship-building.” Greenpoint had gained three new shipbuilders and more were expected to relocate there.

Early in 1854, another Collyer brother, William (an elder of George, formerly of Collyer & Webb) moved to Greenpoint. In just four years since the beginning of shipbuilding there, Greenpoint produced a huge number of ships. Of the 110 vessels, totaling 81,149 tons, reported to have been launched at the port of New York in 1854, almost a third, thirty-five ships in total, were built at Greenpoint by nine shipbuilders.

Not all the rich men in Greenpoint made ships. Daniel Milton created sails and became a very rich man. Milton Street, which became lined with houses in the early eighteen fifties was named for him. Greenpoint also produced nautical rope, brass instruments, anchors and other articles for sailing ships.

It seemed that nothing could stop the growth of shipbuilding in the area, but the business was about to get more competitive. Within two years by 1856 things had worsened. A new law limited the number of steamships that could navigate waterways. The California gold rush was ebbing, so there was less need for ships to sail there. The price of lumber continued to rise as whole forests were denuded to build ships. Prices for ship timber had risen to unprecedented highs. As more and more shipyards opened demand increased, which led shipwrights and caulkers to get higher wages. Shipwrights and caulkers had been demanding an approximately seventeen percent par raise from $2.50 to $3.00 per day Economic and technological forces were working against them, and the year 1854 ended with shipping and shipbuilding at the port of New York in a steep decline. The amount of Freight and the number of passengers also dropped rapidly. Consequently, shipbuilders were being squeezed between contracted prices and the rising costs of labor and materials. The builders sought to raise their prices, but with the decline in shipping, new contracts were not forthcoming. All these factors made wooden shipbuilding far less lucrative.

There was one factor that would end the building of wooden ships. Britain began producing ships with metal hulls. The hulls of these ships would not rot, were produced faster and at lower cost than wooden ships. the competition from iron ships drove down the price of wooden ships. More and more of the major shipping lines demanded iron hulled ships and the British were able to produce these craft at increasingly prices. The first shipyard to feel the economic pinch was the Norris and Griffith shipyard, which went bankrupt in 1855 and was unable to complete the ship it was building. Other firms would later follow its fate. Still, Greenpoint continued producing wooden ships.

By eighteen fifty-five Greenpoint’s waterfront was totally transformed into a beehive of shipyards. Lets stop and imagine what the Greenpoint waterfront must have been like. Hundreds of men were employed in building the ships and there were all types of crafts being built from lifeboats to huge clipper ships. Visitors reported seeing huge stacks of redolent wood waiting to be sawed and placed into these ships. There was white Oak hackamater, locust, yellow and white pine. These woods would be made into ships ribs, decks, floors and aprons. The sounds of non-stop hammering and sawing must have created a never ending din. Laborers worked fifteen hour days making a dollar and twenty five cents an hour, an excellent wage at the times.. The work was exhausting and this was an age before power tools. There were no cranes cables or other mechanical devices. All the lifting and sawing had to be done by hand. Especially grueling for the men was working a two handed saw. The men had to cover their faces because of the sawdust the cutting caused.

One of the first successes in union organizing in New York City occurred when the shipwrights organized a union and got paid two dollars an hour. The success of the union squeezed the profits of shipbuilders even more. The workday dropped to ten or twelve hours in the yards. Shipwrights used the higher wages they received to build wooden framed houses in Greenpoint.

John Englis joined his father’s shipbuilding business in 1850, at his yard at the foot of East Tenth Street in Manhattan. They moved to Greenpoint in 1872, to a site at the foot of Greenpoint Avenue, where Transmitter Park is today. Englis’ two sons joined him in 1882 and the firm’s name was changed to John Englis & Sons. The company closed in 1911, but built several ships. It is famous for having built one of the largest wooden ships ever built, The Grand Republic, which was more than a football field in length.

1891 Brooklyn Love Triangle Murder and Sensational Trial

In July 1891 Brooklyn was abuzz with the talk of murder. Darwin Meserole,scion of one of the oldest,richest and most prestigious families was accused of shooting Theodore Larbig, the jealous rival for his affections of a divorced older femme fatale. The case was deliciously salacious. Meserole was the equivilant of today’s trust fund kid. His father was a rich elite Former Civil War Brigadier General Jeremiah Vanderbilt Meserole, who was not only a respected veteran, but also the president of the Williamsburg Savings Bank and a distant relation of Commodore Vanderbilt, the railroad tycoon and one of the twenty or so richest men in America.
If Darwin were to live in Williamsburg today he would be a hipster. His father had a Brooklyn lineage that went back to the seventeenth century and he was one of the richest men in Brooklyn. However, his son differed from his father completely.Darwin was something of a playboy and ladies’ man, although the New York Times described him as “slight and effeminate. “ He was employed as a stock broker, but seemed to spend little time trading preferring the “gay life” of a rich young bachelor.

Meserole’s victim was a large athletic man with a very powerful build. He was a married traveling salesman who paid for Dovie Comstock’s apartment and apparently received her affections in return.
Comstock was, according to the Times article, “a woman, well known to the police and they kept her constantly moving.” She was described in the article as fair complexioned and good looking. Recently divorced, it seemed she had become Larbig’s mistress, but Comstock wanted more more romance in her life and the rich young charming Meserole must have struck her fancy.

In June of 1891 Darwin was living in the older divorcee’s apartment.She had been married to an older and wealthy Providence Rhode Island man and perhaps it is there that she met Larbig who was a salesman for a wire producing company. Larbig was a brawny handsome man and at forty six he was sixteen years Comstock’s senior. The Times reported that she had recently moved into the flat where the murder occurred being forced out of anther apartment in the area by pressure from outraged neighbors. Larbig went on a long business trip and when he returned he found Meserole in the place he rented for Comstock for three weeks. He upbraided Comstock and he must have watched the premises because when she and Meserole went to Brighton Beach later the same day Larbig followed the couple there. He accosted them in the Music Pavilion and beckoned the lady to leave Meserole and come with him. She refused and Meserole reportedly scowled at her. Later Larbig followed the pair back to the apartment and entered it.

There are different versions of what happened next. According to Meserole and Comstock the Salesman came into the place and began beating and choking her when she called to Meserole for assistance. Meserole claimed that he pulled out a pistol and threatened to shoot the older man if he touched Comstock again. A scuffle broke out which forced Larbig back into the bedroom. Meserole fired twice in self-defense, or so he claimed. Two shots entered Larbig’s heart at almost exactly the same point of entry. Meserole then walked to the police station and turned himself in. The couple showed her bruises and black eye as evidence to corroborate and he showed them his skinned forehead that he claimed resulted from his fight with Larbig. Meserole was arrested and prosecuted for murder. The wealthy former General and Bank President was able to hire one of the city’s best defense attorneys, Mr. William Gaynor.
The national papers pointed out a number of inconsistencies in Meserole’s claims of self-defense. They noted that Larbig had left his coat folded and his hat placed on the piano and these facts seemed to contradict the claim that Larbig burst into the apartment. They claimed that Larbig knocked on the front door and was admitted by Meserole. The prosecution also noted that Mrs. Comstock’s screams came from the hall, not from the room where he was shot. The prosecution produced witnesses who said that they heard Comstock shout “Don’t kill him before the murder.” They also related that it was the District Attorney’s contention that Larbig had been retreating prior to the fatal shots and produced a witness who heard a male voice scream,”Don’t shoot.”
The forensic evidence also contradicted Meserole’s claims of self-defense. The District Attorney produced a forensics expert who showed that there were no powder stains on Larbig’s clothing, which should have appeared had Meserole been grappling with the larger man. Meserole’s lawyer Mr. Gaynor pointed out that the quantity of powder that comes out of a pistol is not always consistent and moved to have this evidence stricken from the record.
The trial caused a sensation. The Herald Tribune reported on Mrs. Comstock’s “Jaunty dress and her lurid history.” The papers explained that Comstock came from a prominent Washington family, but that her bad reputation was known in Washington for many years. The papers reported that Darwin was constantly accompanied by his father the General and that the father seemed to grow older as the controversy continued. They reported on the vast wealth of the Meserole family and contrasted the heroic general with the effete son. They revealed all the lurid details of Comstock’s scandalous life in providence and how her behavior so outraged her husband that he filed for divorce. She became the star witness of the trial and the papers eagerly reported her cross-examination by the prosecutor. The Prosecutor did little to show his contempt for Comstock and repeatedly tried to fluster, embarrass and confuse the divorcee, but she never broke down and answered his most damaging question with sang froid. Her name and the scandal was on the lips of newspaper readers all across the country and dozens of newspapers sent reporters to file stories on the case.
Meserole’s lawyers must have presented a strong enough defense. Darwin Meserole was acquitted after a six hour jury deliberation in December of 1891. People were outraged at the verdict. Brooklyn was outraged and many said that Meserole was acquitted because of his wealth and superior legal team.
Meserole later claimed to have abandoned the scandalous lifestyle he was leading and embraced religion. Later articles reported that he devoted himself to saving the fallen of both sexes. However, when he applied for membership of the famous Plymouth church in Brooklyn Heights again he caused great controversy that exploded in the media. His father was able to line up some of the most prestigious members of the church as his sponsors, but other members of the church were so disgusted by the details of his life that came out in the trial that he was turned down for membership. The majority of his opponents the Times reported were the ladies of the church.
The event did seem to have changed Meserole and he had a total change of heart. Meserole became a prominent socialist seeing inherited wealth as an evil. During the Great Depression he became an advocate for the unemployed. He lived a long life dying at the age of eighty four in 1952.

Elizabeth Burgin American Revolutionary Patriot and American Spy

Little is known about Elizabeth Burgin except that she played a significant role in aiding American soldiers who were prisoners of the British during the Revolutionary War.

During the Revolutionary War, the British held many American prisoners-of-war on prison ships in Wallabout Bay. The conditions were criminal and led to the largest loss of life during the revolution. Some say eleven thousand patriots perished on the ships. Diseases like small pox and yellow fever spread easily and over seven thousand prisoners died while on the ships.
A resident of New York, Burgin was able to help the prisoners by visiting them and bringing them food. One evening when she returned home from visiting a prison ship, an American officer asked to meet with her about a plan to help the prisoners escape. The British only allowed women on the prison ships, so the officer wanted Burgin to alert the prisoners to be ready for the escape and to help with the plan of smuggling them off the ship. Burgin complied and helped more than 200 prisoners escape over the next several weeks. Because of her part, the British offered a two hundred pound reward for her capture. This amount was equal to twenty years of pay for a British soldier, so there was a great incentive for them to try to capture her. Burgin narrowly escaped being captured and left the area. Burgin wrote to General George Washington, asking for his help now that the British had all of her possessions.

General Washington wrote to the Continental Congress about Burgin’s role:

“Regarding Elizabeth Burgin, recently an inhabitant of New York. From the testimony of our own (escaped) officers…it would appear that she has been indefatigable for the relief of the prisoners, and for the facilitation of their escape. For this conduct she incurred the suspicion of the British, and was forced to make her escape under disturbing circumstances.”
In 1781, the Continental Congress awarded Burgin with a pension for her part in helping the Patriots’ cause.

But, who was Elizabeth Burgin? How did she free prisoners without the guards knowing? How did they finally discover her part in the missing prisoners? These questions are difficult to answer. As to the first question, not much is known about her early life or her marital status at the time she freed the prisoners, but we do know that she lived in New York during the American Revolutionary War and was the parent of small children. She was obviously a staunch patriot who had heard about the terrible suffering American prisoners were undergoing on the hellish prison ships in Wallabout Bay. Since only women were allowed into the prison ships, she visited the prisoners as often as she could. She brought food, comfort, and cheer to the discouraged Americans.

An American officer named George Higday was part of Washington’s secret Culper Soy Ring in New York, which is now featured in the AMC series Turn. His name is mentioned for the first time in General Washington’s correspondence on June 27, 1779. George Washington was casting about for an agent to spy on the British in New York. George Higday was brought to the attention of Benjamin Tallmadge and General Washington by three officers whom he freed from captivity on Long Island. These were the same officers Elizabeth Burgin mentions in her letter to General Washington on November 19, 1779. “…Major Van Burah, Captain Crain, Lieutenant Lee, who made their escape from the guard on Long Island.” Washington suggested to Benjamin Tallmadge, who was then in Connecticut, that he contact, “a man on York Island, living on or near the North River, of the name of George Higday.”

George Higday was freeing American prisoners (mainly officers) and might have already been helping the Culper Ring spy on the British in Long Island. In General Washington’s words, George Higday: “hath given signal proofs of his attachment to us…”

If this is true, how does Elizabeth Burgin fit into this picture? How did George Higday know about her? Was she part of the Culper Ring? Was this plan to free the American prisoners birthed in General Washington’s headquarters? A tantalizing hint that this might have been a planned event is found in Elizabeth Burgin’s letter, “George Higby brought a paper to me from your aide directed to Colonel Magaw on Long Island.” Colonel Magaw was an American officer who had been in captivity on Long Island ever since the fall of Fort Washington in 1776. General Washington could still have been in contact with him via one of his aides, as Elizabeth Burgin states. Also, if George Higday was a spy, then he could easily have slipped into Colonel Magaw’s quarters to pick up the letter. George Higday then would probably have approached Elizabeth Burgin with this plan to free the prisoners, asking her to participate, knowing that only women were allowed on the prison ship. He wanted her to tell the prisoners of his plans and to prepare for their escape. He told her to free two hundred prisoners, which she did. How she smuggled them out is up for conjecture; we are given no clues to aid us in figuring out how or when.When the British found the letter and the word C___r, they became suspicious. Earlier, the British had intercepted another letter from General Washington with the word C___r written in plain view. Like a fox after the hound, the British began to sniff out the American patriots who could tell them where and who the mysterious C___r was. Their lead was George Higday. On July 13, using General Washington’s intercepted letter to find Higday, British troopers broke into Higday’s home and arrested him. They dragged him off to the infamous Provost. His wife, probably concerned that the British would hang him as a spy, decided to tell the British about Elizabeth Burgin. How she came by this information is unclear. According to Elizabeth she, “Told General Patterson that he carried out two hundred American prisoners for me.”

The British immediately counted the prisoners on the prison ship. (They never bothered to count, thinking escape of that magnitude was impossible) Upon finding it was true, they placed a bounty of two hundred pounds on Burgin’s head so that if she ever tried to flee New York there would be great incentive to recapture her. The British placed her under house arrest. Through the help of her friends, Burgin fled to Long Island and stayed there five weeks. Who hid her there, we will never know. Then, “William Sheriddon came to Long Island in Whale boat and I made my escape with him we being chased by two boats half way to the Sound then got to New England and came to Philadelphia.” Once in Philadelphia, Elizabeth wrote to the Board of War asking for a flag of truce into New York. Elizabeth had left her children behind and she wanted to return to New York. (She must have left her children in the care of her friends who helped her escape.) On September 15, 1779, she received a reply from the board of war, “Madam, Last evening took an opportunity of writing upon Mr. Mattock, informed him of your circumstances and particularly in the manner and for what you were obliged to leave New York. Also informed him that you intended making application for a flag. From my representation of your character, your polite and humane conduct towards the American prisoners in general, and one in particular, he has promised to pay particular attention to your application and grant you anything in his possession were it possible. I shall wait upon you this evening and depend a stone shall not be left unturned by me to procure anything you may want. Madam, I am your Most Obedient Servant, Robert Campbell. ” Accordingly, she received the flag of truce from the Board of War. “Then I got a pass of the Board of War to go to Elizabeth Town to try to get my Children from New York which I obtained in three or four weeks but could not get my clothes or anything but my children when application was made by Mr. John Frankling my clothes and furniture they should be sold and the money given to the Loyalist.”

She closed her letter to General Washington by saying, “I am now sir very desolate without money without clothes or friends to go to. I mean to go Philadelphia where God knows how I shall live a cold winter coming on for the truth of the above your Excellence can inquire Major John Franklings and by their desire make this application if your Excellence pleases you can direct Mr. Thomas Frankling in Philadelphia where I can be found. If the General thinks proper I should be glad to draw provisions for myself and children in Philadelphia where I mean to remain.”
If this escape was planned by General Washington, then it would make sense that she would write to him about her distress.

In reply, General Washington wrote to Congress about her plight.
Congress responded by giving her a pension for her part in the patriot’s Cause. Elizabeth Burgin was also given money by a friend, one Leonard van Buren. She traveled to Philadelphia where we last see her staying at a Mr. Frankling’s house. George Higday was eventually released by the British. He returned to his home in Long Island where he disappeared from public view. As for Elizabeth, the rest of her life remains a mystery as is the story of her heroic part in one of the greatest escapes in American History. We may never know all the details nor all the facts of how she freed the prisoners, or if it was part of a greater plot masterminded by General Washington. What we do know is that she never regretted what she did. In the closing line to General Washington she wrote this unselfish sentence: “Helping our poor prisoners brought me to want which I don’t repent.”

Brooklyn Navy Yard Nationally Recognized

The Brooklyn Navy Yard has finally been recognized for its historic worth. The Department of the Interior’s National Park Service added the Brooklyn Navy Yard to the National Register of Historic Places Thursday.

The Yard is located on the Brooklyn side of the East River in Wallabout Basin. Wallabout Bay is a small body of water in Upper New York Bay along the northwest shore of Brooklyn between the present Williamsburg and The Manhattan Bridge.

Wallabout Bay was a corruption of the name for the area’s first settlers who were Walloons,French Protestants who came to the new world seeking freedom. One of those Walloon families was the Rapalje family and they had the first settlement of the land that would eventually become the yard. However, they were Tories in the revolution and paid for it by losing their land. In 1784, Comfort and Joshua Sands bought a portion of the old Rapalje patent comprising 160 acres of land west of Gold Street from the Commissioners of Forfeiture, who had seized the property from John Rapelje, a Loyalist suspected of spying for the British. Comfort and Joshua Sands were brothers and business partners involved in the West India trade. They had made a fortune supplying the Continental army during the Revolutionary War.

The Sands laid out some of their land into blocks and lots for a community called “Olympia” as early as 1787. They expected Olympia to become a summer retreat for New Yorkers because of its hilly topography, plentiful water, and refreshing breezes. The Sands also hoped to make Olympia a ship building center; they built wharves and warehouses and established an extensive ropewalk to produce rigging and cables for ships. However, development was limited until another Manhattan shipbuilder John Jackson began to develop the eastern portion of the Rapalje lands, facing Wallabout Bay. John Jackson and his brothers Treadwell and Samuel purchased this 100-acre crescent-shaped tract that included a mill pond and mud flats from the Commissioners of Forfeiture following the war. Taking advantage of the existing dock on the property, the Jacksons built their own small shipyard and about ten houses for their workmen. During the 1790s, the shipyard built the frigate John Adams, then one of the largest ships afloat, for the Navy. Jackson named the area around his shipyard Vinegar Hill after the last battle in the Irish rebellion of 1798, hoping to attract Irish shipwrights to the area.

The New York Naval Shipyard was established on February 23,1801 when a land parcel of forty-two acres was brought from Jackson, for $40,000 by the federal government. Within the Navy Yard, the United States government constructed the Commandant’s Quarters (1805-06, a designated New York City Landmark) and several brick storehouses and offices. At first the yard produced gun boats for ventures against the Barbary and Caribbean pirates. In 1815, the yard launched the Fulton, the first steam-powered ocean-going vessel. Outside the yard, new houses went up to house the brass founders, caulkers, joiners, riggers, and sailmakers involved in ship building. Taverns, game rooms and a hotel also opened near the yard. In 1824 the Federal government purchased an additional thirty-five acres on Wallabout Bay for a Naval Hospital. Construction began on the main hospital building in 1830 and was completed by 1838.

The yard quickly became a source of political patronage. Supporters of victorious presidential candidates were rewarded with jobs. Democratic Congressman William Brown Maclay (1812 -1882) was a politician who used the yard’s jobs to gain political support. Congressman Maclay came from a politically powerful family and was successfully elected to Congress to represent New York City three times during the 1840’s .Maclay lived near the navy yard and took care to closely associate and find jobs (Maclay was a Baptist) for his districts Irish Catholic constituents. “When a person comes to me for employment I write a note suggesting his name to the master workmen…” Maclay later would recollect that he “very carefully selected some ten or twelve master s” that they remained in office during Democratic administrations and were subsequently removed when another party took office. Maclay was defeated by Whig Party candidate Walter Underhill in the election of 1848 and presumably his appointees lost their jobs too. In 1859 a Congressional investigation into patronage at Brooklyn naval shipyard highlighted the abuses there and at other naval shipyards. The same investigation concluded that all the political parties utilized patronage as their key to elected office.

It was the site for the construction of Robert Fulton’s steam frigate, the Fulton, launched in 1815, as well as of other historic vessels. During the Civil War, the Yard expanded its operations and its employees numbered about 6,000. At the height of its production of warships for the United States Navy, it covered over 200 acres.It built nearly a hundred war ships during its lifetime. One of the ships built in the yard was the famous battleship Maine whose destruction led to the Spanish American war. The Arizona, the North carolina and The Missouri were some of the many battleships that were built in the yard.

During World War I the Navy Yard was busy producing ships. The 1920 census reveals that many residents in this district were employed at the yard in occupations such as machinist, shipfitter, riveter, or electrician. Others worked in manufacturing, printing, sales, and office work. Due to a Harding-era disarmament treaty, no new ships were built at the yard between 1919 and 1929, however, the yard continued to house the navy’s chemical, electrical, and radio laboratories and its merchant marine training center. Portions of the yard were also used for the manufacture of assorted goods.

The New York yard underwent more major alterations during its history than any other American shipyard, particularly in the Cob Dock area, due partly to the changing size and character of vessels and partly to the small and irregular site located in a congested metropolitan area. The improvements installed during the pre-war emergency period and during the war years constituted the most comprehensive and complex reconstruction program undertaken at any yard and in many ways involved the most difficult engineering problems, particularly in regard to foundations and to reducing interferences with productive operations.

Prior to 1938, there were four drydocks, ranging from a small 349-foot stone dock to the 695-foot brick-lined concrete battleship dock No. 4. The latter was noteworthy because of the unique methods used in its construction, after conventional methods had repeatedly failed. The entire perimeter was composed of rectangular concrete wall caissons, sunk by the pneumatic method. The floor was also supported on pneumatic caissons.

The assignment of the contract for the building of the North Carolina to the yard necessitated the lengthening of this dock by 32 feet, so the ship could be docked, if necessary, after launching or during outfitting.

A project for a V-notch extension, authorized in 1938, was successfully accomplished, despite extreme difficulties occasioned by the treacherous site conditions and the proximity of the central power plant, by sinking the entire extension as a unit by compressed air methods.

The structural shop was extended by the addition of two shop bays for the fabrication of special treatment steel armor, one of which was surmounted by an additional mold loft.

Work was also begun on construction of a new 350-ton hammerhead crane for installing turrets and guns aboard the new battleships. This crane, like its counterpart at Norfolk, was of the turn-table type, rather than a pintle crame. The crane was provided with two main 175-ton trolleys, arranged in tandem on a single track, which could be operated independently or jointly, an auxiliary 50-ton trolley, with a reach of 190 feet, and an auxiliary crane of 15-ton capacity traveling on top of the main rotor or hammerhead. These installations gave these cranes a capacity of 350 tons at 115 feet reach, 175 tons at 150 feet, 50 tons at 190 feet, and 15 tons at an extreme reach of 240 feet.

In 1939, work was started on a new turret and erection shop located at the extreme west end of the yard. This project involved the acquisition of some additional land, and extensive demolition and site preparation. The building was a single bay structure, 800 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 105 feet high. The south half was equipped with welding facilities and with a mold loft. The north half was provided with two 175-ton bridge cranes for handling turrets. The crane runway was extended outside the building over a turret barge slip, the end of the building being closed by a unique group of mechanically operated doors providing almost full opening of the end of the building. This project was completed in 1940.

During World War II seventy thousand men worked in the yard. The yard worked round the clock and by the end of the war the yard could build a container ship in a single day. Many of the workers in the yard were women whose work was indispensable because so many men went off to fight in the war and America needed their service. During the war there was always the threat of sabotage. The walkways over the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges were covered so that potential spies and saboteurs could not see activity in the yard.

After the war the yard laid off many of its wartime employees. One tragic event sealed the yard’s fate. On December 19,1960 a disastrous fire broke out aboard the Constellation, an aircraft carrier in the final stages of construction at yard. Fifty workers were killed. At least 330 others were injured. A forklift operator who was moving a metal trash bin on the hangar deck accidentally pushed the bin against a steel plate. The plate shifted, and sheared off the main plug of a tank carrying 500 gallons of diesel fuel. The fuel cascaded through holes in the steel flooring to decks below. When it came in contact with “hot work,” perhaps a welder’s blowtorch or blisteringly hot metal, it began to burn, and then set a latticework of wooden scaffolding on fire.

“Ships of this class are the most complex structures ever designed by man,” a Navy commander told an inquiry commission several weeks later. Hundreds of firefighters learned that lesson the hard way.

It took them nearly 17 hours to put out the blaze. They had to contend with darkness — the lights below deck had gone out — and with flames that spread rapidly along an unfamiliar complex of passageways filled with dense smoke. But they managed to save hundreds of lives. And no firefighter died that day.

Their work was not over, though. Three days later, with stamina waning, they were called out to battle two more huge fires in Brooklyn. It was “a succession of disasters unmatched in Fire Department history,” The Times wrote on Dec. 23, 1960.

The yard was closed in 1966, ending a glorious chapter in Brooklyn history.

Seventy Five Thousand Turn Out for Opening of McCarren Park Pool

August 1, 1936 was one of the happiest days in history for the kids of Greenpoint. It was the day when the McCarren Park pool was opened. For years local kids had to endure the summer heat without a pool, but local political legend Pete McGuinness had for years been fighting to change that. The idea for the pool came from the “Czar of Greenpoint, ” McGuinness,sixteen years earlier when he was Greenpoint’s Alderman. McGuinness was a master pork barrel politician and at the time he made the proposal to build the pool the President of the Board of Alderman was LaGuardia. Although McGuinness and the Mayor were from different parties they were able to work together on projects like the pool and the two enjoyed a warm personal friendship.

The Mayor of New York, The Little Flower, Fiorello LaGuardia, was present to open the pool. After a short speech he turned on illuminated lights at the bottom of the pool to mark the opening. He noted that when the lights were turned on it was clear that ” The Garden Spot of the World had truly flowered.”

The pool like many other great public works in Brooklyn was done by the Works Progress Administration- one of the Alphabet Soup Agencies created by Franklin Roosevelt to fight the Depression and to put people back to work. The pool was one of the largest ever built in the United States and measured 330 feet by 165 feet. It cost only a million two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to build. McCarren Pool was the eighth of eleven giant pools built by the Works Progress Administration to open during the summer of 1936. With an original capacity for 6800 swimmers, the pool served as the summertime social hub for Greenpoint and Williamsburg. The building’s vast scale and dramatic arches, designed by Aymar Embury II, typify the generous and heroic spirit of New Deal architecture.

The ceremony to open the pool were preceded by a parade, a MCGuinness trademark, in which he and the mayor were at the head of the march. The crowd was so big that it could not fit into the pool area so special loud speakers were set up so that the thousands who lined the streets around the pool could hear the speeches.
One of the speakers was the Park Commissioner, the legendary power broker, RObert Moses, who hailed Pete as “The Prince of Greenpoint.”
The biggest ovation of the day was reserved for the area’s local hero, McGuinness who said that he was the happiest man within the confines of the pool. It was Pete who popularized the Greenpoint nickname” Garden Spot of the Universe” and Pete said in his remarks,” When I look over this pool, I can truly say that this is the garden spot of the world and no other.”

The pool closed in 1984 and sat for twenty years abandoned and a symbol of the area’s decline. In 2005, Clear Channel Entertainment and gave $250,000 to the City Parks Foundation, a private non-profit entity, to do basic stabilization and safety improvements to the pool structure. The pool reopened on June 28th, 2012

Whiskey War of Brooklyn

Generally when the United States Marine Corps fights I support them. There was one fight, however, when I would have supported their foes. In December of 1869 The Vinegar Hill area of Brooklyn was home to numerous Irish moonshiners who were avoiding paying excise tax on the whiskey they produced. When the Civil War ended, the killjoys in the Federal government began to crack down on the Irish “moonshiners” of Brooklyn, sending in uniformed troops stationed in the Brooklyn Navy Yard to assist revenue officers as they dismantled illegal distilleries. During the 1869 incident, the residents of the neighborhood fought back at the army, throwing bricks and rocks at the soldiers as chaos descended on the neighborhood. The Marines came into combat with the local Irish street gang of the area, Velvet Caps of Irishtown, a local gang that protected the distillery owners. The gang was famous for wearing skin tight pants, like real “dudes” of the era, with blue shirts and caps made obviously of velvet. They found out the Marines were on the way and took a large still, attempting to throw it into the East River until the siege was over. The Marines caught up to them however and a terrible fight ensued for which they had neither the weapons or the numbers the Marines did. A poem was written by one Johnny Manning, an Irishtown bard and “the leading literary genius of Irishtown.”

Here’s an excerpt:

“The first place that was taken was in Little Water Street,
The Dutchmen with their axes were a fearful crowd of beats,
They dragged a still out carelessly and threw it on the ground,
Saying ‘Soldiers, watch those Velvet Caps, they’re the boys of Irishtown.’”
(The “Dutchmen” were the Marines under Revenue Officer Silas B. Dutcher)
Finally, the troops were forced to fix their bayonets in order to escape the angry mob that had developed around them as they were pouring whiskey mash in the streets, retreating back to the Navy Yard with 13 stills.

These raids would continue in the next two years, and finally ended after a revenue officer was shot and killed by one of the bootleggers, perhaps the only IRS agent ever killed in the line of duty in American History.

Bamonte’s Restaurant

Greenpoint has perhaps the oldest Italian restaurant in Brooklyn and one of the oldest Italian places in the city- Bamonte’s restaurant at 32 Withers Street. It can be hard to find the place because Withers Street was cut in half by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. How old is Bamontes? A hundred and fourteen years old, according to owner Anthony Bamonte.Anthony Bamonte’s grandfather Pasquale, recently arrived from a village near Salerno, opened the place in 1900. Back then, it was called Liberty Hall The April 7, 1900 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that Pasquale Bamonte said his recently acquired plot on Withers would become the Liberty Hall, the restaurant’s original name. Anthony Bamonte has a deed that he claims shows that the restaurant has been in business since 1900. Other restaurants claim to be older, but they cannot prove as Bamontes can.

It does not take a lot of imagination to believe that Bamontes has not changed since the 1950’s. Many of the pictures on the walls come from the fifties and show prominent Italian-Americans. There was a time when if you were anyone in the Italian-AMerican community you came to Bamontes. One of the people who came there often was Joe Dimaggio. There is even a picture of a young joe bringing his mother to Bamontes. He might have also brought Marilyn, but there is no picture. I know a retired New York City fireman called Johnny Flats. ( I am sure he has a proper Surname, but I do not know it. ) As a young man he used to drink in Bamontes and he was told in no uncertain terms not to talk to Joltin’ Joe if he came in for a beer. Sinatra ate there as did Tommy Lasrorda and many others.

You can see what they are cooking because there are large windows that show the kitchen. A modern touch? Hardly, “We added that in 1950,” Anthony Bamonte says. “My uncle had an idea that people should see where their food came from.”
The place seems so authentically old school New York Italian that they even shot scenes from the Sopranos there. Bamonte’s is the kind of place where the tuxedoed waiters are hesitant to ask if you want to see a menu because they don’t want to offend you. Even for a newcomer, the menu offers few surprises but lots of great old school Italian favorites: chicken rollatini, seafood fra diavolo, rigatoni with vodka sauce.

Anthony’s daughters run the operation now, fourth-generation stewards of the family business and congenial hosts to an Italian-American diaspora loyal to the restaurant long after they’ve moved out of the neighborhood. “We used to stay open until 4 a.m.,” Anthony said on a recent chilly afternoon.

“All around us we had the big movie houses, the RKO, the Meserole and the Republic where they ran burlesque shows. Everyone would go out to see a show and then come here for dinner.”

Today a small crew of regulars–tracksuits, trainers, backslaps–had gathered for the Thursday special of pasta e fagioli. Talking to Anthony, it was easy to picture the dining room as it once was full to capacity, the social center of a much-changed neighborhood.

“Guys used to tell me it took them twenty minutes to get from the door to their table, they knew so many people along the way.”