Using a Massive Explosion to Market Pelham Manor Real Estate in 1876
An odd advertisement appeared in New York City's The Evening Telegraph on September 25, 1876. It advertised an upcoming auction sale of land and houses in Pelham Manor by the Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association. The advertisement provided directions for taking ferries up the East River to connect with special trains on the new "Harlem Line" (the New Haven Branch Line) and stated that such ferry boat trips would afford an "opportunity to witness the effects of the late EXPLOSION AT HELL GATE." What was this all about?
An example of the advertisement and a transcription of its text appear immediately below.
"O. H. PIERSON, of New York, and WM. LE COUNT, of New Rochelle, Auctioneers.
GREAT AUCTION SALE of LAND and HOUSES AT PELHAM MANOR,
Located upon the choicest portion of the lands owned by the Pelham Manor and Huguenot Heights Association.
One hour only from Wall street by the most Popular Route from Lower New York, and within five minutes walk of the Pelham Manor Depot, appointed for
Thursday, September 28,
On the premises to commence at 12:30 P.M., promptly.
If STORMY or very threatening, then on FOLLOWING SATURDAY.
SALE ABSOLUTE. TITLE PERFECT. TERMS EASY.
Music and Luncheon provided. Take regular MORRISANIA BOAT from NEW YORK, leaving Fulton slip at 10 A.M. (VERY PROMPTLY) touching at Jewel's Wharf, Fulton street, BROOKLYN; also at foot of Grand and 23d streets, New York; Astoria, and 119th street, Harlem; connecting with SPECIAL TRAIN leaving HARLEM RIVER STATION at 11 o'clock A.M. Return from sale at 6 P.M. The trip affording opportunity to witness the effects of the late EXPLOSION AT HELL GATE.
FOR FREE EXCURSION TICKETS apply to
STEPHENS BROTHERS, 187 Broadway, New York,
Managers 'P. M. & H. H. Ass'n.'
N. B. -- Free passes may also be had at the different Steamboat Landings and at the train in North New York on the morning of the sale."
On the day this advertisement ran, all of New York City, the Town of Pelham and, indeed, the region was abuzz over news of the events of the previous day. On that day, September 24, 1876, at 2:30 p.m., the Army Corps of engineers fired off THIRTY THOUSAND POUNDS of explosives in mines that had been drilled into the rocky reef of a massive obstruction in Hell Gate in the waters off Hallet's Point near today's Hellgate Field. The resulting explosion blasted spray, vapor, gasses, and rock 123 feet into the area. Afterward, the Atlantic Dredging Company began its work to remove 90,588 gross tons of broken rock there at Hallet's Point. It took the dredging firm about six years to remove all the broken rock. The blasting and dredging had successfully deepened the channel in the Hell Gate area to 26 feet.
Why were the founders of the Huguenot Heights & Pelham Manor Association using an auction and a promise that visitors could "witness the effects of the late EXPLOSION AT HELL GATE" to sell Pelham Manor real estate? The simple answer is that the Association was desperate. It was on the brink of failure and could not sell its lands or the homes it had built.
The so-called Panic of 1873 had set off one of the longest and deepest financial depressions in American history. About 18,000 American businesses failed between 1873 and 1875. By 1876, unemployment had reached about 14%. In short, touting the Hell Gate Explosion as a way to attract visitors and potential purchasers was a rather desperate attempt to rearrange the deck chairs on a sinking ship known as the Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association.
The ship was never righted. The auction was a failure. As I have written before, the association was plunged into receivership and its lands were subjected to foreclosure. Curiosity over the Hell Gate Explosion was not enough to stop the implosion of the Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association.
Among the material included in today's posting is an extensive news story that appeared in New York City's The Sun on September 25, 1876, the day after the explosion. It details exactly what it was like to be there at the time and provides a fascinating glimpse of an important moment in the history of New York City and lower Westchester County including the little Town of Pelham.
* * * * *
"GEN. NEWTON'S BIG BLAST.
THE TRIUMPH OF SCIENCE ON THE REEFS UNDER HELL GATE.
An Event in the History of the Nation -- The East River Opened to the Commerce of the World -- A Sunday of Excitement in the Upper Part of New York -- The Firing of the Great Mine of Dynamite Fully Described.
For more than a week the residents of Astoria were taking all possible precautions for the saving of their houses and property from the disaster that many apprehended might attend the great explosion at Hell Gate, and as early as eight o'clock yesterday morning the housewives of the streets near the Government works were busy, encased in waterproofs, packing in large baskets of hay their china and glass ware, and superintending its removal to places of safety. From many houses the lighter articles of furniture were taken to the piazzas and the heavier placed in the centre of the rooms and covered with mattresses, as a protection from the expected fall of plastering. In one solid stone house an excited German, assisted by women, was busily taking down beds and removing them, as well as all the other furniture, even the carpets and door mats, to the back yard. Finally he emerged from the house wildly gesticulating, and shouting orders to the women who followed him tugging at a cook stove, which they deposited beneath a large apple tree. Seating himself upon it, the master announced to the bystanders: 'If mine stove pe mashed mit dot hell bursting, dos United States pays for it' During the morning knots of strangers constantly increasing in numbers, gathered at the street corners, and canvassed the all-absorbing topic in all its bearings. Most of the talkers had implicit faith in Gen. Newton, but there were croakers and doubters, who caused some uneasiness, expressing forebodings. The saloons did a big business. The churches were very poorly attended, but that might partly have been owing to the rain. The Rev. Dr. Harris announced from the pulpit that, for obvious reasons, there would be no Sunday-school or afternoon service.
Until one o'clock little excitement was noticed among the majority of the Astorians; but at that time, as the cordon of soldiers and police officers gradually encircled the exposed sections, and exodus from them was begun. First went the servants, of whom none could be induced to remain in the houses. Then carriages bearing women and children rolled over the muddy roads toward the suburbs. The houses for whole streets were deserted; their open windows and doors, and the heaps of furniture piled on the piazzas and under outlying sheds giving the aspect of having been hastily abandoned to an advancing army. In some of them the men of the families remained to protect their exposed property from thieves, whom they seemed to fear more than they did the blast. Many houses were guarded by private watchmen, and in a very few the entire families remained.
A walk through the deserted streets inside the cordon a few minutes before the explosion was full of impressive suggestions. Even the churches stared with wide-open doors and windows. No living creature was visible save an occasional watchman or officer pacing before an elegant mansion.
The police and military arrangements were satisfactory to Gen. Newton, and his suggestions were heeded by the police of this city and Astoria. About 700 of the New York force reported to Inspector Thorne in the Eighty-eighth street station at noon, and were detailed to guard the river front and the streets and avenues where large numbers might gather. They were especially instructed to guard vacated houses. Many of the officers were ordered to wear civilian's clothing.
The off platoons of the Forty-seventh street police were sent to Blackwell's Island, and the off platoons of the Thirty-fifth street and the City Hall police, under Capts. Murphy and Leary, went to Ward's Island. Detachments from the steamboat squad were detailed for duty on the piers, when the Government steamboats were announced to receive passengers at the Barge Office, Broome, Twenty-third, and Thirty-third streets. The police boat Seneca, so the police officers were informed, was to carry the Mayor, Aldermen, and other city officials to Ward's Island, and then act as a guard boat.
The police had much trouble in restraining hundreds of wild young men who had row boats at the up-town piers, and who seemed anxious to endanger themselves. A cordon of police prevented any one from going near the river in the neighborhood of the House of the Good Shepherd. The police on the line from 106th street to Seventy-second street had little to do. Many who reached convenient spots did so at great inconvenience, and were in ill humor when they encountered the police.
Capt. A. S. Woods, with Sergts. Whitcomb, Darcy, McManus, and Smith, and thirty-four patrolmen, with the United States Engineers' battalion from Willett's Point, and three detachments of Companies A, B, and C from the same place, under Capts. Miller, Livermore, and Hadbury, formed the cordon at Astoria and nearest to the works. Gen. Abbott and Capt. Woods were in command. The line extended from the north side of Fulton street to Franklin, to Remsen, and thence to Pot Cove, the full length being 1,200 feet. HUndreds who had no passes begged admission within the lines and were denied, turned away without quarreling.
A Child Firing the Mine.
Inside the gates of the Government works, with their starting warnings, 'Danger -- Nitro-glycerine -- no admittance,' all was astir early yesterday morning. The United States troops and the Long Island City police were on the ground by 9 1/2 o'clock; but the cordon of guards around the works was not drawn until afternoon. The police and soldiers gathered in empty sheds, and a lager beer saloon a few hundred feet from the bomb-proof containing the batteries. Many persons with passes went inside the bomb-proof; or stood upon the point of the reef at the mouth of the main shaft, and gazed at the water covering the monster mine, and tormented their imaginations with the picture of what would happen to them if the charge should accidentally explode. Meanwhile the rain poured down, and a light mist hung over the water. Sloops tacked this way and that, right over the mine on their way up and down the river, and tugboats as they rushed over the dangerous water screamed as if in affright.
The rain it was feared, would injure the power of the batteries, and Mr. Julius Streidenger, the electrician, sat with his assistants under a canvas awning in the rear of the wide-open mouth of the bomb proof, testing the conducting power of the wires with a galvanometer. This was a delicate operation, and to the uninitiated seemed dangerous. To be told that an electric current was shooting through those wires, and that a little piece of interposed platinum wire, no bigger than a hair, alone barred it from rushing on through the bundle of wires that led down into the shaft, and connected with the exploders in the mine, made a man feel that he would rather be a few thousand feet further off while they were fooling with their lightning. But the bronzed face of Mr. Streidenger showed no emotion. His fingers did not tremble in manipulating the wires, nor his voice in directing his men. Above the bomb proof was a kind of gallows frame, from which dangled a rope. This was right over the great battery, and from it was hang the stout rope, divided in the middle by a torpedo, and supporting at the other end the heavy brass plate connected with the wire. Under this suspended plate was another of the same size connected with the wires leading into the mine. The upper plate was studded with brass points, and the lower one with little cups to contain mercury. After the connections were completed a spark sent through the main wire by Gen. Newton would explode the torpedo diving the rope over the bomb proof, thus severing it, and allow the suspended plate, or disc, in the batter beneath to fall upon the lower disc. Then the projecting points of the one would dip into the mercury cups of the other, thus making the whole circuit complete, and sending the electricity on its terrible errand through 183 wires into the heart of the great mine.
The mouth of the shafted was filled with water, and it looked like a great pool, showing that the caverns beneath were full to their roofs. A few men were working around the shaft clearing away debris and carrying, with extreme carefulness, boxes of dynamite that had been left over down to a boat which presently was rowed to Black Tom Island. The inhabited houses within the danger lines were at an early hour deserted by their inmates. Everywhere anxiety and suspense were visible. Those who were employed about the batteries in the bomb proof talked in low voices, and stepped as carefully as though their feet, too rudely touching the floor, might excite the terribly sensitive dynamite in its rocky prison to a premature explosion. The bomb-proof was a strong work, made with heavy stone walls and roof, thickly rodded outside and braced with large timbers within; but it was only about 200 feet from the shaft, and there seemed to be everywhere distrust of its ability to sustain the shock. Men who had to be inside of it looked anxiously at its walls, and wondered now strong they were. A few days ago it was said that Gen. Newton and his engineers would remain in this structure and from it explode the mine. But this intention, if every entertained, was abandoned, Gen. Newton concluding to fire the battery from a point on the other side of Pot Cove, where he would have 650 yards of water between him and the explosion. Yesterday morning the opinion was freely expressed that the bomb-proof was not a safe place to be in, and some persons believed it must be blown up and the batteries with it when the mine was fired. The two insulated copper wires leading from the battery in the bomb-proof to the hastily erected platform on the northeast shore of Pot Cove, from which the battery was to be fired, were carried through trees and over fences, following the trend of the shore.
Gen. Newton did not arrive on the ground until about half-past 11 o'clock. He came alone by the Ninety-second street ferry. He is a soldierly-looking man, with hair and beard slightly sprinkled with gray, and firm Roman nose. He appeared to be very cheerful, and showed no trace of nervousness or anxiety. Mr. Boyle, who has had charge of the blasting at Hell Gate for years, showed some nervousness, and he was evidently chafing under the suspense.
'I've been five years working here, getting ready for that one supreme instant,' he said, nervously clipping his words, 'I've seen 52,000 pounds of explosives put in, and oh, now, I'm waiting for that one minute to see how she'll break up.'
Soon after Gen. Newton's arrival at the works the little cups in the lower disc of the battery in the bombproof were filled with mercury, and the torpedo and rope were prepared and attached to the gallows frame, and from them the upper disc was suspended. Then Mr. Streidenger and assistants went across Pot Cove in Gen. Newton's steam launch to prepare the firing battery. A canvas awning was put up on the shore at the foot of the bluff below Gen. Ramsey's residence to keep the instruments dry. Three batteries of nine cells each were prepared under the awning and placed in a box. The wires were attached to these and made to connect with a Morse's key placed on a table near by.
'Now,' said Mr. Streidenger, after completing this work, 'no man must touch these instruments. If he should he might cause a horrible accident.'
A platoon of United States soldiers was sent for by Gen. Abbott to guard the wires and instruments at Pot Cove. Back of the temporary platform erected for Gen. Newton the ground had a steep slope up to the roadway on the bluff about 30 feet higher. An iron fence, guarded by a line of soldiers, crowned the bluff, and back of this protecting line surged a mass of spectators. They could look down upon the roof of the canvas tent, but could not see what was going on within it. After Mr. Streidenger had completed his battery at Pot Cove, Gen. Newton came over from Hallett's Point and examined it with evident satisfaction. He smilingly tapped the black button of the Morse instrument key.
'That's all there is of the firing,' he said. Afterward Gen. Newton visited the Government scow at her moorings near Mill Rock, and then returned to the bomb proof, where the last electric preparations were being made. The steaming to and fro of the launches seemed to puzzle the lookers on, and their suspense became greater and greater.
Early in the morning Mayor Debevois of Long Island City sent to Gen. Abbott an invitation for the troops to partake of a collation in Astoria after the explosion, but the General replied that his troops were sufficiently supplied.
Finally the hour for the blast drew near, and the clicking noise of opening and closing watches was kept up by impatient spectators, Twenty-five minutes before the time of high tide a cannon on the Government scow boomed across the waters. 'The first gun,' was the cry. Under the tent at Pot Cove were several of the men who had seen the work from its beginning. They showed anxiety as to the result, and evidently were nervous -- not from fear of danger or failure, but from mere suspense.
'We'll get up this bank quicker than we ever did before,' said one of them, 'when she goes off. There'll be a big wave.'
'Don't you expect the stones will fly pretty lively over here?' was asked of another workman who had grown gray in the service, and whose indifference to physical danger was shown by his lying at full length on the wet sward, with the rain drizzling into his gray-bearded face.
'No,' said he 'there won't any rocks get out of that water.'
The opinion of almost everybody at Pot Cove seemed to be that there was no danger from falling rocks, but that the enormous mass of water displaced would create a tremendous wave, which might come across the cove and dash high up on the sloping bank. The approach of this wave would, however, it was thought, be detected in time to allow everybody to use his heels and get away.
Between the first and second guns, Mrs. Gen. Newton, with her little daughter Mary, and a nurse, arrived at Pot Cove in a launch from the Government scow. The second gun sounded, and then somebody said: 'Only ten minutes -- now, look out.' About the same time the little white launch, containing Gen. Newton, Mr. Streidenger, Capt. Mercur, Lieut. Willard, and Barney Boyle, left the landing near the mouth of the shaft for the last time, and steamed rapidly across Pot Cove. Haste was needful, for these men had completed the electrical connection in the bomb proof by 'lowering the elements of the batteries into the fluids,' and in that condition a slight accident might cause a premature explosion. The moment the launch touched the landing near the canvas tent, Gen. Newton and the others sprang ashore, and Mr. Streidenger hastened to his battery, and with the assistance of two of his men arranged the wires, and 'lowered the elements of these batteries into the fluids.' Only the little space of air between the two platina points of the Morse instrument separated the electric fluid, couched ready to spring in the batteries, from the narrow but unswerving copper path that was to lead it instantaneously into the dynamite.
'Ah,' said a gray-haired workman, looking curiously at the wire coiled in the grass at his feet, 'that's the devil. He's got a long, crooked road, but he won't be a second going.'
Gen. Newton, perfectly cool, took out his watch and stepped to the edge of the platform.
It's just six minutes yet,' he said cheerily, as he glanced over the water.
A hush of expectation fell on everybody in the tent. Gen. Newton turned to the nurse who held the little girl in her arms, and taking one of the child's hands in his, while the Morse instrument was momentarily disconnected, he pressed one of the little white fingers upon the button.
'See, Mary,' he said, smiling.
Then he looked at his watch again.
'It is five minutes yet,' he said; 'I promised to give the people ten minutes after the second gun to get out of their houses, and I will keep my promise, but,' glancing at the tide, which was flowing rapidly, 'I want very much to do it now.'
'There's the flag,' said somebody, breaking the silence, and pointing to a white flag flying from the Government scow.
'I've seen that for some time,' replied the general; 'it doesn't seem to be a signal. By the way, Streidenger,' he continued, 'I promised Gen. Abbott to give him half a minute's warning. He's up at the boat house.'
It seemed as though people were holding their breath and listening to the beat of their hearts from all nervousness, while Mr. Streidenger, with his handsome dark face all aglow, stood by his batteries with the wires in his hands.
'Now I'll give the signal,' said Gen. Newton, taking out his pocket handkerchief and waving it at Gen. Abbott, who was stationed a little further up the Cove.
Boom! came a cannon's voice in reply. The echoes had not ceased when there was a quick adjustment in the wires. The box of the Morse instrument was opened, and the key placed in the hands of Mrs. Newton by the General. The nurse approached the instrument with Mary in her arms. The mother, smiling, took the child's chubby little hand in hers, and again the little finger pressed the key. That closed the circuit, and the lightning flashed in its mission. A dull rumble, a shock that was felt distinctly, but not severely, and then the river in front of Hallett's Point seemed to leap from its bed and to hurl itself upward in a white, foaming mass between 50 and 100 feet up into the air. There it seemed to remain suspended for twenty seconds over the whole three acres space covered by the mine, like beaten froth. A few black specks like upheaved rocks appeared in the midst of the foaming mass, while straight out from the broken end of Hallett's Point shot a great black column of mud, piercing and traversing the white, aerated water, it seemed for hundreds of feet, like a column of black smoke bursting through volumes of steam.
'Oh, splendid! see, they're going off one after the other,' exclaimed somebody near the tent, as the volumes of whitened water continued to leap upward into the air.
Just before the blast was fired, Gen. Newton said that there would probably be a strong wave, and he had the way cleared so that the ladies could easily escape up the bank. But no wave came. The water at that distance did not seem to have disturbed more than it would have been by the passage of a large steamer. As the upheaval ceased, Gen. Newton, with genuine delight beaming in his face, exclaimed: 'A splendid blast -- perfectly successful.'
'Yes, perfectly successful,' said an engineer.
Then everybody rushed to seize Gen. Newton's hand and congratulate him on the evident success of his great work, and the screaming of steam whistles, shouts and cheers expressed the joy of the spectators. Hearty cheers were given for Gen. Newton, Capt. Mercur, Mr. Streidenger, and Mrs. Newton, and then the General and his wife and all the engineers embarked in the launch and rode over to Hallett's Point to look at the results of the explosion.
A tug boat soon landed a party, but that boat was immediately ordered off to make room for the lighthouse cutter Putnam, under command of Commodore Rhind, which had on board four spar bouys [sic] sixty-six feet long, painted red at the tops. To each of these was attached a stone weighing 4,000 pounds. With these spars the ruins of the reef will be staked out. Among those on board who greeted Gen. Newton were Prof. Henry of the Smithsonian Institution.
Gen. Newton and his wife made a circuit of the works, accompanied by Capt. Mercur, Capt. Joseph Willard, and Mr. Boyle, and after assuring of the successful explosion, and that no danger was possible, the general commanded the guards to give way to the multitude pressing in the regular pickets on all sides. As soon as the police and regular soldiers withdrew, the spectators rushed in, completely filling the grounds. A hundred of them mounted the large bomb proof, and a hearty cheer was given for Gen. Newton.
Then began a destruction of nearly everything movable. The wires were taken up and cut into small pieces for mementoes [sic], many of the pieces being afterward sold for twenty-five and fifty cents an inch.
The Extent of the Concussion.
The United States Torpedo School at Willett's Point, under command of Gen. H. L. Abbott, made experiments as to the distances at which the concussion was felt by the seismometer, but no special appropriation of money having been made by the Government for their use, they confined themselves to such instruments as they possessed, and had stations only at Astoria, Fresh Pond Junction, Jamaica, Springfield Junction, Willett's Point, and West Point. It was thought that a concussion might possibly be felt even at West Point, owing to the rocks there forming part of the range to which the Hallett's Point belonged. Springfield Junction, at a distance of twelve miles, was considered about as far eastward upon Long Island as the jar would be experienced, and Lieut. S. S. Leech was stationed there with three men. Lieut. Willard Young was at Jamaica, and Lieut. D. C. Kingman at Fresh Pond, each with the same number of assistants. Lieut. Griffin had an instrument at Willett's Point, and Gen. Abbott took a position in the little granite bath house connected with Mr. Woolsey's villa about two hundred yards north of Gen. Newton's station. Capts. A. M. Miller, W. R. Livermore, and Thomas M. Hanbury of Gen. Abbott's command, each attended with sixteen men, for the purpose of forming a cordon round the scene of explosion, and Lieut. Henry S. Taber acted as adjutant to the General, carrying his orders to various points, and being principally stationed at the Astoria telegraph office. One or two officers of the Long Island City police attended each detachment of soldiers, and examined the passes granted by Mayor De Bevoise.
The mode of ascertaining at the different stations whether a shock was felt, to use technical language, was by means of an artificial horizon of mercury resting on the ground. Two telescopes pointed downward upon this horizon, one of which had the eyepiece withdrawn. The cross hairs in this were reflected in the mercury, and on being watched through the other telescope, any vibration in the mercury could be detected through their images. The West Point and Willett's Point stations being off the telegraph line the officers there trusted to their chronometers, with a view of subsequently comparing observations by telegraph.
The wire to Astoria was, for the time being, made the main line from the chief station of the Western Union Telegraph Company in New York, and extended from Astoria to the Long Island points mentioned, and the closing of the circuit at the mine sent the signal down this line. Gen. Abbott, by means of a relay and register, and a sidereal chronometer, registered by dots upon telegraph paper the instant of the explosion, which ranged from 2:50 P. M. to 2:51. The exact period, to half a second, given by his instrument and those of his officers, could not be ascertained yesterday. It is to be calculated at Willett's Point this week. On requesting results from Springfield, Gen. Abbott learned that the shock, though definite, was barely perceptible. At Jamaica it was distinct, and also at Fresh Pond, where a slight defect in the Morse register interfered with an exact record. At West Point, Lieut. Bass answered that no concussion was experienced.
The bulletin sent after the explosion by Mr. Bogert, the Western Union Telegraph representative at Astoria, to the chief cities of the Union and Canada, was as follows:
First gun for preparation, 2.25 P. M.; observation gun, 2:30; firing gun and touching off the blast, 2:50. The detonation was not as great as was anticipated, but the firing of the blast was perfect, and everything passed off satisfactorily. No damage to residences on the island. The passage is open.
The shock was felt slightly in Hoboken. In Ridgewood, N. J., twenty three miles from the city, the noise was distinctly heard a minute after the explosion. In Passaic the water was visibly disturbed. In Rutherford Park, nearer this city, nothing was heard or felt. The vibration was felt as far as Bronxville, on the Harlem Railroad.
The Multitude at Mr. Ramsey's.
One of the best views of the blast ws from Mr. Ramsey's house, about a mile from the Astoria ferry, on the North Shore road. Thousands went from Brooklyn to that neighborhood, and as many more crossed from New York by the Ninety-second street ferry. At noon the number had increased until the iron fence opposite Mr. Ramsey's residence was lined with eager expectant men. The police lines had not been drawn, and there was no impediment to all who chose to walk along the muddy road and take the best positions procurable, though very few of the early comers were destined to witness the explosion from the places they had at first selected. The windows of Mr. Ramsey's house were crowded with gentlemen and ladies, and as the day advanced the raised lawn up front afforded accommodation for many. The edge of the river was not more than fifty yards from the side of the road, and 650 yards off was the mine. Those who had brought field or opera glasses, or telescopes, were able to distinguish for a time, through the mist that was slowly gathering over the river, crowds growing every moment larger, in the streets and vacant lots on the New York side, as well as on Ward's Island, but the rain was falling, and it was soon not easy to see more than half across the river. Scores of carriages were driven near to the gate opening upon Mr. Ramsey's lawn, and the occupants, drawing the covers of their vehicles over their heads, sat luxuriously back in their seats, watching the spot which had become the focus of gazing. To those on foot, however, they situation was growing rather distressing. Such as had umbrellas sheltered themselves, and those who had none turned up the collars of their coats, cursed the weather, and threatened to start for home, but didn't. A few climbed over the fence and got under the trees some distance away, but were quickly dislodged by the officers.
Fifty officers from Long Island City, under Capt. Woods, were on the ground, and at about half past 1 they formed the lines. The spectators who, by going early, had secured choice positions, were compelled to fall back. Still the road in front of Mr. Ramsey's house was not deserted. Many privileged persons remained, and among the latter were sixty or seventy men who had worked in the excavations.
A tremor of excitement ran through the spectators as they recognized the signal given twenty minutes before the explosion. There was very little conversation after that, but every eye was fixed with painful intensity upon the point where Gen. Newton and a few picked assistants were completing the final arrangements for the blast. Next came the second gun, and the excitement and suspense became intensified. A few minutes more and a lithe, active man with a swarthy face ran along the embankment, and throwing himself on the wet grass beside the fence, exclaimed, 'By Jove, I had to run for it.' A dozen voices asked him where he had been. He had just come from the tunnel, where, with Gen. Newton, he had lowered the battery. Another gun, and suddenly a curious jarring shock was felt, not in the least like what anybody there had expected, but a kind of compression in the atmosphere. Not a particle of rock could be seen in the air from the road, or from Mr. Ramsey's house; nothing but water, wood, and mud. There was a dull, smothered roar, and the water over Hell Gate, cleared of its rocky obstructions, and strewn with floating debris, flowed on hardly more ruffled than before. Then such a cheer went up from the multitude as might almost have been heard upon the New York Side of the river, if they had not been cheering there too. It was repeated again and again, and three especially loud ones were given in honor of Gen. Newton.
Observations by Men of Science.
The steamer Pleasant Valley was selected by Gen. Newton to be the bearer of most of his scientific guests. She awaited them at the foot of East Twenty-third street. They were received by Gen. Newton's representative, Mr. J. M. McInerny. Then they gathered in social circles, talking interestedly in French, Spanish, German, Russian, Italian, and English of the explosion, the general belief being that it would be unfelt at a considerable distance, and would produce no undesired effect. Among them were Messrs. Zerebrekoff and Seelenkoff, civil engineers of the Russian Centennial Commission; Mr. Lavoinne, of the French; representatives of the German and Austrian Commissions; Messrs. Alberto W. Ferreira D'Aguiar and Arthur Alvin, of the Brazilian Commission; M. L. Yzquierdo, representing El Pansamiento and the Mexican Commission; Messrs. George M. Mowbray, the North Adams nitro-glycerine manufacturer; Bond, treasurer of the Hoosac Tunnel; Patterson, of Canada; Maxwell, of South America; Profs. Plympton and Vinton, D. M. Greene, Deputy State Engineer and Surveyor; Messrs. J. J. R. Croes, J. Maxwell, V. G. Bogue, R. P. Rothwell, J. F. Flagg, E. P. North, W. J. McAlpine, C. L. McAlpine, C. McDonald, P. A. Peterson, L. L. Buck, E. Yardley, C. E. Enery, L. B. Van Winkle, and G. S. Greene, Jr., Engineer-in-Chief of the Department of Docks, members, and Gen. G. S. Greene, President of the American Society of Civil Engineers; Jackson S. Schultz, John Reid, managing editor of the Times; Dr. G. Milvern Eddy, and E. G. Schweig.
At ten minutes before 2 o'clock, the Pleasant Valley swung away from the pier, pointed toward Hallett's Point, and sped away.
'Fifteen hundred thousand barrels of gases will seek the open air,' said Mr. Mowbray, on the way. 'These gases would be innocuous if pure nitro-glycerine was the sole cause of the explosion. Gen. Newton, however, required not only a lifting, but also a rending, splintering force, and a commingling of other explosives with the nitro-glycerine was chosen. This enabled men to work with greater courage while filling the roof and pillars of the cavern with the destroying cartridges. After blasts with other explosives, even when mixed somewhat with nitro-glycerine, the blasters in the cavern, I have been informed, have been asphyxiated for eight hours, or from about noon until 6 o'clock have been unable to penetrate the smoke of the blast to go to their homes. Eighty per cent. of glycerine and 20 per cent. of gunpowder, it was ascertained, make a powerful rendrock. The explosion will not be nearly so impressive as some people believe it will be. In one of my most recent undertakings the men scarcely thought of moving when four or six pounds of the same charges that are in the Hallett's Reef headings, in eight feet of water, were exploded. They did not think it worth while to give the nearest driller more warning than the cry, 'Fire,' that he might not sustain a nervous shock. The effect of the explosion upon the scow right above it was no greater than would result to the scow from contact with a heavy piece of timber. The volume of confined gas will raise water in spurts and columns sixty or a hundred feet. Then in the middle of the acres of foaming water, rocks will appear. Gas clouds from the explosives will appear last. Those in the line of the gas's travel will know that it is with them. It will be well, if the wind is in our direction, to be ready to hold nostrils, for the gas will be extremely rancorous. If the sun shines, the spurts of water will possess all the shades of the rainbow. It has been said that there will be separate explosions of groups of charges. Theoretically, this is true; but practically, not. The passage of the igniting spark will be so rapid that the space of time that it occupies in passing from group to group will be imperceptible. The explosion will be a combination, at once a perfect result, if it is not a fiasco. To illustrate: lay some powder in a train upon the floor, and ignite one end of the train. The sizzling spark travels tardily. You can measure its progress from point to point of the train, and walk faster than it moves. But ram that same powder into a gun barrel -- the explosives under Hell Gate are rammed tight home, and ignitable by a flash of electricity -- and fire the cap; the explosion is instantaneous! In North Adams we now combine nitro-glycerine with mica scales. We have learned that charcoal, chalk, and infurosia, when mixed with nitro-glycerine and fired in a hole, restrain half of its force. What these substances absorb through the bores they discharge again on the surface. Therefore we had found an agent that would give a superficial explosion only. And as a proof of the value of our agent, I will say that fifty per cent. of nitro-glycerine and fifty per cent. of infusoria cannot be exploded with the nitro-glycerine or dynamite exploder, or lighted with a match. But, if ten per cent. of glycerine is added, the mixture becomes an explosive, to be set easily into destructive activity. This is somewhat of a scientific attainment, for it is the verdict of the schools of science that when nitro-glycerine is combined with a superficial-acting substance in the proportion that we have united nitro-glycerine is combined with a superficial-acting substance in the proportion that we have united nitro-glycerine with infusoria, and it cannot be fired, it is in the most economical, useful form that nitro-glycerine can be put. In blasting, the force of this mixture is well distributed in the drill.'
Mr. Mowbray's audience grew uneasy at this point, for the Pleasant Valley had reached her post at the southern end of Ward's Island. Even staid and spectacled Mr. Mowbray joined in the eager rush for places at the front of the steamer, which slewed around and lay across the channel between Astoria and Ward's Island to bar the passage of over-venturesome craft. The tugs Stephen Decatur, Petrolia, and Herald, and the steamer Minnahanonck, all laden with spectators, were thus restrained. There were men on the river in Whitehall boats or clumsier craft, sail boats with jibs and without, even in a great lumbering lighter that drifts about the bay, hardly impelled by its canvas, and burdened with tropical freight on week days. And there were men, young men, bared to the waist, in racing shells. All of these boats hugged the shore, for the policemen aboard the Pleasant Valley were watchful.
At twenty-five minutes before three Engineer Overbaugh opened the throttle valve of the Pleasant Valley's engine, and the steam roared through the 'scape pipe, startling the savants who were on the hurricane deck, with field glasses levelled at Hallett's Point. None were free from a haunting anxiety concerning the issue of the experiment, for so they all, trained men of practical science, deemed it. Suddenly they see a great upheaval of foam, rising here and there in columns. Every eye is intent. The field of foam is held up wonderfully long; only a few seconds in actual time, but very long to the fascinated eyes, then it sinks. two-acre cloud of earth, a boulder, or a jagged timber tossing it its midst, rises over the foam. The earth-cloud is in view long, too, buoyed, seemingly, by some invisible power; but it sinks. Then a marvellous wall of yellowish vapor rises upon the foaming expanse. It changes to a greenish tint, and sails grandly before the wind down toward New York. Then every man turns to his neighbor and eyes him in amazement. Is this really the vast explosion, of which so much has been said and written? Wonderment yields to joy, and the savants swelled with their voices the cheers of gratulation.
The water at once became black with little boats, the crews of which were straining their muscles to be first at a long, dark line extending straight out from Hallett's Point that was thought to be the backbone of the upheaved reef. Sail boats and little steamers joined in the race. The dark line was made of bits of lumber that had been used in the shaft and heading. The river was muddy and sluggish over the shattered reef, as though slow to recover from the terrific shock. Not a stunned or dead fish floated on its surface.
On the Western Bank of the River.
Many thousands of persons, sheltered with umbrellas, clustered on the hills rising from the East river, on the New York side, between Ninety-third and 105th streets. The sight was like a vast field of black toadstools. Two hours before the explosion the people began to take positions, and an hour later the hills were fully occupied. The throng came on foot, in horse cars and in carriages, and by boats, which landed their passengers on the New York side. This neighborhood was the most favorable of all accessible places for witnessing the explosion. It sloped up from the river like one side of an amphitheatre, with Hell Gate in the foreground. Patiently the people waited in the rain. Umbrellas were wet through, and those under them were drenched, but few thought of quitting the place before the blast. They stood with their eyes fixed on Hell Gate. Many evidently feared that the mine might be touched off prematurely, and that if they removed their gaze from the spot they might lose a part of the spectacle. The minutes of waiting were ones of intense expectancy and anxiety. There was a great difference of opinion as to the effects of the explosion. Some of the more timid thought that rocks would fly through the air to the distance of half a mile or more, and the ground would be shaken as by a violent earthquake. Others feared that the waters of the East river might be swept up on sands. Still others had a notion that the sound of the explosion would be deafening, and were prepared to stop their ears to deaden the report.
The booming of a cannon was heard. It was a signal for preparation. A hum of expectancy ran through the multitude. Then was another gun fired. Presently there was a tremor of the ground. A column of water rose from the reef at Hell Gate, and deep, dull, heavy, rumbling reports saluted the ears of the multitude. They were wild with enthusiasm. Cheer after cheer went up from the hill side. After the first thrill of enthusiasm had passed away, the exclamations of the spectators were: 'It was not such an immense affair as we expected.' 'The report was not at all loud.' 'The sight was not very grand,' and 'The earthquake was a small one.'
As seen from the New York shore, the column of water thrown into the air seemed to rise to the height of fifty or sixty feet. It looked like a bank of white foam. When it settled, the waves receded from the reef and rolled to the north and south and across the river. Half a mile up or down the river the waves dwindled into insignificance; but they dashed upon the New York shore with considerable violence, and in some places spectators had to step back from the water's edge to prevent their feet getting wet. The low temporary piers only were submerged: the high permanent piers were not covered. The rumbling of the explosion and tremor of the earth lasted six or eight seconds. The rumbling was loudest at first, then it diminished, and was the heaviest just before it ceased. In musical parlance, there was a dimuendo [sic], followed by a crescendo.
No damage was done to buildings or other property on the New York side, and those who removed valuable household goods from their houses to save them being crushed beneath the falling walls, had their labor for their pains. Not a single pane was broken.
After the explosion there was a great rush for the cars of the Second, Third, and Fourth avenue roads and for the boats. Some of the cars were loaded so heavily that the horses could hardly drag them. Men and boys climbed to the roofs, and in some instances broke them in. In the rush, children were trampled under foot, and some of them were seriously injured. Some of the boats were overladen so that their gunwales touched by the water.
At the foot of 110th street were several men and boys with skiffs and scoop nets. They said that they expected the explosion would kill thousands of fish. The fish would come to the surface of the water, and turn over upon their sides. The fishermen at that point, however, were not successful.
West of Third avenue, near Fifty-sixth street, is a rocky bluff, twenty-five or thirty feet high. On the edge of this stood a large number of spectators, crowding each other to get a good view, a man and two boys were pushed off. The man, Isaac Freeman, of Harlem, had a leg broken by the fall, and the boys were badly broken by the fall, and the boys were badly hurt, one of them having his ribs fractured. . . ."
Source: GEN. NEWTON'S BIG BLAST -- THE TRIUMPH OF SCIENCE ON THE REEFS UNDER HELL GATE, The Sun [NY, NY], Sep. 25, 1876, Vol. XLIV, No. 25, p. 1, cols. 1-5.
* * * * *
I have written on numerous occasions about the Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association, as well as the development of the suburb that came to be known as Pelham Manor. For examples, see:
Bell, Blake A., The Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association: A "Failed" Effort to Develop a New York City Railroad Suburb During the 1870s (Jun. 3, 2006) (research paper presented to the Conference on New York State History on Jun. 3, 2006).
Bell, Blake A., The Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XV, Issue 1, Jan. 6, 2006.
Thu., Jun. 16, 2016: Evidence of Lawsuits Involving, and the Receivership of, the Pelham Manor and Huguenot Heights Association During the 1870s and 1880s.
Mon., Jun. 13, 2016: Rare Map Published in 1874 on Behalf of the Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association.
Wed., Jan. 14, 2015: 1874 Handbill Advertising Homes, Lots, and Securities for Sale by the Pelham Manor And Huguenot Heights Association.
Tue., Jun. 17, 2014: 1875 Real Estate Sales Brochure for New Suburb of Pelham Manor Being Marketed by the Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association.
Fri., Feb. 21, 2014: More About Edmund Gybbon Spilsbury Who Served as Engineer for the Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association.
Tue., Jul. 19, 2011: 1876 Newspaper Advertisement Touting Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association Real Estate.
Wed., May 19, 2010: Obituary of Charles J. Stephens of the Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association.
Tue., May 18, 2010: 1874 Newspaper Advertisement Touting Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association Real Estate.
Mon., May 17, 2010: Jessup Family Members Tried in 1909 to Take Back Some of the Lands Conveyed to Form the Lands Developed by the Pelham Manor and Huguenot Heights Association.
Fri., May 14, 2010: 1885 Article on Alleged Failure to Develop Pelham Manor Said the Development "At Best Resembles the Collapse of a Wild Cat Land Scheme."
Wed., Nov. 11, 2009: 1874 Evening Telegram Advertisement for Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Development.
Thu., Apr. 09, 2009: The Death of Charles J. Stephens in City of Mexico in 1891.
Mon., Mar. 2, 2009: 1884 Advertisement Placed by Charles J. Stephens of the Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association Offering Home for Rent.
Tue., Jun. 20, 2006: Mystery - A Lawsuit Filed Against the Dissolved Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association in 1915.
Mon., Jun. 12, 2006: Early Deed of Land to the Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association.
Fri., May 26, 2006: The 27th Conference on New York State History Will Include Presentation of Paper on Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association.
Wed., May 10, 2006: Horace Crosby, the Civil Engineer Who Laid Out the Chestnut Grove Division for the Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association in the 1870s.
Mon., May 8, 2006: Edmund Gybbon Spilsbury Who Served as Engineer for the Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association.
Tue., Apr. 18, 2006: Prospectus Issued by the Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association in 1874.
Mon., Mar. 27, 2006: 1057 Esplanade: One of the Original Homes Built by the Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association.
Mon., Mar. 20, 2006: Charles J. Stephens and Henry C. Stephens of the Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association.
Tue., Feb. 21, 2006: Silas H. Witherbee and His Influence on the Village of Pelham Manor.
Thu., Dec. 22, 2005: Area Planned for Development by The Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association in 1873.
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