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A Snapshot In Time

The official title of this photo, at the New York Public Library website, is the caption at the bottom: “From the Old Shot Tower in Beekman Street to Roosevelt Street Ferry.” It’s from volume 9 of a collection called “Scrapbooks of New York City Views” which appears to be just that: an old scrapbook that has been digitized. The date is listed as “1850 – 1945” which I assume refers to the scrapbook as a whole, since it doesn’t take very much digging to find the date of this photo.

Various points of interest are visible and some are labelled, but the elephant in the room is not: that’s the Manhattan tower of the Brooklyn Bridge dead center, looking much larger than everything else. The tower was completed in the summer of 1876, and this must be just before then, as the tower is almost full height but is missing its top cornice. The wood falsework that was used to build the tower’s arches is still in place, and for some reason would remain in place for some time afterward (based on other pictures I’ve seen) even though it was no longer needed. The tower, at its full height, is 272 feet, which means it was not the tallest structure in the city: the spire of Trinity Church is 9 feet higher. (Trinity is not visible, and is off to the left of this photo.)

To the left of the tower, off in the distance, is the Tribune Building, completed the year before. Its tower was 260 feet tall (as built), which doesn’t seem that tall today. It’s the equivalent of maybe a 30-story apartment house. But this picture makes it clear why Tribune and other early skyscrapers attracted so much attention: it literally towers over everything around it. The hulking building to the left of Tribune is the post office at the foot of City Hall Park. It was only five stories high, but they were very tall stories.

The only other tall structure in view is the chimney-like object just to the left of the post office. It’s not a chimney: it was a shot tower, where molten lead was dropped from the top to solidify as fell into a tank of water at the bottom, forming spherical shot. There were a number of these building in New York in the nineteenth century; this one was simply brick, 217 feet high, built in 1857 and demolished, amazingly, as late as 1907. It’s hard to image this kind of industry on Beekman Street after 1900, but it’s also worth remembering that was a rougher industrial age, when newspapers were set using hot lead.

A similar collision of past and future is visible on the East River docks, where we have steam ferries to the right of the bridge tower and sailing ships to the left. An 1879 map shows the piers to the south of the bridge as occupied by the Charleston & Savannah Line, the New Orleans & Savannah line, the New Haven Steamboat Company, the Hartford Steamboats, the Coney Island Steamboat Co., and the Liverpool Packet Line. So those ships could be anything from day excursions to the beach to coastal trade to transatlantic trade.

I said a couple of weeks ago that “a feature of almost every place is that multiple times are represented in the built environment.” This photo is more evidence.