brooklyn history

The First Professional Baseball Player Began in Williamsburg

Al Reach ( A.G. Spalding Baseball Collection)

Today Al Reach is largely a forgotten figure here in North Brooklyn where he began his baseball career, But Reach not only became the first openly professional baseball player in 1864, but he also went on to co-found the Philadelphia Phillies and become a millionaire – not bad for an immigrant kid who began life working twelve hour days in a Greenpoint shipyard.

The Union Grounds, the First Enclosed Baseball Stadium in Williamsburg where Reach Played.

Reach was born in 1840 in London, England, but he followed his father to America and lived in Williamsburg. When Reach was a teenager in the 1850’s, the East River was lined with shipyards and Reach got a job doing the grueling work of a shipwright, working ten to twelve hours a day in the days before power tools.

Baseball was also exploding on the scene in America, but nowhere was the sport more popular than here in Brooklyn. Most of the teams were composed of the sons of well-to-do families who could allow their sons the leisure to play the game. Greenpoint also formed a team, but it was not composed of rich kids sons. Its team, the Eckford Club, was made up of shipwrights like Reach who worked 60 to 72 hours per week. Though they had little time to practice, the grueling nature of their work left them very strong and fit and it is little wonder that the team proved successful.

Reach was never a great power hitter, but he was a great fielder. Many sources give him credit for being the first baseman who for the first time played off the bag allowing him to turn balls hit through the infield into outs.

Baseball was evolving in the 1850s and there is a lot of conjecture about the rules of the game. Pitching was underhand and many of the modern pitches had yet to be born. The game was still amateur and players played simply for love of the game. The Civil War interrupted baseball for many players, but the Eckford Club still played on and in 1862 and 1863 the Greenpoint club won the National title, making them the best club in America, but money would soon destroy the proud local baseball team.

Union Grounds in Williamsburg (courtesy of Brooklynballparks.com)

The 1862 and 1863 championships were held at the Union Grounds in Williamsburg, the first fully enclosed baseball stadium. The Eckford Club’s victory on its home grounds was the cause for jubilant celebrations. The thousands of fans who showed up for the championship showed observers there was the potential for ticket money in baseball. Teams began to charge and offer players money under the table to join their squads. Continue reading

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1940s Manhattan Avenue in Photos

Manhattan Avenue, like the rest of New York City, has seen a lot of changes since 1940, and here we’ve compiled a ‘before and after’ series of the northern stretch of the Avenue (past Greenpoint Avenue) using the 1940s NYC tax photo archives. Did you know there was a synagogue where C-Town now stands? Check it out:

903 Manhattan Ave. in 1940 (via NYC tax photo archives)
903 Manhattan Ave. in 2018 (via Google Maps)
897 Manhattan Ave. in 1940 (via NYC tax photo archives)
897 Manhattan Ave. in 2018 (via Google Maps)
921 Manhattan Ave. in 1940 (via NYC tax photo archives)

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A Short History of the Greenpoint Park With Two Names

McGolrick Park (courtesy of Ryan Kuonen)

Some call it McGolrick Park, while many born and bred locals call it Winthrop Park. So what are you supposed to call it and why does the park have two names anyway? To answer these questions we need to explore the history of the pretty little nine-acre park.

An undated image of Winthrop Park

The park was once swampy land on the Kingsland farm. You might have heard of Kingsland Avenue in South Greenpoint, but not know who Ambrose Kingsland was. Well, he was a rich Manhattan sperm whale oil merchant who served as mayor of New York in 1851. What saves him from the so what dustbin of irrelevant figures in history? Well in his two-year term as mayor he started the process of creating Central Park, but back to Greenpoint.

Winthrop Park (via Columbia University archives)

Kingsland had his farmland surveyed and he made a killing selling off parcels of it, but the land where the park sits was a swamp and draining it was too costly so it sat there undeveloped until the year 1889 when State Assemblyman Winthrop Jones spearheaded obtaining a $132,825 appropriation for its purchase. Locals howled about the outrageous price of the swampy land and they groused further because the City of Brooklyn (we were still an independent city then) paid even more for improvements to the park. The site was graded and fitted with a drainage system, and a new lawn was planted. Winthrop Jones died in 1891 and naming the park after the Calyer Street resident seemed like a fitting memorial.

An undated picture of Winthrop Park

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The Local Purple Heart Recipient Memorialized With a Park

Sergeant William Dougherty Park (courtesy of DOT)

Recently there was a $ 12,000,000 renovation of Sergeant William Dougherty Park, which lies right by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway at the corner of Vandervoort Avenue and Anthony Street. Sergeant Dougherty died in one of the most horrific battles of World War II. He was one of almost 3,000 young Americans who died in the bloody battle. Tragically, the 22-year-old Sergeant Dougherty survived the worst fighting of the battle and died on July 10, 1944, the day after United States Navy Admiral Turner announced that Saipan was officially secured. Dougherty was posthumously awarded two of the highest honors a soldier can receive: The Bronze Star and The Purple Heart.

The Greenpoint park was named in his honor in 1948. Dougherty was born near the park on Hausman Street on November 9, 1921, and as a child, he played in the park. He graduated from high school and was a messenger boy for employment. He was 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 126 pounds when he enlisted in the “ Fighting 69th” New York Irish Regiment that had won fame for its valor in the Civil War and in World War I, and was even the subject of a film made about the famous regiment’s exploits in the Great War. Dougherty enlisted in the National Guard Regiment before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Continue reading

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Legendary Writer Henry Miller Recalls Williamsburg of The 1890s

The NY Times 1971

Henry Miller is not only one of the greatest writers Brooklyn ever produced, but also a chronicler of the now vanished North Brooklyn before the building of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903. Honestly, there are times when I do not like Miller’s writing: it can be macho, self-obsessed, vain and highly egotistical, but when writing about old Williamsburg he approaches literary genius.

Henry Miller (via Carl Van Vechten collection at the Library of Congress)

In 1971, the New York Times (PDF) invited the then 80-year-old Miller back to Williamsburg to recollect on his childhood. Though he had been away for five decades, Miller had a crystal clear memory, recalling many fascinating stories from that vanished world of his childhood. Miller was born of German-American parents in Manhattan in 1891, but moved to the area as an infant, living at 662 Driggs Avenue, a house that still stands.

The Henry Miller House (662 Driggs Avenue vias Google Maps)

His fondest memories, which occupy much of his writing, concern his boyhood friends from the neighborhood. He said, “As I walked the streets the names of my boyhood companions, or better said, my idols, came back to me: Johnny Paul, Eddie Carney, Lester Reardon, Jimmy Short, Tim Buckley; Matt Owen, Gus Fowler, and last but not least, my first real chum, Stanley Borowski. With Stanley I maintained a friendship until I left for France in 1930. Like myself, he wanted to be a writer; I doubt that he ever made it however.”

Reading Miller’s writings, the neighborhood comes into focus through the eyes of a mischievous young lad who would later be censored by the United States Post Office for his shocking prose. Miller recalled first being rebuked for his language at the police station at Bedford Avenue where he was dragged by the arm one afternoon by a babysitter at the age of 6 or 7 years old; the crime he had committed was to use dirty language in her presence – the first of many times Miller would shock people with his language.

Miller’s writing later shocked another, more prominent Williamsburger, Presbyterian Minister John D. Wells. Today John D. Wells Middle School on S. 3rd St. is named for the preacher Miller knew as a child. He recalled, “Later, on some crazy impulse, I sent this rather pompous and aristocratic minister one of my first pieces of writing from Paris. He replied that he had thrown it in the garbage can; he wondered, he said, how one of ‘his boys’ could ever have conceived such filth.” At 7 years of age, Wells had presented Miller with a handsome little New Testament, his name inscribed in gold letters, for reciting by heart the 23rd Psalm. Continue reading

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The Irish Revolutionary and First Female Mayor of Dublin Who Lived in Greenpoint

Kathleen Daly Clarke -Dublin’s first female Mayor (courtesy of Women’s Museum of Ireland/ Dublin archives)

It’s both Women’s History Month and the week before St. Patrick’s Day so it is totally fitting that we honor the most famous Irish woman who ever lived in Greenpoint- Kathleen Daly Clarke, who lived for many years on Russell Street and operated a candy shop on Nassau Avenue.

Like many women deserving of recognition, Kathleen is often overshadowed by her famous husband, the man who proclaimed the Irish Republic and was shot by the British after the failed Dublin rising of 1916, Thomas Clarke. Although Thomas Clarke was a dedicated revolutionary, he was only able to achieve what he did thanks to the emotional, intellectual, moral and financial support that Kathleen gave him.

Thomas J. Clarke (courtesy of South Dublin County Libraries)

Thomas Clarke arrived locally in the early 1880s from Dungannon, Co. Tyrone where he had become a fiery advocate of Irish political freedom and an enemy of British colonial rule of Ireland. He became involved in a local plot to bomb the British mainland led by Doctor Thomas Gallagher who practiced medicine on Manhattan Avenue. Clarke was arrested and sentenced to serve life for his crimes. He served fifteen years and the harsh conditions and psychological abuse broke Gallagher who lost his mind in prison.

While Clarke was in prison he befriended a County Limerick Irish Republican fighter named John Daly who would also be shot for his role in the 1916 revolt. Following his release in 1898, Clarke visited Daly and became enamored of Daly’s niece Kathleen who was twenty-one years his junior. Impressed more by his character and commitment to Irish freedom than his looks, Daly agreed to marry Clarke and in 1898 they moved to the United States.

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A History of Greenpoint Piers

 

Aerial view of Bushwick Inlet and Greenpoint 1982 (courtesy of NYCEDC)

There is no more important geographical feature of Greenpoint than our waterfront defined by piers, wharves and docks, so let us take a moment and examine in more detail the history of our local docks.

In 1845, David Provost, a scion of one of the five ancestral families that farmed Greenpoint, built the first pier at the foot of Freeman Street. Around 1850, the Federal Government also built a dock and a gunpowder storage facility at the foot of Milton Street that was used more for swimming than anything else.

In the 1850s, 12 shipyards lined the East River shore, building wooden clipper ships. Shipbuilding combined with the demand for wooden barrels for the sugar and oil refineries required huge amounts of wood, so Greenpoint became New York’s center for lumberyards. Lumber often arrived on three-masted ships where it was unloaded by brawny Irish-American longshoremen like Peter J. McGuinness who was the head stevedore at Orr’s lumber yard at the foot of Green Street.

The first pier was built at the foot of Greenpoint Avenue for the local ferry in the early 1850s, which made two stops in Manhattan- one at 10th Street and the other at 23rd Street. A fleet of ferries ran the East River until 1931 when the ferry service was closed in the money-strapped Great Depression.

In 1888, the Noble Street pier was built by the city for the use of the many industrial concerns that covered Greenpoint, but it was not alone. Piers also stretched out from Quay, Oak, Kent, Java, India and Huron.

Greenpoint Weekly Star archives

As Greenpoint industrialized, the swimming holes that once served as pools for kids were filled up and kids began to use the piers to swim in the East River, despite the fact that raw sewage was dumped right into the river. A number of local boys drowned in the swift river currents until the 1930s when Peter McGuinness succeeded in opening the McCarren Park pool, thus providing local kids with a far safer way of cooling off.

Greenpoint never had a commercial railroad that could supply local factories, so the local docks and wharfs played a central role in the local economy. Tugboats like the McAlister fleet also left from local docks, so hundreds of local families were dependent on the longshoremen who worked the East River shoreline.

Aerial view of Newtown Creek looking east over Greenpoint, Brooklyn and Queens 1982 (Courtesy of NYCEDC)

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The Williamsburg Roots of the Adler Acting Dynasty

 

Stella Adler (Courtesy of PBS)

American theater and film acting owes a huge debt to Stella Adler who is perhaps the most influential teacher of the dramatic method in American theater history. Adler’s method went on to dominate American acting for more than half-a-century and is still the dominant acting method now. The roots of Adler’s success in teaching acting go back to her mother Sara Adler who founded The Novelty Yiddish Theater that once packed in audiences at 778 Driggs Avenue.

Those of you who know local history well might be familiar with 778 Driggs Avenue. It is the same building where Detective Frank Serpico was shot and nearly killed in the 1960s. Before the building was converted into an apartment house it was an entertainment venue for the huge Yiddish speaking community that called Williamsburg home.

The former building at 778 Driggs Avenue (via cinematreasures.org)

The Adlers were the royalty of the Yiddish theater. Sara Adler was born in the Russian Empire in 1853 and became a star of the Yiddish theater there until Yiddish performances were banned in 1883. She and her husband left for New York where they continued to act in the Yiddish theater. Sara divorced her first husband and re-married famous actor Jacob Adler in 1891 and they had six children. Continue reading

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Maria Stewart: America’s ‘First Black Woman Political Writer’ Who Taught in Williamsburg

Maria Stewart

As we celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month its time to recall that one of the early giants of both the Abolitionist movement and the women’s movement lived for many years in Williamsburg. Maria Stewart, who taught in Colored School #3 on Union Avenue, can claim a number of amazing firsts.

Colored School #3 where Stewart taught

Stewart had a brief, but an extremely controversial career as a public orator in Boston where she became the first black American female to address a racially mixed audience. She also has the honor of being the first black American woman to lecture about women’s rights and black women’s rights. Stewart is even credited as being the first known American woman to lecture in public on political issues. As if these accomplishments were not enough Stewart also can claim to be the first black American woman to make public anti-slavery speeches. Speaking up also got her in a lot of trouble and that is part of the reason Stewart ended up here in North Brooklyn.

Maria Stewart was unique from her childhood. She was born free as Maria Miller in 1803 in Hartford, Connecticut, during a period when the state still practiced slavery. All that is known about her parents is their surname: Miller. At the age of five, her parents passed away and she was forced to become a servant in the household of a white clergyman where she lived for 10 years.

Although Stewart received no formal education, she taught herself literacy by reading books from the extensive family library. After leaving the family at the age of 15, she continued to work as a domestic servant while continuing her education at Sabbath schools.

The young Stewart moved to Boston where on August 10, 1826, she married James W. Stewart, a 44-year-old veteran of the War of 1812 who earned a good living by fitting out whaling and fishing vessels. At the time, African Americans made up only three percent of Boston’s population, and the Stewarts were part of an even smaller minority: Boston’s black middle class.

In 1829, Stewart died. Although Stewart left his wife with a substantial inheritance, the white executors of the will cheated her out of it after a court battle. Once again, Maria was forced to turn to domestic service to make ends meet. Continue reading

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Brooklyn Label: Rediscovering the Astral’s Legacy

The Astral (Pratt Institute archives)

A lot of local history is quickly disappearing, but one place that is holding strong is Brooklyn Label (180 Franklin St.) and the historic building it calls home. French Greenpointer Robert Arbor, proprietor of Le Gamin (108 Franklin St.) re-opened Brooklyn Label in the historic Astral Building. The former management did little to recognize the amazing history of the space, something that Arbor has dedicated himself to changing.

The Astral Apartments are not only landmarked, but the building is also on the National Register of Historic Places. Arbor and his manager, Alex Russell, are determined to honor the building’s rich history and its patron philanthropist Charles Pratt, the oil baron and the richest man in 19th century Brooklyn.

Completed in 1883, the Astral Apartments were unique in their day: Unlike the flimsy tenement buildings that sprang up all around the city without basic amenities, the Astral was a kind of gift to the Greenpoint community and a solidly built showcase.

In contrast to tenements, Pratt’s building had plenty of natural light, air and even indoor plumbing, unheard of luxuries for most tenement dwellers. And the building was stunningly beautiful too!

The philanthropist hired famed architects Hugh Lamb and Charles A. Rich who also designed his stately Pratt Institute campus. Pratt commissioned them to design the Astral as a model for worker housing. Lamb & Rich based the Astral design on innovative tenement housing built by American philanthropist George Peabody in London who was a personal friend of Pratt’s.

Astral Kindergarten (Pratt Institute archives)
(Pratt Institute archives)

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