New York in 1879 and Its Reflection: Roosevelt Island


What was New York City like in 1879? At the Museum of the City of New York, I saw a fantastic map showing every street and building that year. That was before consolidation when New York was still just Manhattan. Brooklyn was a city in itself, and Queens was a scattering of villages stretching into Long Island. It got me thinking…

by David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

New York in 1879: What was it like?

New York in 1879.
Excerpted from Will L. Taylor, Galt and Hoy’s New York City in 1879.

It was a time before cars or subways, and horses, horsedrawn carriages and buggies dominated private transportation. Open-air public systems prevailed with streetcars running on rails, their tracks above ground. Elevated trains also offered speedy service over congested streets, and many ferries crossed the rivers.

The wealthy lived in elegant townhouses with horse-drawn carriages waiting at the curb to take them to their offices downtown or to one of the fancy social clubs they frequented. The average person lived in a rented apartment, walked or took a streetcar or ferry to work and spent their free time in one of the many public parks.

There were five newspapers, each with its own political slant – The New York Times, The Herald, The Tribune, The Sun and The World – and a thriving theater district. Ladies wore high-necked blouses and long skirts; gents sported bowler hats and canes.

It was a time of great progress and change. The Brooklyn Bridge was under construction and would be completed in 1883. The first transcontinental railroad had been finished in 1869, making it possible to travel from coast to coast in just a few days. The telephone had been invented in 1876, and the phonograph in 1877. The electric light bulb was invented in 1879, but the first movie theater didn’t open until 1896.

It was an exciting time to be living in New York City!

What about Roosevelt Island in 1879?

Roosevelt Island was a mixed community in 1879, home to mainly public institutions and those working in them. Still Blackwell’s Island then, it was later named after President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1971. The island was only accessible by boat in 1879. Roosevelt Island has, under various names, been part of New York since 1828 when the city bought it. Four years later, they built a penitentiary there and, in 1839, the lunatic asylum made notorious by Nellie Bly.

According to contemporary accounts, the first thing that struck you about Blackwell’s Island, in 1879, was its size. Two and a half miles long and no more than half a mile wide at any point, it resembled a diminished physical reflection of Manhattan.

Men worked daily on the island, some in the fields and some in the stone quarry. The men in the fields grew vegetables to sell in the city. The men in the quarry are cut stone for new buildings.

Another thing, noted by novelist Terrence McCauley in The Wandering Man, was the smell. Because of coal smoke from the ferry boats, a wretchedly polluted East River and the stink of garbage from the almshouse, Blackwell’s Island was not a nice place to live.

There were several public institutions on the island – three hospitals, a lunatic asylum, a prison and an almshouse. Blackwell’s Island was also home to the City Workhouse, where men unable to find work lived.

On the plus side, a lot of birds made their homes on the island. There were ducks and geese and pigeons everywhere.

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