The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel (Locations Project)

December 14th, 2009

Though many people walk along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, very few know what Walt Whitman knew, that below Atlantic Avenue once ran the world’s oldest subway. The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel was once part of the Long Island Railroad before it was closed and sunk into relative obscurity. Construction began in 1844, and the tunnel was ordered to be closed in 1859. In 1861, two years after the Tunnel was officially closed, Whitman wrote about it in the Brooklyn Standard as “a passage of Acheron-like solemnity” that would cause us to “grumble less…at God’s handiwork” (307).  After Whitman’s nostalgic musings about the tunnel, it practically disappeared from the hearts and minds of Brooklynites for over 100 years. It was not until 1979 that the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel was once again opened to the people of New York by a man named Robert Diamond. Bob heard rumors of the Tunnel and set to work to rediscover it; he did so in 1980. The information that exists between the time of Walt Whitman’s writings on the tunnel and the rediscovery of it by Bob Diamond is full of both facts and creative fantasy.

There were two main reasons why the Tunnel was built. The first reason was for the safety of pedestrians; the street level trains were unable to brake in time and had caused the deaths of two youths. Steam trains did not begin operating in the United States until 1830. Therefore, locomotive travel was new and dangerous; both because pedestrians were unfamiliar with steam trains and because the system of braking had yet to be refined. In 1844 “C. Davis and others, and of William Cook and 170 others” brought forward petitions “requiring the Long Island Rail Road Co. to remove the cars and engines from the street to the wharf and ground near the foot of Atlantic St., and cut through, or tunnel through, the hill on said st…” (‘Common Council’, 2). The safety of Brooklynites was the most plausible reason for moving trains underground, but another source has a different reason for moving the train system underground. The second reason is stated in an article in the Brooklyn Eagle from 1911. According to the article, “The old subway was built that the beauty of Atlantic Avenue, planned to become the finest business highway of any street in any city in America, might not be destroyed”(‘Oldest Subway’, 3). For these reasons the corner stone of the two-train tunnel was laid on May 24th, 1844 and it was open for travel seven months later on the 2nd of December, 1844.

The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel was built by mostly Irish immigrants using the cut and cover method. Cut and cover is a method where a trench is excavated and roofed over. The street was dug up for roughly 12 blocks, a wooden frame was built, a barrel vaulted brick roof put in, and the street relayed. From start to finish the tunnel ranged from one foot to thirteen feet under the street. The entrance to the tunnel was between Boerum Place and Court Street; thus the tunnel is only a foot under Court Street. From there it quickly descends as it gets closer to the East River. Its dimensions are seventeen feet high and 21 feet wide. The terminus of the tunnel is around what was then Emmett Street but is now called Willow Place. Where the tunnel ended is where the train then came above ground and ran for another block and a half; it made a turn and ended between Columbia Street and the East River at a station. Passengers then were within walking distance of the Ferry house. The July 23rd, 1911 edition of the Brooklyn Eagle reported that as of then, the old station still stood but was being used as a double store.

Opening day of the tunnel, December 2nd, 1844, was seen as a day of celebration in Brooklyn. Guests were invited to ride the newly opened rail along with the president of the Long Island Railroad and other important officials. Upon “[r]eturning to the depot, a collation was spread out for their entertainment, at which His Honor the Mayor of Brooklyn presided” (‘Opening Of The Tunnel,2). One engine operated in the front to pull the train while another operated in the back to push it. Because of this dual engine process, the LIRR train was the fastest mode of transportation in the United States at that time. The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel was part of a longer route named the Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad which ran from the village of Jamaica to the then named East River Front.

Even though one of the reasons why the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel was built was because it was a safety precaution, one should not be led to believe that just because the train was now underground it meant that there were no longer any train-related accidents. There were multiple deaths from the outset. The Brooklyn Eagle states that one man died from falling into the tunnel during construction (‘Petitions’, 2), while the Brooklyn Evening Star writes that one worker was killed during a cave-in (‘Accident’, 2) and an overseer was murdered by a disgruntled employee (‘Reported Murder In Brooklyn’, 3). Another death occurred in 1854 when a man threw himself in front of the train as it began to enter the tunnel. His body was severed into two (‘Shocking Accident’, 3).

These accidents did not decrease the popularity of the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel. Initially, Brooklynites patronized the Long Island Railroad with relish. Yet, for all its initial popularity and profit, the tunnel was closed after sixteen years. The Brooklyn Eagle sites financial trouble in more than one paper. The May 31st, 1896 edition states that, “[i]n 1850 the Long Island road passed into the hands of the supreme court of New York on the foreclosure of a mortgage…” (‘Atlantic Avenue Tunnel’, 18), and the July 23rd 1911 edition states that it was “sold out under foreclosure”. The second reason why it was closed was because of a group of people who organized against the use of steam power on Atlantic Avenue. Their voice was powerful because “[l]egislation went through Albany for the old tunnel from South Ferry to Boerem place to be closed. This was on June 6, 1859” (‘Oldest Subway’, 3). The Long Island Railroad Co. was paid $125,000 to relinquish their rights to the use of steam power within city limits. The tunnel finally closed in the year 1860.

After its closing, the Tunnel was mainly remembered by people who were filing lawsuits against it. Several suits were brought up by men who “were assessed for the closing Atlantic avenue tunnel in 1860…”(‘Long Litigation’, 4). Disgruntled Brooklynites who wished for faster transportation would write into the Brooklyn Eagle with suggestions of re-opening the tunnel (‘Proposition To Re-occupy’, 3). A few men tried to purchase the tunnel (‘The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel’, 3).

But it seems that only one man wrote about the tunnel with nostalgia. That man was Walt Whitman. In 1861, Whitman wrote columns for the Brooklyn Standard. He titled this collection “Brooklyniana”. One long excerpt he wrote was his thoughts about the tunnel. Whitman writes:

The old tunnel, that used to lie there under ground, a passage of Acheron-like solemnity and the darkness, now all closed and filled up, and soon to be utterly forgotten, with all its reminiscences…The tunnel: dark as the grave, cold, damp, and silent. How beautiful look earth and heaven again, as we emerge from the gloom! It might not be unprofitable, now and then, to send us mortals-the dissatisfied ones, at least, and that’s a large portion- into some tunnel of several days’ journey. We’d perhaps grumble less, afterward, at God’s handiwork (306-307).

Whitman realized that the tunnel could give people perspective on life, even if it had outlived its monetary usefulness. What was once supposed to be the seat of splendor was slowly fading out of the minds of most people. By 1902 the articles pertaining to the tunnel had dwindled to reference of dirt being taken from the tunnel to be used to fill stagnant pools of water (‘L.I.R.R.’s New Terminal’, 9). As years went by the tunnel lived on through legends and rumors. People knew or heard of its existence, but by 1911 not only was the question of who owed the tunnel unanswerable, but the entrance to the tunnel seemed to be lost entirely (‘Oldest Subway’, 3 ).

Something as large as the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel can never be forgotten entirely. The tunnel transformed through imagination into a source of literary inspiration. In 1893 a fictional story was published in The New York Times entitled Atlantic Avenue Tunnel- A Romance. This story tells of two friends who go looking for the tunnel after one hears a death-bed confession that it exists and is filled with treasure. They do not find the entrance to the tunnel, much like the 1911 reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle. In 1925 H.P. Lovercraft wrote a story titled The Horror at Red Hook. It is a story of horror and the occult involving a detective who discovers the occult activities in a tunnel underneath a cellar. The cellar collapses on top of the detective and the villains, yet the detective mysteriously lives. The folklore and legends surrounding crime and the Atlantic Avenue tunnel appears to come from the fact that the Atlantic Avenue area had fallen into hard times and developed into a slum called “Smoky Hollow”. The reality of the gangs and slum life, coupled with the mysterious presence of the hidden tunnel allowed for creative writing to flourish. A second fact that may have fed into the folklore of the tunnel being used as a denizen of crime is that a blind distillery was being operated in it at one point. A bar room in an Atlantic Avenue store had a pipe underneath it that led to the distillery (‘Oldest Subway’, 3).

The truth of the tunnel is hidden. Relative obscurity prevailed until very recently. In 1979 whispers and rumors of the forgotten Atlantic Avenue Tunnel reached the ears of a 19-year-old Brooklynite named Robert Diamond through a radio show. Diamond set out to do what so many before him had failed at; he went to find the entrance to the tunnel. Diamond found a copy of the plans in the borough president’s office. He used these plans to locate the entrance; a manhole at Atlantic Avenue and Court Street. When Diamond opened the manhole he found a wall of dirt. This did not deter him and he began using his hands to dig into the tunnel. Under the dirt was a cheap brick wall that Diamond quickly broke through with a metal pole. The other side of the wall revealed a gaping hole that was the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel. Excited with his discovery, Diamond got together a group of volunteers to aid him in hollowing out the tunnel, in order to allow entrance deeper into the tunnel. Now, 30 years after Diamond first heard of the tunnel on the radio, he still holds tours once a month so that interested people may see the tunnel that was almost completely forgotten, save for rumors and fiction writing (Diamond).

There is still some mystery surrounding the tunnel, though, as part of it is still blocked off. According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle there is an old woodburning locomotive still buried in the depths of the tunnel; Diamond believes this train is what is buried in the yet unexcavated section of the tunnel. Diamond writes on his website, “[a] ccording to oral tradition, back in 1861, an obsolete locomotive was being used by Mr. Litchfield to haul dirt fill for sealing up the tunnel.   The crank axle broke, and without the means to repair or remove it, they just left the engine in the backfill at the western end of the tunnel.  Perhaps this explains why the tunnel was not fully filled in. Without the means of hauling in more fill, Litchfield decided to simply wall off the tunnel at both ends instead of fully filling it in” (Diamond). Until the entire tunnel is excavated, what really is hidden behind the wall will remain a mystery.

From the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel’s inception on December 2nd, 1844 there has been a rich history that is both factual and fictional, even if for many years the tunnel was silent. Originally built for the safety and beautification of Brooklyn, it was not without its own share of accidents and tragedies including one murder. The tunnel was very popular and profitable in the beginning but was in operation only until June 6th, 1859 because of financial trouble and public outcry against steam power. It is after the closing that the tunnel’s history becomes more of a mystery. Once boarded up, people tried for many years to find an opening and failed. Writers saw the tunnel as a source of inspiration for stories that may have had some grains of truth in them. The slums and crime that arose around the area where the tunnel exists were also a source of inspiration for these writers. It was not until 1980 that the tunnel was rediscovered by a young Brooklynite named Robert Diamond. Diamond and volunteers dug through dirt and brick in order to re-enter the tunnel and make it accessible for tours. New Yorker’s with an interest in the underground history of the Atlantic Tunnel can now come and explore, and even contemplate the ongoing mystery of what lies in the unexcavated portion of the tunnel or whether re-opening the tunnel would be profitable for Brooklyn and the Long Island Railroad.

Barrel-Vaulted Tunnel Barrel_vault_top_force

Works Cited

Whitman, Walt. The Uncollected Poetry And Prose Of Walt Whitman: Much Of Which Has Been But Recently Discovered With Various Early Manuscripts Now First Published. Ed. Emory Holloway. 1st ed. Vol. 2. Garden City: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1921. Print.

“Common Council.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle 16 Jan. 1844, Vol. 3 ed., No. 29 sec.: 2-2. Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <>.

“Brooklyn Has The Oldest Subway In The World.” The Brooklyn Eagle 23 July 1911, Vol. 71 ed.: 3-3. Print.

“Opening Of The Tunnel.” The Brooklyn Eagle 05 Dec. 1844, Vol. 3 ed., No. 294 sec.: 2-2. Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <>.

“Petitions.” The Brooklyn Eagle 17 Sept. 1844, Vol. 3 ed., No. 226 sec.: 2-2. Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <>.

“Accident.” Brooklyn Evening Star 11 July 1844: 2-2. Print.

“Reported Murder In Brooklyn.” Brooklyn Evening Star 29 May 1844: 3-3. Print.

“Shocking Accident On The Long Island Railroad.” The Brooklyn Eagle 27 Sept. 1854, Vol. 13 ed., No. 226 sec.: 3-3. Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <>.

“Atlantic Avenue Tunnel.” The Brooklyn Eagle 31 May 1896, Vol. 56 ed., No. 151 sec.: 18-18. Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online. Web. 01 Dec. 2009. <>.

“A Long Litigation Over the Matter of the Asessment for the Closing of the Tunnel.” The Brooklyn Eagle 28 Feb. 1873, Vo. 34 ed., No. 5 sec.: 4-4. Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <>.

“Proposition to Re-occupy the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel- Railroad Management.” The Brooklyn Eagle 12 Aug. 1873, Vo. 34 ed., No. 190 sec.: 3-3. Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <>.

“The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel.” The Brooklyn Eagle 5 July 1876, Vol. 37 ed., No. 158 sec.: 3-3. Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <>.

“L.I.R.R.’s New Terminal At Rockaway Beach.” The Brooklyn Eagle 29 Dec. 1902, Vo. 62 ed., No. 359 sec.: 9-9. Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <>.

“Atlantic Avenue Tunnel – A Romance.” The New York Times 23 Jan. 1893: 10-10. The New York Times. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <>.

Lovecraft, H.P. Weird Tales: Seven Decades of Terror. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1997. Print.

“Interviewing Bob Diamond.” Personal interview. 6 Dec. 2009.


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Chuck For Dec. 2nd

November 29th, 2009

The tour of Ft. Greene Park led by Greg Trupiano was not only informative but inspirational. I left the tour with a much greater understanding of Ft. Greene because of the information presented. The tour began at the visitor’s center in Ft. Greene Park and Greg began to present the history and relevance of Whitman to this park. What was especially pleasing was that Greg brought along a gentleman who read selections of Whitman with great presence. It is always great to hear Whitman spoken aloud, as I believe he wrote it to be spoken aloud. In addition there was in attendance a member of the conservatory, Charles, who had quite a bit to contribute about the park. During the presentation Nicole sang Whitman’s words. She is a professional Opera singer. Her voice resonatedwithin me long after the tour had ended. The fourth person in attendance was an expert on Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy. She was also able to contribute her knowledge to the experience. The prison ship martyr’s monument in Ft. Greene Park is over the crypt of bones from the prisoners’ ships in the harbor. There is one full set of remains, the of Benjamin Romaine, and the vault can only be opened by the great great great great granddaughter of Benjamin Romaine, Vicki Romaine. There are lots of other bones in the crypt, but none as complete. They washed up on the shores of the old Navy Yard, and in the morning the prisoners ships would turn over thir dead and they would be buried in shallow graves where the old Navy Yard is today. The water would uncover the bones and the remains were collected for this crypt. There was lots of talk of the Old Jersey. Whitman writes in New York, “the principal of these prison ships was the old Jersey, a large 74-gun …the one which seems to have been most relied on was the old Jersey. The British took a great manyAmerican prisoners during the war-not only by land, but also by their privateers, at sea. When a capture was made in any of the waters near enough, the prisoners were brought with the vessel to New York. These helped to swell the rank of the unhappy men, who were crowded together in the most infernal quarters, starved, diseased, helpless, and many becoming utterly desperate and insane.-Death and starvation killed them off rapidly” (31). More men died on these ships than died in the entire Battle of Brooklyn. When word got back to Great Britain about these deaths it brought a lot of shame on the soldiers. The anonymity between American and Great Britain remained up until the first World War. After the great presentation at the crypt, we moved on to Whitman’s only standing residence in Brooklyn, 99 Ryerson Street. We gathered across the street and had a question and answer exchange. It is our understanding that everybody who lives in their is quite aware that this is Whitman’s house. Many of the tennants have been students of Pratt. Then we walked back towards CUNY as a group. It was a beautiful day for a tour, and we all left more inspired than we had arrived three hours earlier.Please enable Javascript and Flash to view this Flash video.

Where Chuck Found Whitman

November 24th, 2009

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Chuck for Nov. 17th

November 23rd, 2009

Franklin Evans of The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times. I found the story to be quite dark as has been very often my feelings throughout this course. It is a tale or warning against the use and abuse of alcohol. What I found missing was the lack of mention of other vices in a large city that can lead a farm boy astray. It focused only on alcohol. Whitman’s story of a boy raised out of Long Island who comes to the Big City to stake his claim is often troubling. We follow the young lad through his trials and tribulations with alcohol from his first drink with his buddy Colby to his sobriety with the Temperance movement. Along this journey there was many a grim tale of death, destitution, poor judgement, and the loss of one’s character. The tales at the beginning of the novel were about others. The first spoke of a hale and hearty farmer and his children growing up around him, “Unfortunately, he fell into habits of intemperance. Season after season passed away; and each one, as it came, found him a poorer man than that just before it. Everything seemed to go wrong. He attributed it to ill luck, and to the crops being injured by unfavorable weather. But his neighbors found no more harm from these causes than in the years previous, when the tippler was as fortunate as any of them. The truth is, that habits of drunkenness in the head of a family, are line an evil influence…” (6-7). As they proceeded along their journey a tale was told  of alcohol amongst the Native Americans, “‘The greatest curse,’ said he, growing warm with his subject—’the greatest curse ever introduced among them, has been the curse of rum! I can conceive of no more awful and horrible, and at the same time more effective lesson, than that which may be learned from the consequences of the burning firewater upon the habits and happiness of the poor Indians. A whole people – the inhabitants of a mighty continent – are crushed by it, and debased into a condition lower than the beast of the field. Is it not a pitiful thought? The bravest warriors—the wise old chiefs—even women and children—tempted by our people to drink this fatal poison, until, as year and year passed away, they found themselves deprived not only of their lands and what property they hitherto owned, but of everything that made them noble and grand as a nation! Rum has done great evil in the world, but hardly ever more by wholesale than in the case of the American savage.'” (10). I found myself lost by the tale of the Indians as the talk of alcohol left the dialogue and turned to a story of revenge, thereby not only not fitting in with the Native American tale of temperance but the entire book. Upon arrival in New York the story lends itself to Franklin Evans’ own experiences and observations. Colby, who traveled from the country with Franklin Evans, introduced Franklin Evans to the drinking scene, “Those beautiful women-warbling melodies sweeter than I ever heard before, and the effect of the liquor upon my brain, seemed to lave me in happiness, as it were, from head to foot!” (27). He began drinking regularly with Colby. He finds employment and eventually loses it dues to the side effects of intemperance. We find Franklin Evans to marry his landlady’s daughter, Mary, and intemperance ate away at their marriage. Mary was of delicate temperament and could not survive the marriage to a drunkard. Whitman writes, “Then came the closing scene of that act of the tragedy. My wife, stricken to the heart, and unable to bear up longer against the accumulating weight of shame and misery, sank into the grave-the innocent victim of another’s drunkenness” (50). Through the horrors of alcohol he found himself embracing the glorious temperance pledge which is defined as nothing stronger than wine. He found himself taking up or participating in a burglary in which he was readily caught and found himself in jail. He was given reprieve due to his association with the Marchion family of which he saved their child from drowning in the past. Mr. Marchion got him off. The Marchion share with him their own tragic experiences with alcohol. They had pledged temperance. He left the city and went to live in the country in Virginia where, although he was not partaking of alcohol stronger than wine, his judgement was still off. He fell in love with a Creole slave, married her, fell out of love with her, fell in love with a Mrs. Conway, “her light hair, blue eyes, and the delicacy of her skin, formed a picture rarely met with in the region” (84), and nothing but jealousy and rage and ultimately death ensued. Franklin Evans headed back to New York. He visited his first employer, Mr. Lee, who was all too familiar with the dangers of alcohol and, understanding Franklin Evans predicaments and battle with intemperance, being in the city without employment, Mr Lee left him upon his death comfortable property. He still visited the Marchions, as he still considered them friends, and shared his stories with them of his time in Virginia and his marriage to the Creole and the death of Mrs. Conway, and they (the Marchions) had moved deeper into the temperance movement (which was a movement of reformers of which only abstinence would suffice). I find the tale a bit of a stretch as I have first hand knowledge of the disease of alcoholism.

Chuck for Nov. 10th

November 19th, 2009

VID00017_0001The trip to the Brooklyn Historic Society was of great interest to me as I am an avid fan of all things Brooklyn. It came as a surprise to me of its location at the corner of Clinton and Pierpont as I am down in that area quite often and had not realized that such a great resource was so close by. Upon approaching the large red brick building the architecture was overpowering. Its huge windows, red bricks and the large masonry faces near the top of the building were quite impressive. Upon entering the library, it felt as though you were entering history itself. The purpose of the visit was for us to become members and become better acquainted on how to use the resources of the library to work on our final project, Where I Found Whitman Addresses. We first were brought to insurance maps of the 1860’s. My address in particular is 71 Prince St. circa 1840. Through looking at the 1860 Paris Volume I map I found it to be a two story frame house as the maps were color coded, yellow meaning framed, red meaning brick, and other various colors for hospitals, churches, and other institutions. Then I proceeded to the 1886 map to find that the address had changed to 153 Prince Street. I was able to deduct this by comparing the two maps and counting how many lots off the corner the building was. I was also able to secure the old block and lot numbers from this map, block 138 lot 122. This map also provided the wards throughout the city, 153 Prince Street is in Ward 11. Then I proceeded to the 1929 map and found the address remained 153 Prince, and I now have a new block and lot number; block 2063 lot 6. Armed with this information, I intend to visit the tax assessors at 32 Chambers Street and look at the municipal archives. I will also go to 210 Joraleman Street and seek out the Department of Buildings to see what I can find. Elizabeth, the librarian, was very helpful in showing us how to navigate the sea of information. After looking at several of these maps she directed me to the Deed transfers of the time period. I found this part of the research very frustrating as the deed transfers related to the entire square block and the best that could be surmised was which buildings were on Prince Street. There was no indication of addresses or block and lot numbers. I did nevertheless review them and some were more interesting than others as to who owned what and sold to whom. I intend on revisiting this landmark numerous times in the near future to flesh out more information on 71 Prince Street.

The Vault at Pfaff’s

November 17th, 2009

whitman_pfaffsThe history of the Vault at Pfaff’s is the history of not only a place, but of the people who frequented its tables. The Vault was opened in 1855 by Charles Ignatious Pfaff, a foreigner with ascetic tastes, on Broadway near the corner of Bleeker Street. Sources disagree as to the exact address of the original Pfaff’s, with one stating it as 689 Broadway (Reynolds 376) and another as 653 Broadway (Miller 89). Regardless of the exact address, Pfaff’s was located in the heart of what was then a cultural hub of New York, Greenwich Village. Pffaf’s was dark and smoky with tables, seats and barrels for sitting on that were scattered around; it was known for its coffee, German beers, cheeses, and a fully stocked wine cellar (Miller 89). This setting attracted the budding Bohemian literary movement of the time. The original Bohemian lifestyle was born in France. Initially it was the necessary lifestyle of the starving artist, but soon it became romanticized into an ideal of shunning the emerging capitalist way of life and embracing art as the greatest truth. This romanticization emigrated to New York and found its home in Greenwich Village. Men were the most frequent visitors at Pfaff’s but, because of progressive ideals of the Bohemian mindset, women with strong characters also became famous frequenters. The Vault at Pfaff’s was so centrifugal to the Bohemian movement in America that the first group of American Bohemians became simply known as “Pfaffians”.

Pfaff’s was the perfect place for writers and literary types to come and drink while sharing their writings and opinions of other writers. Patrons were known to stand and recite their new works before having them published. Some of the most famous patrons of Pfaff’s were, “Ada Clare, the Queen of Bohemia…the actress Adah Isaacs Menken…the fictionist Fitz-James O’Brien…(author) Fitz-Hugh Ludlow…Artemus Ward, the comedian…the picturesque poet N.G. Shephard and the Poesque tale writer Charles D. Gardette” (Reynolds 377). Perhaps the most famous patrons of all were Walt Whitman and Henry Clapp Jr., the King of the Bohemians. Clapp was born in Nantucket but spent many years in Paris. His writing was considered controversial and his most controversial move of all was creating the Saturday Press. Miller writes that the Saturday Press was a, “mix of radical politics, personal freedom, naïveté, silliness, realism, sexual frankness, and exuberance…” (89). The Press allowed Clapp to publish his views and to also highlight the works of authors that he appreciated. One of these authors was Walt Whitman and his works “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and “O Captain! My Captain!” among dozens of other items. Unfortunately the Press was plagued with financial troubles and only existed for a year before it had to be shut down. Clapp was not to give up without a fight. Purely through strength of will Clapp reopened the Press in 1865 for two weeks, just long enough to publish “Oh Captain! My Captain!” and “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” which catapulted Mark Twain to fame. Clapp, as the King of Bohemia, sat at the head of the table at Pfaff’s while Whitman usually took his place to the side at a separate table.

Although Whitman was touted as the “reigning luminary” (Burrows & Wallace 711)  Whitman did not come to Pfaff’s to be the center of attention. As he himself stated, “My own greatest pleasure at Pfaff’s was to look on – to see, talk little, absorb. I was never a great discusser, anyway”. This is not to say that Whitman was entirely silent, he was known to read new works aloud as well as to become embroiled in tiffs with other writers. Whitman wrote of Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s The Bells, “Yes, Tom, I like your tinkles: I like them very well” (Parry 41). He also made a short term enemy with George Arnold. Parry writes that George Arnold one night made the mistake of toasting the South. Whitman, a proud Yankee, jumped up and gave a long patriotic speech (quite unlike his placid Pfaffian demeanor) to which Arnold responded with a tug on Whitman’s beard (42).  Quarrels were to be expected because of the very nature of Pfaff’s; it was a place that encouraged drinking and liberal speech simultaneously.

Liberality reigned supreme in many forms. An important aspect of Pfaff’s was its female presence. Ada Claire was far and beyond the Queen. She was the trail blazer for all women who were to eventually find company at Pfaff’s, but she was also the woman to stay the longest. Ada was considered by Whitman to be born ahead of her time (Parry 14). Although she wrote love poems, she was really famous for her utter disregard of social norms. Ada Claire flaunted her love affairs and her illegitimate child born of one such affair, she smoked and drank with the Pfaffian men, and she took to the stage in order to achieve fame (Miller 91-92). Alongside Claire was Adah Isaacs Menken, known as, “a writer and actress and heroine of celebrated off-stage adventures” (Kaplan 243). Like Claire, Menken’s life was full of romantic drama and an illegitimate child. But unlike Claire, Menken found more success on stage when she stared in Mazeppa a play in which she was strapped to a horse practically naked. Adah Isaacs Menken was a great fan of Whitman and aligned him with Edgar Allen Poe, the Patron saint of the Pfaffians.

Poe came to rule over the Pfaffian crowd for obvious reasons. For one, he was a maligned writer who was unappreciated in his time. For two, the Pfaffians related well with Poe’s melancholic nature, no doubt enhanced for them by their drinking. In their own way, many of the Pfaffians emulated Poe. Whitman himself went down the melancholic road when he wrote in Two Vaults, “The Vault at Pfaff’s where the drinkers and laughers meet to eat and drink and carouse, While on the walk immediately overhead pass the myriad feet of Broadway As the dead in their graves are underfoot hidden”. Fitz-James O’Brien patterned his stories after Poe and Charled D. Gardette was called a “Poesque tale writer” (Reynolds 377). Poe’s influence created  duplicity in the lives of the Pfaffians; on one hand they were care-free revelers, on the other hand they took up melancholic airs to reflect him. The symbolism of Poe gave the otherwise aimless group something to appear to fight against, namely Capitalism and the emerging middle class. Although the group had aspersions to toss not only at the middle class but also the slavery allies, they were not activists for progression or change. Reynolds writes, “It was they (the Pfaffians)…who had no distinct aim or purpose…Their carefree, carpe diem attitude showed that fifties individualism had sunk toward anarchic decadence” (378).

Not all of the Bohemians continued to reject the middle class; in fact, the group who did not reject the middle class lifestyle lived much better lives than those who did. Miller writes that, “William Winter rose to become a powerful drama critic. Edmund C. Stedman became a wealthy stockbroker on Wall Street… Bayard Taylor became a noted man of letters…And Whitman transformed himself into America’s Great Gray Poet…” (90). Steadfast Pfaffians met many sad fates; Ada Clare died of rabies after she was bit by a dog (Parry 36), Adah Menken died of pneumonia in Paris, Clapp died an alcoholic pauper on Blackwell’s Island, Fitz-James O’Brien died in the Civil War and Artemus Ward (Miller 90), Fitz-Hugh Ludlow, George Arnold, and Ned Wilkins all died because of drug related issues (Kaplan 244). When those who stuck by Pfaff’s began to die off, the Vault suffered its own form of death. As prosperity moved north to Midtown, the Vault at Pfaff’s also moved leaving behind a shell that was only a memory of the golden years of Bohemia. The original building was destroyed and made into a store. Charles Pfaff died in 1890.

The Vault at Pfaff’s was the beginnings of the Bohemian lifestyle in New York City which took strong root in Greenwich Village and continues to this day in various ways. The Bohemian lifestyle has lent itself to short life expectancy due to the use of drugs and alcohol and the rejection of the norms of society. It is not surprising that Walt Whitman found himself comfortable in a space of such care-free individualism, even if he did set himself aside instead of making himself the center of the movement. Whitman outlived the original location of the Vault at Pfaff’s and the Pfaffian lifestyle, becoming the Great Gray Poet. Those Pfaffians who followed suit grew to prosper while those who did not follow such a course met early and tragic deaths. The Saturday Press precluded the demise of Henry Clapp; the lives of both the paper and the man ended in poverty. Surprisingly, Charles Pfaff lived a long life well into his late seventies, and the Bohemian lifestyle that was born and nurtured in his Vault continues to this day.

Works Cited

Reynolds, David. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1995.

Miller, Terry. Greenwich Village And How It Got That Way. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1990.

Burrows, Edwin, and Wallace, Mike. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford, 1999.

Parry, Albert. Garretts & Pretenders: A History of Bohemianism in America. New York: Cosimo, Inc., 2005.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman, A Life. New York: Perennial Classics, 2003.


Howells, William Dean. “First Impressions of Literary New York.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Jun. 1895: 62-74.

Chuck for Oct. 27th

October 29th, 2009

The Whitman walking tour by Jesse Merandy was both informative and inspirational. The weather could not have been better as the air was crisp and the sun was shining as we met at stop number 1: the High Street subway entranceCIMG0018. What was most interesting of this spot was that Whitman himself worked here in the Rome Brother’s Print Shop. I particularly enjoyed this because it evoked for me the memory of reading about his work in the printing shop previously, at the age of 12 written about in Walt Whitman’s New York. In this particular passage he states, “What compositor, running his eye over these lines, but will easily realize the whole modus of that initiation? -the half eager, half bashful beginning- the awkward holding of the stick- the type-box, or perhaps two or three old cases, put under his feet for the novice to stand on, to raise him high enough- the thumb in the stick- the compositor’s rule- the upper case almost out of reach- the lower case spread out handier before him- learning the boxes- the pleasing mystery of the different letters, and their divisions- the great ‘e’ box- the box for spaces right by the boy’s breast- the ‘a’ box, ‘i’ box, ‘o’ box, and all the rest- the box for quads away off in the right hand corner- the slow and laborious formation, type by type, of the first line- its unlucky bursting by the too nervous pressure of the thumb- the first experience in ‘pi’, and the distributing thereof- all this, I say, what journeyman typographer cannot go back in his own experience and easily realize it?” (48). As we proceeded to the second location we passed the housing named after Walt Whitman (44-33 Henry Street)CIMG0016. The second stop, Plymouth ChurchCIMG0006, was moving, especially upon entering the old church. It had the feel of being in the past as one of the students sat in the same row as Lincoln did many years earlier. One of the unusual things about the church was that the stained glass made no reference to angels or gods, they reflected men. The church was known for its involvement in the abolitionist movement and was part of the Underground Railroad. It was striking to me to hear that they had reverse slave auctions in where white people would buy the slaves’ freedom. The curator told us of one particular auction that involved “Pinkie”. Like her name, she was very light skinned, as her father was a white man. Being the daughter of a slave woman, she, despite appearance, was still bound to slavery until her freedom was bought at Plymouth Church. New York Magazine writes, “Most notable was the time a parishioner placed a small gold ring in the offering plate for a young slave girl named Pinkie, who returned to the church in 1927 to give thanks (and to return the ring)”(The Plymouth Church of Pilgrims,  Jesse Merandy then lead us down to the Brooklyn Promenade which gave us the vantage point of looking across that river as Whitman did many years ago before the Brooklyn Bridge was built. They say Whitman lived long enough to see the magnificent footings of the bridge constructed, but I am not certain that he ever crossed the bridge.  We could see the waterways in which the ferries moved the residents of Brooklyn to the city of Manhattan.

We further proceeded along the promenade down towards the Eagle Warehouse where Whitman worked for the Brooklyn Daily EagleCIMG0011. I had been aware of the Eagle Warehouse for most of my life but had never made the connection that the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which I was aware of, was printed there, and through this course finding that Walt Whitman wrote for the Daily Eagle. You could tell that part of the building was much older than others and had been added upon over time. It was very cool to be standing on a cobblestone street listening to Jesse Merandy, a Whitman scholar, speak of Whitman. As we attempted to go to our final stop, the Fulton Pier, it was closed due to a film shoot, so we wrapped up the tour there. Some of us went for pizza and some of us went back to school. I returned the next day to the Fulton Pier and stood upon the Pier, closed my eyes, and tried to imagine what it must have been like 150 years ago. Then I read the railing that had embedded in it the words of WhitmanCIMG0020CIMG0021CIMG0022CIMG0023CIMG0024CIMG0025CIMG0026CIMG0027CIMG0028CIMG0029CIMG0030CIMG0031CIMG0032CIMG0033CIMG0034CIMG0035CIMG0036CIMG0037.

Chuck for Oct. 20th

October 21st, 2009


This morning I embarked on a quest to seek out the location of the current day “5 Points”. I was headed towards the corner of Worth and BaxterIMG_1015. Having parked my car on Mott, a block from Doyer, I had to pass through Columbus Park to get to Worth and Baxter. While in Columbus Park I came across the above pictured sign. It further confirmed the description that Dickens’ gave of the 5 points in his review of New York. The sign read as follows, “In 1842, on a visit to the United States, English author Charles Dickens made sure to visit the notorious Five Points, and he wrote about it in his American Notes in the most scathing terms.  He described it as ‘reeking everywhere with dirt and filth,’ concluding that ‘all that is loathsome, drooping and decayed is here'”. The sign also quotes Danish newspaperman Jacob Riis and his description of the area in the 1890’s. It states, “Jacob Riis devoted an entire chapter of his epic How the Other Half Lives to ‘The Bend,’ detailing the ‘foul core of New York’s slums.’ He likened the filth and dearth of sunlight to a “vast human pig-sty,’claiming that “There is but one ‘Bend’ in the world, and that is enough.'” As I was reading the sign I introduced myself to an employee of the Parks Dept. to find the exact location of the Five Points. He suggested I was in the thick of it. Then I inquired where was the corner of Worth and Baxter and he pointed to a corner of the park. As I began to head in that direction I was approached by an elderly Asian woman who asked if I wanted to see the oldest part of the area. I said “yes”. She directed me to 15 Doyers StIMG_0998. which was very close to where I parked the car. She had suggested that there was a passageway under the buildings about three stories down. I was excited to hear this as Dickens has been in my head since reading his review of New York, especially the part where he describes, “Ascend these pitch-dark stairs, heedful of a false footing on the trembling boards, and grope your way with me into this wolfish den, where neither ray of light nor breath of air, appears to come. A negro lad, startled from his sleep by the officer’s voice-he knows it well-but comforted by his assurance that he has not come on business, officiously bestirs himself to light a candle. The match flickers
for a moment, and shows great mounds of dusty rags upon the ground; then dies away and leaves a denser darkness than before, if there can be degrees in such extremes. He stumbles down the stairs and presently comes back, shading a flaring taper with his hand. Then the mounds of rags are seen to be astir, and rise slowly up, and the floor is covered with heaps of negro women, waking from their sleep: their white teeth chattering, and their bright eyes glistening and winking on all sides with surprise and fear, like the countless repetition of one astonished African face in some strange mirror.” (From American Notes For General Circulation, pg. 61). As I approached this nondescript glass door that was open and unattended, I found myself looking down a staircase and spotted a catIMG_0999 which furthered my feelings of an unkempt underground passage. There were several staircases and some closed exits blocked by garbage cansIMG_1004; it felt as though I traveled several stories underground before finding myself at the foot of the stairs. I then proceeded down a winding and turning hallwayIMG_1003 which felt as though it was longer than two city blocks. There were several shops, most of them abandoned, and the few that were open (one being an employment agency) had signs written in Chinese. It gave an overall feeling of being in an unfamiliar place, such as Dickens must have felt on his first voyage to New York. At the end of the long and winding corridor I found myself looking up a long flight of stairs with an exit sign. As I proceeded up the stairs I felt the sunlight shiningIMG_1006 in through the glass door and walked out into Chatham Sq.IMG_1009 After my impromptu adventure, set off by the elderly Asian woman, I returned to the corner of Baxter and WorthIMG_1019 and took in the view of the Five Points (Columbus Park) from that vantage point. It being so early in the morning with so few inhabitants it was easy to imagine what it must have been like in the 1800’s thanks to the culmination of the readings, the park, and my short adventure underground.

Now and Then Five Points

October 19th, 2009


“and there is one quarter, commonly called the Five Points, which, in respect of filth and wretchedness, may be safely backed against Seven Dials, or any other part of famed St. Giles.” -Dickens (From American Notes for General Circulation, pg.51)

Five Points, seen aerially in the black and white photo, was a slum whose name originated from the meeting of three streets; Cross (Mosco St.), Anthony (Worth) and Orange (Baxter). I was inspired to find out more about Five Points after seeing Gangs of New York. The two color pictures are photos I took today. The first is the street signs that read Baxter and Worth, the second being a picture of the plaque in Columbus Park (previously the slums of Five Points). Five Points is one of the many places that Dicken’s touched upon in his scathing review of New York City.  Although Dickens describe the area in terms of filth and wretchedness, Whitman wrote in the Aurora in 1842 that the people who lived there were “…not paupers and criminals, but the Republic’s most needed asset, the wealth of stout poor men who will work.” ( This is yet another example of the insider/ outsider and positive/negative dichotomy of Whitman’s and Dickens’ reviews of New York City.

Chuck for Oct. 6th

October 12th, 2009

Walt Whitman and Charles Dickens wrote very different versions of the same story, the story of New York. Whitman, a native New Yorker, wrote with an insider’s mindset to an audience of insiders.  Dickens, A native of Great Britain, wrote from an outside perspective to an audience of other British outsiders. Because of this, the tones of these two texts are very different. Walt Whitman had a very positive view of New York. He saw New York as a united city, a great city. In the first paragraph of Song of Myself he writes, “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”(33). New York for Whitman represented diversity and equality simultaneously and harmoniously. His view of the city was positive, celebrating the culture and humans, celebrating the culmination of perfection, “There was never any more than there is now, Nor any more youth or age than there is now, And will never be any more perfection than there is now,” (35).

Dickens, on the other hand, wrote a much more bleak review. Although his review in From American Notes for General Circulation begins with a middling to positive review, “Was there ever such a sunny street as Broadway?” and “Heaven save the ladies, how they dress!” (52), it quickly degenerates into a darker and more scathing attitude of New York. Where Whitman focuses on human advancement, Dickens chooses to write about the slums and a holding prison called The Tomb. The guards of The Tomb are described as having a laissez-faire attitude. When asked about the prisoners’ right to exercise, the guard replies, “Well, they do without it pretty much”(55). The prison is dark, unkempt, and named The Tombs for a very specific reason. Upon questioning the guard about the origin of the name, Dickens receives this reply, “Some suicides happened here, when it was first built. I expect it come about from that.” (57). The source of the prison’s name is not the only thing that horrifies Dickens; he also takes time to write about both the fact that the prisoners’ clothes are kept strewn about the floor because of the lack of hooks, and also about a boy who is being held in the prison, not because he has committed a crime, but because he is being held as a witness against his father. This last bit of information contrasts sharply against the picture of a civilized city painted by Walt Whitman.

But Dickens’ does not stop with the depressing description of The Tombs; he even goes so far as to describe the inhabitants of New York as different types of animals. The working classes become “pigs” who are only concerned with their own well being and recognize each other by sight instead of conversation. Alongside the pigs are the “dogs”, which one is led to believe are the criminals of New York. Wall Street’s portrayal is particularly poignant presently as Dickens’ writes, “Many a rapid fortune has been made in this street, and many a no less rapid ruin” (53). In conclusion, although Dickens and his literary ability were welcomed to New York with pomp and celebration, he did a great disservice to the city by describing only the negative aspects and generally ignoring the positive sides described exhaustively by Whitman.