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The New York City Post-Office (Part 3)

Harper's New Monthly Magazine
Volume 43, Issue 257 - October 1871 - pages 645-663

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The post-office now began to be an institution, and this growing importance was pleasant to General Bailey, who, with more enlarged quarters and a private house entirely at his disposal, seemed to grow more courtly than ever, and dispensed his pleasant hospitality of conversation from the benches of his front-door, where he could often be seen side by side with the Clintons, the Willetts, and Schuylers, indulging in mutual congratulations upon the growth of the city and country, both of which they had assisted to rescue from colonial dependence and place on the high-road to national greatness.

At that time there were six letter-carriers, the extreme up-town boundary of their field of labor being a straight line crossing the island at Catharine and Canal streets. Colonel Reeside was now becoming of national importance by his connection with the Post-office Department. He carried the great Southern mail through from Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, delivering it by contract at Paulus Hook (Jersey City). Here it was taken possession of by Colonel Dodd, who brought over the bags in a skiff, and then trundled them up to Garden Street in a wheelbarrow.

At the foot of Rivington Street, in the year 1825, was an important spot of high ground, known as “Manhattan Island” — a place where were located the ship-yards, among them the large one belonging to Henry Eckford. The proprietors of these yards had an extensive correspondence with the South, especially with Georgia and Florida, from which States they obtained their fat pine and live-oak used in ship-building. Mr. Charles Forrester, more than forty years an employe of the post-office, and who still performs his daily and arduous duties, then a boy, lived in the suburbs, and he would bring up the letters directed to these ship-builders, carry them across the wet meadows that lined the eastern side of the island, and deliver them to their owners.

The year 1825 was made memorable by the fact that Colonel Reeside obtained the contract to carry the mails from Boston to New York, the route being over the old post-road. Reeside’s stages were very showy, drawn by four blooded Virginia horses, and driven by the most accomplished “Jehus.”

On pleasant summer afternoons the people confined to the lower part of the island would purposely walk up the Bowery to see the “Boston mail” come in. Some time before the vehicle reached the old hay-scales, just where the Cooper Institute now stands, the driver would herald his approach by a melodious winding of his horn; then, laying aside this vulgar instrument, he would assume his legitimate sceptre, the whip, which he would harmlessly crack over the heads of his spirited steeds with a noise that, on a clear day, could be “heard a mile.”

On Saturdays the jolly school boys and girls would gather together under the tall poplars and button-wood trees, and as the stage dashed along they would wave their hands as a welcome, and the most venturesome would catch hold of the straps, and thus have the glory of riding a few yards under the overhanging “boot.” The characteristic gamins of that period would evince their enthusiasm by following the coach and rollicking in the dust of its revolving wheels; would cheer it and its passengers to the end of the route; and especially was this the case when the driver would make purposely abortive attempts to drive these human flies away with his whip, or a jocose passenger would bandy wit with the boys, and make them crazy with delight by the scattering of a few pennies in the road.

In the winter these gay coaches were put aside, and in their place was a huge box on wheels, the combination not unlike a hearse, in the heart of which was deposited the load. The practice then was to abandon passengers, when the roads were heavy from mud and rain, and carry the mails; but nowadays, if the reports from many of the existing stage routes be true, under unfavorable circumstances the drivers abandon the mails to carry the passengers. Amos Kendall, the indefatigable Postmaster-General, by his industry and good management, reduced the carrying time between New York and New Orleans from sixteen to seven days. The event was celebrated at the Merchants’ Exchange and the post-office by the raising of the national standard, and there was a general rejoicing in Wall Street. Jimmy Mower had his joke by gravely asserting, that all newspapers delivered at the office from New Orleans less than sixteen days old were printed at the Advertiser office.

Progress was now perceptible in the whole city in the evident growth of wealth and population. The merchants (1825) were suddenly inspired with the ambition to have an Exchange worthy of their increasing importance, and an honor to the growing metropolis. To realize this idea they purchased a lot of seventy feet fronting on Wall Street, and at that time practically between William and Pearl streets. The foundations of the building were laid with imposing ceremonies, and its gradual erection, joined with the promising grandeur, was to the citizens a source of daily surprise and self-congratulation. In due time the structure was completed, and to give proper importance to the event, and a characteristic recognition of one of New York’s greatest financiers and lawyers, a marble statue of Alexander Hamilton was placed conspicuously under the dome.

The “solid men” went from this stately pile around to the humble post-office in Garden Street, and the board front and “shanty” shed became distasteful to their eyes and unworthy of the city. This public sentiment was utilized into well-written articles for the newspapers, and the people grew suddenly amhitious for a better and more convenient post-office. The merchnnts favored the idea, and a part of the basement of the new Exchange was leased to the federal government, and in the year 1827 the post-office was established in its new and excellent quarters.

Wall Street at this time presented a picturesque mingling of the highest social life with churches, banks, and business stores combined. That it was in a transition state was apparent, yet we much doubt if the fact was fully realized by even the most sagacious citizens. The monetary institutions had a solid, unpretentious look, and the buildings in which they were lodged, in some instances, were occupied in their upper stories by the presidents, or cashiers, with their families. Then our most solid merchants did not find it inconsistent to live over their stores, and have at their tables their confidential clerks. Large trees still shaded the sidewalks, and private residences were to be seen, at the windows of which, after business hours, the ladies of the household presented themselves, or, standing at the front-door, according to the early custom of New York, chatted with neighbors. “Wall Street Church” and grounds occupied half the block that reached from Nassau to Broadway; while over the whole towered the venerable pile known as “Old Trinity,” its grave-yard adding to the rural aspect, and giving an air of quiet to the surroundings. The Merchants’ Exchange occupied only the eastern half of the square on which it was built; and directly adjoining it was a little candy shop, where they sold spruce-beer and “taffy” by the penny’s worth. Then came the shop of a fashionable haberdasher, and on the corner was Benedict’s well-known watch establishment, the regulator of which governed Wall Street time.

In the rear of the eastern corner of the basement of the Exchange was located the celebrated lunch-room of Charley King. How his restaurant would compare with the more pretentious ones of modern date we will not assert; but for hearty good-will, substantial fare, high respectability, and unquestioned manners, the proprietors of this now almost forgotten lunch-room have not, since its destruction, been surpassed. In the basement corner of Wall and Hanover streets James Buchanan, British consul, and David Hale printed a paper with the happily selected name of Journal of Commerce. It was at the commencement an unpretending sheet, and from the fact that it was semi-religious in its tone, and refused advertisements for ths sale of liquors, was assumed to he a “temperance sheet.” Among the well-known characters then living in New York was one “Johnny Edwards, scale-beam maker.” He lived “up town,’ in the vicinity of what is now known as Fourth Street and Second Avenue. He was a man of the most harmless eccentricity, dressing himself in a Quaker garb, and riding about in a rickety old gig. He used sometimes to come down to Wall Street in business hours, and, taking advantage of the crowd in front of the Exchange, would proceed to harangue the “thoughtless generation” on the virtues of his patent scale beams, and the necessities of temperance. As he clinched his arguments regarding temperance with the distribution of tracts, he took great umbrage at the assumptions of the Journal of Oommerce, pronouncing it a rival sheet on the great subject of temperance. The crowd enjoyed these interruptions of the usual routine of the street, to the great annoyance of David Hale, who considered the whole thing an undignified travesty on his gravely attempted efforts to bring about a moral reform.

Even at this dawning era the spirit of New York was unambitious, and the people, with few exceptions, were evidently unconscious of the changes in its character which were impending. One mail delivery a day was all the merchants demanded. The newspapers were rarely excited about the receipt of their exchanges. The hurry and bustle and anxiety which now pervades Wall Street were totally unknown. Groups were constantly in and about the Exchange conversing upon trivial matters; the marry, hearty laugh was heard time and again through the day, expressing admiration of harmless jokes uttered hy persons at the time enjoying the hospitality of Charley King’s lunch; while the clerks, less able to pay, made merry at Billy Niblo’s, or Clark and Brown’s, where for a six-pence they commanded a plentiful dish of Fulton Market beef, and trimmings to match; and, if extravagantly inclined, they would pay another sixpence for a cup of coffee and a kruller, to make the equal of which has ceased to be possible outside of the “kitchen-houses” belonging to our old population.

The Exchange had a narrow front on the street, and ran through to Garden. The entrance to the basement was under a circular opening, which was made of the arch which supported the steps that led up to the rotunda. The post-office was established in the rear eastern half of the basement, where it had ample room and much to spare. Two delivery windows were established, and three thousand boxes for the accommodation of the merchants; and so seemingly enormous had now become the business that twenty-two clerks were employed, and twenty-two letter-carriers, whose routes now reached up as high as Houston and Ninth, now Fourth Street. Now for the first time was found a demand for the assignment of a clerk wholly to a special duty, and “little Sam Gouverneur” was appointed to the exclusive care of the money department, and dignified with the title of “cashier.”

To facilitate the arrival and departure of the mails, and give light to that part of the basement occupied by the post-office, what is now known as Hanover Street (which had, thirty years previously, been used by foot passengers as a short-cut to Hanover Square) was cleared out and made a street, and a small court on this side of the Exchange conveniently opened itself for the accommodation of the wagons and other vehicles employed by the post-office.

General Bailey, who had been an acceptable and honored postmaster almost a quarter of a century, full of years and honors, on the 4th of September, 1828, passed away. The veterans of the Revolution, as they now began to be called, State and city soldiery, the various civic societies, and representatives of the army and navy, vied with each other in paying to his memory every possible respect. General Jackson, in compliment to ex-President Monroe, who was then living, appointed his son-in-law, Samuel L. Gouverneur, to succeed General Bailey. With this event the old-times history of the post-office of New York may be said to have passed away.

The business of the post-office steadily increased, nd the public grew more and more satisfied with its location in the Exchange. The newspaper press centred in its vicinity; and even the sad summer of cholera (1832) did not altogether destroy a certain air of vitality, that maintained itself in spite of the most unhappy surroundings.

On Wednesday night, December 16, 1835, a fire hroke out in a building in the rear of the Exchange, and in fifteen hours destroyed an area of fifty acres of the most valuable business part of the city. In this dreadful calamity the Merchants Exchange, after resisting the surrounding fire for seine time, was involved in the general destruction; and the post-office, of which the people were so proud, no longer existed. Through the almost superhuman energy of the clerks — for no volunteers could be obtained to help them — all the mad matter and most of the furniture were saved. This result was largely due to the fact that the fire made at first slow progress in penetrating the brick walls, but more especially to the plentiful supply of mail-bags at hand, which were filled and instantly removed, by United States soldiers from Governor’s Island, to what was then the new Custom—house, now the Sub—treasury, corner of Wall and Nassau streets. Jimmy Mower, who had charge of the newspaper department, was exceedingly disgusted when he subsequently discovered that the oil-cans and inkstands were promiscuously mixed up with his printed documents.

On the morning of the 18th of December, a day after its destruction in the Exechange, the post-office was extemporized in two brick stores in Pine, near Nassau Street. The destruction of such an enormous number of buildings made it impossible, even if economy was no object on the part of the government, to obtain a suitable building in the vicinity of the burned district. In this strait the city authorities offered the Rotunda in the City Hall Park, erected in the year 1818 by Vanderlyn, the artist, for a studio and the exhibition of panoramic pictures. When it was understood the government proposed to accept the Rotunda, busy as the merchants were in re-establishing themselves and counting up their losses, they found time to get up very demonstrative indignation meetings and protests against locating a post-office so far up town.

The post-office was, however, installed in the Rotunda, and the commercial pressure of 1837, which followed the great fire, diverted the puhlic mind from the location of the post-office. Illustrative of the pecuniary disaster of the period maybe mentioned that, in the “collapse,’ many of the merchants of the day owed the letter-carriers various sums, ranging from fifty to one hundred and fifty dollars, much of which money was never paid, the debtors being irretrievably ruined. This year the mail time between New York and New Orleans was reduced to six days and six hours. But the people, nevertheless, were impatient for more rapid communication, for we find in a Chicago paper of the time this notice:

“HIGHLY IMPORTANT. — By a foot passenger from the South we learn that the long-expected mail may be looked for in a week.”.

To Part 4