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The New York City Post-Office (Part 4)

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

Return to Part 3

Fortunately for the interests of commerce and the unity of the country, rapid transit of news, cheap postage, and facilities for traveling were approaching consummation in the erection of railroad lines, with which private enterprise was threading every section of the country. One triumph announced seemed only to create a demand for another, and when Amos Kendall carried out the idea of connecting the non-continuous lines of railways by pony expresses, there was added a new value to the post-office of New York. It began to assume its present central importance, and the promise of its brilliant future was almost realized, when the firing of guns from our national forts and vessels, with the ringing of bells, and cheers of thousands of exultant men, all joined in welcoming the first appearance of steam merchautmen in our harbor — the ever-to-be-remembered Sirius and Great Western.

The event which revolutionized the commerce and business enterprise of the world seemed to be most thoroughly appreciated; for, besides the incidents of welcome we have alluded to, crowds of curious spectators surged day by day at the foot of Clinton Street, where the vessels were at anchor, to admire and wonder; and even long journeys were taken from distant cities to behold the daring innovators. “Daddy Rice,” the father of negro minstrelsy, then reigned supreme at the Bowery Theatre, and called forth his greatest shouts of applause when, as Jim Crow, he sang:

“And while they were discussing,
And making mighty talk,
The steamboat Greet Western
Came to New York:
So turn about, and wheel about,” etc.

The inconvenience of having the post-office so far from the centre of business was still complained of, and, to quiet dissatisfaction as far as possible, a letter delivery was established in the new Merchants’ Exchange, where the Custom-house is now located, and placed in charge of Jemison Cox, an alderman and ex-chief-engineer. For letters two cents, for papers one cent, extra, was charged, which sums were paid without complaint by the merchants, and the amount thus collected paid the letter-carriers’ charges.

In the year 1836 Mr. Gonverneur had been removed, and James Page, Esq., postmaster of Philadelphia, commissioned to take charge, which supervision was maintained for six weeks, when Jonathan J. Coddington was commissioned postmaster. When the latter assumed the duties of his position the post-office was in the Rotunda building and in the house of a hook-and-ladder company adjoining, and a “hose-house on the opposite side of the way.” Nothing could have been more inconvenient, contrary to good discipline, and injurious to expeditious business operations. To remedy these evils Mr. Coddington built a handsome extension facing toward Wall Street. With this important addition, and other improvements, he brought the entire business (now constantly increasing) under one roof. The mails were received in Chambers Street, the box delivery was on Centre Street, while the interior of the Rotunda was devoted to the general delivery.

The location of the post-office in the Rotunda seemed to be unsatisfactory to citizens living in every part of the city. An application was therefore made for the establishment of a branch post-office for the receipt and delivery of the mails in the upper part of the city. The reply was that such an office could only be a branch of the one already existing, and that no compensation could be allowed for services beyond the two cents per letter paid the carriers. It was also doubted if the extent of New York demanded such an addition to its postal facilities. The proposition was also submitted to Mr. Coddington, and was opposed by him and his clerks. The subject was finally referred to the Chamber of Commerce, which recommended that there be established a subpost-office for the reception of letters at Chatham Square, but not any place for the delivery of letters other than the existing arrangements at the post-office and by the penny post. Such was the origin of the Chatham Square post-office, which maintained its popularity and usefulness until its occupation was destroyed by the present iron boxes now so familiar on the street corners.

So much esteemed was Mr. Coddington by the officials at Washington that the Postmaster-General, under General Harrison’s administration, informed him that, though a political opponent of the administration, he might retain his position. One week after this notice President Harrison died, and his successor, John Tyler, promptly requested Mr. Coddington to renew his bonds. On this hint, after some hesitation, he did as requested, and forwarded them to Washington in June. The reply was promptly returned, in the form of a commission creating “John Lorimer Graham postmaster of New York, in place of Jonathan Coddington removed.”

Mr. Coddington is still remembered among the old clerks of the post-office, and the old merchants of the city, as one of the best of officers. He tried to learn the details of his position, and took pride in making every improvement that would render his department efficient. He was a man of great personal independence, and though a decided politician, he would not allow his bias that way to affect his official conduct. On one occasion a committee of ward politicians called upon him, and stated, through their chairman, that he had been assessed fifty dollars for partisan purposes. Mr. Coddington heard the proposition with patience, and then rising from his seat, said:

“I refuse to pay any such assessment as this you speak of. I’d have you understand that I am postmaster of New York city, and not postmaster of a ward committee.”

The pressure to get the post-office “down town” still continued, and advantage was taken of the fact that the “Middle Dutch Church” was for sale to procure it for a post-office. There was nothing in the world so unsuited as the building for such a purpose; but the location was desirable, and the merchants went to work to press the matter upon the government. The property was offered for $350,000, but the Postmaster-General decided not to give more than $300,000. Lest the purchase might not be consummated, the merchants in a few hours raised by voluntary contributions the additional $50,000, and the old church was secured for secular purposes.

The extravagance and folly of the federal government in buying property erected for a church, and attempting to alter it to accommodate a post-office, or in leasing any kind of private property and fitting it up for public service, finds an illustration, hut not an exceptionable one, in this “high old Dutch Church post-office of New York city.” It may not be out of place to mention to the general reader that this old church was dedicated, in 1732, as a house of Christian worship.

Until the close of the century its services were carried on in the “Holland language ;“ after that it was alternated with the English language. In the year 1776 the British tore out its pews, and (with the adjoining building, the old sugar-house) used it as a prison for American patriots, taken and treated as rebels. When no longer needed for this purpose, it served in rainy weather as a school-house for cavalry. When the British evacuated New York the congregation again took possession, removed the pulpit and altar from the eastern side to the northern end, and erected the heavy formidable galleries, destined eventually to become so conspicuous in the economy of the post-office.

Perhaps no building could be invented more unsuited for the purposes to which it has been appropriated. John Lorimer Graham, who had the responsible and difficult task of making it available, commenced hy expending on the attempt what was then the large sum of $80,000.

He then issued a printed circular, surmounted by a picture of the old church, dated New York, January —, 1845, which read:

“The postmaster has great pleasure in announcing to his fellow-citizens that the new post-office build lug (112 years old), in Nassau Street, will he ready for occupation in a few days, and respectfully invites etc., etc., to view the interior arrangements of the establishment,

It was a grand time when the citizens crowded into this old church to look for the post-office. The eighty thousand dollars had made no material change; to he sure, the altar railing was gone, but the pulpit and its ornanientation remained; and the galleries, left intact, resembled great overhanging amphitheatres, from which to witness a gladiatorial display. But the post-office was finally installed, and then commenced that era in its business history that has made it a sort of visible standard, or gauge, of the mighty growth of old Manabatta toward the honor of being one of the mightiest of metropolitan cities.

The inconvenience, the necessarily miserable arrangements, the total unfitness of the place — inherently so by the original design of the building — has been a source of constant discomfort and annoyance, and made the labors of the clerks, and the supervision of the executive officers, onerous to the last degree. During the first year of the occupation the space immediately around the building as still covered with the tablets of what should have been the truly honored dead; for there lay the representatives of large part of our ancient and best population.

The vaults under the church and the vaults around the church gave np their dead when the profane feet of the busy multitude pressed forward toward the church, not for prayer, but from absorbing interest in the living, active, bustling world. For a long year the spectacle was presented of coffins and mail-bags, of carts and extemporized hearses, jostling each other while engaged in their allotted work; but at last this incongruous mingling of the dead population and the living ended; but the forbidding look of that old castellated church remained.

The tower, bonntifully made of stone, continued, and still continues, to look down sullenly on the bustle beneath, while the strong walls of the church, inside, announcing, in Dutch, that “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” and the rough plastered walls, outside, speaking of the wasting storms of nearly a hundred and fifty years, repudiate all harmonious minglings and sympathies with the secular business of distributing the mails.

But the place is not without its living defenders of old traditionary possession. The mynheers are gone; the Knickerbockers know the place no more; but the rats, descendants of the original stock, keep high revel still, and continue to dispute possession with Uncle Sam and his salaried cohorts. And they, the rats, have had a queer history — these old Low-Dutch-Church-post-office rats.

For many years they lived a hard life, suffering starvation and dyspepsia under the preaching of Dominie Bogardus; but when the old sugar-house was erected adjoining the church, they felt that their trials and tribulations had brought them great reward, for the sweets of the Indies were at their disposal, and they reveled, until, in an evil hour, the sugar-house and church were filled with sad men, who starved and suffered and perished under a prison discipline that made the bodies of its victims not even passable fare for famished rats.

Then came the jolly times when the church was turned into a stable, and oats and hay and profanity were abundant; again another change, and the old-fashioned times returned, and the rats went into mortifications and fastings as a punishment for the good fare of the past. And tribulation was not soon to end; for, to their discomfort, the sugar-house, even as a place to hide their sorrows, disappeared, and the old church itself was finally consigned to the evil doings of the post-office.

Under this new administration even the dead bodies in the vaults underneath the church were carted away, and nothing, for the time being, was left to prey upon but the poorly paid post-office clerks. But this resource, together with brown soap, the paste-pots, bits of apples, and the lunches of the night watchmen, left matters even worse than the most solemn times, when they heard sermons without any refreshments six hours long. But relief was to come to these historically interesting and brave old rats.

To Part 5