When a Circle Line tour boat circumnavigates Manhattan, tourists crowd on the deck to snap photos of Lady Liberty and other recognizable downtown landmarks. I prefer to crane my neck uptown when the boat travels up the Harlem River and Spuyten Duyvil Creek. That’s where the forgotten aspects of the city’s history can be seen, or not as in the case below.
Here’s a 1923 photo of the Johnson Iron Works from the My Inwood blog. The foundry sat on a peninsula on Spuyten Duyvil Creek halfway been the Hudson and Harlem rivers, facing Inwood Hill Park. In the backgrounds is the Palisades cliff of New Jersey. In the 1930s, the factory and the entire peninsula were eliminated.
Where it Was
Looking at a Revolutionary War map of the scene, the highlighted path is the present course of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, an extension of Harlem River that separates upper Manhattan from the Bronx. At the time of this country’s formation, the creek was a narrow and winding affair that nearly pieced Manhattan and the mainland together like jigsaw puzzle pieces.
The peninsula on the right containing Dykeman’s Bridge and King’s Bridge is today’s Marble Hill exclave, politically part of Manhattan but geographically fused to the Bronx since 1913. To its left was an unnamed 13.5-acre peninsula that was a part of the mainland but does not exist today. From 1853 to 1923, it was the site of the Johnson Iron Works, a smoke-belching foundry located at the midpoint of the creek. Its story began in 1853 when industrialist Elias Johnson selected the site for his company.
Harlem River Ship Canal
On the 1905 map above, from the NYPL map room, we see a major alteration to Spuyten Duyvil Creek. With the completion of Erie Canal in 1825, there was soon talk of reducing the route between the Hudson River and the Long Island Sound with a canal at Spuyten Duyvil.
Harlem River Ship Canal opened on June 17, 1895 to celebrations unmatched since Erie Canal. As a result of the canal, the Manhattan neighborhood of Marble Hill was severed from the rest of the borough and transformed into an island, separated from the Bronx by a remnant of Spuyten Duyvil Creek. In 1913, the old creek was buried and the Marble Hill was fused to the continent. The hilly neighborhood has streets named after early Dutch settlers and used as a fort during the Revolutionary War.
So while Marble Hill assumed its present-day shape, Johnson’s peninsula was still there in 1905, forcing ships to negotiate around it.
Fitting the pattern of a 19th century industry captains, Elias Johnson’s son Isaac designed the neighborhood around his factory as a “company town,” with housing for the workers, a school, library, taverns and a church. The Spanish-American War, invention of automobiles and First World War continued to benefit the factory, whose workforce peaked at 1,600 by 1917. While the factory produced cannons, pistons and auto parts, elected officials haven’t given up their goal of completely straightening Spuyten Duyvil Creek. Below is a 1901 War Department chart showing the tonsil-shaped peninsula in the way of straightening the river.
In 1919, state lawmakers passed an act to straighten the canal. The factory waged a losing legal battle for its site and the jobs that it offered. A New York Times article from this period described the foundry as “a fair-sized industrial centre with a touch of the Pittsburgh atmosphere.” On June 9th, 1923 the foundry produced its last order of steel and its 1,200 workers were sent home. The straight canal route of today was opened to vessels in 1936 in a smaller celebration.
What’s there today
Looking at a Google Maps aerial survey, the only remnant of Johnson’s peninsula today is its southern tip, which is fused to Manhattan’s Inwood Hill Park; and the 100-foot cliff face at the former head of the peninsula which has an iconic letter C painted on it.
It is a section of the Circle Line tour with a deep history, one that is not known to tourists who take the boat to see more famous sights along the way.
In the News:
Huffington Post contributor Dr. Chris Martine writes about the last natural forest in Manhattan at Inwood Hill Park.