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On this day: John Brown’s body comes through New York

John Brown John Brown

On the evening of December 3rd, 1859, a steamboat arrived from Philadelphia.  On board was Theodore Tilton, a Brooklyn abolitionist and friend and colleague of Henry Ward Beecher.  The ship carried the body of abolitionist John Brown, executed by hanging the previous day in Charles Town Virginia for his armed raid at Harper’s Ferry.  The body was taken to an undertaker at 163 Bowery, McGraw and Taylor.  A Quaker named Jacob Hopper dressed the body, along with Charley Carpenter, a sexton at St. Marks Church in the Bowery.  The next day, word got out of the presence of John Brown’s body, and many onlookers came to get a glimpse of this figure.  Brown was then shipped up the Hudson River to North Elba, New York, where he was buried.

Brown was  considered a hero by many abolitionists and freed slaves, and praised in eulogies by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  He was also vilified by many, especially in the South.  His raid and execution contributed to the tensions that led to the American Civil War less than two years later.

On this day: The first college football game

Painting of the match by Rutgers graduate William Boyd Painting of the match by Rutgers graduate William Boyd

On November 6th 1869 at College Field on the campus of Rutgers University in New Jersey, two teams from Rutgers and the College of New Jersey (today Princeton) met each other to play a match under the London Football Association rules.  The teams were 25 players each and they wore no uniforms.  The rules resembled soccer more than college football–the players were not allowed to carry or throw the ball.  Teams scored a goal (also called a ‘run’ in newspaper reports) by kicking the ball into a goal.  Rutgers won 6-4.  It was the first of two games Rutgers and Princeton played in 1869 in the first ever college football season.

College Avenue Gymnasium, site of the match College Avenue Gymnasium, site of the match

In 1870 Rutgers would play Columbia College in another game under similar rules.  However, in 1874 Canada’s McGill University and Harvard played each other in a game under rules of the ‘Boston game,’ which were derived from the Rugby Football Union in England and allowed carrying the ball.  From there, the college football would evolve into the rules of the gridiron played today.  Nevertheless, the Rutgers-Princeton match in 1869 is considered the ‘Birth of College Football’.

The First Football Game Monument at High Point Solutions Stadium (photo from Rutgers University website) The First Football Game Monument at High Point Solutions Stadium (photo from Rutgers University website)

The site of the match is now Rutgers’ College Avenue Gymnasium, which now has a plaque depicting the Rutgers players in the match.  A statue entitled The First Football Game Monument  stands outside Rutgers’ current home High Point Solutions Stadium, though it inaccurately depicts a player carrying the ball.

The Dead of Antietam: Alexander Gardner’s powerful images from the battle

“ You will see hushed, reverend groups standing around these weird copies of carnage, bending down to look in the pale faces of the dead, chained by the strange spell that dwells in dead men’s eyes.”

— New York Times, Oct 20th 1862

In October 1862 a groundbreaking exhibition happened in New York City.  At Mathew Brady’s studio at 785 Broadway at 10th Street, people lined up around the block to enter an exhibit of photographs taken at the front of the Civil War taken by his assistant Alexander Gardner.  Above the entrance was a sign simply saying, the ‘Dead at Antietam.’   Inside were some of the most chilling and morbid images that had ever been put on public display.  This was to rank as one of the most important visual arts exhibitions in the history of New York, and it helped establish Mathew Brady as the ‘father of photojournalism.’

A field strewn with dead bodies.  Time Magazine chose this photo as one of the 100 ‘Most Influential Images of All Time’.

It was said that during the Vietnam War, television journalists brought the war into our living rooms.  Mathew Brady accomplished this with his photos a century earlier.  The images showed grisly scenes of carnage from the battlefield many of the viewers had never seen before.  Fields littered with dead bodies of soldiers and animals.  Also shown were damaged buildings and a battered landscape.  In today’s era when the military often censors photos of dead soldiers, it is striking that many of the dead bodies had their faces and even their eyes visible with ghastly stares.  An anonymous New York Times author wrote, it was as if Brady had “brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets.”

Gardner made an effort to highlight dramatic contrasts in his photos.  Here we see an unburied Confederate soldier right next to a grave of a buried Union soldier.

The Battle of Antietam was fought on September 17th 1862 near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The battle resulted in no significant victory for either side but the Union held the battlefield at the end.  In a single day there were 3,700 soldiers killed and 22,700 total casualties.  It was the bloodiest single day of battle in US history.  The site, like Gettysburg, is now a national battlefield preserved by the National Park Service.

  Sharpsburg Lutheran Chuch, damaged in the fighting.

Immediately after the battle, Brady dispatched his assistant Alexander Gardner to Antietam to photograph the scene.  He arrived two days later and it was the first time a battlefield was photographed with the dead still on the field.  Though Union soldiers were largely buried by the time of Gardner’s arrival, the field was under Union control and thus Confederate soldiers remained largely unburied.  Gardner would return two weeks later, this time photographing Abraham Lincoln’s visit to the site.

Mathew Brady’s ‘National Portrait Gallery’ inside his 10th Street Studio.  It was a popular attraction and a precursor to later museums.

By the start of the Civil War in 1861, Mathew Brady was the most famous photographer in America.  He had studied daguerreotypes in New York under Samuel Morse (of the telegraph), who himself had traveled to Europe and studied under Louis Daguerre.  Brady opened his first photography studio in 1844 at Fulton and Broadway (he later moved uptown).  At the beginning he mostly made studio portraits.  He won a prize in 1851 at the World’s Fair in London for the best daguerreotype.  He became world renowned and people came from all over the US and abroad to sit for photos with Mathew Brady, including Edgar Allen Poe, Daniel Webster, Edward the Prince of Wales, Jenny Lind, and most famously Abraham Lincoln.  In addition to taking photos, his studio was a gallery of photos of famous Americans, which became popular attraction a precursor to later museums and art galleries.

Alexander Gardner in 1863

Alexander Gardner was born and raised in Scotland and worked as a journalist.  He traveled to the 1851 World’s Fair in London and was impressed by Brady’s photographs.  He later immigrated to the US and found work at Brady’s studio.  In 1858 Brady sent him to Washington to run Brady’s Washington studio.  Starting in the late 1850s, Brady’s eyesight began to fail and his work was increasingly done by assistants (though always credited as a ‘Brady’ photograph).  During his lifetime, Gardner took 14 photos of Abraham Lincoln, more than any other photographer, including three at Antietam.  Brady sent his top photographer Gardner to Antietam to document the battlefield.  After Antietam, Gardner would leave Brady and work independently, eventually taking several other of Brady’s assistants.

Through most of his career, Brady had specialized in studio photography, which of course was largely due to the limits of early photography which required subjects to sit for a prolonged period of time to get the required exposure.  In 1851 British photographer Frederick Scott Archer made a significant breakthrough using glass plates and a chemical called collodion, which allowed photos to be taken with only a few seconds of exposure.   Brady would take this technology and develop a travelling darkroom–a carriage darkroom that allowed him to take photos outside his studio.  When the Civil War began he immediately started travelling with his darkroom to battlefields.  In fact he was nearly captured at the First Battle of Bull Run.  Before Antietam he had already displayed several photos from the war at his gallery.  But no battle had been covered like Antietam.

One of Gardner’s most striking photos: the dead horse of Confederate colonel Henry Strong

Gardner took approximately 90 photos at Antietam.  After he transferred the images onto glass plates, he sent them to New York so Brady could exhibit them.  Gardner was not credited at all for the photos, as was Brady’s standard practice with his assistants.  Another innovation Gardner and Brady employed was the stereograph.  For most scenes Gardner took two simultaneous shots.  They could be viewed in stereo using a special viewer Brady set up in his studio.

Lincoln at Antietam

For weeks crowds lined up to see the photos.  For middle and upper class New Yorkers, this was often the first time they were forced to confront the reality of war face to face.  The Times wrote, “ You will see hushed, reverend groups standing around these weird copies of carnage, bending down to look in the pale faces of the dead, chained by the strange spell that dwells in dead men’s eyes.”  Oliver Wendal Holmes Sr, who went to the battlefield to search for his son (Holmes Jr  was injured but survived and later became a Supreme Court Justice), wrote for the Atlantic Monthly, “a truthful sunbeam has delineated in all  their (the battlefield scenes) dread reality….Let him who wishes to know what war is look at this series of illustrations. These wrecks of manhood thrown together in careless heaps or ranged in ghastly rows for burial were alive but yesterday.”

“Let him who wishes to know what war is look at this series of illustrations. These wrecks of manhood thrown together in careless heaps or ranged in ghastly rows for burial were alive but yesterday.”

— Oliver Wendal Holmes Sr,, Atlantic Monthly 1863.

It was not yet possible to produce the images in newspapers (the first newspaper photo was printed in 1880 and it only became commonplace in the 20th century).  Brady’s photos were made available for sale, and he made brisk business from Civil War photos.  Brady did not appear to be concerned with the potential impact his photos had on public sentiment for the war effort.  They were available in different sizes and made their way to mantels and walls of homes in the city.  They were also reproduced in woodcuts and sketches which could reappear in newspapers.  Other than Jacob Riis’ landmark publication  How the other Half Lives, perhaps  no collection of photos has had such an impact.

Gardner entitled this photo, 'The Lone Grave'. Gardner entitled this photo, ‘The Lone Grave’.

In 2012 the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum in Washington DC held an exhibit of Gardner’s photos marking the 150 year anniversary of the battle.  The National Portrait Gallery held a major exhibition of Gardner’s work in 2014, giving Gardner full credit that Mathew Brady had always denied his assistants.  The photos can be be seen at the website of the Library of Congress, and many are also shown at National Park Service’s page for the Antietam National Battlefield.  But many more Americans experienced the Antietam photos through Ken Burns’ monumental PBS documentary The Civil War, which made heavy use of the photos of Brady and his assistants.   Thus, the Civil War was truly brought into our living rooms.

The death of baseball’s first superstar–Jim Creighton

Jim Creighton of the Brooklyn Excelsiors

On October 18th 1862 in a rowhouse on 307 Henry Street in today’s Brooklyn Heights neighborhood, a 21-year-old baseball and cricket phenom named Jim Creighton died from injuries sustained while playing in a baseball match.  He was the sport’s first on-field fatality and widely considered to be baseball’s first superstar.  He was the most feared pitcher of his day.

James ‘Jim’ Creighton was born in Manhattan in 1841 and moved to Brooklyn with his father.  At age 17 he started playing for the Brooklyn Niagaras.  While pitching against the Brooklyn Stars in 1859, he was noticed for his ‘low, swift delivery’ as a pitcher.  Pitchers were required to throw underhand in that era.  Though Creighton’s pitches were considered within the rules, they were perhaps aided by some hidden, but illegal, wrist movement.  Creighton’s opponents were impressed, and soon he was playing for the Stars,  A year later he was playing for the Brooklyn Excelsiors, probably the second strongest team in Brooklyn, and America, behind the mighty Brooklyn Atlantics.

The entrance Creighton’s house at 307 Henry, now an apartment building called the ‘Creighton’.

The Excelsiors were desperate to surpass their crosstown rivals, so much so that in all likelihood the paid Creighton ’emoluments’ under the table, making him what some historians call baseball’s first professional.  Organized baseball was still officially amateur.  The Excelsiors nevertheless became a profitable attraction for the league.  Anchored by their star, they went on a barnstorming tour in 1860 to Albany, Buffalo, Canada, Baltimore, and other stops.

Creighton was not a one-sport man.  Like many baseball players of his time he also played professional cricket simultaneously and starred for the American Cricket Club and the fabled St. George Cricket Club.

The exact cause of Creighton’s death is the subject of debate to this day.  Legend has it he ruptured his abdomen while hitting a home run against the Unions of Morrisania.  The truth is probably a little less dramatic.  Accounts vary but it appears he ruptured his abdomen playing cricket and then aggravated it while pitching against Morrisania.  In any case he died four days after the baseball match at his home.  His Excelsior teammates mourned at their clubhouse at 133 Clinton St a few blocks away.

The mystery surrounding the cause of Creighton’s death is in part because of the rivalry at the time of cricket and baseball as America’s most popular sport.  Baseball was on the rise at the time but it was still far from certain whether cricket or baseball would rule as A

Creighton’s grave

merican’s most popular team sport.  Many baseball officials feared that if the injury were blamed on baseball, the sport’s popularity would suffer.  These fears turned out to be unfounded; in fact, baseball used Creighton’s death as as a means to create a sense of history and nostalgia.  Creighton was immediacy held as the game’s first superstar.  His grave at Green-Wood Cemetery became an attraction, decorated with a baseball carved onto the headstone.

In later years, Creighton’s grave would become a model for plaques used at the Baseball Hall of Fame and at Monument Park in Yankee Stadium.  Creighton’s house on Henry Street still stands and is now called “The Creighton.”  The Excelsior clubhouse at 133 Clinton also in Brooklyn Heights still stands and now has a plaque honoring the team and Creighton (Though several details on the plaque are wrong; Creighton is inaccurately credited with inventing the curveball.). The death of James Creighton marked the beginning of baseball celebrating its past, something which the sport loves to do.

Birthday tribute: Atlantics first baseman Joe Start

Joe Start with the New York Mutuals Joe Start with the New York Mutuals

On October 14th 1842, Joseph ‘Joe’ Start was born in New York City.  He would become a baseball star and one of the greatest 1st baseman of the era. Start played with the Brooklyn Atlantics from 1862-1870.  He won four National Association championships and in 1870 he played in the Atlantics’ showdown with the undefeated Cincinnati Red Stockings in which he starred.

He started his career with the short lived Brooklyn Enterprise club, and then moved to the Atlantics in 1862.  He became known for fast baserunning, good fielding and modest power with the bat.  He is credited by some with being the first to away from the bag at first base, now the standard positioning.  After the first professional league was formed in 1871, Start switched to the New York Mutuals, where he played for six years.  He played one season for the Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs) before playing for the Providence Grays for six more seasons.  He finished his career at age 43, and earned the nickname ‘Old Reliable’.   He’s buried in Riverside Cemetery in Rhode Island.

In the summer of 1870 the Cincinnati Red Stockings arrived with an 84-match winning streak.  They met the Atlantics in a highly-anticipated game at the Capitoline Grounds in today’s Bedford-Stuyvesant in front of 20,000 spectators.  Start hit a sacrifice fly in the 8th inning to tie the match at 5-5.  In the bottom of the 11th down 7-5, Start hit a triple with a man on, setting himself up as the tying run at 3rd.  He was then knocked in by captain Bob Ferguson, who would ultimately score the winning run for a final score of 8-7, ending Cincinnati’s legendary streak.  Start’s triple was arguably the play of the game.

The Brooklyn Atlantics in 1865.  Joe Start is standing 4th from the left. The Brooklyn Atlantics in 1865.  Joe Start is standing 4th from the left.

On this day: The Battle of Forts Clinton and Montgomery

3D model of Fort Clinton at the Trailside Museum 3D model of Fort Clinton at the Trailside Museum

A short drive up the Hudson River from New York City lie the remnants of two Revolutionary War forts that guarded a chain across the Hudson River that could control passage via this strategic artery.  Their names are Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery.  On October 6th, 1777, British troops led by Sir Henry Clinton attacked the forts, which were defended by two American brothers, George and James Clinton (unrelated to Henry, or Bill Clinton for that matter; George Clinton would later become the 4th Vice-President of the United States.)  The British easily captured the two forts, and ultimately razed them and destroyed the chain.  However, the British victory did not assist them in gaining control of the Hudson River, which ultimately they failed to do culminating in defeat to the Americans the next day at the 2nd Battle of Saratoga on October 7th.

Today the site of Fort Clinton can be visited in the Trailside Museum at Bear Mountain State Park, just off of the Bear Mountain Bridge, which has a small museum.  Fort Montgomery is a State Historic Site just north of Fort Clinton and has a visitor center.
Clockwise starting from the upper-left: A plaque marking the site of Fort Clinton in Bear Mountain State Park; A view of the Bear Mountain Bridge from the Trailside Museum at Fort Clinton; Remnants of Fort Clinton; An exhibit inside the Trailside Museum. Clockwise starting from the upper-left: A plaque marking the site of Fort Clinton in Bear Mountain State Park; A view of the Bear Mountain Bridge from the Trailside Museum at Fort Clinton; Remnants of Fort Clinton; An exhibit inside the Trailside Museum.

On this day, Henry Chadwick, a ‘father of baseball’, was born in Exeter England.

Henry Chadwick Henry Chadwick

English journalist and sports-writer Henry Chadwick was born on October 5th, 1824 in Exeter England.  He emigrated to the US at the age of 12 with his family and settled in Brooklyn.   He found work as a journalist covering sports and was especially fond of cricket.  He first saw a baseball game while covering cricket for the New York Times in 1856 and developed a life-long passion for the game.  Working for various papers, he developed the box score, the terms ERA and Batting Average, and other scorekeeping tools still used today.  When he died in 1908 he was credited as the ‘father of baseball’, though he is one of several persons who can credibly claim this title.  His grave at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn is a must-see for baseball lovers.

Chadwick's grave in Green-Wood Cemetery, with a baseball carved on the headstone. Chadwick’s grave in Green-Wood Cemetery, with a baseball carved on the headstone.

On this day: England vs the USA in cricket in 1859 at the Elysian Fields

England playing the United States in Hoboken England playing the United States in Hoboken The English team on a ship in Liverpool on their way across the Atlantic The English team on a ship in Liverpool on their way across the Atlantic

On October 3rd, 1859, a team of 11 English cricketers and a team of 22 cricketers from New York began a 3-day cricket match at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey.  The English team was on a tour of North America and played five matches in Canada and the US.  It was the first ever overseas tour of the English cricket team, and 18 years before the first England-Australia test match in Melbourne.  The English won all five matches, including the one in Hoboken.

The match in Hoboken was played at the home ground of the St. George’s Cricket Club, the most dominant cricket club in the New York area.  Founded in 1838, they first started playing in Manhattan at various grounds before moving to Hoboken, using a site very near the field used by the Knickerbocker Baseball Club at the time.  The team of 22 players (the American team was allowed to have two sets of the 11 players normally required to play cricket as an advantage) drawn from the St George club and other cricket clubs in the area, such as the New York Cricket Club or the Union Star club in Brooklyn.  Players for the US team, many who were of English birth, included Sam Wright, his son and future baseball player and hall-of-famer Harry Wright, and glass-maker Henry E. Sharp.  The English won the match easily, scoring 156 runs to the US’s 92.  The English only had to bat for one innings to score more runs than the Americans did in two innings, equivalent to scoring more points in a single half of a basketball game than their opponent scored the whole game.

The poor result for US cricket during tour did not limit excitement around the matches.  They were well attended and covered in the press, and the attention increased the interest in cricket which was then a strong rival to baseball in popularity in the US.  A second English tour was planned.  However, the Civil War put an end to this.   After the war, baseball became the dominant sport in the US and cricket never recovered.

The birth of the New York Times, 166 years ago today

First issue of the New-York Daily Times, later the New York Times, on Sept. 18 1851.   First issue of the New-York Daily Times, later the New York Times, on Sept. 18 1851. 113 Nassau St.  Illustration from 113 Nassau St.  Illustration from “Henry J Raymond and the New York Press for Thirty Years” by A.S. Hale and Company

On September 18th, 1851, an editorial appeared in a new New York newspaper that began as follows: “We publish today the first number of the New-York Daily Times, and we intend to issue it every morning (Sunday excepted) for an indefinite number of years to come.”  The editorial was written by the newspaper’s co-founder, Henry Jarvis Raymond.  The newspaper would later lose its hyphen and the word ‘daily’, and starting in 1861 it would publish on Sunday as well.   But 166 years later, it has so far kept its promise, and remains, despite the struggles of the internet age, one of the most influential news sources in the world.

When one looks at the New York Times’ current headquarters, a 52-floor skyscraper built in 2007 just off of Times Square, it’s hard to imagine the much more humble origins of this institution nicknamed ‘The Grey Lady’.  It was first published in a loft in a brownstone at 113 Nassau Street between Ann and Beekman streets.  The building was then half-finished and the windows lacked glass.  The writers and editors worked by candlelight.  Times writer Augustus Maverick called the conditions ‘raw and dismal.’   The first issue was four pages and cost a penny.

“We do not mean to write as if we were in a passion, unless that shall really be the case; and we shall make it a point to get into a passion as rarely as possible. There are very few things in this world which it is worth while to get angry about; and they are just the things that anger will not improve.”

— Henry Jarvis Raymond, from the first issue of the New-York Daily Times on Sept. 18, 1851

The New York Times was founded in an already crowded newspaper environment by two men–Henry J. Raymond and George Jones.  New York was then teeming with dailies and weeklies, mostly published within a few blocks of City Hall.  In the early 1850s, two papers stood above the others: Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune and James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald.  The Times was founded as an alternative to these and other papers of the era–less focused on the scandal and sensationalism of the Herald and others in the ‘penny press’, but also lacking what for some was the moral righteousness and partisanship of Greeley’s Tribune.  Raymond founded the Times with the hope of creating a more moderate, trustworthy news source, though like the Tribune it was pro-Republican once the party was founded in 1854.  Raymond himself held many political positions as a Republican and once became chairman of the Republican National Committee.  During his presidency the paper was a staunch defender of Abraham Lincoln.

Raymond and Jones first met while working for Horace Greeley at the New York Tribune in the 1840s.   Both men were from up north.  Raymond was born in Lima in upstate New York and studied in Vermont.  Jones was born that state.   Both worked at various newspapers in the region and Jones also worked as a banker.   Before founding the Times, the two had together tried to takeover the Albany Evening Courier, then a powerful newspaper in New York State edited by Albany political giant Thurlow Weed, also a friend and ally of Raymond.  In 1848 Weed offered to sell the paper to Raymond and Jones, but the deal was blocked by one part-owner who refused to sell, William White.  Had this deal happened the New York Times would have never been born.

After starting at 113 Nassau Street, the Times moved up to 138 Nassau Street in 1854.  Then in 1858 the Times arrived at its address for nearly 50 years–41 Park Row.  This street become known as ‘Newspaper Row’ and was home to several of the most powerful newspapers in the country.  The first Times building on Park Row was a 5-story Romanesque building designed by Thomas Jackson, the first building ever to be entirely devoted to one newspaper.  It was from here that Raymond and Times part-owner Leonard Jerome defended the newspaper during the 1863 Draft Riots with gatling guns mounted on the roof.

Raymond's grave at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn Raymond’s grave at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn

Raymond died in 1869, at only 49 years of age.  The paper was taken over by Jones who was the publisher until his death in 1891.  Under Jones, the Times led the attacks on Boss Tweed, one of the most corrupt politicians in New York’s history, a man who nonetheless had a great deal of power after the Civil War.  However, the Times’ reporting and cartoons by Thomas Nast helped bring his downfall and eventual arrest.  Tweed once offered the Times $5 million to not publish an article on him, but he was rebuffed.  In 1869, the Times also hired its first female reporter Maria ‘Middy’ Morgan, who covered livestock, equestrian events and horse racing.

In 1889 the Times commissioned a new and larger building at the same location, a building which reflected the growing power of the city’s press.  This 16-floor building (2 floors were added later) by architect George Post still stands today and is currently occupied by Pace University. However, the cost of the building helped contribute to a dire financial situation for the Times in the 1890s.  The paper’s circulation dropped to 9000 and the paper was losing $1000 per day when it was bought in 1896 by Adolph Ochs, whose family still owns the paper today.  Ochs would revive the Times and turn it largely into the newspaper we know today, in part by returning to Raymond’s vision of a paper with a moderate to progressive stance that was above tabloid sensationalism.  Ochs would soon move the Times’ offices uptown to Longacre Square, which was promptly renamed Times Square.  The Times remains near Times Square today.

Remarkably, the rather non-descript original home of New York Times at 113 Nassau survived until 2007 when the building was demolished to make way for a 30-floor apartment building, the Lara.  The Times left the building after only three years in 1854.  The building later served as the Leggats Brothers Bookstore, home to George Cram’s atlas company, an Italian restaurant, and lastly, a McDonald’s.  A plaque honoring Raymond and the New York Times once graced the sidewalk.  However, the building was never considered for landmark designation.  Today, both the building and the plaque, and any other trace of the newspaper, are gone.

Clockwise from top left: 138 Nassau Street--the second office of the New York Times (1854-58), illustration from Clockwise from top left: 138 Nassau Street–the second office of the New York Times (1854-58), illustration from “Henry J Raymond” by A.S. Hale; New York Times Building (1858-1889) built in 1858 at 41 Park Row; Grave of George Jones, co-founder of the Times, at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow NY.; New York Times Building (1889-1904) also at 41 Park Row built by George Post, now occupied by Pace University.

America’s Victory in 1851

The schooner America, designed by George Steers  A replica of the original 1844 clubhouse of the New York Yacht Club at its original location in Hoboken, New Jersey

On August 22 1851 the schooner America defeated 14 British yachts in a race around the Isle of Wight.  The race became the inaugural edition of the America’s Cup, the oldest sporting competition in the world.  It was also one of the greatest upsets of sports history.  Great Britain was considered the master of all things maritime with centuries of tradition in sailing, while the United States was still an upstart nation.  The New York Yacht Club (NYYC), the challenger, was only seven years old.  The NYYC would continue to hold the America’s Cup for 132 years.  The Cup bears the name of the winning yacht of the first race.

The race was organized by the Royal Yacht Squadron (RYS), founded in 1815.  The RYS invited the New York Yacht Club to challenge British vessels in conjunction with the Great Exhibition of 1851 (also known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition).  The challenge was accepted by the NYYC Commodore and founding member John Cox Stevens.  A trophy was made by London silversmith Robert Garrard.  It was initially called the ‘£100 Cup’, and was a bottomless ewer than has come to be called the “Auld Mug”.

George Steers’ grave in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn

The yacht America was designed for the NYYC by George Steers, along with his brother James.  It was built in  Steers’ shipyard in Greenpoint, today a neighborhood in Brooklyn.  Steers was asked by NYYC member George Schuyler to build a yacht of immense speed suitable for racing. It was named the America.  Though built for speed it also contained many amenities including a washroom with a bathtub, at a time when most homes lacked such facilities.

The NYYC chose Richard ‘Dick’ Brown as a pilot, an experienced Sandy Hook pilot, a group of pilots specializing in guiding ships through the dangerous waters surrounding New York Harbor. He chose as his first mate a young pilot named Nelson Comstock.

The America sailed across the Atlantic to England with tremendous expectations on it shoulders. This was a ship that was expected to compete against the very best British ships. Even many Americans with doubtful that an American ship could outclass the best ships in the world. The New York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley, who was then in Europe, urged John Stevens to not race against the British, saying they would be beaten; Greeley also told them if they lost they should not return to the US. The arrival of the America did generate considerable interest in the British press and among local yachtsmen, which built up the excitement for the upcoming race.

The race started at Cowes Castle on the Isle of Wight where Royal Yacht Squadron was headquartered. 15 yachts started the race, including the America.  The route was the Queen’s Course, a 53-nautical mile course (98 km) around the island.  Observers included Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who watched aboard the royal yachts.  The race was started by gunfire from the batteries at 10:00 am on August 22nd.

The America’s Cup, made by London Silversmith Robert Garrard

Piloted with precision and concentration by Brown, the America passed several yachts quickly and after about 30 minutes took the lead, which it would maintain throughout the race.  Brown increased its lead by successfully maneuvering between the island and the Nabs Point lighthouse, a possible shortcut in the race.  Soon the lead seemed so insurmountable that Victoria and Albert retired from viewing.  But the small cutter Aurora did mount a late challenge.  Rounding St Catherine’s point on the south of the Isle, the Aurora fell into a beam’s reach, a favorable point of sail.  Behind a strong wind, the Aurora gained fast, largely unbeknownst to the crowd at the finish line that believed the America was winning easily.  However, the America held off the challenger and crossed the finish line at 10 hours and 34 minutes, 8 minutes ahead of the Aurora.  When informed that America had won, Queen Victoria asked who finished second.  The response was, perhaps apocryphally, “Your Majesty, there is no second.”

The America crosses the finish line first.  When Queen asked who finished second; the answer was, The America crosses the finish line first.  When Queen asked who finished second; the answer was, “Your Majesty, there is no second.”

The result was a shock for the sailing world and especially for British yachtsmen.  But the British press and public showed tremendous sportsmanship in defeat.  The crowd cheered America‘s victory.  Queen Victoria personally congratulated John Cox Stevens.  In later months the British press analyzed the race and wrote articles on how to improve yacht design to match Steers’ superior vessel.  Back home, Americans were much less gracious in victory.  News arrived by steamship in September.  Newspapers declared the victory proof of US superiority over its former colonial master.  The New York Herald declared, “We have beaten them on land and at sea.”

Exterior of the current clubhouse of the New York Yacht Club on 44th Street in Midtown Manhattan.  Exterior of the current clubhouse of the New York Yacht Club on 44th Street in Midtown Manhattan.

The New York Yacht Club was awarded the silver ewer as a trophy for the award.  It was renamed the “America’s Cup”, after the winning ship.  It was meant to be defended against legitimate challengers.  The first such challenge happened in 1870, hosted by the NYYC in the US.  Many later challenges followed, most held at the NYYC’s headquarters in Newport, RI.  The trophy was only lost 132 years and 26 challenges later in 1983 to the Royal Perth Yacht Club and the ship Australia II.  The NYYC has never regained the title, though other American clubs have.