Title: Brooklyniana, No. 11
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: February 15, 1862
Publication information: Brooklyn Standard 15 February 1862: .
Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue. Gaps from damage to the original have been supplied by consulting Emory Holloway, ed. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1921. pp. 267–270.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00227
Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Janel Cayer, Ashley Lawson, Liz McClurg, and Sarah Walker
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A Series of Local Articles, on Past and Present.
Military Surroundings.—Brooklyn in the last war.—Embankments on Fort Greene.—The old Powder Houses.—Potter's Field.—The Old Alms House.—The Marsh and old bridge at the Wallabout.—Financial Public outlay for all Brooklyn in 1831.—A suggestion.
WE must not omit, in hastily penning these gossiping chronicles, to make brief mention of some of the localities of Brooklyn, now occupied by public buildings, parks, or rows of elegant private dwellings—alluding to them as they appeared thirty years ago. Carrying our statement farther back, from the words of those who knew them previously, we will also give a few paragraphs of "the last war," and matters of that ilk.
The military reputation which of right belongs to Brooklyn does not cluster merely around our present companies of well-drilled soldiers, nor on what appertains to the Brooklyn Armory in Henry street, or the Arsenal on Portland ave. Yet the latter is more than usually appropriate for a building for military purposes for our city; for it was in this very neighborhood that the lines of fortified posts and entrenchments were made, reaching from Wallabout to Red Hook, that formed the American lines, in the battle of Long Island, in the early part of the Revolutionary War.1 It was this line of rude fortifications that stopped the progress of the enemy, and secured the safety of the American troops—till Washington made his masterly retreat over to New York Island, which saved the revolutionary cause.
On the same neighborhood were thrown the hasty entrenchments during the last war—the men and boys of New York and Brooklyn turned out voluntarily with "pickaxes, shovels and spade," (as the song hath it) to provide for any emergency that might happen. For several days there were large forces of such volunteers at work, under officers appointed to oversee them—one force duly relieving another. It was feared that the British fleet might make an attempt to land, and cross the river in the same way as in 1776—and the fortified embankments were intended to oppose them. If the reader is curious in the matter, he will find, here and there, an old Brooklynite left (and not a few New Yorkers also), who took a hand in the dirt-digging and throwing up the embankments of the occasion. The women, as usual, ever forward in good works, assisted by gifts of food, drink, &c., and often enlivened the scene with their presence. Happily, however, the last war passed over without any warguns having occasion to be fired on these particular shores of ours—the most of that business, as it turned out, transpiring not on land, but on the sea, where America first learned that aboard ship she was as good as the best of 'em.
The above mentioned trenches and embankments, which many of our readers will remember as existing a very few years ago, on the sight of the present Washington Park (Fort Greene), were therefore not, as many supposed, relics of its Revolutionary experience of '76 but of the attempt, just described, to prepare to meet the enemy during the war of 1812, '13, should they seek to land here.
These trenches and embankments, made in 1812, remained, indeed, in pretty much the same condition down to the commencement of the improvement for Washington Park. Some of the highest walls of the present Park are literally the ground thrown up by the patriotic hands of the men and boy volunteers we have spoken of—those banks being very properly left as they were, and included in the plan of the Park.
Then the old Powder-Houses that dotted this section of our city in days of yore.2 Will there not be some of our readers who will recollect those old weird-looking, unshaded, unfenced powder-houses? One of them stood in immediate proximity to the site of the present Arsenal, if not on the exact spot. These powder-houses were covered with slate, and were the only edifices in the neighborhood—being placed out there, at a safe distance from the thickly settled parts of the city (or rather village, as it then was), which were around the Old and New Ferries, and up, perhaps, as high as Cranberry or Concord streets. The whole scene, around the grounds of the present Arsenal was, indeed, in those days, a wild hilly, unfenced, open landscape—something far different from its present appearance. It was quite a place for parties of men and boys for a Sunday or holiday jaunt from New York, and offered almost as desert and bleak an appearance as the untenanted wilds on the east end of Long Island do at this day.
No part of the city has made a more utter revolution in its topography than this quarter of Brooklyn. All the old landmarks, roads, edifices, &c., are obliterated. The only one we noticed standing, in a tour of observation we made not long since, was the old Dutch house, or rather the ruins of it, on the estate of the late venerable Jeremiah Johnson—and formerly, we believe, his own residence.3 This was on Kent avenue, and nigh the present residence of his son Barnet Johnson. But we believe even the ruins of that old building are now obliterated.
Then the old Potter's Field. During the war times, and down to about twelve or fifteen years ago, the ground on which the present Arsenal is built, and for some distance west of it, (about two acres in the blocks between Myrtle and Park avenues and now partly intersected by Hampden avenue), were appropriated to a free city Burial Yard, or Potter's Field. Many hundreds of people were buried there, and the workmen engaged in excavating for cellars, &c., in that neighborhood, continually come, at the present day, upon the remains of those burials.
In the same neighborhood stood the county Alms House; (the house is yet standing). Then the buildings and grounds (which yet belong to the city) were leased to the Government for Marine Barracks. It is the old yellow wooden shanty on Park avenue, near Raymond street, now all dismantled.
Then the present City Park, at the Wallabout. Very different from its contemporary appearance, with pleasant grass and clover patches, in summer, and shaded with trees, was its appearance when the middle-aged men of the present day were young fellows. All about there, used to be a vast, low, miry, stagnant place, covered with a shallow depth of water, on which, in summer, was spread a sickening yellow scum. Only one or two roads, and a bridge, made this bad spread of a place passable. Part of it was, in due time, filled up by the city, and forms the present City Park, with its northerly front on Flushing avenue. The rest has been, by degrees, filled up by its owners—until the stagnant ponds and black creeks where the little Brooklyn boys of twenty-six or seven years ago used to go Saturday afternoons and catch "killy-fish" with a bent pin and a piece of tow string have altogether disappeared, and left no sign or memento, except in such reminiscences as those of ours.
Perhaps one of the facts which will prove the tremendous advancement we have made, and the difference between that era and the present, will be a little bit of the financial exhibit of the Brooklyn of the time. Here, then, is the budget of our city for 1831—and you can see, reader, what strides we have made in exactly thirty years! It is the sum estimated, raised, and laid out for the expenses of Brooklyn for the then current year:
|BROOKLYN EXPENSES, 1831|
|Police (of those days,).....||$3,000|
|Salaries of officers,.......||1,200 !|
|Interest on Brooklyn debt...||600|
|Water, Pumps, Cisterns, &c.,||1,200|
|Contingent expenses,........||2,600 !|
|Grand Total.........||$10,000 ! !|
Which, we think, will be considered very moderate—and especially instructive, in comparison with these days. It must be stated, however, that the above sum was the utmost limit of the moneys allowed by law of the Legislature to be raised out of the good people of Brooklyn through the tax-gatherers. Perhaps it would be worth while to try a limit to tax-gathering again—but we suppose we would have to extend the sum a little beyond the "grand total" afore specified.
1. The Battle of Long Island, also known as the Battle of Brooklyn or the Battle of Brooklyn Heights (New York, August 27, 1776), was the first major battle of the Revolutionary War. British General William Howe defeated American General George Washington. Despite their defeat, the American troops' subsequent escape from Long Island without being attacked was a surprising success. [back]
2. Sometimes called a magazine, a powder house is a building for storing explosives, weapons, and gunpowder. [back]
3. Jeremiah Johnson was selected as town supervisor of Brooklyn in 1800. He held the position for forty years. He was also, at various times, the mayor of Brooklyn, a representative to the Legislature and the Assembly, and a County Court Judge. [back]