Digging through Bay Ridge archives at the Brooklyn Historical Society

Last weekend, our first vice president Henry Stewart spent an afternoon at the Brooklyn Historical Society’s library digging through some of its Teunis G. Bergen archive. Bergen (1806–1881) was one of the most prominent citizens of old Bay Ridge, representing the area in congress, as well as serving as the long-time town supervisor; he oversaw the meeting at which the community changed its name from Yellow Hook to Bay Ridge.

He was also the area’s first historian, publishing several noted speeches and genealogies, as well as the town surveyor. His papers were donated by a descendant to the Historical Society and offer a potentially mystifying and overwhelming amount of information. We did our best to sort through some of the notable contents therein—and we only just scratched the surface!

(Click all photos to view larger versions.)

Bergen’s house still stands on Shore Road, near 77th Street, though it’s been renovated beyond recognition in the last almost 200 years. The small extant plot was once the front of a farm that stretched back to First Avenue, and this hand-drawn map, from 1833, shows how his crops were spread out on this “market garden,” with cucumbers in the front and corn in the rear, broken up by occasional stretches of pasture and woods. Also growing here were patches of strawberries, nutmeg, cabbages, pumpkins, rye, buckwheat, clover and more.

This undated document is a description of the borders of Bergen’s land, notable for its use of long-gone local landmarks: “Beginning at a certain Buttonwood stump which stands eleven feet three inches in a northeasterly direction from the centre of a certain [illegible] free stone monument standing on the patent line…”

One folder contains two letters to Bergen, from 1849 and 1851, signed, “Yours truly, Walter Whitman.” The legendary Brooklyn poet and newspaperman was also a printer, and the letters are in regards to bills owed him for services rendered to Bergen. One letter is in protective plastic, but another is just loose, so you can actually touch a letter written by Walt Whitman himself!

This undated sketch is a map of William A. Ovington’s land, probably ca. 1849, before its sale to a group of artisans and craftsmen who would buy the farm and found Ovington Village, the main street of which was Ovington Avenue, from Third to Seventh avenues. The line in the middle of this map could possibly be that street. Many of the papers in Bergen’s collection are confusing sketches with copious numbers and surveyor’s calculations, incomprehensible to most laymen.

Included in Bergen’s archive is a book with the annual minutes of School District No. 2 (aka Yellow Hook, which became Bay Ridge) in New Utrecht. Here’s a page of that book, showing the minutes from November 1845. On the right hand side are a list of books to be purchased for the library, with titles such as Year in SpainSpain Revisited and American in England. I was hoping these minutes would go up to 1853, the year in which Yellow Hook was renamed Bay Ridge at a meeting at the local schoolhouse, but the minutes only go up to 1850 (though there were a few receipts and other scraps of paper from as late as 1856 stuck into the back of the book). So close!

The first page of a copy of the 1868 bill introduced by State Senator Henry Murphy, original owner of the Owl’s Head estate (which is now part of the park of the same name), calling for the official creation of Fourth Avenue and Second Avenue (now Ridge Boulevard) south of 60th Street, then the border between “Brooklyn” and the town of New Utrecht.

This is the middle portion of a map (about three times as long) of Third Avenue from 1860, showing the various banks and hills that would need to be graded before the dummy train to Fort Hamilton could be built.

A rather large, undated lithograph advertising lots for sale on John Mackay’s property, which stretched from modern 69th to 71st streets, Shore to Colonial roads. He bought it in 1868, so this is likely within a decade of then, though possibly later. (The map at right lists a “Scotia Avenue” that looks to be about where present-day Narrows Avenue is; I’ve never heard that name used, ever, and Narrows Avenue appeared on maps by at least the 1870s, which leads me to believe this map is a little earlier, but who knows. It also calls Shore Road “River Road,” which Bergen often did in his surveys but which I’ve never come across anywhere else.)

“Bay Ridge, situated at the entrance of the Bay of New York, for beauty of position and surroundings is not surpassed in the United States,” according to the ad; “a visit to the locality will abundantly verify the statement. In fact, it only requires to be known to be appreciated.”

Though filed under “Atlantic Avenue,” this small, undated map, possibly traced, actually shows 92nd Street. Many streets in Fort Hamilton Village once had different names—”U.S. Avenue” at left is now Fort Hamilton Parkway, “Monmouth Street” became Gatling Place and “Concord Street” became Dahlgren Place.

A survey of “River Road,” or Shore Road, at its southern end, from 1869; the diagonal line at right is roughly present day Third Avenue, which more or less separated the old Stanton and Gelston estates. The section colored yellow marks the road’s “encroachment” onto property belonging to the heirs of Henry Stanton.

This map, from ca. 1875, shows First Avenue (now Colonial Road) at 67th Street, as well as the surrounding neighborhood. Owl’s Head Park had not yet been built, and this map imagines a street grid running through it—streets that were never actually built.

These hand-drawn 1849 maps are typical of the Bergen collection. These depict Stewart Avenue, one of the original main thoroughfares of the area. It ran basically in a straight line from 66th and Seventh to 88th and Fifth. (The rest of modern Fifth Avenue, south of 88th Street, was back then also called Stewart Avenue, even after it merges with Fourth Avenue at 95th Street.) Only a few battered blocks of the old Stewart Avenue remain, between 69th and Seventh and 74th and Sixth; otherwise, it was replaced by the more grid-friendly Fifth and Sixth avenues.

A large 1852 map of Daniel Richards’s land, from about modern-day 69th to 67th streets, Shore Road to Third Avenue. “Avenue A,” running through the middle of his land, is a more crooked version of modern-day 68th Street, including where it suddenly hooks south to 69th Street and ends—what we now call Bliss Terrace. Also notable on this map are the private roads of Henry Murphy (after whom Senator Street was named) and Theodore Sedgwick (after whom Sedgwick Place was named), which no longer exist.

A traced map, undated, from Sixth Avenue to Shore Road, 68th Street to about 76th Street, showing different landowners and a few existing houses. Probably the 1870s, give or take a decade.

A sketch of a wall planned in 1849 to separate Murphy’s Owl’s Head property from that of John J. Wild’s, his neighbor to the south. It’s unclear who drew it.

A page from Bergen’s handwritten manuscript for his unpublished History of New Utrecht, in four parts, which seems to contain a treasure trove of detail about all aspects of life in the town from the 17th to 19th centuries. This page is from a section about slavery, here detailing the reaction in 1706 to slaves congregating on the Sabbath.

“One of their places for assembling must have been at Bay Ridge,” Bergen writes, before quoting from a military order: “A number of negroes from several places out of this county gather themselves together on the Sabbath days in a riotous manner, by the house of Dirck van Sutphen at Yellow Hook.” (In a footnote, Bergen says Sutphen’s land in his time belongs to the Bergen and Bennett families—which would be about 73rd to 79th streets, Shore to Colonial roads, and Sutphen’s house would have been on the northeast corner of Shore Road and 79th Street, aka Van Brunt’s Lane.)

You can see a guide to all the boxes and folders contained within the Teunis G. Bergen collection here.

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