In 1794, James Anderson purchased 60 acres from an Englishman named Medcef Edin and later in 1820, he purchased an additional tract located at what is now 164 th Street and Anderson Avenue from one Aaron Burr and Rachel Edin. The property was called “Woody Crest” due to its high ground and thick woods.
There was little change in Devoe’s Point from the close of the Revolution until the middle of the nineteenth century. The area was primarily a farming area dotted with occasional estates built by wealthy New Yorkers seeking pure air and pleasant surroundings.
The only interesting incident recorded in this period was the raid on Macomb’s Dam. In 1813, the New York State legislature had granted Robert Macomb the right to build a dam across the Harlem River, (the site of the 155 th Street or Macomb’s Dam Bridge.) He promptly built such a dam, charging tolls to people who wanted to go between Manhattan and the Bronx along the top of the dam. Navigation was all but totally impeded. Small rowboats could get past it only at high tide. This was a source of great annoyance to those who thought that the river could serve as an avenue of commerce.
In a well-planned maneuver, these opponents led by Lewis G. Morris brought a flat bottomed boat, named the “Nonpareil”, loaded with coal and demanded passage northward through the dam on the evening of September 14, 1838. This was, of course, impossible. When passage was naturally denied, Morris had the one hundred men who had accompanied him use pickaxes and crowbars to open a hole in the dam large enough to let the “Nonpareil”, through. The Renwicks, then owners of the Dam, unsuccessfully tried to have Lewis criminally prosecuted. Once Morris had established that the Harlem River was indeed navigable, the dam was history. Morris then had two ferries built which carried passengers from a dock about a mile north of the Highbridge to Third Avenue and the Harlem River for 10 cents.
Because of a the Great Fire of 1835, which destroyed 674 building on Wall, Broad and South Streets in Manhattan, the inadequacy of the water supply in Manhattan became very apparent. The Croton River was chosen as the water supply and in 1837, work began with the construction of a dam on the river to create a five-mile long lake. A pipe was constructed to carry the water 45 miles to New York. Initially, the Legislature had planned to carry the water across to Manhattan on a low bridge. However, because Morris’s caper had proven the Harlem River navigable, a low bridge became as impossible as the dam. Accordingly, the Legislature ruled that it would have to be at least 100 feet high with arches at least 80 feet apart. The aqueduct from Croton was completed sufficiently by 1842 to begin carrying water , but construction continued on the bridge until 1848. When completed the granite structure was 1,450 feet long, twenty-five feet wide, with fifteen semicircular arches. Originally, it had two cast iron pipes, each, three feet in diameter, but between 1860 and 1864, another pipe seven feet six inches in diameter was added. The water was routed to a large reservoir in Central Park and then on to a 20,000,000-gallon distributing reservoir at 42 nd Street and Fifth Avenue, the current site of the main branch of the New York Public Library. The new source of 35 million gallons of water per day caused fire insurance rates in the city to drop forty cents on every hundred dollars of value. The entire project cost the City of New York $12,500,000. The stone arches in the middle of the river were removed in the mid–1920s to improve navigation and replaced with a single steel arch. Some of the stone from the arches that were removed was used to build a containing wall on the west side of Riverdale Avenue from 231 st Street to 236 th Street in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.
The Highbridge was considered to be an engineering marvel and became a landmark of renown. Lewis Morris’ steamboat “Trumpeter” carried the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Newcastle and their party to see it, with cheering crowds all along the river bank – more proof that the people of Highbridge do not bear grudges. Hotels sprang up and Highbridge became a major tourist attraction for wealthy New Yorkers and foreign visitors. Edgar Allen Poe enjoyed walking on the Highbridge when he lived in Fordham (1846-49.) Here is an excerpt from an article in Harper’s Weekly of 1880:
Nothing can be pleasanter, for those who have only a short time at their disposal, than an afternoon trip to Highbridge, where the scenery is delightful, and where one can enjoy the sight of the great structure over which rushes the supply of water for New York, take a walk over the high banks, or sit on shaded benches to watch the rowers on Harlem River. The end comes all too soon. The cry of “All aboard!” startles the most lazily inclined…. But the day has been pleasant, and the excursionists return to their city homes refreshed and invigorated by their healthful outing.
Highbridge was reached for such excursions primarily by boat. Boats named “Tiger Lily”, “Osceo”, “Trumpet”, Moses Taylor” and “Seabird” regularly made the run to Highbridge. There were numerous inns and roadhouses, such as Huber’s Hotel Café and Casino, Judge Smith’s roadhouse , the Woodbine Hotel and Mike O’Brien’s Undercliff Hotel. In addition, there were picnic spots such as Kyle’s Park (just north of the Highbridge on the Bronx side.) One establishment, operated by a gentleman named John Karl boasted a glass-enclosed pavilion where up to 1,000 people might dine and enjoy the finest beer and wines. Even in winter, Highbridge was the scene of many sleighing parties. However, the population of the entire Bronx which was 1,761 in 1790 had risen to only 8,032 by 1850, so that it was still very rural.
In the early 1870’s a tightrope artist named Leslie was paid by one of these establishments to perform a feat walking the tightrope strung from Manhattan to the Bronx over Kyle Park, just north of the bridge. The event was well publicized and very well attended. But Leslie did not just walk across the river on the rope. He carried a small portable stove on his back. Halfway across, he put the stove down, lighted it, made batter and began to cook pancakes which he then dropped to the people in rowboats beneath him. He waited for the stove to cool down and then crossed the rest of the way to Highbridge.
All kinds of horse racing were popular in the second half of the nineteenth century. There was a trotter’s track across the river running from the Macomb’s Dam Bridge up what is now the Harlem River Drive. In the North end of the Bronx, was a thoroughbred track, Jerome Park Raceway (currently the sight of Lehman College and the Jerome Park Reservoir.) The racetrack was opened in 1867 and owned by the Jerome family. It was site of the Belmont Stakes until 1890 when the track closed. Although the Jerome family had their principal residence in Brooklyn, they also had a summer cottage in Highbridge (the exact location is not known, but it is believed to have been on Nelson Avenue between 164 th Street and 165 th Street.) One daughter named Jennie spent summers in Highbridge until she was sent off to study in Europe at the age of 13 in 1867. There, she met and married Lord Randolph Churchill at the age of 19 and gave birth to a son named Winston in 1874. Winston Churchill became the Prime Minister of England during World War II and one of the towering figures of the Twentieth Century.