Maiden Lane

Down Maiden Lane, where clover grew,
Sweet-scented in the early air,
Where sparkling rills went shining through
Their grassy banks, so green, so fair,
Blithe little maids from Holland land
Went tripping, laughing each to each,
To bathe the flax, or spread a band
Of linen in the sun to bleach… 

“In Sun or ShadeLouise Morgan Sill, 1906.

Maiden Lane, in New York’s financial district, stretches from the South Street Seaport to the World Trade Center Site. Over three hundred years ago, when New York was New Amsterdam, a rippling brook wended the same path as the lane. Known as Maagde Paatje, it was named for the women who washed their clothes there. It was also a place where lovers met and gadded about the pebbly brook.

An illustration from the 1921 book A History of the United States by Henry Eldridge Bourne. A brookside path with the name of Maiden Lane followed a valley to the East River

When the British took over Manhattan, they changed the name to English as Maiden Lane. In 1696, the path was paved with cobbles, but the stream continued to flow down the center of it until 1827 when it was engineered to flow under the streets. It still runs under Lower Manhattan today.

1712 — The Slave Rebellion

The buildings on fire on Maiden Land during the 1712 Slave Rebellion

Though the Dutch were the first to bring slaves to New York, it wasn’t until 1711 that the official slave market opened, located on Wall Street by the East River. A year later, New York experienced its first slave rebellion. Twenty-three black slaves revolted, setting a building on fire on Maiden Lane. When the colonists tried to put it out, they were attacked by the slaves, killing nine white men and women, and injuring six others.

Over seventy slaves were arrested, followed by executions and harsher slave codes.

1728 — The Fly Market

Along the waterfront in 1728, a market for fresh produce, fish, and meat was built in the location known as the Vly. This Dutch word referred to the valley that existed there. Again, the British changed it, naming the market the Fly. This covered market ran until 1823 when it closed for good.

1732 — The Playhouse

Little known fact: Maiden Lane is the birthplace of professional theatre in America. In 1732, a company of London actors arrived and set up a stage in the upper floors of a warehouse at the junction of Pearl Street and Maiden Lane. A stage was installed, as were raised seats enough for four hundred people.

One of the plays performed was Joseph Addison’s tragic play, Cato. In Act IV, the hero says:

What a pity it is,
That we can die but once to serve our country. 

The execution of Nathan Hale.
Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History, 1912.
Hey kids, who wants to go to a hanging?

It is possible that Nathan Hale, soldier and spy for the Continental Army, had seen this play during his college years, and it later inspired him to exclaim before his hanging:

I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.

1790 — The Room Where It Happened

Plaque marking the site of the former residence of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the USA. 57 Maiden Lane.

On June 20, 1790, Thomas Jefferson, as Secretary of State under George Washington, served an intimate dinner between himself, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison at his rented house at 57 Maiden Lane. That night, they wrote the Compromise of 1790. Jefferson and Madison got the national capital located in the South—on the Potomac River, and Hamilton got the federal government to pay the state debts. This dinner was made famous in the Broadway musical, Hamilton.

The Room Where It Happened: On June 20, 1790, Thomas Jefferson, as Secretary of State under George Washington, served an intimate dinner between himself, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison at his rented house at 57 Maiden Lane.

Shopping & Diamond Districts

By the end of the eighteenth century, Maiden Lane had become a shopping district, conveniently situated by the docks where ships would bring in goods from around the world. Prominent jewelers and clockmakers also set up shops and stayed until 1925 when they were lured uptown to West 47th Street.

Advertisement: Charles Oliver Bruff at the sign of the Teapot & Tankard, between Maiden Lane and Crown Street, near Fly Market makes and mends all kinds of diamond or enameled work in the jewelry way. 1775
Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776
Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

Today, you won’t see any architecture on Maiden Lane linking the area back to the 18th century. The Great Fire of 1835 swept through, destroying hundreds of buildings. What was once a lover’s lane is now the heart of New York’s financial district.

Old print of the view from Maiden Lane
South Street from Maiden Lane, New York, in 1828
1834, William James Bennett American

Sources:

Kadinsky, S. (2016). Hidden Waters of New York City: A History and Guide to 101 Forgotten Lakes, Ponds, Creeks, and Streams in the Five Boroughs. United States: Countryman Press.

Singleton, E. (2008). Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776: Houses, Streets and Country Homes (1902). United States: Lightning Source.

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