Bowry Lane

If you had asked me which street in Manhattan is the oldest, I would have answered, “The Broad Way.” And I would have been wrong. Before Chinatown and Five Points, before the street became known as “The Bowery,” it was Bowry Lane, a prior footpath shaped by the Lenape.

Native American dwellings on Manhattan Island, before the Dutch settlement.
Source: John Gilmary Shea, 1886.

The Lenape used the path to travel to and from trading and gathering places, and Collect Pond, the only source of freshwater in Manhattan. (The East and Hudson Rivers are tidal estuaries—or brackish, not fresh.) The Lenape term for the path was Wickquasgeck, which either means “Path to the trading place” or “Birch-bark country.”

Dutch Bouwerij

As the Dutch stripped land for the colonists to become self-sufficient in their new environment, they named the path for the farms, or bouwerijs, on it.

In 1625, the Dutch West India Company sent Crijn Fredericksz, an engineer, to Manhattan to survey the land for a fort, roads, farms, and property lines. In doing so, the Broad Way—broad enough for carriages passing in both directions—extended from the southernmost tip of the island where the Dutch built their fort, straight up to the “Road to the Bouwerij.”

Map of New Amsterdam. Fort at the tip of Manhattan, the Broad Way extending straight up to the “Road to the Bouwerijs” along the East River, 1644.

Enslaved Africans

In 1626, the first enslaved Africans arrived in New Amsterdam. Within two decades, many were granted freedom and parcels of land along Bowry Lane.

Now older and manumitted, free Africans were, for the most part, no longer considered “useful” to colonists. But the colonists still found a way to use them: by living on the farthest land from the fort, the free Africans served as the first line of defense against attacks by Native Americans and the British coming from the north.

Ancient View of the Present Junction of Pearl & Chatham Streets
Ancient View of the Present Junction of Pearl & Chatham Streets, 1861. Source: NYPL

Manhattan Changes Hands

When the British took over in 1664, Bowry Lane was already the major road out of Manhattan. It connected to the Boston Post Road, which still exists today, and was literally a posting road that led from New York to Boston.

Montrésor, John, Peter Andrews, and Andrew Dury. A plan of the city of New-York & its environs to Greenwich, on the North or Hudsons River, and to Crown Point, on the East or Sound River, shewing the several streets, publick buildings, docks, fort & battery, with the true form & course of the commanding grounds, with and without the town. Survey'd in the winter,i.e. 1766. [London; Sold by A. Dury, 1775]
Montrésor, John, Peter Andrews, and Andrew Dury, 1766. Source: Library of Congress

In the early part of the 18th century, Bowry Lane was paved, and sidewalks installed. A map from 1766 labels the entire length of road as “the Bowry Lane.” However, after the American Revolution, the northern section was renamed for William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, for his pro-American stance during the war.

The Oldest Home in Manhattan

While New York City became more populated with people and buildings, Bowry Lane remained farms and large estates. To accommodate a greater need for meat, the city established the first public slaughterhouse on the land around Collect Pond, which sits very close to Bowry Lane. Prior to this, slaughterhouses weren’t allowed in the city due to their noise, smells, and effluent matter. Unfortunately, this was the beginning of the end to Collect Pond as a source of non-polluted freshwater.

The house is brick, painted dark red. There are Chinese characters below the third floor windows.
Edward Mooney House at 18 Bowery.
Source: Wikimedia

The slaughterhouses were important to Edward Mooney, who was not only important in the “meat business,” but also represented the city’s butchers in the Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. Wanting to leave near his place of business, he purchased a parcel of land from the Delancey estate at the auction from the Commissioners of Forfeiture in 1785.

During and after the war, Americans confiscated land from loyalists to pay for the war effort. The inhabitants were allowed to take their clothes, some furniture, and provisions for three months. As such, James Delancey, who remained loyal to the British Crown, forfeited his estate. On this land, Mooney built a house at 18 Bowery, and it still stands today.

The architectural style of the house is Early Federal, reflecting strongly its Georgian antecedents in construction, proportions and design details. It is three stories in height, with s finished-garret beneath a gambrel roof, Two features of special note which verif,y the documented age of the building are the hand-hewn timbers framing the roof and the broad width of the front windows in proportion to their height. On the exterior, original splayed stone lintels with double keystone blocks are above most of the windows. At the gable end of the house, Which can be viewed from Pell Street, the garret floor is lighted by a central round-headed window. the upper sash of which contains original wooden tracery. It is flanked by a pair of quadrant windows. The gambrel roof on this side is Within a parapet wall connecting:two large chimneys. The interior of the house also discloses many original architectural details including, in the earliest section, window frames and trim, and in the extension, a stairway with an oval-shaped handrail.
From the Landmarks Preservation Commission, August 23, 1966

The Bowery

The 19th century brought tremendous change to Manhattan and the Bowery, in particular with the influx of immigrants. Over the next two hundred and fifty years, the Bowery would continue to thrive and fail many times over.

Image of the Bowery with people walking on the street, horse-drawn carts, and trolleys below an elevated train track in front of the Bowery Savings Bank.
The Bowery 1897-1898. Source: Wikimedia

Sources:

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