The history of Carl Schurz Park is epic, and entwined with the history of New York City. Its historic arc begins in 1614, when Dutch sea captain Adriaen Block was the first European to navigate up the East River and into the tidal strait where the Long Island Sound, Harlem River, and the East River meet. He named this strait Hellegat. Loosely translated from the Dutch it means “bright passage” or “beautiful strait.” It has been speculated that Block was using a pun to describe this treacherous passage, as he was in the pay of strict Lutherans who forbade swearing. The Anglicized name Hell Gate stuck. He goes on to discover Block Island.
A Dutchman named Sybout Claesen was the first recorded owner of the area that is now Carl Schurz Park, acquiring a deed from the Dutch East India Company dating back to 1646. Claesen named the point overlooking Hell Gate, Hoorn’s Hook, in honor of Hoorn, Holland, his place of birth. A carpenter residing in lower Manhattan, he used this property as farmland.
In 1770, in a case of terrifically bad timing, a loyalist named Jacob Walton purchased the property at what became known as Horn’s Hook. There he built a mansion named Belview for his bride Polly, the niece of former Mayor John Cruger Jr., also a staunch loyalist to the Crown. American patriots seized Belview at the onset of the American Revolutionary War. There they built a fort known as Thompson’s Battery, strategically overlooking the waters of Hell Gate. In September of 1776 the British Navy bombarded Thompson’s Battery, destroying Walton’s mansion.
Hell Gate lived up to its name because of its treacherous tides and the many underwater hazards. One of the hazards was an underwater rock outcropping named Pot Rock. In 1780 the HMS Hussar, transporting the British Army’s payroll of some £2,000,000 of gold coin, struck Pot Rock in Hell Gate and sank. The gold was never recovered.
In 1799, Archibald Gracie, a shipping magnate from Scotland, bought the former site of Belview and built the mansion that bears his name. Some early visitors to Gracie Mansion were Marquis de Lafayette, John Quincy Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Washington Irving. More recently, dignitaries such as First Lady Rosalyn Carter, and Nelson Mandela were fêted there. Facing financial difficulties, Gracie deeded his mansion to Senator Rufus King in 1819. King sold it to Joseph Foulke in 1823. In 1857, Foulke sold the mansion to Noah Wheaton. In addition to Gracie Mansion, the area around Carl Schurz Park was home to many country estates including one of John Jacob Astor, just to the northwest of Gracie Mansion. A favorite retreat of the time was Dunlap’s Hurlgate Ferry Hotel, located at the base of East 86th Street. Hurlgate was a sanitized version of Hell Gate used in the 19th century.
In 1834, the New York and Harlem Railroad was extended up to Yorkville. The area quickly developed. Ferries would cross the river from Astoria to the ferry house at base of East 86th Street. These ferries provided a key transportation link, enabling residents of Queens to cross the river to Yorkville, and commute to their jobs in lower Manhattan via the railroad.
In May of 1869, the New York Times reported of the opening of a pleasure garden called Sulzer’s East River Park at the base of East 84th Street. The land bounded by East 84th Street, East End Avenue and East 86th Street was acquired by the city in 1876 and became known as East River Park.
What began in the 1850s with the Army Corps of Engineers clearing Hell Gate of the various hazards using blasting, culminated with them obliterating Flood Rock in Hell Gate with 300,000 pounds of explosives in 1885. Fifty thousand people flocked to both shores of the East River to witness the event. 12-year-old Miss Mary Newton, daughter Lt. Col. John Newton, pressed the key that set off the charge. The explosion sent a geyser of water 250 feet in the air, and the blast was detected by a seismometer at Princeton University, some sixty miles away. It was the largest controlled explosion in the United States until Trinity, near Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945.
In 1887, the Common Council, dominated by Tammany Hall, earmarked $1,000,000 to purchase property in all of Manhattan to create small parks.
In 1888, Calvert Vaux, head landscape architect of the Department of Public Parks, and his colleague, Samuel Parsons Jr., submitted a plan that would include “completion of a solid sea wall, an iron railing and completion of the paved walk in East River Park, between Eighty-forth and Eighty-Sixth Street” at the cost of $6,000 to $7,000. It would take the City until 1902 to complete the plan.
By 1890, the area north of 86th Street between Avenue B and the river had been divided into dozens of parcels, each privately owned. One of the owners was Patrick Sheehy, presumably related to Edward Sheehy, a Tammany Hall politician. A New York Times article of November 1, 1890 reported that the city commissioners recommended that a total of $502,756 be paid for these parcels so they could be condemned and used to expand East River Park. It is worth noting that this is more than half of the $1,000,000 of the “Small Park Fund” set aside for acquiring property for small parks in all of Manhattan, in what was clearly a case of Tammany Hall malfeasance.
In 1896, the final residents of Gracie Mansion, the Wheaton’s, came to an agreement with the City, transferring Gracie Mansion to the Parks Department to be included in East River Park. The mansion and its surrounding grounds were the final parcel in what became Carl Schurz Park, extending the little park on the river from 84th Street to 89th Street, East End Avenue, which was then called Avenue B, and the East River. Gracie Mansion remained unoccupied until it was opened to the public as the first home of the Museum of the City of New York in 1927.
On June 15, 1904, the steamer General Slocum caught fire off East 90th Street in Hell Gate with more than 1,300 passengers from the “Little Germany” section of the Lower East Side and parishioners of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church onboard. Over 1,021 tragically perished, many of them children. Members of the Cygnet Club, a local lifesaving club located at the foot of East 84th Street, rescued 17 people and recovered 22 bodies. It was the worst disaster in the history of New York City until September 11, 2001.
The park was renamed Carl Schurz Park in June 1910 for the noted Statesman Carl Schurz. A German immigrant, he was a Civil War general, lawyer, minister to Spain, and first German-American to serve in the Senate, elected from Missouri. An advocate of the abolition of slavery, he was instrumental in getting Abraham Lincoln elected, delivering the German-American vote in 1860. He went on to be appointed Secretary of the Interior by President Rutherford B. Hayes. Moving to New York City, he became an editor for the New-York Evening Post and later Harper’s Weekly. After his death in 1906, the German-American community of Yorkville advocated for East River Park to be renamed in Schurz’s honor.
In the 1930s, construction began of the East River Drive, later named the FDR. Designed by Robert Moses, it reached Carl Schurz Park, then abutting the East River. This caused Carl Schurz Park to undergo a complete redesign, with a new esplanade built over the underpass. Under the direction of Moses, the Park was re-landscaped by Maud Sargent starting in 1939. The foot of East 86th Street was closed to traffic in order to create what would become the Cherry Allée, the playground was enlarged, and broad staircases were built leading up the new esplanade. It is worth noting that Moses lived at 7 Gracie Square. After the Museum of the City of New York relocated to Fifth Avenue, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, at Robert Moses’ insistence, moved into Gracie Mansion in 1942, making it the official residence of the Mayor of New York City.
In July 1942, the new esplanade over East River Drive was dedicated as John Finley Walk. It was named for the City College of New York president, and later New York Times associate editor who died in 1940. Finley was known for his long walks around the entire perimeter of Manhattan. Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia was a friend of his and suggested that the silhouette used in the signs on the esplanade incorporate Finley’s distinctive forward leaning gait.
Gracie Mansion has evolved over time. The building of a new wing was announced in 1963. Seeking to greater accommodate visitors, and provide more privacy for the original mansion, it was built largely through the efforts of Susan Wagner, wife of Mayor Robert Wagner Jr., and was inspired by Jackie Kennedy’s renovation of the White House. After her death it was named the Susan Wagner Wing.
The city’s oldest community-based volunteer park organization, the Carl Schurz Park Association was incorporated in 1974. It was renamed Carl Schurz Park Conservancy in 2006 to better reflect its mission.
The most tranquil location in Carl Schurz Park is a cul-de-sac at the base of East 87th Street now known as the Peter Pan Garden, named for the statue it features. Designed by sculptor Charles Andrew Hafner in 1928, it was formerly located in the old Paramount Theatre on 42nd Street, venue to Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington. After the Paramount was torn down in 1966, it came to Carl Schurz Park through the efforts of philanthropist Hugh Adams of the Statue to the Season Fund for a Better New York in 1975. The statue is a marked contrast to Disney’s Peter Pan. Almost feminine, with a downward looking gaze, and a fawn, rabbit, and toad at its feet, it defines this award-winning garden. In August of 1998 feral teenagers threw it in the East River. Then Park Commissioner Henry Stern remarked, “It is a very sad thing. I thought his only enemy was Captain Hook.” Happily it was recovered intact and reinstalled through the efforts of wealthy benefactor Celia Lipton Farris, who played Peter Pan on the London boards as a young woman.
Today, Carl Schurz Park is one of the most beautiful urban small parks in the United States. Overseen by Carl Schurz Park Conservancy, working in partnership with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the Conservancy’s goal is to further beautify and maintain this amazing little park on the East River for everyone to enjoy.
by Jeffrey B. Evans