History of New York City (1855–97)

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The history of New York City (1855–1897) started with the inauguration in 1855 of Fernando Wood as the first mayor from Tammany Hall, an institution that would dominate the city throughout this period. Reforms led to the New York City Police Riot of June 1857. There was chaos during the American Civil War, with major rioting in the New York Draft Riots. Later years saw the rise of the Gilded Age which saw prosperity for the city's upper classes amid the further growth of a poor immigrant working class, and an increasing consolidation, both economic and municipal, of what would become the five boroughs in 1898.

Ocean-going steamships and steam railroads, developed in earlier decades, grew to take over most long distance transport, bringing an ever-increasing stream of immigration and industrialization. A distinctive breed of New York tugboats arose.[citation needed]

New York's theater district gradually moved northward during this half century, from The Bowery up Broadway through Union Square and Madison Square, settling around Times Square at the end of the 20th century. Edwin Booth was among the stars of mid-century, and Lillian Russell at the end.[citation needed]

In 1865 the Metropolitan Fire District united the fire departments of New York and Brooklyn, and was more successful than the earlier Metropolitan Police District, eventually developing into the New York City Fire Department.[citation needed]

Pre-Civil War[edit]

Second Avenue facing north from 42nd Street in 1861

Out of the national free soil controversy arose a new political party, the Republicans. They became prominent in New York politics, and attempted to cut the power of Mayor Wood and other pro-South Democrats by abolishing the New York City Municipal Police Department in favor of a Metropolitan Police District. Resistance resulted in the New York City Police Riot of 1857. The police being busy with their feud, the Dead Rabbits Riot between two gangs in Five Points occurred in July, lasting two days, killing about 100 people, and stopped only by intervention of the state militia. It was the worst riot up to that time.

Civil War[edit]

Prior to the conflict, in 1861, Mayor Fernando Wood proposed New York City secession from the United States as a neutral sovereign city-state to be called Tri-Insula as a way to avoid the ravages of the war. Despite strong local Copperhead sympathies, the proposal was not well received. During the American Civil War on July 13, 1863 opponents of conscription began five days of rioting, the 'Draft Riots', the worst in United States history.

Gilded Age[edit]

The Great East River Bridge To connect the cities of New York and Brooklyn, Currier & Ives, 1872

The post-war period was noted for the corruption and graft for which Tammany Hall has become proverbial, but equally for the foundation of New York's pre-eminent cultural institutions, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Opera, the American Museum of Natural History, while the Brooklyn Museum was a major institution of New York's independent sister city.

New York newspapers were read across the continent as editors James Gordon Bennett, Sr., Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst battled for readership.

The flood of immigration from Europe passed first through Castle Clinton (opened 1855) and then through Ellis Island (opened 1892) in New York Harbor, under the eye of the Statue of Liberty (1886).

The new European immigration brought further social upheaval, and old world criminal societies rapidly exploited the already corrupt municipal machine politics of Tammany Hall, while local American barons of industry further exploited the immigrant masses with ever lower wages and crowded living conditions. In a city of tenements packed with cheap foreign labor from dozens of nations, the city was a hotbed of revolution, syndicalism, racketeering, and unionization. In response, the upper classes used partisan hand-outs, organized crime groups, heavy-handed policing and political oppression to undermine groups which refused to be co-opted. Groups such as anti-capitalist labor unions, native American patriot organizations such as the American Protective Association, and reformers of all stripes were fiercely repressed, while crime lords that became too independent disappeared.

Hundreds of thousands of people came to Castle Garden (and later to Ellis Island) during this period. Many of them were Irish Catholics, others English or German; Italians settled around Mulberry Street between the East Village and Lower Manhattan, in an area later to be known as "Little Italy." A number of East European Jews came to the Lower East Side and Jewtown,[clarification needed] escaping persecutions and Pogroms. New York was the most crowded city in the world.[citation needed] In the 1890s, two out of three residents were poorly housed in tenements.

Epidemics (typhus, cholera, diphtheria and tuberculosis) were rampant in the city's slums, hiding in the rookeries. Horse manure and human wastes were in the streets. In winter, when all the grime froze, walking on the sidewalks was impossible. Animals and livestock such as pigs and horses died and remained on the street.[citation needed] In 1894 Colonel George E. Waring, Jr. introduced sanitary reforms.

William Magear Tweed, better known as Boss Tweed, had become the sole leader of Tammany Hall by 1867. From April 1870, with the passage of a city charter consolidating power in the hands of his political allies, Tweed and his cronies were able to defraud the city of some tens of millions of dollars over the next two years and eight months, most famously with the construction bill for a lavish courthouse. The efforts of muckraking newspaper accounts and the biting cartoons of Thomas Nast helped in the election of opposition candidates in 1871, resulting in Tweed's conviction for forgery and larceny in 1873. Tweed's fall put an end to the total immunity of corrupt local political leaders, and was a precursor to the rise of Progressive Era reforms in the city.

In the Orange Riots of July 1871 and 1872, Catholic Irish attempted to stop Protestant Irish from celebrating the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne. These resulted in more than 33 deaths and many wounded.[1][2]

In 1874, nearly 61% of all U.S. exports passed through New York harbor. In 1884, nearly 70% of U.S. imports came through New York. The eventual rise of ports on the Gulf of Mexico and on the Pacific coast reduced New York's share of imports and exports to about 47% in 1910. The city's banking resources grew 250% between 1888 and 1908, compared to the national increase of 26%. Between 1860 and 1907, the assessed value of the land and buildings on Manhattan rose from $1.7 billion to $6.7 billion.

Prewar steam ferries had already made Brooklyn Heights into a bedroom community for affluent professionals on Wall Street and other urban areas. Elevated railroads operated by the Manhattan Railway Company, and other new public transport expanded the commuter area of New York, allowing development of suburbs for commuters of more modest means in Upper West Side and other distant areas. Plans were made for subways to still more remote exurbs such as Harlem and the West Bronx.

Organized crime came with the Italian immigrants in the 1880s. The Black Hand is regarded by many scholars to be the first example of organized crime in modern Western World.[citation needed] Born in New York slums as a form of parallel power, engaged in extortion, Black Hand later paved the way for the Mafia.[citation needed]

Muckraking pioneering photojournalist Jacob Riis documented the poor conditions of immigrant tenement dwellers in his 1890 How the Other Half Lives; he was befriended by mutual admirer, fellow progressive and future United States President Theodore Roosevelt, who, after losing in the mayoral race in 1886, undertook a major reform of the New York City Police Department in 1895-1897 during his term as President of the Police Commissioners.

In the late 19th century, the island's schist bedrock encouraged the early skyscrapers whose successors characterize its skyline today. The Great Blizzard of 1888 exposed the vulnerability of the urban infrastructure connecting those building, encouraging the undergrounding of electric and telephone lines, and plans for a future subway line.

Consolidation, economic and municipal[edit]

This 1877 Currier & Ives print of an unfinished Brooklyn Bridge showed a vision of greater urban integration.

In 1855, the City of Brooklyn annexed Williamsburg and Bushwick, forming what became the third-most-populous city in America. In 1870, Long Island City was formed in Queens. In 1874, New York City annexed what is today the West Bronx, west of the Bronx River. The Brooklyn Bridge completed in 1883 epitomized the heroic confidence of a generation and drew the two cities of Brooklyn and New York inexorably together. As Brooklyn annexed the remainder of Kings County in the decade from 1886 to 1896, the issue of consolidation grew more pressing.

The modern city of Greater New York — the five boroughs — was created in 1898, with the consolidation of the cities of New York (then Manhattan and the Bronx) and Brooklyn with the largely then-rural areas of Queens and Staten Island.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Michael Gordon, The Orange riots: Irish political violence in New York City, 1870 and 1871 (1993)
  2. ^ Access Genealogy Orange Riots

Further reading[edit]

Published in the 19th century[edit]

  • "New York City". Columbian Cyclopedia 21. Buffalo, NY: Garretson, Cox & Company. 1897. 

Published in the 20th century[edit]