Simanaitis Says

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WHA’CHA’CALL’IT IN OLD MANHATTAN?

IT’S ALWAYS ENTERTAINING—and never too late—to bring one’s knowledge up to date. Like, for instance, is there an original Mr. Wall of Wall Street? Or why did a street in old Manhattan get named for Texas patriot Sam Houston? And who was Aaron Burr’s last wife, but not for long? 

Fortunately, (and, perhaps, no surprise to some…), I’ve acquired a book that answers these questions and a lot more.

The Street Book: An Encyclopedia of Manhattan’s Street Names and Their Origins, by Henry Moscow, Hagstrom Company, 1978. 

Verrazano’s Brief Visit. Henry Moscow observed, “For everybody except American Indians, Manhattan’s history began on a day in May of 1524, when the ship Delfina poked its bow through The Narrows.”

The Delfina’s Florentine captain Giovanni da Verrazano reported to King Francis I of France, who financed the voyage: “We found a very pleasant situation amongst some steep hills, through which a very large river, deep at its mouth, forced its way to the sea…. All of a sudden, as is wont to happen to navigators, a violent wind blew in from the sea, and forced us to return to our ship, greatly regretting to leave the region, which seemed so commodious and delightful….”

“King Francis missed the cue,” Moscow continued, “and Verrazano never returned…. (Verrazano vanished mysteriously on a later voyage; he may have been eaten by South Americans, it is suggested, or hanged as a pirate, for he had engaged in privateering.)” 

So that’s the story of Verrazano Narrows and the Bridge. Here are three others. 

Wall Street. There is no Mr. Wall. Among various tales, Moscow subscribes to the one that it was simply “a wall erected in 1653 to defend the city against an expected attack from New England: Britain and The Netherlands were at war at the time. New Amsterdam’s Dutch called it De Waal.”

Wall Street, B 5. This and following images from The Street Book.

Jumel Place and Jumel Terrace. These two are just east of Broadway; Jumel Terrace, at 160th Street; Jumel Place, at 167th. 

Jumel Terrace, B-C 2. Jumel Placel, C-D 2.

Moscow relates, “The Namesake: Jumel Mansion, home of Stephen Jumel, a wine importer of charm, wealth and acuity, who is best remembered as the first husband of the rapacious beauty who married Aaron Burr when Burr was in his eighties.” 

The beautiful and scandalous Betsey Bowen, 1775–1865; a real piece of work.

According to encyclopedia.com, Burr was actually 77 at the time; Betsey, 58. The Burr/Jumel née Bowen nuptials were ill-fated. Within a year, she chose Alexander Hamilton, Jr., to handle the divorce; officially the marriage lasted only three years. Same for Burr.

Sam Houston in The Village? Uh, no. First of all, the Texas patriot is pronounced HEW-sten. And Houston, originally Houstoun, Street is pronounced HOW-ston. William Houstoun was a Georgia delegate to the Continental Congress, 1784, 1785, and 1786. Moscow recounted that the street was named by “Nicholas Bayard III, whose daughter became Mrs. Houstoun in 1788.”

Moscow also noted that Sam Houston was a unknown teenager in Tennessee at the time. 

Houston Street: A 3-6.

Houston Street is the Ho of SoHo, designating that chic portion of Manhattan south of it. Also, as part of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, east-west thoroughfares north of Houston Street are numbered, 1st, 2nd, etc. 

Another related tidbit: In 1891, Nikola Tesla established his laboratory on Houston Street. It was destroyed by fire in 1895. Don’t blame Tesla: The fire started in the basement; his lab was on the fourth floor, which collapsed and destroyed all his research.

And, by the way, London’s Soho has nothing to do with the Houstons, however pronounced. It’s said the Brit Soho, which used to be open fields, might have got its name from a hunting call related to “tally-ho.” 

I hadn’t realized that street names could encourage all this. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022 

One comment on “WHA’CHA’CALL’IT IN OLD MANHATTAN?

  1. Larry Crane
    September 23, 2022

    High marks for Betsey’s big blue eyes. They may have contributed to a big personality. A familiar appeal.

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