The Empire State Plane Crash, July 28, 1945

A dense fog crept across the slate gray New York City sky on Saturday July 28, 1945. The war in Europe was largely over, V-E Day had been declared about seven weeks earlier, and the fall of Japan was near. The city was going about its business shortly before 10 a.m., when a US Army bomber plane carrying a pilot and two other men from Bedford, Massachusetts to LaGuardia Airport made a wrong turn and slammed into the north side of the Empire State Building about 935 feet above the street.

The building topped 1,200 feet, so the plane, which was going more than 200 miles per hour, rammed through the 78th and 79th floors with tremendous force, sending an elevator plummeting 75 floors and triggering three separate heavy fires.

Empire State Building Disaster: Interior, 12:40 pm; 79th Floor, showing hole in wall where plane crashed, July 28, 1945. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The pilot and the two other men in the plane—including a Navy machinist from Brooklyn—were killed instantly and 11 people in the building or on the ground died. The crash triggered a brief panic, launched several investigations and drew both praise and condemnation of the City’s feisty Mayor, Fiorello La Guardia.

Telegrams, letters, secret communications between the City and Washington, and a detailed and heavily-illustrated Fire Department report in the Municipal Library and Archives recount the events of that dark day.

At approximately 9:50 a.m., the pilot of the doomed B-25 Mitchell Aircraft, William F. Smith Jr., radioed the La Guardia Tower saying the plane was about 15 miles south of LaGuardia and asked about the weather at nearby Newark Airport. Following procedure, the LaGuardia Tower told the pilot to call Newark for the local weather.

“Within two minutes, this plane showed up directly southeast of LaGuardia and (LaGuardia Tower chief Operator Victor) Barden believing it intended to land, gave it runway, wind direction and velocity,” the memo read. “The pilot stated he wanted to go to Newark.”

Empire State Building Disaster: Interior, 79th Fl. 12:55 pm, July 28, 1945. Hole in south wall where plane crashed into elevators. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Airways Traffic Control radioed that the weather at Newark was 600 feet ceiling and said the plane should land at LaGuardia. Since it was a bomber, the tower contacted Army Advisory, which said visibility was a little better than that and the tower asked the pilot what he wanted to do.

Smith, a West Point graduate who had completed 42 missions in Europe during the war, made the fateful decision to proceed to Newark. The tower then cleared him to land at Newark, but noted they were “unable to see the top of the Empire State Building” and warned the pilot that if he did not have three miles of forward visibility, he should return to LaGuardia.

But visibility was near zero and the pilot apparently became disoriented, turned the wrong way after skirting the Chrysler Building on 42nd Street and almost immediately slammed into the north side of the Empire State Building. The first fire alarm was pulled at 9:52 a.m. and Mayor LaGuardia quickly rushed to the scene amid arriving fire trucks, ambulances and police cars.

Empire State Building Disaster: Interior, W side of 79th Fl, facing E; 12:30 pm, July 28, 1945. Firemen walking through rubble in rear. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

An extensive Fire Department report issued by Commissioner Patrick Walsh on August 21, 1945, picks up the story, reporting that the plane hit between the 78th and 79th floors with such tremendous force that it made an 18-by-20-foot hole in what was then the tallest building in the world. One engine flew through the south side of the building and landed a block away atop the roof of a factory on West 33rd St. The other engine plummeted down an elevator shaft and triggered a fire that lasted more than 40 minutes.

“The wreckage of a giant aircraft that had carried a large supply of gasoline and tanks of oxygen giving added furor to the blasting fire … scattered death and flames over a wide area,” Walsh wrote. “Elevator service to the scene of the fire, some 935 feet above the street, had been disrupted. Parts of a hurtling motor and other sections of the plane that passed entirely through the structure had brought fire to the roof and top floor of a thirteen-story building across the street from the scene of the original tragedy. A third fire had developed in the basement and sub-basement of the Empire Building itself.”

Empire State Building Disaster: Interior, S corner, 79th Fl., facing N; 12:05 pm, July 28, 1945. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Walsh wrote that the fires were brought under control in 19 minutes and were extinguished within 40 minutes. But, he added, “life hazard was very severe. Persons had been trapped on the 78th and many more on the 79th floor. Persons on the 80th and other floors were exposed to considerable smoke and heat. There was a dangerous possibility of panic among the people in the building.”

Empire State Building Disaster: Basement, 2:40 pm, looking NW, July 28, 1945. Elevator pit, parts of plane. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In a letter accompanying his report, Walsh praised the Mayor for getting to the scene quickly and making sure that accurate information got out to the public to prevent widespread panic. “Your presence at the scene with its attendant acceptance of the risks and rigors of the situation was very impressive and gave testimony to the cooperation that this department has received from you during past years.”

Miraculously, elevator operator Betty Lou Oliver survived the 75-story elevator shaft plunge, in what the Guinness Book of Records would later proclaim “The Longest Fall Survived in an Elevator.” Soon after the horrific accident, as firefighters were still rushing up to the 77th floor to fight the blaze, Army Lt. General Ira Eaker, Deputy Commander of the Army Air Forces, fired off a hand-delivered note to Mayor LaGuardia “to express the concern of the Army Air Forces for the unfortunate accident which occurred at the Empire State Building this morning.”

He vowed to cooperate with city and federal agencies “to ensure a complete and thorough investigation of the circumstances … It is our keenest desire that everything humanly possible be done for those who have suffered in this unfortunate and regrettable accident and we shall leave nothing undone which lies in our power to that end.”

Empire State Building Disaster: Interior, S corner, 79th Fl. Offices; charred bodies on desk in background.; 11:50 am, July 28, 1945. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The next day’s papers—from coast-to-coast—blared the story across their front pages. The New York Daily News story began: “A fog-blind B-25 Mitchell bomber, groping its way southward across Manhattan to Newark Airport crashed into the 79th-floor of the 1,250-foot Empire State Building … turning the world’s tallest building into a torch in the sky high above 34th St. and Fifth Avenue.” That morning the Mayor took to the airwaves with his Talk to the People program, offered condolences to the families of all the victims and read Lt. Gen. Eaker’s letter aloud. (LT2545)

The Archives holds a July 31 story in the Daily Mirror that lent an eerie quality to the story. It started: “The charred remains of the dead … in the Empire State Building tragedy were identified yesterday while souvenir seekers and looters had a ghoulish field day among the debris.” The story said looters invaded the 79th floor offices of the National Catholic Welfare Conference and stole charred stationary and $400 in cash. The thief dropped a bag holding $8,000 in Travelers Checks when police spotted him and gave chase. The owner of the Hicckock Belt Company told cops someone stole $300 worth of belts, suspenders and wallets.

Empire State Building Disaster: 34th Street, showing parts of plane on N side of street; 1:20 pm, July 28, 1945. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Despite the damage, much of the building was open for business on the Monday two days after the accident. The crash also led to creation of the Federal Tort Claims Act and brought calls from military and aviation experts for better training and safety rules. Brigadier General Robert Travis blamed a rash of accidents on a “lack of knowledge of equipment, lack of discipline and plain bullheadedness.”

Mayor LaGuardia added to the furor over the accident when he told the Herald Tribune he thought the pilot was flying too low, given the number of skyscrapers in Midtown. In response to one critical letter to the mayor, Goodhue Livingston Jr., LaGuardia’s executive secretary, noted that if the pilot “had maintained the proper altitude when flying over Manhattan the accident would not have occurred. Unfortunately, some of our Army Pilots who have been coming into our municipal fields during this war emergency period have on occasion have [sic] not maintained the proper safe altitude.”

The Empire State Building as it was in 1940, with a much shorter midtown. Department of Finance Tax Photo Collection.

The Empire State Building as it was in 1940, with a much shorter midtown. Department of Finance Tax Photo Collection.

An August 13 letter from H.H. Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, backed up LaGuardia. Arnold said there was no evidence the plane had malfunctioned, and he clearly pinned the blame on the pilot.

 “It appears that the pilot used poor judgment,” Arnold wrote, adding that Smith did not maintain the altitude and did not have the minimum visibility to go to Newark. “He had been warned by the LaGuardia Tower that the top of the Empire State Building could not be seen. Therefore, it may be assumed that he was mistaken in his establishment of his position with respect to the Lower Manhattan area.” Arnold said the military had taken measures to avoid a similar accident in the future by better communication between the military and air traffic control and by establishing local traffic routes for Army aircraft in the metropolitan area.

Unfortunately, less than a year later it happened again. On May 20, 1946, an U.S. Army Air Forces Beechcraft C-45F Expediter slammed into the north side of the 925-foot-high building at 40 Wall Street in a heavy fog. All five crew members were killed.

Columbus Day 1944: Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s broadcasts to Italy during World War II

Mayor LaGuardia speaking at reviewing stand, at the Columbus Day Parade, October 12, 1943. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Between July 1942 and May 1945 Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia delivered weekly radio broadcasts in Italian via shortwave radio to Italy. This was a secretive undertaking organized by the Office of War Information (OWI), designed to keep Italians informed of Allied activities during the war, and to offer encouragement and hope during the period of German occupation. The recently-digitized Italian and English transcripts of the broadcasts at the New York Municipal Archives (NYMA) open a window into issues facing Italy during the war and the Mayor’s unsparing views of Hitler and Mussolini. The audio recordings reside at the Library of Congress; however a few have been made available for listening. The talks of October 1944, seventy-five years ago, document a critical turning point for Italy in the war and in US–Italian relations. The Mayor had not broadcast for nine weeks, reflecting mounting Italian-American skepticism regarding the Allies’ treatment of Italy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was facing re-election and needed the Italian-American vote. By forging an alliance between rival groups in New York City and striking a deal with the British, President Roosevelt’s promise of aid and recognition to Italy succeeded in making Columbus Day 1944 an unprecedented success, ushering in the iconic Fifth Avenue parade and the return of the Italian flag. LaGuardia’s return to the airwaves in October 1944 captures the drama of these events.

Major LaGuardia with soldiers in Italy in 1918. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

LaGuardia already enjoyed a national reputation in Italy for his speeches. Roughly twenty-five years earlier, as an army captain during the First World War, he spoke in Italian at La Scala in Milan and at the Coliseum in Rome, encouraging Italians to support the war effort. These speeches are well-documented with much coverage in both the Italian and English press. The WWII broadcasts, in contrast, were a secretive undertaking, with background material provided to LaGuardia by the State Department on Italian fascism and anti-Semitism during the German occupation of Italy. Italian fascists had been broadcasting to Italian-Americans in the US and the US wanted Italians to hear anti-fascist sentiments from an American. Mayor LaGuardia, a vocal anti-fascist, was actively pursued by the newly-formed OWI in the spring of 1942. Correspondence uncovered at the Municipal Archives reveals the Mayor’s close working relationship with the officials of the OWI, then based in New York City. There was agreement that these broadcasts were not to be publicized.

LaGuardia would dictate his talks in Italian about one week in advance of each planned broadcast. The pencil notes are his corrections, and the sketch is his as well. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The transmission was a complicated technical undertaking: LaGuardia would dictate his roughly fifteen-minute talk in Italian about one week in advance of each planned broadcast.  His OWI-employed translator, Elma Baccanelli, would then translate the talk into English and submit it to State Department censors for final approval. The final Italian transcript was then typed onto 5x8 cards and read by the Mayor on Saturday afternoon at the NBC studio in mid-town. It was sent by short-wave to BBC London and then converted to medium-wave for better reception in Italy. The talks were generally broadcast on Sunday nights around 9 pm in Italy.

The size of the audience is not known because it was illegal to listen, however, judging by the volume of letters he received (also at the NYMA), and the negative comments generated by the Nazi and Fascist press, his talks were listened to by many. I personally know this because of the many Italians I have met who remember listening to these broadcasts as children, often in a basement or a closet, and recall the experience with great emotion. These broadcasts were a lifeline of hope for the Italians. The language is simple and direct, a hallmark of LaGuardia, as he exhorts the Italians to resist the Germans, and he declares his unqualified love for Italy and confidence in an Allied victory. 

Some of the many letters Mayor LaGuardia received from Italy. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

A note from Elma Baccanelli, LaGuardia’s translator, in August 1943 informing him that his directive to the Italian Navy to help end the stalemate was removed by State Department censors.

Early in the process LaGuardia formed a productive and trusting relationship with Elma Baccanelli, an Italian-American employed by the OWI. Notes from the Municipal Archives show that she gently offered wording suggestions and had the unpleasant task of informing the Mayor when his words were censored. There were three noteworthy episodes of censorship during the three years of broadcasting, and the correspondence with the State Department, the OWI, and even President Roosevelt, reveals a tension between classified war plans and the Mayor’s desire to speak directly and frankly to the Italian people. In general, the reasons for censorship focused on perceived or suggested “instructions for revolt,” which LaGuardia never seemed to understand given that it was wartime. Rather than acquiescing to the censors, the Mayor simply cancelled his planned broadcasts on these occasions, claiming “there was nothing left to say after all the cuts.”

Mayor Laguardia must have complained to friends in Washington about the censorship, because on September 7, 1943 President Roosevelt sent LaGuardia this short, cryptic note defending the censorship. On September 9th the main Allied invasion force landed in Salerno, Italy. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The broadcasts present a chronology of the war from the viewpoint of an Italian-American anti-fascist. His use of simple language and repeated themes of encouragement, persistence, and affinity with the partisans, provide some insight into his target audience. He was not speaking to the prominenti of German-occupied Milan or Turin (although they listened). He was directing his words to Allied-occupied Southern Italy, where most Italian-Americans had originated.

His talks encompassed three Columbus Day holidays (1942-1944). Each of these three holidays is acknowledged. However, it is the Columbus Day of 1944 that stands out as a turning point in the influence of Italian-Americans on US policy towards Italy. While the Mayor took issue with the censor’s rulings and had previously cancelled a few broadcasts in a huff, between August 6 and October 8, 1944 he went “on-strike” and did not give any talks.

In the August 6, 1944 transcript he expressed his frustration that Italy had not been recognized as an ally by the United Nations despite the liberation of Rome by the Allies on June 5, 1944:

Here in America there is a great desire for news of the Italian patriots. Really, what do you call them in Italy: patriots or partisans? In any case, this activity of the patriots in the occupied territory and everything they do is of the greatest interest to all the Americans. They know how difficult direct action is where the Nazis are, the great peril and risk the patriots face. Therefore- this great admiration.

While we are speaking of the great activity of the patriots—what are the diplomats doing? I think it is time for the Italian situation to be clarified and for the United States to recognize Italy’s position; so that the material, economic, and political reconstruction may begin. After all, are we not friends? I think we are friends. Therefore why not say so?

Perhaps next week I will not speak. You know that unless you have something to say, it is difficult to speak. Only the tenor at the opera sings to hear his own voice; I can speak only when I have really something to say.

This last sentence is not meant for you Italians: do I make myself clear?

Therefore until I have something definite…this is your friend La Guardia saying, Courage! Forward!

The English language draft of LaGuardia’s October 8, 1944 speech. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

During the nine weeks of radio silence, a series of events unfolded that broke the diplomatic log jam for Italy. President Roosevelt, facing re-election and increasingly aware of the dire economic situation in Italy, worked with leaders of the Italian-American community in New York, bridging the rivalries between the pro-fascist Generoso Pope, publisher of the major Italian-language newspaper, Il Progresso, and the anti-fascist Luigi Antonini, head of the Italian American Labor Council (IALC), to assure Italian-Americans that he would provide Italy with all possible aid.

The British were reluctantly willing to work with the US regarding Italy. Following the Quebec Conference of September 12-14, 1944, a Roosevelt-Churchill statement on Italy was issued on September 26, 1944 giving Italy diplomatic representation and access to limited United Nations Relief and Recovery Administration (UNRRA) aid. This was not enough to satisfy Italian-American demands. Roosevelt then personally intervened with the UNRRA General Assembly, meeting in Montreal, to grant Italy $50 million in supplies. Pope published the President’s letter granting these concessions in his newspaper. Antonini arranged for the IALC to present FDR with its Four Freedoms Award in gratitude for the efforts in Italy.

American G.I.s and local children in front of a wall painted with “Fiorello LaGuardia,” and a crown victory symbol, Pozzvoli, Italy, 1945. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Pope was named the grand marshal of the 1944 Columbus Day Parade in New York City, the first year of the march up Fifth Avenue, coinciding with his founding of the Columbus Citizen’s Foundation, the sponsor of every Columbus Day Parade since. US Attorney General Francis Biddle was designated as Roosevelt’s representative at the parade and for the first time since 1941, permission was granted for Italian and American flags to be displayed together at the event.

Yet, there was still more to do before the October 12th festivities began. Roosevelt’s office issued a special statement on October 4, 1944 listing the specific American actions aiding Italy (“Present Problems in Italy”). On October 10, he released another statement implementing a troop pay credits program and reiterating the pledge to provide basic economic requirements for Italy’s reconstruction. Finally, on October 26, 1944, the resumption of full diplomatic relations with Italy was announced with the appointment of Alexander Kirk as US Ambassador to Italy. Ironically, Roosevelt went on to win the election without a strong Italian-American vote.

Mayor LaGuardia marching at head of Columbus Day Parade, flanked and followed by policemen, October 12, 1943. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

When LaGuardia returned to the airwaves on October 8, 1944, he was jubilant:

This is your friend LaGuardia speaking.

I have not spoken to you for nine weeks now. The last time, you will recall, I promised that I would not speak again unless I had something to say. I was really fed up that time. But now I can tell you that the statement made by our President and by Prime Minister Churchill on September 26 was just what I was waiting for. The statement says, among other things:

“We believe we should give encouragement to those Italians who are standing for political rebirth in Italy, and are completing the destruction of the evil fascist system. We wish to afford the Italians a greater opportunity to aid in the defeat of our common enemies…”

“The British High Commissioner in Italy will assume the additional title of Ambassador. The United States representative in Rome already holds that rank. The Italian government will be invited to appoint direct representatives to Washington and London.”

He goes on to say:

It is well to have ambassadors but the people cannot eat ambassadors, if the people are hungry. Therefore these promises must very soon be followed by relief.

And then again on October 15th:

I am happy that the events of the past week give me the opportunity to speak to you again today. Our President has announced that the Italian government will be credited in America for the dollar equivalent of the occupation lire issued in Italy and used by us and by our troops. This is the foundation of Italian credit in America. It will make easier the re-establishment of a commercial balance between the two countries.

And, concluding:

Thursday, October 12, 1944 we commemorated the discovery of America by our Christopher Columbus. It was truly a great day. The thoughts of the American people were turned towards Italy-towards poor, suffering Italy, and heartening statements were made by our President, our government, and various authoritative persons. They demonstrate clearly that Italy’s condition is well understood and that there is a real desire to help and remedy the sad plight in which she finds herself. These statements, made on Thursday, Columbus Day, will live forever and become part—either of our history or of our literature. If they are merely statements dressed up in fine language, they will live in literature.

LaGuardia continued speaking weekly until May 1945 when the Allies’ mission was complete and Italy was fully recognized by the UN. He then made sure Italy’s reconstruction continued when he assumed the role of Director General for UNRRA (1946-47) and personally supervised the delivered aid.

Katherine D. LaGuardia, MD, MPH

klaguardia@laguardiafoundation.org

Chair, Fiorello H. LaGuardia Foundation

Mayor LaGuardia surrounded by a crowd while visiting Rome, August 10, 1946. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Sources:

Transcripts and Correspondence Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives, 3581-3582 (boxes 219 &220).

James E. Miller Prologue 1981: Politics of Relief: The Roosevelt Administration and the Reconstruction of Italy, 1943-44 (pp. 193-208)

US Department of State: United States and Italy, 1936-1946: Documentary Record

The Colonial Old Town Ledgers Digitization Project

The New York City Municipal Archives recently applied for funding to digitize colonial-era ledgers selected from the “Old Town” records collection. These unique administrative and legal records, dating from 1645 through the early 1800s, document the Dutch and English colonial settlements in New York City, western Long Island, and the lower Hudson Valley. The project is part of a larger Archives plan to describe and provide online access to all records in the Municipal Archives from the Dutch and English colonial era through early statehood.

The Archives has already successfully completed digitization and provided on-line access to the Dutch records of New Amsterdam and the proposed project will expand this effort to include the earliest records of communities throughout the metropolitan New York City region.

“The Court Book and nothing else to be found therein, 1751.” Newtown, Book 1, Old Town Records, NYC Municipal Archives.

The ledgers chosen for digitization are the earliest records in the Old Town records collection. These records were created by European colonists in communities throughout the New York City region. Commissioned by the Dutch East India Company, Henry Hudson led the expedition to what is now New York City in 1609. In 1614, the area between the Delaware and Connecticut Rivers was designated the colony of New Netherlands. Ten years later the States General of the Netherlands created the Dutch West India Company awarding them a monopoly on trade over a vast domain from West Africa to Newfoundland.

The first colonists in New Netherlands arrived in 1624 at Fort Orange (near Albany). In 1626 other settlers came to Manhattan Island and named their community New Amsterdam. As more colonists arrived they established new settlements resulting in an archipelago of Dutch communities throughout what is now Brooklyn, Queens, Richmond (Staten Island), and Westchester.

Dutch conflict with England over boundaries and trade led Charles II of England to grant the colony to his brother James, Duke of York, in March 1664. New Amsterdam surrendered to the English on September 8, 1664, and was renamed New York. Though in 1673, the Dutch briefly reclaimed the colony, the Treaty of Westminster returned it to English control in 1674.

Bushwick Deeds from 1660 and 1661 issued by Petrus Stuyvesant. Old Town Records, NYC Municipal Archives.

The provenance of the Old Town records collection dates from consolidation of the modern City of New York on January 1, 1898. Previously, the towns, villages and cities within the counties of Kings, Queens (parts of which are now in Nassau County), Richmond and Westchester (parts of which are now in Bronx County) maintained their own local governments that each created records—legislative, judicial, property, voter, health, school, etc. These local governments were dissolved during the latter part of the nineteenth century, at first by annexation to the old City of New York (Manhattan), or the City of Brooklyn, and finally through the unified City consisting of the five Boroughs in 1898.

The Comptroller of the newly consolidated city recognized the importance of the records of the formerly independent villages and towns and ordered transfer of the Queens, Richmond and Bronx/Westchester ledgers to the central office in Manhattan. In August 1942, fearing that New York City would be a prime target for enemy invasion, the Comptroller packed the ledger collection into crates and shipped them to New Hampton, N.Y. for the duration of the war. The Archives received the records from the Comptroller in several accessions from the 1960s to the 1990s.

The bulk of the Kings County town and village records were acquired by the Kings County Clerk via annexation during the latter part of the 19th century. Beginning in the 1940s, James A. Kelly, then Deputy County Clerk of Kings County arranged that the “historical” records of the county be turned over to St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, “on permanent loan.” They were housed in the James A. Kelly Institute for Historical Studies at the College. While in the custody of the Institute the ledgers were microfilmed. In 1988, due to financial considerations, the College closed the Institute and the records were transferred to the Municipal Archives.

Of particular note are the records of the Gravesend settlement in Kings County. Granted to Lady Deborah Moody in 1645, it became the only English town in the Dutch-dominated western area of Long Island. Based on the frequency in which her name appears in the Gravesend Town records, it is clear that Lady Moody, a religious dissenter who fled England and later Massachusetts, took an active and intense interest all aspects of her community.

Patent for the town of Gravesend, given to Lady Deborah Moody and her followers, 1645. Old Town Records, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Old Town records consist of hand-written manuscripts bound in a variety of styles (single-section pamphlets, spring-back account-book, and case-bound ledgers, among others). They include town and village governing board and legislative body proceedings and minutes, criminal and civil court docket books, deeds and property conveyances, records of estate administration, and coroners' records.

The earliest records are written in mid-17the century Dutch which differs from modern Dutch. The records from the English colonial period are written in a combination of old Dutch and English. The materials also include non-contemporary (19th Century) manuscript translations and/or transliterations of the Dutch records.

Several unique characteristics of the New Netherlands/New York colony make its records important for understanding the origins of the American democratic system. From its earliest years, the colony was notable for its diversity. Unlike New England and Pennsylvania where religion played the dominant role, the New Netherland colony was founded as a commercial enterprise. The official religious denomination of the colony was the Calvinism of the Reformed Church, but the Dutch West India Company urged tolerance toward non-Calvinists to encourage trade and immigration. Among the religious groups in New Netherlands (and more or less tolerated) were Lutherans, Quakers, Anabaptists, Catholics and Jews. The colony actively recruited immigrants from Germany, England, Scandinavia, and France, and was the home of the largest number of enslaved Africans north of Maryland.

“Register of the children born of slaves after the 2nd day of July 1799, within the town of Flatlands in Kings County in the State of New York…” Old Town Records, NYC Municipal Archives.

One recent example of the type of research that will be facilitated by the digitization work is the New York Slavery Records Index project underway at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (City University of New York). Impetus from the project came from the realization that the college’s namesake, John Jay, and his family, were prominent slave-holders. The index project will result in a searchable compilation of records that identify individual enslaved persons and the slaveholders, beginning as early as 1619, and ending during the Civil War. The John Jay researchers have started examining the Municipal Archives collection of manumissions and legal records.

The Municipal Archives has already described and digitized the New Amsterdam records, including the original manuscripts and their English translations documenting proceedings, resolutions, minutes, accounts, petitions, and correspondence of the colonial government. When the Old Town records phase is completed, historians will be able to explore how colonial New York legal institutions and practices served as a foundation for the judicial system and guaranteed freedoms of the new Republic and answer important questions about a formative time period in the nation’s history.

Future blog posts will describe project progress and highlight unique “finds” in this rare collection.

The Brooklyn Battery Bridge

Proposed design for the Brooklyn Battery Bridge. Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

About 55,000 cars, trucks and buses use the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel every day—more than 20 million a year—but only a handful of drivers know that if mega-builder Robert Moses had gotten his way, they would be crossing on an approximately 1.5-mile long, twin-span Brooklyn Battery Bridge.

The author Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Moses, The Power Broker describes a battle between reformers and preservationists on one side and Team Moses on the other. Moses launched an aggressive, vicious and intensely personal, last-minute push to build a bridge instead of a tunnel. The fight stretched from Albany to City Hall to the halls of the White House and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s War Department and—80 years ago in 1939—resulted in what many believe was Moses’s most bitter defeat.

Documents, reports, letters and even Western Union telegrams in the Municipal Library and Archives paint a vivid picture of how a master builder used to getting his way by cajoling and bullying his opponents finally met his match.

Construction of the approach to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in Brooklyn, November 10, 1948. NYC Municipal Archives. Department of Parks and Recreation Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

PROLOGUE

The tunnel idea had been kicking around since the early 1920s, but did not pick up steam until 1935, when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia set up a public works authority so the city could borrow $60 million, but the project had to be completed within two years.

As plans were proceeding for the tunnel—and how to pay for it—Louis Wills, president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, wrote a letter to La Guardia on January 11, 1935 supporting the tunnel plan as the “next important step in your efforts to procure adequate vehicular connections to Manhattan.”

The Chamber noted that “much of the congestion in Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn is due to the concentration of heavy interborough traffic from the three lower East River bridges.”

The City ponied up $75,000 for a feasibility study. An April 28, 1936 report from the Board of Transportation to the Board of Estimate also championed the tunnel idea. “The tunnel would create a continuous highway that would be the shortest and most direct route for transportation of freight along the East River and South Brooklyn waterfront.” Proponents of the tunnel estimated it would cost about $60 million and would be “self-supporting.

At around that time, La Guardia tried to get Washington to foot the bill through Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt’s public works initiative.

OPPOSITION FORMS

Not everyone was crazy about the tunnel proposal, though. On September 16, 1938, Manhattan Borough President Stanley Isaacs fired off a letter to Alfred Jones, chairman of the New York City Tunnel Authority, saying he was opposed to the plan unless there were provisions “for the handling of traffic once it is let loose” in the tunnel area.

In a prelude to the battle ahead, Moses informed La Guardia on September 29, 1938 that Washington nixed paying for the tunnel because it could not be completed within the proscribed two-year period for public works projects

An alternate proposal had an entrance ramp for the Brooklyn Battery Bridge on Governors Island. Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Then, on January 23, 1939, against the backdrop of a brewing World War II, Moses threw his last-minute curveball: The tunnel would become a bridge. O. H. Hamman, chief engineer of the Triborough Bridge Authority, released a brochure espousing Moses’s plan to build the Brooklyn Battery Bridge. In an introduction to the brochure, Moses wrote that it was “indisputable” that a bridge would be better, cheaper and more efficient than the tunnel he had once espoused.

The bridge, with all necessary approaches, can be built for about $41 million, as opposed to $84 million for a tunnel, Moses proclaimed. He said the bridge, which would sit 600 feet east of Governor’s Island, would be six lanes, as opposed to four in the tunnel; would cost under $350,000 in annual maintenance, less than half of the tunnel’s yearly upkeep; could be financed through bonds “without the contribution of a nickel” of city or federal money; could be built in 2 years and 3 months, rather than 3 years and 10 months for the tunnel, and would be 130-to-150 feet above the river so as not to interfere with navigation. Lacking funds to construct the tunnel, Mayor La Guardia quickly lent his support for the bridge.

Opposition was quick and fierce.

“And then, on January 25, the storm broke,” Caro wrote. “This was no protest that was going to go unheard. This was no circulating of petitions by a group of housewives out in Flushing …” Instead, he wrote it would be an epic battle between reformers and powerful civic and merchant groups that felt this was another example of Moses’s attempts to destroy “many of the values that made life in the city livable.” The reformers called Moses’s bridge construction numbers ridiculously low.

On January 25, Issacs fired off a “Dear Fiorello” letter which read: “I am sure you know that I am not wholly in agreement with you and Bob Moses concerning the plan for a new Brooklyn Battery Bridge. For the record, I have written a long letter in opposition to Commissioner (Rexford) Tugwell,” chairman of the City Planning Commission. That letter said a bridge would be detrimental to the City’s appearance and skyline, including “Battery Park and the tall buildings of Manhattan (which) are among the City’s greatest aesthetic assets.”

Moses fired back five days later, in a letter to Tugwell, which said Isaac’s “criticism of the project appears to be based upon the fallacious idea that any new artery into Manhattan creates more congestion and serious traffic problems.”

THE BATTLE JOINED

“There Must Be No Bridge,” Pamphlet, West Side Association of Commerce, Inc. Mayor LaGuardia papers, subject files, NYC Municipal Archives.

The powerful West Side Association of Commerce quickly joined the opposition, as did the Real Estate Board, the Citizens Union, the American Institute of Architects and the Regional Planning Association (RPA), headed by George McAneny, a former City official, municipal reformer and preservationist active in city politics.

On March 31, 1939, Harold Lewis, the RPA’s chief engineer, issued a letter strongly opposing the bridge plan, saying that a “series of vehicular tunnels of relatively small capacity and constructed progressively as demands require is a far better solution” than an enormous bridge. The RPA contended that the proposed site was “not a natural one for the bridge and its approaches in Manhattan would cause unjustifiable defacement and make impossible … improvement of Battery Park.”

Three days earlier, a man who identified himself as Frederick P. Bearings of Woodhaven, Queens, sent a La Guardia a telegram warning: “BROOKLYN BATTERY SPAN WOULD BE A VERY OBVIOUS TARGET FOR A HITLER SUICIDE SQUAD.”

Telegram, March 28, 1939. Mayor LaGuardia papers, subject files, NYC Municipal Archives.

The reformers hoped to get public opinion on their side. But as Caro observed, “All the reformers hopefulness proved was that they didn’t understand how much power—power over politicians—Moses had been given and how independent of public opinion he now was.”

Most of the city’s planning commissioners and elected officials sided with Moses as the process began to speed up. Two public hearings were held in February and on March 1, the Planning Commission approved Moses’s bridge plan by a 4-2 vote.

On March 9, Moses, who was vacationing in Key West., Fla., fired off a telegram urging the Mayor to authorize a bridge and remove the tunnel authorization, saying they were incompatible. Caro wrote that the telegram was not a request but an ultimatum: If the mayor wanted money from Moses’s Bridge Authority, he would need to officially scrap the tunnel idea.

The die was cast. On March 27, the City Council held a marathon hearing on the bridge plan. Seven hours into the hearing, after the reformers had spoken, Moses launched into his hostile and aggressive argument with vicious personal attacks, basically branding the reformers as Communists and, according to Caro’s book, calling the 70-year-old McAneny “an extinct volcano … an exhumed mummy.” Caro wrote that Moses sidestepped many of the issues and “those he did answer he answered with lies” about the cost and construction timeline before striding out of the hearing chamber brimming with confidence. The Council approved the plan 19-6 the next day, the Legislature authorized the bridge on March 30 and the Board of Estimate okayed it 14-2 on June 8.

Construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel; tunnel interior, October 14, 1948. Department of Parks and Recreation Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

VICTORY—AND THE DEFEAT

It seemed that Moses had won. But defeat was lurking about 225 miles away in Washington, D.C. —and he was about to suffer one of his few major losses in trying to recreate the city as he saw fit.

President Roosevelt’s War Department needed to approve the project before work could begin because there were War Department facilities on Governor’s Island and Treasury Department facilities in the Battery. There also was concern that the bridge would be a wartime target, impede shipping access to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and, Caro wrote, a feeling that FDR wasn’t too enthusiastic about it.

Moses must have sensed trouble because he was having difficulty getting meetings, according to documents in the Archives. On July 17, War Secretary Harry Woodring flatly rejected the bridge plan later calling it “a hazard to self-defense.”

Moses wasn’t done yet, though his effort to pull victory from the jaws of defeat failed. In an appeal of Woodring’s decision he said the ruling “has created an impossible situation in that it eliminates the only practical solution (the bridge) of the vitally needed vehicular crossing” from the Battery to Brooklyn.

He also enlisted editorial writers at the Daily News and the Brooklyn Eagle to urge FDR to set aside Woodring’s decision. But they fell on deaf ears.

On July 20, 1939—even before Moses’s appeal was rejected—the bridge opponents held a “Victory Luncheon,” featuring several hours of self-congratulatory speeches.

When all was said and done, the Tunnel Authority broke ground for the new tunnel on October 28, 1940. Construction was not completed for nearly 10 years due to a wartime shortage of materials. The 9,117-foot-long tunnel finally opened on May 25, 1950. The toll was 35 cents. It’s now $9.50—and known as the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel.

Mayor Robert F. Wagner speaks at the ceremony opening the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, May 25, 1950. NYC Municipal Archives.

Mayor Robert F. Wagner speaks at the ceremony opening the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, May 25, 1950. NYC Municipal Archives.

The Queens Borough President Panoramic Photographs, part 2

Aerial and panoramic views of New York City are some of the most popular photographs in the Municipal Archives collection. The August 30th blog post described our project to digitize the photographs from the Queens Borough President’s office and highlighted a series of panoramic images dating from the 1920s and 1930s. The collection now is completely digitized. It totals approximately 10,500 images, of which 1,296 are panoramas. Once the new digital images are processed, they will be added to the on-line gallery. This blog post offers a ‘sneak peak’ of the amazing panoramas. Future blogs will feature other images in this fascinating collection.

P-856: Elevated view of Long Island City south of the Queensboro Bridge (visible at right), looking toward Manhattan, November 16, 1929. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

P-856-a: Elevated view of Long Island City, November 16, 1929. The Chrysler Building is at the center of the Manhattan skyline. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

P-856-b: Elevated view of Long Island City, looking north towards the Queensboro Bridge, November 16, 1929. The school that would later become MoMA PS1 is just beyond the rail yards. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

P-856-c: Elevated view of the Sunnyside train yards, November 16, 1929. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

P-918-b: Nassau River (Newtown Creek), July 10, 1930. The Chrysler Building is visible in the distant Manhattan skyline. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

P-987-c: View of Manhattan skyline from Long Island City, January 1, 1934. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Visible buildings include the Vanderbilt Hotel, Empire State, 10 East 40th Street, Daily News, Chanin, Lincoln, Chrysler, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York Central, Grand Central Palace, RCA, Waldorf Astoria, General Electric, River House, Savoy Plaza, Ritz Towers, Sherry Netherlands.

Immigration Acts and Fiorello LaGuardia

Fiorello LaGuardia served in Congress prior to his election as Mayor of New York City. He served from 1916-1920 and then again from 1922-1930 and was a member of the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. In the latter period the Congress debated several proposals to either limit or expand the number of immigrants permitted to legally enter the country. The debates around these bills echo in the Halls of Congress today.

Mayor LaGuardia in 1939. NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Although the bulk of the Municipal Archives collection of LaGuardia records are from his three terms serving as Mayor of the City, the records from his Congressional years offer a glimpse into his leadership on a variety of issues, including immigration. The records contain copies of bills he introduced to exempt overseas family members from the immigration quotas, correspondence, commentary and news clippings.

Below are LaGuardia’s remarks on two legislative proposals. The first oppose a family separation bill and LaGuardia objects to the process which he calls inhumane. The second commentary is about an amendment to a bill introduced by Washington Congressman Albert Johnson that mandated the central registration of immigrants and subsequent deportation of those who did not become citizens within a set period. Interestingly in this piece, LaGuardia focuses on the issue of “alien bootleggers.” In both pieces, LaGuardia decries the influence of the Ku Klux Klan on Congress. Both sets of remarks eventually were published in the Congressional Record.


Fiorello LaGuardia Congressional testimony. Office of the Mayor, Mayor LaGuardia, Subject Files, NYC Municipal Archives.

MR. LA GUARDIA. Mr. Speaker, there is no use attempting to make an appeal on the merits of the bill, when we are proceeding under mob rule and not under parliamentary procedure: It is almost incredible that when a bill that deals with human beings, that when a bill that will separate families, is before the House any human being can be so inhuman as to gloat over the misery you are inflicting by this bill.

Oh, what a different performance it is around October when you go down on your knees and you come around and say, “LaGuardia, will you come in my district and tell my people what a good Congressman I am.”

I say that the procedure this afternoon is a blot on the history of the American Congress. You would not dare bring out a bill at this time under this mob rule dealing with pigs in the Agricultural Department.

You would not do it. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. It is not only inhuman but it is not parliamentary.

But next session you are going to follow rules; you will have no mob rule, and I hope you will tell the clansman over there what I am telling them over here.

Mr. O’CONNER of N.Y. There are as many Ku Klux men over there as we have over here.

MR. LAGUARDIA. I will give them to you. This is according to the rules of the Klan and not according to the rules of the American Congress. Gloat over it, but I do not think that the statesmen in the other body are going to pass the bill when you have acted as you have. I do not believe they will. They are too decent. They are too clean. They are too human. I am ashamed of this conduct. It is a disgrace. (Applause)

Mr. Speaker, I yield back the remainder of my time.


A DIFFERENCE WITHOUT A DISTINCTION.

Fiorello LaGuardia Congressional speech. Office of the Mayor, Mayor LaGuardia, Subject Files, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Johnson Deportation Bill, known as the undesirable alien bill, was before the House a few days ago. The purpose of the bill was to deport all undesirable aliens. The bill, far fetched and extreme as it was, seemed not to have been sufficiently cruel for the Klansmen and one hundred percenters. Whereupon an amendment was adopted by the House which was carried with a great deal of zest and joy, providing for the deportation of so called “alien bootleggers.”

The impression seems to be in some quarters, and especially among the Klansmen, that only aliens violate the Prohibition Law. It was pointed out that there are several thousand aliens engaged in the boot-legging industry. Of course that statement was not true. But all the extreme restrictionists and fanatic drys seem to overlook the fact that if there are a thousand bootleggers they must be selling their wares and hootch and rum to native drinkers.

Now, it does seem strange that the law which is supposed to be equal for all, just and impartial, will impose a penalty of deportation on an alien bootlegger who sells, but no penalty to the native buyer who drinks. As a matter of fact, the bootleg industry is too lucrative to be left in the hands of aliens. There are, no doubt, aliens who engage in bootlegging in a small retail way. It is this kind of retail, small bootleggers that are generally arrested, convicted and sent to jail.

A still at 1366 East 58th St., Brooklyn, December 17, 1926. One of the many small bootlegging operations raided by the police in the late 1920s. NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

After ten years of prohibition there have been very few cases of wholesale bootleggers arrested or convicted. Millions of gallons of liquor which is consumed every week in this country is brought in, transported and distributed in wholesale quantities. This industry requires financing – running into large figures, and today the records fail to show that any of the big men financing this new industry and profiting by it have been convicted and punished.

The reason there are thousands of bootleggers is because there are millions of drinkers. There are millions of drinkers in this country for the reason that the law is extreme and unenforceable. The trouble is that a great many of the people who violate the law and drink, are strong for the law for everybody else except themselves.


Many policies similar to those that LaGuardia and his cohort opposed have recently resurfaced. The language and the opposing sides seem eerily like the anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic rhetoric of the late 1920s.

A new exhibit, The Language of the City: Immigrant Voices, opened to the public on September 13th at the NYC Municipal Archives 1st Floor Gallery, 31 Chambers Street, Manhattan. The new show incorporates “We Are Brooklyn: Immigrant Voices,” a multimedia exhibition based on oral histories conducted by Brooklyn College students with materials from the New York City Municipal Archives.