For Lo, These Many Years: Forgotten Cemeteries of Queens

About a year and a half ago, I started learning Dutch through a smartphone app. While doing digitization for the Archives, I’ve had the chance to look at quite a few Dutch-language colonial records. I’m still only a beginner when it comes to Dutch, but knowing basic words and phrases has made working with these records very interesting.  My current project is digitizing photos shot in the 1920s and 1930s by the Topographical Bureau in the Office of the Queens Borough President. While working through a box of 8x10 negatives, I came across numerous pictures of cemeteries. One photo in particular caught my eye.

Brinckerhoff Cemetery, Queens, March 10, 1927. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Reading 17th- and 18th-Century Dutch is a bit like reading early modern English. It’s the same, but, well… not. Most of the differences are minor spelling changes, so, to my nerdy satisfaction, I found I could read the headstone. In English, it reads, “Here lies the body of Aeltje Brinckerhoff, housewife of Dirck Brinckerhoff, died the 9th day of March AD 1740, aged 61 years.”

Map of Queens, 1924. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

I continued to come across many other photographs of colonial-era graves. The captions—written directly on the negatives by the photographers—gave the names of cemeteries I’d never heard of. It was interesting that they bothered to photograph individual headstones and not just the broader views of the land. Photographers and archivists can’t help being curious. We like to dig, we like to find things, and more importantly we like to know that someone, somewhere, remembers the past and the people who lived it. Who were these people whose graves were photographed? That question led me down the proverbial rabbit hole.

Beginning in 1919 an engineer named Charles U. Powell conducted a survey of the private cemeteries of his native Queens. A descendant of several colonial Queens families, Powell submitted his report in 1931 to Borough President George Harvey, saying that he had undertaken the project because “a permanent detailed record of each private cemetery would be of historical and genealogical, and even legal, interest to posterity,” as many private cemeteries had already been “completely erased from the topography of the Borough.” His report is detailed and thorough, with maps and diagrams of the graves that were still visible at the time. It documents some twenty-three burial grounds, including one Native American and two African-American cemeteries. (The African American Cemeteries will be the subject of a future post.) The image of housewife Aeltje’s grave is one of only two such photographs in the report.

Brinckerhoff Cemetery, Queens, ca. 1985. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Aeltje was baptized Aeltje Janse van Kouwenhoven on April 28, 1678 in Brooklyn. Her parents were Jan Gerritse van Kouwenhoven and Gerardina de Sille. Aeltje was a descendant of Wolfert Gerritsz van Kouwenhoven, one of the first Dutch settlers in Brooklyn. The Brinckerhoffs were also an old Brooklyn Dutch family, having first come to New Netherland in 1638. After the English took over, the family moved to Newtown in Queens, where Dirck was born in 1677 and where his father, Abraham, served as the town magistrate. The family acquired land at Black Stump in 1698, and portions of this were given to Dirck and Aeltje in 1705 and 1710. The Brinckerhoff Cemetery was located mostly on Dirck and Aeltje’s farm, with a portion stretching onto a neighbor’s land. Deceased members of the neighboring families were also buried there, especially as, over the years, marriages interconnected families. A few years after Aeltje died, Dirck remarried. Dirck and his new wife Elizabeth sold the farm in 1747, and Dirck passed away the following year. The farm and its cemetery subsequently passed through a succession of owners.

Brinckerhoff Cemetery, Queens, ca. 1985. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The cemetery was left untended, and in 1940 the Long Island Star-Journal reported that Aeltje’s headstone no longer stood. It’s possible that Aeltje’s monument is still there, buried along with many others. However, the cemetery was vandalized several times in the twentieth century, and it may have been destroyed. Neighbors tried in the 1940s to preserve the cemetery by having it declared a public park. The City declined the application, stating that it was not responsible for preserving private burial places. In 1990, property assessments described the lot as “vacant residential land,” and a tax photo from the 1980s shows it completely overgrown. It wasn’t until 2012 that the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated it a landmark, stating that the cemetery...

has a special character and a special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage, and cultural characteristics of New York City…and that despite virtually a century of neglect, and the fact that today there are no visible above-ground gravestones…the Brinckerhoff Cemetery survives as a rare, and one of the oldest, colonial-era burial grounds in the Borough of Queens, as well as one of the few tangible links to the early-18th century, and rural, history of the borough.

Other cemeteries, unfortunately, didn’t fare so well. Powell and the Borough President’s photographers also documented the grave of Sarah Rapleje, the wife of George Brinckerhoff. Sarah died in March 1787 at age thirty-two. The gravestone next to Sarah’s English-language stone was too damaged to be read, but Powell was able to read the words huis Vrow on the stone in 1919, making it the grave of a married woman. The cemetery, known as Rapelje Cemetery, where Sarah, George, and the unknown woman were laid to rest stood at the present-day corner of 21st Street and 21st Avenue in Astoria. A three-story brick apartment building was built on the site of Rapelje Cemetery in 1949.

Rapalje Cemetery, Astoria, Queens, October 26, 1927. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

A mixture of the Dutch and English languages on the gravestones gives us an idea of the mixed identity of the area in colonial times. Still standing is the Dutch Reformed Church of Newtown, a beautiful wood-frame church established in 1732, sixty-eight years after the Dutch town of Middenburgh became the English town of Newtown. Though largely destroyed in the Revolutionary War, the church was rebuilt on the original cornerstone after the war, and a new bell was cast for it in the Netherlands in 1792. Preaching in Dutch continued at the church until 1834.

Dutch Reformed Church of Newtown, Queens, July 13, 1927. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Churchyard of Dutch Reformed Church of Newtown, Queens, September 14, 1927. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In the church’s graveyard, the headstone of Jores Debevoise caught the eye of a photographer. It’s a very interesting stone for several reasons. First, it’s inscribed in Dutch and was placed in 1802, further illustrating the persistence of Dutch identity. Second, it exhibits some of the linguistic evolution mentioned at the beginning of this post (“body” is lichaam here instead of the older lighaam), while showing that Dutch was still not quite in modern form (the word for “his” in modern Dutch is zijn, while on the grave it’s zeyn). Finally, Debevoise is a French surname. Most likely the family were Huguenots, or French Protestants. Many Huguenots emigrated from France to the Palatinate or the Netherlands during the Reformation, and many also came to colonize the New World. Here, as in the Netherlands, they often mixed with Dutch populations and came to identify as more or less Dutch.

First pages of William Leverich’s notes. Newtown Records, NYC Municipal Archives.

Old Presbyterian Church Gravestone “Phillip Duvineer ages about 81 years” (Died 1745 leaving 200 pounds and interest to the Presbiterian (sic) Society, according to stone), September 14, 1927. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The colonies were often populated by persecuted religious sects. 1662, the English colonists in Newtown elected William Leverich, a dissenter from the Church of England, as their minister. The congregation he presided over would become the Presbyterian community of Queens. A handwritten volume of Rev. Leverich’s notes on scripture was kept as part of the town records of Newtown, and is now in the Municipal Archives. The grave of one Philip Duviveer testifies to this burgeoning community.

Of course, burial in Queens didn’t start with European colonists. The area of present-day New York has been inhabited since at least 10,000 years ago, after the land emerged from the last ice age. According to an archaeological study by the NYC Dept. of Design and Construction, the Queens area was home to small villages of the Rockaway, Maspeth, Matinecoc, and other native peoples, who lived primarily along the bays and streams. One of their main sources of food was shellfish, and this can be seen in the various shell middens—mounds of discarded oyster shells—over which a number of structures in Queens were built.

Lawrence Homestead, Bayside Queens, built on the site of a shell midden, September 3, 1927. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Burials are rarer, but not unheard of. In 1901 a local historian recorded that seven native graves had been discovered near the present-day corner of Waterloo Place and Westbourne Avenue, where the Bayswater Hotel formerly stood. Powell and the photographers surveyed the native burial ground on Northern Boulevard near 251st Street. In a 1919 letter to Powell, James E. Waters, known as Chief Wild Pigeon, described this cemetery as a place “along the roadside where the iron shoes of the pale face horses instead of the soft moccasin tread, [where] sleep the dead of the family and several whites too poor to own a grave, for lo these many years.” Several of the Waters family were buried there. In a sad episode, the city disturbed this burial ground in order to widen the street. The remains of thirty Native Americans were exhumed, to be re-interred half a mile away at Zion Episcopal Church in Douglaston. A simple monument—a split boulder with a tree growing through it—now marks the graves of the “last of the Matinecoc.”

Excavating Indian Cemetery on Northern Boulevard, Little Neck, Queens, October 20, 1931. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

James E. Waters died in 1927 at age fifty-one, having served as chief of the last remaining Native American tribes on Long Island. He was buried in Zion Episcopal Church Cemetery with his family. Charles Underhill Powell passed away in 1956, twenty-five years after submitting his report. He was buried at Flushing Cemetery. Their work, though not entirely successful, helped preserve and record, as well as protect, the final resting places of many New Yorkers. Yet the struggle is ongoing, and has been taken up by others.

Excavating Indian Cemetery on Northern Boulevard, Little Neck, Queens, October 20, 1931. The three people standing inside the fence are most likely tribal representatives. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In writing this post, I couldn’t help but reflect on how important these final resting places are. When Powell started his survey ninety-nine years ago, several of the old private cemeteries had been destroyed, and some that he surveyed would be gone a few decades later. It’s important that these places be preserved and remembered, because they form a tangible link with the past of the human race. They remind us of who we are, where we came from, and in some cases, whom we displaced. They teach us that our heritage is a river fed by many tributaries, not a single source. They put our own brief present in perspective next to the long stretch of history—a history made up of the everyday lives of countless individuals. As the poet William Cullen Bryant—who passed away in New York City—wrote: “…all that tread/The globe are but a handful to the tribes/That slumber in its bosom.”

More Information

Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens, Charles U. Powell (

Landmarks Preservation Commission, August 14, 2012, Designation List 458 LP-2087 (

Archaeological Documentary Study, Sewer Outfall, Chandler Street, Far Rockaway, Queens; NYC Department of Design and Construction (


Preserving WNYC-TV

The audio-visual collection on the shelves of the NYC Municipal Archives.

From urban decay to economic revival, the City of New York has changed dramatically over the past forty years. Over that same period of time, New Yorkers gained an increasing ability to tell their stories through advances in video technology. Today, we take for granted a nearly universal ability to create and distribute videos all over the world, instantaneously. From 1961 to 1996, publicly owned WNYC-TV on Channel 31 fulfilled this role for average New Yorkers by enabling them to share their stories and discuss issues facing them in their daily lives. Although at first the channel served as a portal for municipal functions like mayoral addresses, WNYC slowly began to focus more on civic affairs and creating original and informative programming that reflected the various communities of the city. Now, staff at the Municipal Archives have begun digitizing video tapes from our WNYC-TV collection, spanning from 1982-1996. Our goal is to preserve as much of this material as possible, while also making it easy and convenient for people to watch.

Following financial and political crises in the 1970s, WNYC-TV secured a large amount of new funding and independence from City Hall in the 1980s. This revival was marked by a wealth of new, original series like Heart of the City, Neighborhood Voices and New York Hotline, as well as specials that showcased important events or guests in New York, like Nelson Mandela. These panel talk shows and cultural magazines focused on difficult issues the City faced in the 1980s and1990s, like homelessness, the AIDS epidemic and race relations. They also featured thriving but overlooked communities in New York, like the Nuyorican Poet’s Café or the Coop Theater in Brooklyn.

A ¾” U-matic tape about to be digitized.

The WNYC-TV collection at the Municipal Archives is composed mainly of three video tape cassette formats: ¾” U-matic, Betacam and VHS. While VHS might be familiar to all but the youngest of us, the other two formats are less widely known. ¾” U-matic was the first video cassette format. Sony widely released the ¾” U-matic system in 1971, originally designed for home use. The cost ended up being far too high for amateur consumers, but the system caught on in professional organizations, like WNYC TV, that had the funds to make the initial investment. Sony improved the ¾” U-matic design and in 1982 released Betacam, the format that makes up the bulk of the WNYC-TV video tape collection.

Unlike paper, photo, or film documents, which potentially can last for hundreds of years if taken care of properly, magnetic tape of all types typically don’t last more than 30 years without at least some significant quality loss. There is window closing at archives around the world to digitize their tape collections before it’s too late. The Municipal Archives is joining the effort at just the right time. In 30 more years, the only working tapes will be like Edison light bulbs today. They might play, but you’ll be lucky if you get any meaningful image off of the tape.

A particularly damaged tape exhibiting drop out. Highlighting different jobs that were disappearing from the Chelsea neighborhood, the interview is about dock workers striking for improved working conditions and pay. From REC0047_II_168_2297, Neighborhood Voices: Chelsea, Joe Stack, Tape 3. NYC Municipal Archives, WNYC Collection.

Thus far, the Municipal Archives has digitized nearly 200 tapes and counting, currently focusing on the oldest and most endangered tapes so we can get to them before they’re lost. What endangers a tape and why are tapes so much shorter-lived than most recording formats? The short answer is that video tape is essentially a ribbon of tape with a glue and metallic powder mix pressed onto it. Every time that glue gets too warm or too damp from humidity in the air, it starts to degrade and loses its ability to stick, resulting in something called ‘sticky shed syndrome.’ The top layer of the tape will literally turn into a gummy sludge and flake off, destroying the recorded video. If it survives intact long enough, every tape will go through this process.

The longer answer is that there are actually many ways that a video tape can cease functioning before sticky-shed syndrome sets in. On video tape, analog video signals are recorded as a repeating wave form by aligning magnetic particles in the glue-metal powder mix with a spinning magnetic head. When a tape is played back, it gets pulled out of the cassette by a series of rollers and pins and gets wrapped around the video head while it spins. This can place a significant amount of physical strain on the tape, potentially damaging it every time it’s played back, much like a vinyl record is damaged by its needle. Unlike a vinyl record, though, video tape was never, and has never been seen, as a high-fidelity format. And the level of enthusiasm for video tape systems has never been enough to warrant continued production of new machines after the 1990s. This means that production of specialized parts needed to repair playback machines ceased decades ago. Preserving analog video isn’t just about preserving the tapes, but also maintaining the machines.

In a future blog post, we will give you a tour of the A/V Digitization Lab, show you all of the tools we use to stabilize our video tapes and go more in depth as to how we turn a wave signal found on a tape into a video file on a computer drive.


Voice of the City: The Rise and Fall of WNYC-TV, MJ Robinson, UMI Dissertation Services

The Manhattan Building Plans Project, 1977-2018

American Lithograph Co. Building, Elevation on 19th Street, 1895. Richard Berger Architect. Department of Buildings Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

On Monday, July 2, 2018, the Municipal Archives began working on a project first envisioned more than 40 years ago—inventorying and re-housing architectural plans for buildings in lower Manhattan. Digitizing selected plans, not envisioned 40 years ago, will be part of the new project. Saved from near destruction in the 1970s, and containing materials spanning more than one hundred years, City archivists are looking forward to discovering long-hidden treasures and preserving this significant historical and cultural collection.

Six-Story Tenement & Store, Building No. 20 Spring Street, Front Elevation, 1905. John Caggiano, Architect. Department of Buildings Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The origin of the collection dates to the early 1970s when the Manhattan Borough office of the Department of Buildings (DOB) initiated a project to save space by microfilming the architectural plans and permit correspondence accumulated over the previous century. They planned to dispose of the records after microfilming.

The project did not go well. DOB employed an inexperienced vendor and the microfilm did not meet acceptable standards. The project had been carefully monitored by the City’s community of historians, architects, preservationists as well as the Landmarks Preservation Commission. These entities persuaded the DOB to discontinue filming and urged transfer of the original materials to the Municipal Archives for permanent preservation.

In 1977, the Archives accessioned the plans and permits for all buildings on 965 blocks of Lower Manhattan, from the Battery to 34th Street. The plans date back to 1866 when architects and engineers (or all persons) planning to construct new buildings, or alter an existing one, were required to submit an application, including plans, to the newly-created Buildings Department, and receive approval before commencing the proposed work.

The plan collection comprises every possible form of graphic representation of a building, from rough pencil sketches by carpenters, to carefully measured sections and plans by draftsmen, and intricate elevations by trained architects. They encompass all types of reproduction processes extant during the relevant time period. Varying in dimension, the vast majority measure within a range of 36 x 48 inches. Some are relatively small (e.g. 12 x 12 inches), and others are over-size, measuring as large as 5 to 6 feet. The estimated total volume of the collection is about 100,000 items.

264 Spring Street, 1902. C.F. Kruse, Architect. Department of Buildings Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Janet Parks, Curator (retired Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University), recently summarized the value and significance of the collection: “It is incredible to have such a quantity of architectural records documenting a wide range of building types, architects of all levels, construction techniques, and examples of ornament, etc. This is a significant historical and cultural collection.”

The time span of the collection provides unique documentation of how industrialization in Manhattan after the Civil War led to a rapid transformation of the built environment. The economic boom, combined with advances in building technology and the use of materials such as cast iron made it possible to build large open spaces with natural light suitable for retail and manufacturing activities. Dozens of retail establishments, loft factories and offices sprang up in the blocks north and west of City Hall, resulting one of the largest concentration of full and partial cast-iron facades anywhere in the world.

Young Women's Lodging House, 14&16 East Sixteenth Street, 1889. R.H. Robertson Architect. Department of Buildings Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Prior to this era, most buildings in Manhattan were relatively simple structures usually constructed by skilled masons and carpenters. As the City’s economy became more complex, the need for larger and more versatile space became critical. The introduction of new technologies such as the elevator and steel-frame construction allowed ever-larger and taller buildings to rise along the narrow streets of lower Manhattan. These “skyscraper” buildings quickly filled with office workers in financial, insurance, and newspaper businesses. Advances in the water supply system, sanitary engineering, access to gas for illumination and cooking (and later electricity), and central heating systems added to the complexity of building construction in the latter half of the 19th century.

These types of structures required trained architects and engineers who could file plans that met the rigorous building codes enforced by the Department of Buildings. Establishment of the new Department in 1866 was the City’s direct response to the needs of the new urban infrastructure. It was imperative that the City could ensure that the larger buildings were safe and protected from the ever-present danger of fire.

Plan of Fifteenth & Sixteenth Stories, The Flatiron Building, 1901. D.G. Burnham & Co. Architects. Department of Buildings Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The plan collection has value not just for their representation of the structures, but as samples of the general standard of practice of architecture in New York City. Architectural drawings, especially from the 19th century, often survived only if the firm had successor architects, usually sons of the architects. The records of some of the most prominent architects such as Cass Gilbert or McKim, Mead and White, for example, have long been preserved at the New York Historical Society. But more typically, plans were destroyed when the firm closed or when an individual architect gave up the practice. The Archives’ collection fills this gap, in great abundance.

US Appraiser’s warehouse, Elevation on Washington Street, 1892. Willoughby J. Edbrooke, Architect. Department of Buildings Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

As the practice of architecture became more professional (the American Institute of Architects was formed in 1857), and college-level instruction programs became available (Columbia University’s School of Architecture debuted in 1881, e.g.), so too did building “styles” become more sophisticated. By the late 19th century, the blocks of SoHo and Tribeca were lined with handsome buildings sporting facades in the Victorian Gothic, Neo-Grec, Italianate, and Second Empire styles. And the evolution of the skyscraper, from the Gothic-style “Cathedral of Commerce” Woolworth Building to the sleek Art-Deco facade of One Wall Street, can be readily traced in the streets of Lower Manhattan.

Revised Elevation of Storefront, Alteration to No. 550 Broadway, for the Estate of William Astor. Lord & Hewlett, Architects. Department of Buildings Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The collection documents residential buildings as well as commercial and industrial structures. Although many of these buildings pre-date establishment of the Buildings Department in 1866, the collection is rich with plans submitted with applications for alterations as architects, homeowners, and developers converted deteriorated row houses into “modern” dwellings by removing stoops and covering facades with light-colored stucco, mosaic tile, and shutters.

The plans illustrate the seemingly inexhaustible evolution of structures in Manhattan. Plans pertaining to the buildings in the SoHo and Tribeca areas are typical examples—from their original incarnation as lofts for factory and retail uses in the 19th century, by the mid-20th century they had been adapted to artist studios and lofts, revitalizing these neighborhoods—a trend that has been replicated in formerly industrial areas of cities around the world. And more recently, many have been reconverted into high-end retail establishments, art galleries, and offices—uses similar to their original purposes.

Justin Ferate with some of the rolled plans soon after their arrival at the Municipal Archives, ca. 1980.

The significance of the plans also includes their value as artifacts. The careful rendering of even the smallest decorative detail and the use of color to define different elements of the design makes many of the items in the collection works of art.

When the DOB transferred the plans in 1977 the City’s fiscal crisis had reduced the Archives to only a skeleton staff without the necessary resources to preserve the collection. DOB’s microfilming process had disorganized the plans and there was no extant inventory. But recognizing its importance, the Archives applied for and received a matching grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for essential processing. Unfortunately, the Archives was unable to raise the necessary matching funds and the project was abandoned.

Second Floor Plan, Psychopathic Hospital, East 29th Street & First Avenue. Charles B. Meyers Architect.  Department of Buildings Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In the succeeding decades, the Archives did manage to provide limited access to the collection. But more recently, the volume of building restoration projects has greatly increased demand for the plans, making the re-housing, inventorying and digitizing a priority. And now, with funding in the City budget, we have revived the long-postponed project to preserve this unique collection. Look for future blog posts and announcement on our web site highlighting project progress and significant “finds.”


Mayor Hylan turning on the water for the first shower, West 47th Street near 8th Avenue, July 6, 1921. International Newsreel/Film Service, Inc. Mayor's Reception Committee, NYC Municipal Archives.

As we approach the start of the summer, thoughts turn to fun at the beach, pool and in parks. The vertical files of the Municipal Library once again provide a trove of publications describing City government’ role in providing recreational opportunities between 1919 and 1979. A good portion of the contents are news clippings that track, decade by decade, City residents’ recreational choices. “Eel Season Ending For City Anglers” the New York Times reported in 1967; “People Pushing Horses Out Of Park” the Daily News decried as the Claremont Riding Academy was poised to close in 1970, and the perennial “New York on Next to Nothing” from the New York Post are just a few of the titles. Other items include reports and communications from City offices which is the focus of this blog.

Sprinkler, 85th Street and Lexington Avenue, August 17, 1920. International Newsreel, Inc. Mayor's Reception Committee, NYC Municipal Archives.

The first article of note dates from the administration of Mayor John Purroy Mitchel (1914-1917) titled “the work of the Mitchel Administration for Recreation.” Of the four “notable things in the field of recreation” touted by the article the most impactful was increasing the number of playgrounds. There were 283 playgrounds in 1913 “the best of any administration” until the 446 playgrounds opened under the Mitchel Administration. The report also cites the increased proportion of funds for playgrounds and athletic fields. In closing, the report notes that the administration “laid the foundation for sound future development” as well as increasing the spaces for play.

Paddle tennis games on a play street, ca. 1935. NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

Guidelines for summer play streets, Report on Play Streets, Community Councils of the City of New York, July & August 1933. NYC Municipal Library.

Fast forward to 1933 and the “Report on Play Streets,” prepared by the Community Councils of the City of New York. With President Franklin D. Roosevelt listed as the “Honorary Chairman” of the Child Welfare Committee, the Councils consisted of private citizens organized in groups in the five Boroughs, very similar to today’s Community Boards. The Council’s 1933 report described how they operated 40 “play streets” as part of a City-wide summer recreation program that temporarily suspended traffic on 483 streets on weekday afternoons during July and August. The Council-sponsored streets were sited in Manhattan (28) The Bronx (5) and Queens (3) in neighborhoods with the greatest need for play space. Support for the program was largely provided through the Manhattan Borough President’s Office that supplied a crew to paint and prepare the streets. Each street was painted, following a diagram that laid out shuffle board courts, paddle tennis courts and a circular area for free play. The crew repainted the lines every two weeks. The Sanitation Department provided showers, placed in the middle of the streets which were a big draw, attracting “hundreds of children into the play block who may never have come for game purposes.”

Play Street and street shower alongside the Queensboro Bridge, June 22, 1934. Department of Bridges, Plant & Structures Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Equipment was stored in church basements community centers and the local candy stores. “An appeal strictly from an increased business angle usually sold these merchants,” notes the report. Each play street was managed by a supervisor who then identified “block captains” from among the participants. And, the staff was supplemented by “emergency relief workers” from the Greenwich House, the New York University Community Center and the Henry Street Settlement. According to the report the success of the play streets rose and fell on the type of the Supervisor who had to “first sell himself to the children in his particular block so as to receive their cooperation, making it possible to develop their interest and enthusiasm.” This was, of course, in the midst of the Depression and the play street program provided both recreation to young New Yorkers as well as jobs for the unemployed.

Play Street, boys playing stickball, ca. 1916. NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Most of the activities/games are still played but some have not stood the test of time. “Puss in the Corner” “Off the Spot” and “Kaiser Ball,” for example, are three games which have faded into obscurity whereas “Tag” and “Tug of War” still are enjoyed today. Stickball tournaments at Spring and Sixth Avenues were special features that attracted between 500 and 800 spectators!

Somethings never change: street safety. “Play Street Detour signs mean little or nothing to the average New York City driver” laments the report. Equipment was destroyed by careless drivers and games were disrupted by cars driving through. There is no mention of any injuries or accidents which must have been just a stroke of fortune. After two weeks of this mayhem, the supervisors were authorized to report license numbers of cars driving onto the play streets and the drivers were sent warnings and summonses. That still had little effect so the organizers turned to better signage, which had an impact. In future years, the report urged a police officer should be available on the street for the day.

Denis P. Gorman Memorial Playground, Jackson Heights, Queens: Opening ceremonies, children grabbing for melon, August 11, 1934. Department of Parks & Recreation Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

From the same period we have a report from the NYC Parks Department on “Revenue Producing Facilities” between 1934 and 1937, the heyday of Robert Moses. Although parks, beaches, golf courses, and facilities within the parks such as swimming pools and tennis courts are generally thought of in terms of their value as venues for healthful recreation, this very detailed report shows they also produce revenue that helps defray operational expenses. Soon after his appointment in 1934, Moses leveraged federal WPA dollars to fund dozens of park improvement projects—and the success of his program is evident in the numbers. Swimming pools, his signature achievement (he famously opened 11 municipal pools in 1936), get top billing in the report and the numbers are impressive: revenue increased from $9,248.78 in 1934 to $255,000 in 1937, and attendance grew from 128,765 in 1934 to more than 2.3 million in 1937.

Mahoney Playground, Staten Island, 1940. Department of Parks & Recreation, NYC Municipal Archives.

Opening ceremonies at Orchard Beach, beach scene, July 25, 1936. Department of Parks & Recreation Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Another of Moses’ noted accomplishments were the beaches. “On July 25, 1936, Orchard Beach was opened with a bathhouse accommodating 6,800 people, a parking space for 4,000 cars and a newly made white sand beach.” Adding the numbers of Orchard Beach visitors with beachgoers at with the reconstructed Jacob Riis Park in Queens, Moses reported attendance ballooning from 500,000 during the summer of 1934 to more than 4.2 million in 1937. The report carefully notes that revenue from the beaches, “….show a profit of $61,900 over operating and maintenance costs notwithstanding the fact that they were not opened until June 25th of this [1937] year, a loss of four weeks operation.” The report also includes similarly precise figures for increased revenue accruing from the improvements at the tennis courts, Randall’s Island Stadium, and golf courses—he built three and renovated seven more between 1934 and 1937. Aside from the impressive numbers, this type of report would seem very familiar to any reader of the modern Mayor’s Management Reports.

1942 brochure for indoor roller and ice skating rinks in the New York City Building. Built for the 1939 World's Fair, from 1946 to 1950 the building was the home of the United Nations General Assembly. It is now home to the Queens Museum. NYC Municipal Library.

In 1942, the files hold a lovely brochure for the New York City Building in Flushing Meadow Park which opened to the public in the preceding year. The air conditioned building contained both an ice skating rink and a roller skating floor with “ideal skating temperatures.” A cafeteria with light refreshments at popular prices as well as more formal dining facilities allowed for special programs and skating parties for as many as 250 people.

Typical Playground - Wading Pool, unknown location, 1960. Mayor Robert F. Wagner Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Two decades later, Robert Moses, in his capacity as Chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority wrote Brooklyn Borough President Abe Stark to officially announce the building of a “year-round glass conservatory swimming pool for youngsters in the corner of Commodore Barry Park adjacent to the Brooklyn Expressway.” Promising that the pool would be ready for use in 1968, Moses noted the pool would serve a very congested area. However this grand structure was not to be. Instead, The Parks Department built a summer seasonal pool and kiddie pool in the 1970s, without the benefit of Triborough funding or a year-round structure.

Operation Soap Box Derby, Central Park, August 12, 1967. Report of the Citizens Summer Committee, October 2, 1967. NYC Municipal Library.

Police Athletic League playstreet in Far Rockaway, Queens. Report of the Citizens Summer Committee, October 2, 1967. NYC Municipal Library.

As with the summer play streets during the Depression, Mayor John V. Lindsay relied on a Citizens Summer Committee to provide recreational opportunities during his term. A beautifully illustrated report from 1967 lists donations from several businesses that collectively donated $500,000 to support summer programs. “That New York had a relatively stable summer is due in large part to your efforts, for which I and hundreds of thousands of your fellow citizens are indebted,” Lindsay wrote in thanks. And yes, there was “Operation Play Street” which by this time was operated by the Police Athletic League and staffed in part by Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA—the domestic Peace Corps). Other programs include a Soap Box Derby in Central Park, Puerto Rico Sings offering performances by high school and college students in 25 different neighborhoods, the Junior Olympics, a Teenage Film Van that produced a movie and Operation Beat the Heat that provided 2,000 bus trips to beaches, airports, state parks, museums and other “cool” places.

Summer is here. The school year is winding down. Let the games begin.

Bodies in Transit

Staff at the Municipal Archives completed digitization of the Bodies in Transit ledgers, 1859-1894 and the entire series of 10 ledgers is accessible via our website...

Bodies in Transit volumes from 1859-1894. NYC Municipal Archives.

The information in the ledgers about deceased persons whose bodies were transported through Manhattan prior to burial is a rich resource for genealogists and historians researching diverse topics in American urban history including public health, mortality and the Civil War.

The origins of this record arise from the City’s efforts to protect the health of its rapidly growing population. In 1804, the New York State Legislature authorized the New York City Common Council to enact sanitary ordinances and appoint a City Inspector. The first Board of Health was established the following year and oversaw the City Inspector’s Department.

Application for a Transit or Disinterment Permit. Second Annual Report of the Board of Health of the Health Department of the City of New York, April 11, 1871, to April 10, 1872, NYC Municipal Library.

In 1859, the position of Registrar of Records was created within the City Inspector’s Department. Contemporary reports suggest that the recording of the transportation of bodies in, out and through Manhattan was mandated by this new office. 

The “Bodies In Transit” registers record in ledger format the date of a body’s transit, the name of the deceased, age in years and months, the place and date of death, the cause of death, nativity, a location in transit, the intended place of internment, who provided certification for the transfer, and the name and address of the applicant for the transfer. Each volume is roughly 20 inches long and 15 inches wide and they range in thickness from one to 3.5 inches.

John Brown’s body passed through New York in 1859, after his hanging in Charlestown, Virginia, for “Murder, Treason and Inciting Slaves to escape from Virginia and Maryland.” Bodies in Transit, Vol 1, NYC Municipal Archives.  

Efficiency improved when a standardized permit application was introduced in 1871. As explained by the Deputy Register of Records in the Annual Report of the Board of Health for 1870-1871:

"… delay or inconvenience is sometimes experienced for lack of the necessary information relating to the death, particularly when bodies are sent by express, and only the name of the consignee and place of destination can be ascertained …. One reason for being so exact in demanding that the applications for a transit permit shall be accurately filled up is, that in enabling us to detect the cause of death, those bodies which might jeopardize the health of this city would not be permitted to enter. We also require to be satisfied that proper investigations have been made in cases of sudden death, death from violence, injury, or accident, the name and address of the applicant being a voucher for its correctness. The register of bodies in transit contains all the principal items that could be ascertained at the time, and which might be means of future identification."

The April 24, 1865 arrival of Abraham Lincoln’s body at the Desbrosses Street Ferry necessitated an entry in the Bodies in Transit ledger. The Obsequies of Abraham Lincoln, NYC Municipal Library.

As Manhattan’s population increased, there was increased pressure to relocate its deceased residents. Developers dug up cemeteries and moved the bodies to cemeteries in Brooklyn or Queens. Those reinternments can be difficult to trace, but these volumes are often the key to finding the graves. The grand cataclysm of the American Civil War also led to many of the entries in the ledgers.  Union soldiers are often identifiable by their company and regiment, however, they can also be identified by three other pieces of evidence: They died on Davids Island, in Long Island Sound, location of DeCamp General Hospital the largest Union Army hospital; they were buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn (recently designated as a national cemetery for war dead); or the bodies were under the care of A.J. Case, who was the Undertaker for the US Army. In addition to Union soldiers, over 400 Confederate prisoners of war are recorded, having died at Davids Island after the Battle of Gettysburg. They are sometimes noted by their birth in the “C.S.A.,” or Confederate States of America.

Page and detail showing April 24, 1865 entry for Abraham Lincoln’s body as it arrived in New York to lay in state at City Hall on its way to Springfield, Illinois. Bodies in Transit, Vol 3, NYC Municipal Archives.

Additionally, there are several prominent individuals listed in the pages. Abraham Lincoln’s body is listed in the third volume when his funeral cortege stopped in the City on April 24, 1865. His registered cause of death is “pistol shot.” The abolitionist John Brown passed through on December 4, 1859 (volume I, page 42-43), two days after his execution for leading the raid on Harpers Ferry. Beside his name, under the remarks, it reads “Hung for Murder, Treason and Inciting Slaves to escape from Virginia and Maryland.”

Lincoln’s body lay in an open casket in the City Hall rotunda overnight and was seen by over 100,000 New Yorkers. On the 25th, after a funeral procession up Broadway, his body departed by train for Springfield, Illinois. The Obsequies of Abraham Lincoln, NYC Municipal Library.

The earliest volumes in the collection are the most densely filled, as they corresponded with the years of the Civil War, one of the greatest periods of mass death in our nation’s history. However, the frequency of permits issued decreased in later years as local health agencies began forming in the surrounding cities. The 1874 annual report stated that bodies accompanied by burial permits from the newly-established Boards of Health of Brooklyn, Long Island City, Richmond County, or Hudson County, New Jersey were not required to apply for a transit permit. An increase of regulated Boards of Health across the United States may be the reason that the Health Department eventually ceased registering bodies in transit altogether: “If some general rule or mutual understanding existed between established Boards of Health and Vital Statistics regarding the transportation of dead bodies, there would be no necessity of placing any impediment or obstacle in the way of the transmission of a corpse from the place of death to its destination, provided that a burial permit accompanied it, with a sufficient number of coupons attached and containing the same items of information regarding the deceased as are contained in the transit permit; the coupons to be collected by the transportation agents on the arrival or departure of the body, and returned to this Bureau, as the regulations may require, to be entered on the register of bodies in transit.” This same report also suggests using the telegraph as a means of communicating when a body is being transferred from one jurisdiction to another, including the possibility of a delay in the journey.


"Bodies in transit records (1859-1894)." Goodwin, Aaron. New York City Municipal Archives: an authorized guide for family historians. New York: New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, 2016.

Duffy, John. A history of public health in New York City, 1866-1966. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1974.

New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Protecting public health in New York City: 200 years of leadership, 1805-2005. New York: New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 2005.

Department of Public Welfare of the City of New York

The vertical files in the Municipal Library contain a treasure trove of newspaper clippings, media releases and documents from City agencies. There also are original analyses written by the legendary Rebecca Rankin, the long-time Municipal Librarian and her staff. Written on onion-skin paper, the articles are distinctive and elicit a jolt of anticipation when located. This week’s blog is a history of public welfare in the City, circa 1922 as written by Ms. Rankin and staff. 

The original records of these welfare institutions, the Almshouse Ledger Collection, were processed by the Municipal Archives in 2016 under a grant funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and a digitized selection of ledgers are now online.

Department of Public Welfare of the City of New York

The first Bellevue, a 6-bed infirmary on the present site of City Hall. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The responsibility for the care and treatment of the dependents in the City of New York rests upon the Department of Public Welfare. The history of the Department really begins in 1734 when it became apparent to the Common Council that some means for caring for the poor, the beggars and the dependent sick must be provided; at this time the population of the City was 8,000 and contained 1,400 houses. It was decided to erect a workhouse on the unimproved lands known as the “Vineyard”; this site was the ground on which the City Hall now stands. This “Publick Workhouse and House of Correction” was finished in 1736; by 1746 it was outgrown and required additions.

 Page from Admissions, Discharges and Death Ledger, Almshouse of the City of New York, 1758-1809. Ledger columns include: date admitted, name, age, occupation, where from or born, complaints, by whom sent/by whose order, location/ward no., date of discharge, date of death, remarks. This collection was processed by the Municipal Archives in 2016 under a grant funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and a digitized selection of ledgers are now online.  Almshouse Ledger Collection , NYC Municipal Archives.

Page from Admissions, Discharges and Death Ledger, Almshouse of the City of New York, 1758-1809. Ledger columns include: date admitted, name, age, occupation, where from or born, complaints, by whom sent/by whose order, location/ward no., date of discharge, date of death, remarks. This collection was processed by the Municipal Archives in 2016 under a grant funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and a digitized selection of ledgers are now online. Almshouse Ledger Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Prior to this date, in the early years of the City, the poor had been maintained by the Church. From 1695 on the City appropriated yearly a sum of one hundred pounds or more for the support of the poor, and it appointed Overseers of the Poor who were responsible for policies of management and a Keeper was in charge. But not till 1736 could it be considered as an official part of the city’s activities. The Workhouse was supported by a tax upon the inhabitants. By 1775 this tax amounted to 4,233 pounds or about 95 cents per capita.

View of the "Old Bellevue Establishment" from the East River. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In May 1796 a new Almshouse was finished and used till 1816; this occupied the site where the Courthouse now stands on Chambers Street. About this time the City purchased old Kip’s Bay Farm on the East River at the foot of 26th Street which later became known as Bellevue Hospital. This group comprised two hospitals, an almshouse, a workshop and a school. In 1819 an epidemic of yellow fever forced the addition of a hospital for contagious diseases. In 1828 Blackwell’s Island was bought and a penitentiary built and by 1839 a lunatic asylum added. In 1850 it became apparent that a poor farm was necessary and consequently Ward’s Island was purchased for that purpose. By 1843 a re-organization was demanded and a special committee investigated and a resolution was passed which provided for an almshouse on Blackwell’s Island, a children’s and an adult hospital, the lunatic asylum extended, a workhouse, and nurseries and infants hospital on Randall’s Island.

Blackwell’s Island looking southeast: Penitentiary, Charity Hospital with Superintendent's cottage, Smallpox Hospital, Reception Pavilion, ca. 1900. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In 1846-1849 there was an Almshouse Department with a Commissioner at its head. But in 1849 a new state law put the Almshouse Department under a Board of Governors, ten in number which continued its responsibility until 1860 when the Department of Public Charities and Correction was created. It was in 1850 that the City began the practice of subsidizing private institutions for the care of dependents; in that first year a sum of $9,865 was expended. This policy is still continued successfully; in 1920 there were 196 private charitable institutions which accepted public charges for the City.

Horse-and-buggy ambulance in front of (Old) Coney Island Hospital, ca. 1900. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Sea View Hospital, West New Brighton, Staten Island, 1920. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

About 1883 a feeling became general that the existing system under which the paupers, criminals, lunatics and the sick poor were cared for by one department, (Department of Public Charities and Corrections which was established in 1860) was objectionable so that in 1895 a law providing for the division of the department into two distinct bodies, namely, the Department of Public Charities and the Department of Correction was passed. The hospitals, almshouse, lunatic asylum and all institutions on Blackwell’s Island were placed under the Department of Public Charities, and the Department of Correction managed the penal and reformatory institutions. In 1902 further revision resulted in Bellevue and Allied Hospital having a separate organization. In 1920 the name of the Department was changed to the Department of Public Welfare [in 1938 it was further simplified to Department of Welfare].

City Home for the Aged, Blackwell's Island, ca. 1900. Frederick A. Walter, Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

No allusion has been made to much legislation affecting the administration of this department. There were many and constant changes in the form of administration; sometimes three, sometimes five, sometimes one commissioner of almshouse, or even a Board of Governors. The Department at present administered is under one commissioner appointed by the Mayor.

City Home for the Aged, Blackwell's Island, ca. 1900. Frederick A. Walter, Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

To carry on its diverse activities, the Department in 1920 maintained and operated two reception hospitals, six general hospitals, three special hospitals, two homes for the aged and infirm, cottages for aged couples and women, a preventorium, a convalescent home for women and children, a municipal lodging house, a mortuary, a social service department in connection with the hospitals, four schools of nursing and four training schools for attendants. The combined capacity of the eleven hospitals was 8,796 beds; the daily average of all patients cared for was approximately 5,847. The Department had a staff of 4,200 employees to carry on its work and the appropriation in the 1922 budget for the Department was $7,370,550.

Nurses lined up in front of Cumberland Street Hospital, 1920. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Commissioner Bird S. Coler has set forth in his 1919 Annual Report of the Department a descriptive outline of the Department for the information of the public.

Activities of the Department, Annual Report of the Department of Public Charities of the City of New York for Year 1919. NYC Municipal Library.