In the mid-18th century, when the northern edge of New York City was still around Pearl Street and Duane Street, wealthy New Yorkers and British officers established sprawling country estates to the north. Following William Waldron’s death, his farmland on what would become Manhattan’s Upper East Side was divided and sold.
The section of the East River here was called Hellegat by the Dutch—loosely translated to mean “bright strait” or “clear opening.” Over the years English-speaking settlers would corrupt the name to Hell Gate. The rolling landscape near the river offered cooling breezes and refuge from the city’s crowded and dusty conditions during the summer months.
In 1784 the 21-year old John Jacob Astor arrived in New York. Born in Walldorf, Germany, his command of English was only fair, but his ambition was unparalleled. He began business by selling musical instruments he brought with him from London.
Astor rented a room from Sarah Cox Todd, a widow, at No. 18 Queen Street. He struck a romance with his landlady’s daughter, also named Sarah. On September 19, 1785 the young couple was married. Sarah was a year older than John and brought to the marriage a $300 dowry.
|from the collection of the New York Public Library.|
Over the next decades both the family and their fortunes grew. By 1800 Astor had amassed a fortune of nearly a quarter of a million dollars. Before long his and Sarah’s combined business acumen would make him the first multi-millionaire in the country.
In 1801 Eliza, the Astors’ seventh child, was born. She was a frail child and it was possibly this fact that prompted Sarah to urge husband to purchase a summer estate. Here, she felt, the children could spend time in the fresh, healthful air away from the heat and diseases of the city. Astor purchased 13 acres, part of the old Waldron farm, and constructed the Georgian-style mansion, Hellgate.
Like the elegant homes on the surrounding estates, Hellgate reflected the family’s wealth and status. Four two-story columns with elaborate Corinthian capitals gave the residence a grand air. The view from the porch, past the grounds that ran down to the East River, included Blackwell’s Island. Astor would spend much time watching the ships navigating the waters below his property.
|An unknown artist created this charming watercolor around 1850 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/Collection/House%20of%20John%20Jacob%20Astor.-2F3HRGFH2IH.html|
Hellgate was located in what today would be approximately 86th Street to 87th Street and East End Avenue. The wealthy neighbors included Commodore Isaac Chauncey, and Archibald Gracie. Not far away were the estates of the Livingstons, Rikers, and Joneses—all part of the upper crust of New York society.
In his Literary New York, historian Charles Hemstreet described Hellgate as “a square two-story frame dwelling of colonial type, painted white, with deep veranda, wide halls, and spacious rooms; set high upon a hill, backed by a forest of towering trees, and fronted by a vast lawn stretching by gentle slope to the cliff at the riverside.”
Astor’s daughter, Magdalen married the Rev. John Bristed in 1819 and their son, Charles Astor Bristed was born the following year. When Magdalen died in 1832 the 12-year old Charles was taken to be raised by John Jacob and Sarah Astor; spending most of his youth at Hellgate.
|The lawn swept down towards the river edge -- sketch by Eliza Greatorex from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/Collection/East%2088th%20Street%20[64th%20Street%20to%20178th%20Street]-24UAKVNKCJBR.html|
Sarah died two years later and John Jacob Astor spent more time in his beloved Hellgate. Here young Charles would be exposed here to the literary figures who often visited—writers and poets like Washington Irving and Fitz-Greene Halleck. Washington Irving was a long-term guest in 1836 while he wrote his Astoria, the book commissioned by Astor to document his expedition to Oregon in 1810-1812.
Contact with such figures no doubt contributed to Bristed’s eventually becoming a famous Greek scholar and author.
|Following his death Johnson, Fry and Company's 1862 Portrait Gallery of Eminent Americans kindly depicted the aged Astor as dignified and robust. (copyright expired)|
By the 1840s Astor was showing his age. Although his mind was still sharp, he was in serious physical decline. Philip Hone, famous for keeping precise, detailed journals which were not always complimentary, was a dinner guest of Robert M. Blatchford n October 8, 1844. Blatchford’s summer home was near Hellgate and John Jacob Astor was also there that night. The following day Hone wrote in his diary:
I went yesterday to dine at Mr. Blatchford’s at Hell Gate. The party at dinner consisted of old Mr. J. J. Astor and his train-bearer...Mr. Astor…presented a painful example of the insufficiency of wealth to prolong the life of man. This old gentleman, with his fifteen millions of dollars, would give it all to have my strength and physical ability; and yet, with all this example…I, with a good conscience and in possession of my bodily faculties, sometimes repine at my lot…He sat at the dinner table with his head down upon his breast, saying very little, and in a voice almost unintelligible, the saliva dropping from his mouth, and a servant behind him to guide the victuals which he was eating, and to watch him as an infant is watched. His mind is good, his observation acute, and he seems to know everything that is going on. But the machinery is all broken up, and there are some people, no doubt, who think he has lived long enough.”
Four years later, on March 29, 1848, John Jacob Astor died. Once again Philip Hone commented on the event in his diary. “John Jacob Astor died this morning, at nine o’clock, in the eighty-fifth year of his age; sensible to the last, but the material of life exhausted, the machinery worn out, the lamp extinguished for want of oil. Bowed down with bodily infirmity for a long time, he has gone at last, and left reluctantly his unbounded wealth.”
Astor’s beloved grandson, Charles Astor Bristed inherited much of the Astor property, including “my country seat at Hellgate and my lands there, containing about thirteen acres.”
At the time the relentless northward expansion of the city was still miles away. But by the end of the Civil War the Upper East Side was seeing rapid development. By 1869 Charles Bristed was selling off parcels of the Hellgate estate. That year the Astor mansion was pulled down.
|Henderson Place sits approximately where the Hellgate mansion stood. photo from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The sweeping lawns on which the Astor children played are now part of Carl Schurz Park. The site of the Hellgate mansion is now occupied by John C. Henderson’s delightful 1881 group of homes known as Henderson Place