Borough byways: A study in history

January 16, 2009 at 3:43 pm Leave a comment

Even if you never think about history, it’s ever-present when you drive or walk on our local streets and major thoroughfares.

How many times have residents of the North Shore traveled Howard Avenue, with its spectacular waterfront vistas, especially at this time of year when the trees are bare? Who knows that this street has historic roots, named as a tribute to Maj. George Howard, who developed Grymes Hill in 1830?

Consider, too, Drumgoole Road on the South Shore. It commemorates Father John C. Drumgoole (1816-1888), an Irish immigrant and Catholic priest who dedicated his life to the cause of homeless and orphaned children, and founded Mount Loretto, which continues its mission until now.

There’s also Post Avenue in Port Richmond. The roots of its name go back to 1650. Capt. Adrian Post set sail from Amsterdam that spring on the sailing ship New Netherland’s Fortune, which carried 20 colonists and their agricultural tools.

Soon thereafter, Post became superintendent of the Staten Island property of his boss, Baron Van de Cappelan, a Dutchman. He survived the 1655 attack that Native Americans carried out on the settlement in Oude Dorp (Old Town), and reportedly — as a prisoner of war — – served as negotiator between the warring parties. Post eventually returned to the island with his wife, 5 children, and two servants. The family’s old estate was located near what is now Post Avenue.

BULLS HEAD LORE

Signs Road, along the northern border of the William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge on the West Shore, near Bulls Head, seems like a generic name of recent vintage.

Not so.

Here’s the history: In 1741, the Bull’s Head Tavern was built on the West Shore at the intersection of the Richmond Turnpike (now Victory Boulevard) and the road from Port Richmond to New Springville, according to an 1877 history book.

“The sign which swung between two high posts in front of the small low tavern which stood on the northeast corner” featured a “fierce looking bull’s head, with very short horns and very round eyes, which looked very much like a pair of spectacles,” the historian explained.

After the American Revolution, a local tale developed about a mysterious figure that frequented the area near the tavern. He was said to be “tall and swarthy, with eyes like fire,” reported a New York Times journalist in an article published in 1916. “From human guise he passed into the shape of a dog and other forms as well. Sometimes the dog was as large as a horse, and always the eyes blazed terribly through the darkness. The road passing the tavern came to be known as Signs Road in consequence of all these superstitions,” she wrote. Fear eventually kept patrons away, and the tavern finally “passed into decay.”

A POINTING FINGER

Fingerboard Road, which snakes through Arrochar and Concord, is one of the most curious names on the East Shore. It was previously known in the early 1800s as Roguery Hill Road because “a robbery and murder was once committed on a small elevation over which the road passes,” according to the 1877 history book. After a “guide-board and post” were erected at the start of the road, pointing the way to Richmond Road, it began to be called the Fingerboard Road, and the name stuck.

OLD HOTEL

Purdy Place is a tiny street in Prince’s Bay on the South Shore, abutting Wolfe’s Pond Park and ending near the water’s edge. At this location was Purdy’s Hotel, an old homestead believed to date back to 1690, and originally the home of a French Huguenot settler. British forces reportedly used the building during the Revolutionary War.

1600s SAILING SHIP

Bentley Street in Tottenville is named for a 17th century sailing ship, and the establishment of the historic Manor of Bentley on the South Shore.

Capt. Christopher Billopp arrived in New York in 1667 from England on his two-gun ship, the Bentley.

“At that time it was a disputed question whether Staten Island belonged to New York or New Jersey, and to end the discussion the Duke of York decided that all islands lying in the Harbor of New York that could be circumnavigated within 24 hours should remain within the jurisdiction of New York, otherwise they would be given to New Jersey,” reported the New York Times on March 8, 1903.

Billopp reportedly accomplished the Duke’s challenge, and as a result he was rewarded 1,163 acres of land on the Island. The property was named the Manor of Bentley, on which Billopp built his now-famous house. According to the Times, it was constructed of “imported cement from England and bricks from Belgium.”

IRISH NOTABLE

Gifford’s Lane in Great Kills is named for William Bernard Gifford, who was born in Ireland in 1750, and arrived in America before the Revolution. He fought against the British, rising to the rank of major, and “served for a time on Gen. Washington’s staff,” one historian noted. Gifford moved to the Island, married here, and in 1804 purchased a farm in New Dorp that was known as “The Rose and Crown.” He died a wealthy man in 1814, and was buried in the yard of the Dutch Reformed Church in Port Richmond.

DISAPPEARED NAMES

Some place-names that were commonly used in our borough in the 19th century have disappeared completely. In Port Richmond, for example, Bennett Street and Cottage Place were clearly marked on the Island’s street grid in the 1870s.

Brown’s Saloon was at the intersection of these two streets, and the corner was popularly known as Buffalo Corners because of the buffalo head over the tavern’s door.

Proof of the common use of this name is from the Richmond County Sentinel. In an article dated January 24, 1877, it noted “a strange phase of insanity exhibited by a person living at Buffalo Corners in Port Richmond.”

Is there anyone on Staten Island who remembers the name Buffalo Corners, and when it fell into disuse?

Virginia N. Sherry
Staten Island Advance

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Entry filed under: Go Coastal, Staten Island. Tags: , , , , , .

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