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BY ERIC FERRARA | A footnote in James Fenimore Cooper’s 1821 Revolutionary War-inspired novel “The Spy” declares, “Every Manhattanese knows the difference between ‘Manhattan Island’ and ‘the Island of Manhattan.’”
If you visited the city two centuries ago, you had better have known the difference as well, lest you arouse the suspicious ire of a local.
Well, up until the early 19th century, an elevated, acre-sized knoll located near the bank of the East River between today’s E. Houston and E. Third Sts. was referred to locally as “Manhattan Island.” The property was surrounded by soggy marshland and natural water creeks — accessible only by traversing a series of small wooden bridges and walkways. During high tide, the encompassing lowland flooded, exposing a small “island” which became a popular 18th-century destination for summertime recreation.
To the north, a creek separated “Manhattan Island” from several acres of salt meadows. Early accounts tell of people being drawn to the salt meadows for a pastime called “money-digging,” where large holes were carved into the earth, eventually leaving the district a cratered mess. Why did people dig? Because of one of New York City’s earliest urban legends. Many believed that Captain Kidd and Blackbeard buried their treasures here.
After the Revolutionary War the area remained a popular fishing destination for the city’s elite, like notable poet Fitz-Greene Halleck, a Stuyvesant family friend who fished regularly at Brandt Muhle Point — or Burnt Mill Point — appropriately named after a fire-gutted windmill that once sat on the edge of the salt meadows, just north of “Manhattan Island.”
However, within a few short decades, this peaceful, rural nook was transformed into the center of New York City’s booming marine industry. By the 1840s, massive iron foundries, coal yards and ship docks had risen from the quiet marshland. and the entire neighborhood between Houston and 14th Sts., Avenue A to the East River — today’s “Alphabet City” — became known as the Dry Dock district.
Despite several sweeping redevelopments to the neighborhood’s landscape over the centuries, a piece of “Manhattan Island” history actually exists to this day.
In the 1830s the Manhattan Island Presbyterian Church, affectionately known as the “Church in the Swamp,” was established on the site of the geographical anomaly. This congregation evolved a few times over the years but still exists as the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, located at Madison Ave. and 73rd St. since 1899.