THE SOCIAL HISTORY OF FLATBUSH by Gertrude Lefferts Vanderbilt 1887
VILLAGE ROADS Some thirty years there were two or three miles of country road between Flatbush and Brooklyn, with farms, meadows and woodland upon the roadside. Through all these years, however, Brooklyn has been throwing out vigourous branches in all directions, like the spreading boughs of trees that have rapid growth, and at last it has reached our very borders. Unlike the budding of tree and shrub, however, this mingling of urban and suburban presents an unsightly growth. The sunken city lot, with its encampment of shanties, its hummocks of refuse, its open, treeless commons, the resort of goats and geese, its rocks flaunting placards for advertising quacks and speculators-- all these are the ugly pioneers of the advancing city. On one side of the village these have been held in abeyance by the intervening green slopes and shrubbery of Prospect Park and their protecting barrier of hickory, oak and elm trees. The distance between Flatbush and Brooklyn was rendered more noticeable by the limited means of intercourse in public conveyance between the two places. Most of the village residents kept their own carriages and horses. The old-fashioned gig, the red farm-wagon, the family barouche, and the time-honored stage-coach, each held undisturbed possession of the dusty turnpike. The old stage-coach, pleasantly associated with roads winding between green hills and shady woods, was the only means of public conveyance within the limits of Kings County. Until the year 1838 or '39 there were two regular stage-coach lines running between Flatbush and Brooklyn. The oldest inhabitant well remembers SMITH BIRDSALL, the proprietor of one line, leaving his house, which stood on what is now the corner of Flatbush and Vernon Avenues, at eight o'clock in the morning, and returning about four in the afternoon. A loud blast from a horn announced the coming of the coach. We can readily recall the picture, which now we only see in the most secluded country towns, of the stopping of the stage coach, the door help open by friends to "speed the parting guest." The last words are spoken as the passenger leans over the half door; the driver shouts "All ready!" and mounts his high seat; there is the waving of the handkerchiefs, and the journey is begun; the children are frolicking in the gateway to enjoy the excitement of the prancing horses, the cracking of the long whip-lash, and the prolonged blast of the driver's horn. Soon after this stage had gone its way toward the distant city, but scarcely before the whirl of dust had altogether subsided, another opportunity was afforded the traveler to reach town that morning. The mail-stage came in at nine o'clock from Fort Hamilton. This was more pretentious, if not more comfortable, than the rest. It was drawn by four horses, and owned by COLONEL CHURCH, of New Utrecht. With a still louder blast upon a bugle, its arrival was announced as it turned the corner by the church from the post road to New Utrecht, and drew up before the little inn of the WIDOW SCHOONMAKER, opposite Erasmus Hall. The mail-bag, not a very bulky one in those days, was taken over to the post office, nearly opposite the Dutch church, and assorted by Mr MICHAEL SCHOONMAKER, and then it was flung back to the driver, and deposited under the boot at the foot of the driver's high seat. There was a prolonged snapping of the long whip-lash over the heads of the leaders, the stage rocked to and fro as the horses pranced hither and thither in the long, loose traces, and finally started off gayly under the inspiring flourish of a fresh blast and a final snap of the driver's whip. Then the village sunk into quiet, and the lookers-on proceeded to their ordinary work for the day. If any one through drowsiness, or for any other cause, missed this last nine-o'clock stage, the unfortunate individual must wait over until the next day, for there was no other opportunity to reach Brooklyn by public conveyance for the next 24 hours. At four o'clock in the afternoon the first stage returned, and at five the mail coach. Then the same bustle was repeated; the friends who were expected from the city to visit in the country were looked for by these returning coaches, and the members of the family who had been to New York or Brooklyn for the day returned home, tired and hungry, and were met at the gate by the children who had been stationed there to await and announce the approach of the stage-coach. Father had brought, perhaps, the weekly paper at least; he had the latest news; and mother had been shopping in Maiden Lane or William Street. Until the year 1842 or '43 these stages were the only modes of public conveyance. They then gave place to an omnibus line. These omnibuses ran every hour, and as to convenience, in this respect they were certainly an improvement upon the stage coaches. Flatbush Avenue was opened from Fulton Avenue, Brooklyn, to the entrance of the village in 1856. At first the cars ran to the city limits, and were there met by the omnibus, but when the whole line of railroad was completed, the old omnibus line passed into disuse. It was a strange sight for us to see the cars from the city, associated as they then were with shops and city life, passing to and fro upon the country turnpike, to catch a glimpse of them through the shrubbery, and to hear the unmusical tinkling of the bells upon the car-horses amid suburban sounds. Before the railway tracks somewhat incumbered the country turnpike, the old road to Flatbush was a favorite summer drive for the citizens of Brooklyn and New York. As there were then no city parks for carriage-driving, and the country had not been so widely opened up for extended travel, the pleasant rural aspect of the village made it an attraction toward which the large majority of the people who lived down town in New York turned for an excursion on a summer afternoon. The shore road along the Narrows could be included, making a long and pleasant drive in the country suburbs. The roads and sidewalks in this town have always been kept in order. Dr STRONG speaks of a time when there were low stone fences along the main street "surmounted by primrose hedges." These have all passed out of the memory of even the oldest inhabitant. About 1840 the sidewalks were separated from the carriage road by a slight fence made of posts joined either by chains or by a top rail. At this time every farmer owned several cows, which were sometimes allowed to graze on the roadside, or loitered there on their way home from their pasture fields. The cow-bell, tinkling on the neck of the leader, was a rural sound which was always heard at sunset in summer. These railings between the sidewalk and the carriage road served to keep the cows from annoying pedestrians, and were really a safeguard for children. They also gave a finished appearance to the sidewalk, as they were neatly painted and generally kept in good repair. THE TOLL GATE When the road to Brooklyn was a turnpike, the care of the road was paid for from the money collected at the toll gate. This, in or about 1842, stood near where Flatbush Avenue forms the terminus of Hanson Place, or between Hanson Place and Lafayette Avenue. Afterward it was removed to what is now called Atlantic Street, somewhat easterly of the present intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Flatbush Avenue. Next it was placed near the Battle Pass, south of the Valley Grove Hotel, on the old road. After this is was placed opposite the WILLINK property. Finally, it was removed within the limits of the village, and at present stands on the avenue between Fenimore and Winthrop Streets. Back to EASTERN DISTRICT Main Back to TOWN Main Page Back to STREETS Main Back to BROOKLYN Main