Tag Archives: Centre Street

Old New York In Photos #46

Birds-eye View  Of The City From The Shot Tower At Centre Street

And A Brief History Of New York’s Shot Towers

Birdseye View From shot tower Centre StreetThis view of lower Manhattan looking north is from the top of the Centre Street shot tower and was taken in approximately 1870 by E & H.T. Anthony, providers of some of the best 19th century stereoviews of New York.

The view confirms that New York was a low profile city in the 1870’s. The tallest structures in the metropolis were generally churches and their steeples. This view is dominated primarily by three and four story dwellings (some with laundry on clotheslines drying on the roof) as far as the eye can see.

print shot tower Centre Street 1905 Samuel HollyerThe shot tower was 175 feet tall and was built in 1855 by James Bogardus, a pioneer of cast iron building for James McCullough.

Located at 63 Centre Street and bounded by Pearl Street, Worth Street, New Elm Street and Centre Street, the shot tower was operated for many years by the Colwell Lead Company who acquired it from McCullough after the Civil War.

The Centre Street shot tower was octagonal in shape and constructed of brick with 10 iron pillars reaching from the foundation to the top. The base of the tower was 25 feet in diameter, tapering off to 11 feet in diameter at the summit.

Shot towers were among the tallest structures in 19th century New York. They served a necessity in the manufacture of shot ammunition. Molten pig lead would be mixed with arsenic and dropped from the top of the tower through a sieve. The semi-liquid cooled as it fell through the air into a globular shape, and it was caught in a basin of water below. The process would form perfect spherical shot. It was estimated that the tower could produce 15 tons of shot in a day.

As you approached the shot tower the cacophony of sound was described by a contemporary reporter “as if 1,000 sewing machines were at full play.”  If you stood just outside the room where the shot was produced the noise level jumped incrementally to the sound of “100,000 sewing machines now put in full motion.” And if you entered the production room, it was as if  “1,000,000 sewing machines were at work for all they were worth.”

In a strong gale of wind workers described how the tower would sway, not backward or forward but “like a man full of liquor desirous of taking in all the points of the compass at one and the same time.”

According to the superintendent of the lead company, considering the view which could be obtained from the top of the tower there were few requests from visitors to ascend it.

The Centre Street shot tower was razed in 1908. On its site is Thomas Paine Park.

Shot Towers In Manhattan

All the other shot towers that existed in New York are now gone as well.

They included:

A shot tower was located at 261 & 263 Water Street operated by Continue reading

Where Did The Saying “Up The River” Come From?

A Movie Cliche’s New York Origins

If you ever watch any gangster films from the 1930’s or 40’s, one of the lines of dialogue that always pops up is: “up the river.”

Somebody would utter it: a criminal; prosecutor; police officer; or a fellow gangster. Listen and it will be said in most of these early crime movies.

Lines like:

“Didn’t you hear, Rocky’s going up the river.”

“If you don’t talk Ike, I can guarantee you’re going to spend a long stretch up the river.”

“I’m not takin’ the fall to go up the river for a heist you did, Spats.”

The term “up the river” as most people know refers to going to prison.

So where did the saying come from?

In the 1800’s, when you were charged with a crime and sent to prison in New York City, the accused would first be taken to the prison on Centre Street in lower Manhattan which was known as “the Tombs” built in 1838.

The Tombs were so named because the original structure had large granite columns on the outside of the building which  resembled Egyptian burial architecture, a.k.a. tombs. The Tombs though, were merely a holding prison for the accused criminals awaiting trial.

After sentencing, convicts were sent to a prison on Blackwell’s Island (today known as Roosevelt Island) in the middle of the East River.

However if you were a habitual offender or committed a very serious offense, you would be sent thirty miles north, up the Hudson River to Sing Sing prison. This is the origin of the phrase being sent, “up the river.” Sing Sing separated the hardened criminals from the run of the mill pickpockets, burglars and ordinary thieves.

Even though, the term “up the river” originally referred to Sing Sing, it was eventually applied to anyone being sent to any prison.