Walkabout: The Lords of Owl’s Head, Part 1

Henry C. Murphy villa, overlooking the Narrows, Bay Ridge. Photo taken in 1915, reflects changes made after Murphy’s ownership. Photo: nycgovparks.

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    Henry C. Murphy villa, overlooking the Narrows, Bay Ridge. Photo taken in 1915, reflects changes made after Murphy’s ownership. Photo: nycgovparks.

    Read Part 2 and Part 3 of this story.

    The shoreline of New York Bay, specifically the Narrows, in Bay Ridge, near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, is one of Brooklyn’s most naturally beautiful places. Even today, with the highways, the buildings, and the bridge itself, it’s still easy to imagine what Canarsee Indians, then the Dutch, must have thought when seeing it. The bay is a truly beautiful sight.

    Bay Ridge is part of New Utrecht, one of the six original towns that make up Kings County. It was settled in 1657 by the Dutch, and for most of its history, until the mid-19th century, was a quiet agrarian community, with farms, country villas, and the small villages of Yellow Hook and nearby Fort Hamilton.

    Yellow Hook was named for the yellow clay that leeched out of the ground, in all of the area farms, but in 1853, a yellow fever epidemic caused the town fathers to look for another name. Bay Ridge was chosen, named for the terminal moraine that overlooks the bay. It was on this moraine that our story takes form.

    By the mid-1850’s, around when the name change took place, Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton were becoming a very popular places for wealthy people to build suburban villas and second homes. The shoreline was beautiful, the breezes and the view much more restful than in the more developed areas of Brooklyn, as well as Manhattan.

    The Shore Road, which followed the bay, was especially popular, and soon was lined with freestanding Gothic, Italianate and Greek Revival villas. The most impressive houses of that era were even higher up on the moraine than the Shore Road, and looked down on the bay and the road.

    Little remains of these houses today, but one, on a large expanse of land looking over the entire area, was home to one of Brooklyn’s most impressive individuals, Henry C. Murphy.

    Henry Cruse Murphy was born in Brooklyn, in 1810. His father, John Garrison Murphy, was a wheelwright, who, with his wife Clarissa, came to the small town of Brooklyn in 1808. He soon established himself with a successful business, and was able to cash in on improvements he developed for the mechanics of the team bolts, the teams of horses that pulled small barges of goods across the East River from Manhattan.

    His success led to a comfortable lifestyle, and an interest in village politics and social programs. He was one of the first advocates for a public school in the village, and in later years became a Justice of the Peace, and then a judge. Young Henry grew up seeing local politics and law in action, so it is little wonder that he would end up at Columbia College, and then on to a career in the law.

    In 1830, Henry Murphy graduated Columbia with honors, and then began his law career by studying with the Honorable Peter W. Radcliffe, a well-known Manhattan lawyer, who lived in Brooklyn. During this time, he was also writing editorials and features for the Brooklyn paper, The Brooklyn Advocate and Nassau Gazette.

    By the time his law schooling was completed, three years later, he was ready to hang out his shingle, and practice. He also took some time to marry Amelia Greenwood. His law offices were in the same building as the Apprentice’s Library and the Municipal Court, at Pineapple and Fulton Streets, and it wasn’t long before his practice took off, as did his budding political career.

    By 1834, he was Corporation Council of the Village of Brooklyn, a Democratic Party representative, and later, City Attorney, and then Corporation Council of the newly incorporated City of Brooklyn. He then formed, with some of Brooklyn’s oldest family names, the law and investment firm of Lott, Murphy & Vanderbilt, which became one of Brooklyn’s power firms of the day.

    He was still in his 20s. By the time he hit his 30s, Henry Murphy had become one of the trustees of the new Brooklyn City Library and one of the founders of the Long Island Historical Society. By 1941, he, and several other like-minded Democrats founded a new newspaper for Brooklyn, called the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Kings County Democrat.

    This paper would become the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the daily chronicler of all things Brooklyn for over a hundred years. Murphy was one of the first editors.

    Never to let dust settle under him, in 1842, at the age of 32, Henry C. Murphy became Mayor of Brooklyn. Among his accomplishments were the expansion and paving of Myrtle Avenue, the organizing of the vast systems of warehouses along the harbor, and a comprehensive effort in improving the lives of the city’s poor.

    He seemed to be so popular that before his term of mayor was up, he was elected to Congress, in 1843, one of that Session’s youngest members. He only lasted one term, but managed to secure the Naval Dry Dock for Wallabout Bay, paving the way for the Navy Yard’s prominence during the Civil War and beyond. Unfortunately for his legacy, he also voted against the national abolition of slavery, asserting that it was a private state matter, and couldn’t be legislated on a Federal level.

    A private citizen again, Murphy was still interested in politics, and after a very successful stint as Kings County’s representative to the Convention for the Revision of the State Constitution, in Albany, he was re-elected to Congress in 1846.

    His term ended in 1849, and he returned again to Brooklyn. As a private citizen with great influence, he was able to get the city to buy the land for Fort Greene Park, then called Washington Park. He also had his hand in other civic projects.

    According to his biographer,Henry Reed Stiles, Murphy narrowly missed being nominated as his party’s candidate for President of the United States, at the Democratic Convention in 1852.

    The elections that year made James Buchanan the 15th President, and in 1857, he appointed Murphy to be America’s ambassador to the Hague, the Netherlands. Perhaps not the most prestigious of foreign posts, but Murphy took it, and spent the next few years shoring up foreign good will.

    He had always been a scholar and a student of Brooklyn’s history, and his posting in Holland afforded him the opportunity to study the Dutch, their history and culture, and the Dutch founders of Brooklyn. He learned to read and write in Dutch, and translated many early documents and histories of Dutch New York history into English. He wrote a regular column for the Brooklyn Eagle, describing Dutch culture and his travels in Holland.

    In 1861, Republican president Abraham Lincoln was elected, and Murphy’s term as ambassador was over. He returned to Brooklyn, already committed to the Union cause. As rumors of secession and war abounded, even before Lincoln’s election, Murphy had been one of the State’s most effective communicators to the rest of Europe, and was very much aware of what was going on.

    Upon returning, he helped fund one of Brooklyn’s regiments, took care of some messy financial shenanigans going on in his firm of Lott, Murphy & Vanderbilt, and found himself in the State Senate again.

    His focus was always on Brooklyn, which while he had been gone, had grown by leaps and bounds, but had not kept up with infrastructure. (Amazing how some things never change.) The roads were a mess, and hadn’t been paved in years, the system of public lighting was underfunded, and the sewers were inadequate and failing.

    Over the next twelve years, he would fight unceasingly for funding and public works. After the Civil War, he was one of the private investors interested in a bridge crossing the East River, joining Manhattan and Brooklyn. He was president of this private venture, and when it became a public project, he became one of the Trustees, and then president of the Brooklyn Bridge committee.

    By this time, Henry Murphy had secured his estate in Bay Ridge, building a large villa on what may have been the most exclusive piece of property in the area; the outcropping of land overlooking the Narrows. It was his summer home, a respite from the city, and a far cry from his brownstone at 133 Remsen Street, in Brooklyn Heights. From his home in Bay Ridge, the State Senate bill authorizing the Brooklyn Bridge was crafted, and in 1866, was signed.

    Henry Murphy was one of those men for whom there was never enough time. In addition to all of the rest of his projects, he was president of the Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island Railroad, and was interested in Coney Island’s development as an upscale hotel and resort area.

    He was also on the board of the Brooklyn City Railroad and the Union Ferry Company. He was said to visit all of his offices at least once every day. He also found the time to author several books on Brooklyn history, as well as other topics.

    As one of the founders of the Long Island Historical Society, today, the Brooklyn Historical Society, he sat on their board, and as a scholar, was extremely active and interested in all of that organization’s activities. He truly loved the city of Brooklyn.

    He may have just worn himself out, because in November of 1882, he fell ill. His doctors at first suspected that he had pneumonia, but soon decided that he had ruptured the valves in his heart, and it was only a matter of days.

    He was in great pain for several days, had a very hard time breathing, and on December 1, 1882, Henry Cruse Murphy died at his home on Remsen Street. He was seventy-two years old. His funeral was attended by the movers and shakers of Brooklyn, Albany and Washington, and in honor of his work for his beloved city, Bay Ridge named the street leading from his mansion “Senator Street” in his honor.

    Murphy is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery. He didn’t live to see the Brooklyn Bridge open, that occurred a year later, in 1883, opening up Brooklyn to even greater growth. He would have loved that.

    The large villa in Bay Ridge would pass to another Brooklyn mover and shaker. His name was Eliphalet W. Bliss, and his story, and the fate of the property and its owners, will conclude our story, next time. GMAP

    Henry C. Murphy. Photo: Memoirs of HCM, by Henry Reed Stiles

    The Murphy estate, now Owl’s Head Park, Bay Ridge. 1935 Photo: nycgovparks

    Murphy home at 133 Remsen St. Photo: Scott Bintner for Property Shark, 2007

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