Walkabout: The Lords of Owl’s Head, Part 2

Original design for Owl’s Head Stables, by Parfitt Brothers, as published in a German architectural magazine. Illustration: periodpapers.com

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    Original design for Owl’s Head Stables, by Parfitt Brothers, as published in a German architectural magazine. Illustration: periodpapers.com

    Read Part 1 and Part 3 of this story.

    High above what is now the Narrows of New York Bay, the movement of a vast glacier moving towards the sea millions of years ago created a hill overlooking the great bay, one that afforded a view of great beauty. The Canarsee people appreciated this view, as did the Dutch who came after them.

    The land and the view was also quite desirable for Henry C. Murphy, one of Brooklyn’s most admired men, a scholar, attorney, State Senator, Mayor of Brooklyn, founder of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and the Brooklyn Historical Society, Congressman and philanthropist.

    A very busy man. A man of this importance needs a place to get away from the hustle and bustle, and Mr. Murphy did so by buying this most desirable of plots, and building a large country villa on it, one that afforded him an unparalleled view of the bay, and the surrounding area.

    This was the place where Murphy signed the authorization to build the Brooklyn Bridge, and other important legislation. Right here, in Bay Ridge, where another great bridge would one day cross this same bay, many years later. Part one of our story tells Murphy’s tale. When he died in 1882, the house passed on to another powerful man who made a great impact on New York, and the world. His name was Eliphalet W. Bliss.

    Eliphalet William Bliss was born in Fly Creek, in Otsego County, NY, a very small farming community near Cooperstown. Unlike the Brooklyn-born Henry Murphy, young Eliphalet did not go to Columbia or study law, he grew up on his family’s farm and as a young man with a gift for all things mechanical, he apprenticed to a machine shop, where he remained until he was twenty-one.

    In 1857, he decided to go to New England for better job opportunities, and he ended up at the Parker gun factory, in Meriden, Connecticut, where he soon became foreman, a position he held for seven years. During the Civil War years, he was a corporal with the 3rd Connecticut Volunteers. Ironically, an older brother, Lucian Wood Williams Bliss became a major in the Confederate Army. As far as is known, they never engaged in the same battles during the war.

    At the end of the war, Bliss returned to Fly Creek, got married to Anna Elizabeth Metcalf, and moved to Brooklyn, to seek his fortune. His first job in Brooklyn was with the Campbell Printing Press company, but Bliss was already getting patents for his inventions, and then in 1867, Eliphalet Bliss opened his own company, the E. W. Bliss Company.

    Fortunes were being made in Brooklyn at this time. Brooklyn exploded with merchants and manufacturers producing food products, such as coffee and sugar, and with innovations in preserving and selling foodstuffs, as well as just about everything else. The DUMBO area and all along the Brooklyn side of the riverfront to Bush Terminal was studded with warehouses and factories.

    One could do quite well producing these products, but you needed some experience and connections, and some ships or suppliers. But one could become stinking rich supplying something else: the container that those goods came in, and that’s exactly what E.W. Bliss set out to do. With his mechanical aptitude, he designed and built the machines that cut, stamped, pressed and shaped sheet metal, creating cans, containers, and all manner of pressed metal goods.

    At the same time, no doubt due to his experience at the Parker gun factory, and with many of the same machines, he also began manufacturing munitions: shells and projectiles. Bliss factory machines made the rocket shells a soldier fired at the enemy, and later in the trenches, the can that his dinner beans came in.

    The Bliss Company’s machines were often huge, enormously heavy behemoths, run by steam power, which he manufactured, sold, or used himself to produce pressed metal products. The company held many patents, and Bliss himself held patents for machines that allowed him to manufacture shaped and cast sheet metal, and solder cans.

    The machines had names like “Automatic Muck Bar Shear”, “Bliss Gang-Slitting machine”, and “Double Seamer for Flat Bottoms machine.” Bliss cans held fruit and vegetables, kerosene, paint, varnish, baking powder, and spices.

    The machinery he produced would be found in industrial centers all over the world, and would be used in the production of almost anything in metal: railroad cars, bottle caps, typewriters, cans, locks, shovels, toys, clocks, jewelry, lamps, and later, automobiles. If it was metal, it could have come from a Bliss press.

    The first Bliss factory was at the base of Adams Street, and over the years, would spread to a huge complex in Bush Terminal, over two blocks long, and a plant in DUMBO, at 135 Plymouth Street, and a foundry at Water Street.

    All of the plants were used for both parts of the Bliss operation: the manufacture of the machines themselves, and the utilization of those machines for domestic and military operations. Some of the metal used in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge came from Bliss, as well as the torpedoes used in the Spanish American War. Bliss was a very successful military contractor, operating that part of his business as the United States Projectile Company.

    This rather innocuous name was synonymous with munitions and war. The company obtained the patent for the Whitehead torpedo, used by the U.S. Navy, and would manufacture the torpedoes and most of the shells used in the Navy’s large guns, munitions used in the Spanish American War, World Wars I, and II.

    The shells were produced in Brooklyn, and transported to Sag Harbor by railroad, for testing at the Bliss testing grounds. The torpedoes and shells were then transferred to waiting Navy vessels.

    The part of the operation that made the shells live took place in the Bliss plant at Plymouth Street, in DUMBO, where a special factory with a “factory within a factory” held the gunpowder and explosives. If anything went wrong, this part of the plant was designed to contain the explosion.

    Since Bliss also was the vice-president of the Brooklyn Heights Railway, the finished shells travelled to Long Island in his special cars, loaded on the rail line which ran throughout the industrial park, with a terminal just across the street from the plant. It was then on to the Long Island Railroad float bridges in Long Island City, and then on to Sag Harbor.

    As can be imagined, all of this made Eliphalet Bliss extremely rich. Eliphalet and Anna Bliss had one daughter, named Eva, and they became fixtures in Brooklyn Society. He had already been wealthy enough from his patents to purchase the Murphy estate in Bay Ridge in 1866, the year before his company actually came into being.

    He set about making some changes. Over the years, he refurbished the mansion extensively, and built a grand stable for his horses, and most memorably, a tall observation tower at the edge of the hillside, where he could gaze out over the bay, with a view of Staten Island and New Jersey. The estate was called Owl’s Head, and Bliss went all out in making it his dream home.

    In the 1890’s, he spent $75,000 on a lavish and huge stable, designed by the Parfitt Brothers, one of Brooklyn’s finest architectural firms. The huge Romanesque Revival building was larger than most mansions, and better looking.

    It had an arched entryway, three stories, a clock tower and multiple turrets, and was made of ashlar cut stone. At a time when the average brownstone cost around $12K to build, and a more upscale brownstone around $30K, the horses and grooms in this place were indeed living like kings. The stable also enjoyed the fine views of the harbor, as well.

    In addition to his company, Bliss was vice-president of the aforementioned Brooklyn Heights Railroad, was vice-president of the Brooklyn Gas Fixture Company, and a director of the Kings County Trust Company. His E.W. Bliss Company was publically traded, and the company officers were himself, his wife, and two other close associates.

    Bliss was active in all of the right clubs and organizations in both Manhattan and Brooklyn, and he was an avid yachtsman, with membership in five local yacht clubs. His large stone observatory would have been a perfect place for him to see all of the maritime action he loved.

    He didn’t spend all of his money on himself. For many years, he was an avid supporter of the E.W. Bliss Kindergarten, a program of early learning and daycare which he established for poor working people and immigrants.

    The kindergarten had several branches, including one at the Goodwill Center near the Navy Yard, at Gold and York Streets. The kindergarten movement was an important new step in early child development in American schools, an idea first developed in Germany. Bliss was a lifetime supporter of this movement. He was also a member of the Episcopal Church of Bay Ridge, and gave money to their building fund and other church causes.

    On July 21st, 1903, Eliphalet W. Bliss died. He left the bulk of his estate to his wife and daughter. He provided for his church and the E.W.Bliss Kindergarten, as well as bequests to his sister and other relatives. In his will, he asked that the city turn his Owl’s Head into a public park.

    After his wife’s passing, the city could buy the multimillion dollar estate for $825,000, and make it a city park that would be the envy of every neighborhood in Brooklyn. What happens next, as well as some other Murphy/Bliss tidbits, will be in the conclusion of our story, next time. GMAP

    Eliphalet Williams Bliss

    Bliss’ DUMBO munitions factory

    Bliss machinery, from a catalog. Brooklyn Public Library

    Owl’s Head Observatory

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