In February 1912, ice filled the Gravesend Bay and the Narrows, making it possible for people to cross the bay to Norton's Point on Coney Island. It was the first time since the great blizzard of 1888 that the waters completely froze.

In February 1912, ice floes filled the Gravesend Bay and the Narrows, making it possible for hundreds of adventurous people to cross the bay to Norton’s Point on Coney Island. It was the first time since the great blizzard of 1888 that the waters froze enough to form an ice bridge made of giant ice floes.

NBC’s Katie Couric struck a nerve with the Dutch during the Pyeonchang Olympic Opening Ceremonies by saying the reason the Netherlands is so dominant in speed skating is because “skating is an important mode of transportation” for the people of Amsterdam when the canals freeze over.

There was quite a lot of backlash from the viewers, who pointed out correctly that not only do the canals rarely completely freeze over, but the Dutch usually get around like everyone else in the world, either by foot, bicycle, or car. Oh, and they also don’t wear wooden shoes anymore.

To be sure, there have been winters that were cold enough to turn Amsterdam’s canals into frozen skateways, but for the most part, the Dutch mostly rely on man-made ice skating rinks or frozen ponds for their skating pleasure.

New York City hasn’t had a canal system since the British filled in the canals of the city’s early Dutch settlement in 1676 (and the old canal that is now Canal Street was covered over in 1819), but the city is surrounded by water. And that water has frozen over several times in the past, most notably in the 1800s and early 1900s, before our winters got warmer and the shipping traffic got heavier.

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The first cat to cross over the Brooklyn Bridge was a gray cat named Ned. (This is not Ned)

The first cat to cross over the Brooklyn Bridge was a gray cat named Ned. This vintage kitty is not Ned, but isn’t he cute?

In 1866, the New York State Legislature passed legislation authorizing the construction of an East River bridge to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn. A year later, the New York Bridge Company was incorporated and John A. Roebling, who presented a design for a 1,600-foot bridge, was appointed chief engineer for the Brooklyn Bridge.

Following a series of major construction milestones and setbacks—including John Roebling’s death, son Washington Roebling’s injuries from “caisson disease” (decompression sickness), and William “Boss” Tweed’s arrest for stealing public funds—the new Brooklyn Bridge (then called the East River Bridge) opened to traffic 16 years later on May 24, 1883.

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General Daniel E. Sickles with his Blenheim Shepard, Bo-Bo, sometime around 1904.

General Sickles with his Blenheim spaniel, Bo-Bo, sometime around 1904 in New York City.

“It is not surprising and will scarcely cause any comment if some soft-hearted or soft-brained woman goes into hysterics over the death of her pet dog or cat, and gives herself up to the most extravagant grief over his demise, but the spectacle of a veteran soldier who fought with distinction in the Civil War, doing the same thing, is rather strange.”—Arkansas Democrat, September 2, 1905

Born on October 20, 1819 (the birth year is not absolute), Daniel Edgar Sickles was the son of Susan Marsh Sickles and George Garrett Sickles, a New York City patent lawyer and politician. Much has been written about General Sickles, so for the purpose of this story, I’ll sum it up in one paragraph as follows:

General Daniel E. Sickles was a Tammany Hall politician; a murderer (in 1859 he shot and killed Philip Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key, but he was acquitted on the grounds of temporary insanity); a Civil War hero (he was awarded the medal of honor for his services at Gettysburg); a two-time Congressman; a good friend of the Princess Lwoff-Parlaghy (he purchased a lion cub for her in 1908 when she was living at the Plaza Hotel); and the owner of a purebred Blenheim spaniel named Bo-Bo.

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Comments Off on 1906: Speck, the Momma Cat Who Saved Christmas for 16 Families at 27 Second Avenue on the Lower East Side

Speck was an ordinary New York City cat who led an ordinary life in Frederick Turkowsky’s plumbing shop at 27 Second Avenue. Up until December 5, 1906, very few people on the Lower East Side, save for Frederick, even knew she existed.

According to a plumbing trade journal published in April 1905, Frederick was already established in a shop at 28 Second Avenue when he opened a second basement shop and storeroom across the street in a four-story tenement at 27 Second Avenue. Speck spent much of her time in the basement shop, sleeping peacefully in the cozy box that Frederick provided for her. It was in this box that Speck gave birth to kittens during the week of Thanksgiving 1906.

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Bob the cat made his home in the Grand Union Tea Company building from about 1900 to 1900. The block-long, block-wide complex was bounded by Jay, Pearl, Front, and Water Streets, on what was once the farmland of Comfort and Joshua Sands.

Bob the cat made his home in the Grand Union Tea Company building from about 1900 to 1903. The large factory and headquarters complex at 58-68 Jay Street was bounded by Jay, Pearl, Front, and Water Streets, on what was once the waterfront property of Comfort and Joshua Sands.

In the 1904 edition of King’s Views of Brooklyn, the Grand Union Tea Company building in Brooklyn’s present-day DUMBO neighborhood was listed as the “largest warehouse and factory in the United States for teas, coffees, spices, flavoring extracts, baking-powders and soaps.” By the mid-1920s, the Grand Union warehouse had 10 acres of floor space. In addition to a yearly output of 32 million pounds of coffee and 4 million pounds of tea, the warehouse shipped 120,000 cakes of soap, 50,000 cans, 180,000 cartons, and 20,000 pounds of baking soda each day.

It was in this immense building that a black-and-white cat named Bob made his home for three short years.

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"Bronco John" Harrington Sullivan was a cowboy and showman known for his tall tales.

“Bronco John” Harrington Sullivan was a cowboy and showman known for his tall tales. He performed at the Oak Point Pleasure Grounds in the Bronx in 1886.

What happens when an Indiana bear, a Harlem goat, a large crowd of people, and a Wild West cowboy with a silver-plated revolver all come together at a beer garden on the beach?

Yes, the following story is from my file called “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.”

On January 8, 1886, two Harlem men set out to buy a goat. Not just any goat, but a goat that was tough enough to fight a large black bear in “Bronco John” Harrington Sullivan’s traveling Wild West show at the Oak Point Pleasure Grounds near Hunts Point in the Bronx.

After scouring the many vacant lots in Harlem without success, the men finally found what they were looking for on East 124th Street, in the stable of the Widow O’Toole. Mrs. O’Toole was rather reluctant to part with her goat, which was a family relic and a favorite among her children and neighbors.

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Comments Off on 1936: The Cat-Saving Fire Dog Hero of Brooklyn’ s Engine Company No. 203
When Nipper died in 1939, men had his body stuffed and mounted, and he is forever on display at the New York City Fire Museum.

When Nip the fire dog died in 1939, the men of Engine Company No. 203 had his body stuffed and mounted. The black and tan mongrel dog is forever on display with his medals of honor at the New York City Fire Museum. Photo by P. Gavan

In 1936, Nip*, the veteran fire dog of Brooklyn’s Engine Company No. 203, won four medals of honor for heroism from the following agencies:

  • New York Women’s League for Animals
  • Dog’s World International
  • American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
  • New York Anti-Vivisection Society

During his years of service with the engine company, Nip had demonstrated many acts of bravery and heroism. He rode with the company to every fire, and was always the first to leap off the fire engine and run into the burning buildings to scout for victims. Whenever he found a human in need of help, the brave fire dog would bark until the firemen responded.

I’m sure the fireman rewarded him with extra food or treats every time he saved someone, but Nip was never rewarded with medals for saving a human mother or child. He was awarded the medals for saving a cat. (And he didn’t even like cats.)

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This headline about the great catnip caper appeared in the Washington Times on August 22, 1909.

This headline about the great catnip caper appeared in the Washington Times on August 19, 1909. The story made the headlines in more than 20 large newspapers across the country.

East Harlem merchant G. Herman Gottlieb had a little knowledge of botany and a great desire to make some quick cash. So he left his home at 188 East 99th Street with two empty baskets and made his way to the wooded area on Dyckman Street in the Inwood section of Manhattan. There, he worked all day long filling his baskets with catnip.

He then took the subway to Lenox Avenue and 110th Street, and began going house to house on Fifth Avenue to sell the catnip to well-to-do families with spoiled pet cats. There was at the time many unemployed, homeless cats who also lived in this neighborhood, and like most cats I know, they simply could not resist the lure of the feline drug of choice. When a few leaves of catnip fell from the baskets, several cats began rolling in them on the ground.

Try as he might, Mr. Gottlieb could not shoo the cats away. In fact, despite his efforts, even more cats began to circle around him, rub against his legs, and plead by mewing and purring. In no time at all, about 30 or 40 cats were following the Pied Piper of catnip.

Herman Gottlieb took the IRT subway to Lenox Avenue and 110th Street, which is pictured here in 1901 when the station was first under construction.

Herman Gottlieb took the IRT subway to the station at Lenox Avenue and 110th Street, which is pictured here in April 1901 when the station was first under construction. NYPL Digital Collections

Herman Gottlieb got off the train with his baskets of catnip at Lenox Avenue and 110th Street, pictured here in 1910.

Here’s what Lenox Avenue and 110th Street looked like just eight years later in 1909 when Herman Gottlieb got off the train with his baskets of catnip. NYPL Digital Collections

As the New York Herald reported on August 19, 1909:

“Shame faced felines whose permanent addresses were alleys and backyards, came stealthily forth. All of them, rich and poor, aristocrats from the sofa cushions near the front windows and thin piebelans from the areaways struggled mightily to get into the two baskets of catnip.”

When Mr. Gottlieb saw Police Sergeant John F. Higgins on 114th Street, he cried out with joy. At last, he thought, someone could help him disperse the band of felines. Sergeant Higgins wasn’t so kind though, and he immediately arrested the catnip peddler for causing a crowd to collect, which was against the law.

“Why don’t you arrest the catnip?” Gottlieb asked. “That is collecting the crowd. Not I.”

“Come on, before the cats from the Bronx and Jersey get here,” Higgins said, leading Gottlieb to the station house on East 104th Street. Several cats followed the men to the station house and made themselves at home inside while Sergeant Higgins reported the arrest to Lieutenant Lasky.

The 28th Police Precinct Station House

Sergeant Higgins led Mr. Gottlieb and his crowd of cats to the 39th Police Precinct Station House at 177-179 East 104th Street. Here, the men and cats were met by station house cat Pete, who did not take too kindly to the high-on-catnip stray cats.

“We can’t hold this man,” Lieutenant Lasky said. “The law says a man must not cause a crowd of people to collect. The law doesn’t say anything about cats.”

“The law doesn’t say anything about people,” Higgins replied. “It says a ‘crowd.’ A crowd of cats is certainly a crowd.”

As the men argued over how to interpret the vague law, Pete, one of the two station house cats, thrashed at the feline intruders one at a time (Claude, the other station cat, must have been asleep on the job). He was doing a pretty good of clearing out the place when the policemen came to his aid and drove the last cat-fight survivors out onto the steps.

Gottlieb, still holding his baskets of catnip, was placed in a patrol wagon and driven home. The cats tried to keep up with the horse-drawn wagon, but although they proved to be fair sprinters, they could not qualify as long-distance runners.

Gottlieb got out of the wagon, and, hugging his baskets, ran for his catless home. At his heels was a frayed old black cat, the only survivor of the catnip caper.

Gottleib threw him a handful of catnip. “Don’t tell your relatives or your friends,” he warned as he slammed his door shut.

A Brief History of the Old 39th Police Precinct Station House

The 39th Precinct of East Harlem was established in 1863 as the 23rd Precinct, with headquarters at 432-434 East 88th Street (which it shared with the former First Mounted Squad). The station at this location was under the command of Captain John Sanders, an army veteran who was awarded for saving seven persons, including two little girls, from drowning in the East River.

During this time, its jurisdiction was bounded by East 79th and East 110th Street, from Fifth Avenue to the East River. As author Augustine E. Costello noted in his book “Our Police Protectors,” (published in 1885), the 23rd Precinct was a “precinct of long and dreary posts,” with 15 day posts and 39 night posts.

Although construction was starting to pick up in the late 1800s, much of the land in this part of Manhattan was still undeveloped. As Costello wrote of the 23rd Precinct in 1885:

“This district has an Italian colony, of which it is not very proud, House of the Good Shepherd, a shanty district, the repair shops of the Third Avenue Elevated Railroad, a neat little park opposite the Blackwell’s Island lighthouse, and some elegant villas near by, the Astoria Ferry, the boat ferry to Blackwell’s Island, and some mansions of stately magnificence on Fifth Avenue, opposite [Central Park]. There are also the Harlem Flats, with the Harlem Gas Works, and the stables of the Second Avenue Railroad Company.”

Sketch of the new 28th Police Precinct House on East 104th Street, New York Daily Tribune, April 5, 1893.

Sketch of the new 28th Police Precinct House on East 104th Street, New York Daily Tribune, April 5, 1893. The first floor had an office with the sergeant’s desk, the captain’s rooms, and sitting rooms. The second through fourth floors had sergeants’ rooms and dormitories for the men.

The precinct was renumbered the 27th in 1887, but that designation didn’t last long. As the East Harlem district became more populated and developed in the late 19th century, a new precinct — the 28th — and a new station house a little farther north was needed.

In 1890, the Police Department’s Annual Report noted that negotiations had begun on two vacant lots on East 104th Street for a station house for a new precinct to be made up from portions of the 27th and 29th Precincts.  The lot adjacent at #175 was then occupied by Engine Company No. 53 of the New York Fire Department.

Architect to the New York City Police Department, Nathanial D. Bush, filed an application in April 1892 for a five-story station house expected to cost $52,000, as well as for a two-story brick prison and lodging house at the rear to cost $8,000. Construction began in May 1892 and was completed in June 1893.

Captain Josiah A. Westervelt of the City Hall Police was placed in charge of the new 28th Precinct. The new precinct was bounded by 96th Street, 116th Street, Fifth Avenue, and the East River.

After consolidation took place in May 1898, all the police precincts in the city were renumbered. The 28th became the 29th until 1908, when it was renumbered the 39th. It was renumbered the 13th in 1924, and the 23rd in 1929.

The station house served the precinct until a combined facility for the police department and fire department opened in 1974 at 164 East 102nd Street. The old station house was home to Hope Community Hall, a nonprofit housing organization founded in 1868. The building was purchased by the organization at auction in 1981, which occupied the building until moving across the street to #174 in 1994.

The old station house was designated a New York City Landmark in February 1999.

The station house for Engine 53, a four-story Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival-style building, was one of 42 firehouses and related structures designed for the Fire Department by the prominent architectural firm of Napoleon LeBrun & Sons between 1879 and 1895. Engine Company 53 was used as a fire station until 1974, and is now owned by Manhattan Community Access Corporation, a local cable television station.

The station house for Engine Company 53, a four-story Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival-style building constructed in 1885, was one of 42 firehouses and related structures designed for the New York Fire Department by the prominent architectural firm of Napoleon LeBrun & Sons between 1879 and 1895. Engine Company 53 was used as a fire station until 1974, and is now owned by Manhattan Community Access Corporation, a local cable television station. To the right was the police station.

If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy the tale of superhero policeman Daniel J. Fogarty and the crime-stopping goats, which also took place in the old 39th Police Precinct of East Harlem.

Snooperkatz got a lot of press when he went missing from The Gudebrod Brothers Silk Company at 644 Broadway.

Snooperkatz got a lot of press when he went missing from The Gudebrod Brothers Silk Company at 644 Broadway in Greenwich Village.

Christian Gudebrod, a man described as “handsome with a clear, pink complexion and a long, straight blond mustache,” was a prominent manufacturer of silk sewing threads in New York City and Pennsylvania. One of seven brothers whose family had emigrated from Germany to Connecticut in the mid-1800s, Christian was instrumental in founding The Gudebrod Brothers Silk Company, Inc, a family-run business that went on to make medical cords, fly-fishing thread, and braided lacing tape for the aerospace industry until it went out of business in 2010.

Christian Gudebrod was also a cat man. Not quite a crazy cat man, but definitely a cat lover. To be specific, a cat man who loved one cat in particular–a smart and mischievous feline named Snooperkatz.

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One of several headlines that appeared on November 5, 1914, the day after a clowder of cats went wild in the Brighton Beef Company butcher shop at 70 James Street.

One of several headlines that appeared on November 5, 1914, the day after a clowder of cats went wild in the butcher shop at 70 James Street.

Prelude to the 1914 Cat Attack

In the early morning hours of November 4, 1911, a bomb went off in front of a butcher shop and coffee saloon on the northwest corner of James Street and Oak Street in New York City’s Lower East Side. The explosion could be heard two blocks away at the Oak Street police station and as far away as police headquarters at 240 Centre Street.

According to news reports, the criminals had used a bomb constructed of black powder and wrapped in rolls of paper held together with twine. The destruction was intended for the butcher shop at 70 James Street, but its effects were felt by the whole neighborhood.

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