Archive for September, 2016


The 65-acre Cortelyou farm and homestead where part of this story takes place was located on the Fresh Kills Road (now Arthur Kill Road) near the intersection of present-day Cortelyou Avenue. This oil painting was painted in 1843 by Jasper F. Cropsey, a relative of the Cortelyou family. Cropsey was born on a farm in Rossville, Staten Island. He worked as an architect, and also owned 100 acres of land in my hometown of Warwick, New York, where he became a well-known Hudson River School painter. 

In January 1896, the tiny hamlet of Greenridge, Staten Island, was all a buzz over the reported sighting of a large, ferocious black bear. Doors were closed and barred at dusk, and guns and pistols were cleaned and loaded.

All those men who loved to tell their tall tales of bravery were oddly reluctant to venture alone over the country roads from Rossville to Richmond — even during daylight hours.

The story of the bear sighting originated with Greenridge resident David H. Cortelyou, a former Civil War veteran and army captain who owned a large farm and homestead on the Fresh Kills Road (today’s Arthur Kill Road). Many people had heard his war stories of valor, so they didn’t bother to question his tall tale about the large black bear.


The hamlet of Greenridge and the small fishing village of Giffords-by-Sea (now Great Kills), is shown here (top and bottom center) on this 1907 map be E. Robinson. NYPL digital collections

As the story goes, it was David’s 18-year-old son, Stephen, who first came upon the bear while walking along the road one night near the house. Stephen told his father that he had heard a strange noise in the woods; a moment later, a large dark animal emerged and ran after him, making a sound between a grunt and a bark. Maybe that was the first clue…

Grabbing their loaded shotguns and revolvers, David and his son went back outside and fired a few shots into the bushes. No animal appeared, so they went back indoors.

The next night, John Mahoney, the Cortelyou’s hired man, fired two shots at what he also thought was a bear. Again, no bear — or any other animal, for that matter — emerged from the woods.


The Cortelyou family owned land on either side of Fresh Kills Road, as shown on this 1874 map. In 1880, George W. White purchased the 240-acre Underhill farm adjacent to the Cortelyou farm. This farm was at one time the home of Judge Benjamin Seaman (1719-1785), a Loyalist and the last Colonial judge of Staten Island. J.S. Underhill was probably a descendant of Benjamin’s sister Elizabeth and her husband, Amos Underhill. (Seaside Avenue, center, is today’s Richmond Avenue.)

During the course of the week, rumors quickly spread of people having seen the bear in their barns or near their houses. For several days, hunting parties scoured the woods for miles around in search of the elusive wild creature.

Over at James Carroll’s hotel for fishermen at Giffords-by-the-Sea, the bear was also a hot topic. On January 15, a band of men gathered at the hotel and pledged to catch it. In the party were Carroll; David Cortelyou; Tom Williams (aka The Cat); Eden Nolan, the sporting blacksmith of Greenridge; Tom Hogan; Tom Monaghan Tom Kenney; Gabe Gile; Bill King, the noted fox hunter of Richmond; and several other sporting men.

The brave men spent an hour loading their guns and revolvers, and discussing plans for the hunt. Reaching the Cortelyou’s house just before dark, the party made their way through the snow in the bushes where the bear had last been seen.

Just a few minutes into the hunt, the men heard a muffled growl coming from the vicinity of George White’s farm. Williams climbed up a tree and another man fell onto his back and started kicking and screaming. Monaghan barricade himself against the fence and covered his head with his coat.

The other men ran down the road, leaving Cortelyou, Carroll, and King alone to face the ferocious creature…


Here’s the Cortelyou homestead sometime around 1900. If you look at the Cropsey painting above, you’ll see the house on the far left. The property remained in the family until about 1906, when it was purchased by the South New York Villa Site Co. for a prospective housing subdivision. Today, much of the site is occupied by a shopping center. 

The Cortelyou Family

The Cortelyou family of Staten Island and Long Island (also spelled Corteleau) have a long history in New York, dating back to 1652, when Jacques Cortelyou, a French Huguenot surveyor, arrived in America. In 1657, Jacques laid out the town of New Utrecht (Brooklyn) into 20 lots of 50 acres each, one of which he made his home, where he lived with his wife and four sons.

The first Staten Island Cortelyou of record was Jacques’s son Jacques Jr. He and his wife Jaccmynytie (Jemima) VanPelt had two children: a daughter, Deborah, born in 1720, and a son, Aaron, born in 1726. Aaron’s son Peter, born in 1768, and his wife, Emma Hillier, were the parents of Lawrence Hillier Cortelyou, who was born in 1802 in the house pictured above.

Lawrence Cortelyou was a grocer, farmer, and a county judge in New York, and one of the founders of the Richmond County Mutual Insurance Company. In addition to the farm at Greenridge, Lawrence owned the old Henry Seaman cottage at 218 Center Street in Richmondtown, now preserved and on display in Historic Richmond Town.

Lawrence Cortelyou died in the farmhouse in September 1884. His son David Heckle Cortelyou, born in 1849, took over the farm while still maintaining a residence on Manor Road in West New Brighton.

David Cortelyou was a Civil War veteran, having enlisted in the New York 6th Calvary (Company E) in 1861 and reaching the rank of major. He also served as a second lieutenant in the regular army at Kinney, Texas, where he was involved in several battles with the Native Americans. David retired from the army with honors in 1873 and returned to Staten Island, where he worked as a county clerk, the secretary of the Richmond County Mutual Insurance Company, and a part-time bear hunter.

Back to the Bear Hunt at the White Farm…


Here’s a photo of George White’s farm at 814 Arthur Kill Road in 1924. The French Church, established between 1683 and 1698, once stood on this property in front of the large dairy building (there are reportedly still a few dilapidated gravestones on the spot).   

With guns in hand, Cortelyou, Carroll, and King pushed through the bushes and made their way toward the White farm. There, at the base of rock, they found one of George’s St. Bernard dogs. Apparently the dog had trailed some small animal to its nest under the rock and had been digging at the dirt to get at it.

The strange muffled growl the men had heard was not a bear, but the dog with its head in the hole.

newdorpmoravianchurchDavid Cortelyou died on June 8, 1912, and is buried with his family in the Moravian Church cemetery in New Dorp. Organized in 1763, the Moravian Church is the second-oldest church on Staten Island, preceded by St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Richmondtown.  The present church, built in 1837, was designed by Jasper Cropsey. The building was modified in the 1950s, which is when the bell tower was replaced with the present steeple. 

Here’s an aerial “Google Earth” view of the site of the old White and Cortelyou farms on Arthur Kill Road. Amazingly, much of the land on the north side of the road still remains vacant, and is probably very close to what it looked like 150 years ago during the great Greenridge bear hunt.

CortelyouSite.jpgThis old structure at the intersection of Arthur Kill Road and Cortelyou Avenue is right about on the spot of the old Cortelyou farmhouse. A housing development and strip mall occupy the rest of the old farm on the south side of the road (as seen above). 




This is not Duffy MacNab, but it’s a black ship’s cat, so I chose him as our stand-in model for this story.

On August 18, 1912, the Anchor Line steamship Caledonia arrived from Glasgow at New York’s Pier 64 with numerous passengers – and 12,000 barrels of Scotch herring.

According to The New York Times, as the ship steamed up the Hudson River around noon, “all the cats along the waterfront left their respective piers and went running up West Street, meowing in chorus excitedly, with their tails in the air, to the Anchor Line dock.”

When Passenger Manager W.J. Reilly arrived on the scene, he asked the sailors what they were doing with all of the seafaring cats, as they were not allowed to have so many pets on the ship at the company’s expense. He knew that the ship already had one very popular ship’s cat , so he was quite confused about the clowder that had gathered along Pier 64.

It wasn’t until the ship pulled up to the pier and the barrels of herring were carried off that Mr. Reilly realized why so many felines were crying so lustily on the pier. (Duffy MacNab, on the other hand, probably thought all the cats — especially those of the female persuasion — were coming to welcome him.)


The Anchor Line, which included the ships Caledonia, Cameronia, Colombia, and California, operated out of Pier 64 on the Hudson River at the foot of West 26th Street.  The wooden single-deck pier was just 500 feet long — the exact length of the passenger ships.

Duffy MacNab Joins the T.S.S. Caledonia

Launched in 1904, the twin screw steamship (T.S.S.) Caledonia registered at 500 feet and 9,223 gross tons out of the Glasgow Yard of D. & W. Henderson for the Anchor Fleet, the third vessel of five that would be so-named for the line. Powered by a massive steam engine, the British passenger liner could go up to 18 knots while comfortably accommodating 383 first-, 216 second-, and 869 third-class passengers.

From 1905 to 1914, the Caledonia was one of the premier passenger liners that steamed between Glasgow and New York City on a weekly basis. Her fastest passage (from Ireland) was 6 days and 20 hours. The rates for passage ranged from $67.50 to $125, depending on the accommodations.

On March 25, 1905, Caledonia made her maiden voyage from Glasgow, Scotland, to New York and back. In addition to the passengers and crew, on board was a young black cat that the crew named Duffy MacNab — or The MacNab, for short. (The passengers called him Duffy MacNab, because that was the name engraved on his collar, but the men called him The MacNab.)


Here is the music room on the Caledonia, from a 1912 Anchor Line brochure. I see a lot of comfy chairs where a ship’s cat could take a nap.

For the next eight years, Duffy MacNab sailed over 200,000 miles. He made 18 Atlantic crossings, and never once missed a trip either way. He was certainly on board on April 9 1912, when a sailor on the Caledonia, traveling eastbound from New York to Glasgow, transmitted a wireless message to the westbound Bulgaria warning of a large ice field that was likely the one subsequently encountered by the Titanic five days later.

Although he obviously loved sailing across the Atlantic, Duffy also enjoyed spending time ashore (he no doubt courted numerous lady cats of Glasgow and New York). He was always the first to land (by way of jumping from ship to pier) and the first to board (by way of the gangplank). As ship’s surgeon Dr. Jenkins told a reporter for The New York Times:

“When we quit the ship after our arrival in port The MacNab would always go, too, and would not, as a rule, be seen again until the day to sail rolled around, and then just before the gangplank was taken in he would come marching aboard with all the dignity and self-importance of the king of cats that he was.”

The Macnab Portrait

Duffy MacNab was probably named after Francis Macnab (1734-1816), a landowner and 16th chief of the Scottish Clan Macnab. Big Francis, as he was called, stood over six feet tall, and was quite the womanizer (he fathered at least 32 children). Like Duffy MacNab, he was also a big gambler. This portrait, titled “The Macnab,” was painted by  Sir Henry Raeburn in 1802.

The MacNab’s Last Jump 

When the Caledonia arrived at Pier 64 on August 3, 1913, it was Duffy MacNab’s 18th Atlantic crossing. As he had done numerous times before — albeit from a distance of only four feet — Duffy prepared to jump from the forecastle of the ship to the roof of the pier. But this time he tried to jump too far.

As The New York Times reported the next day:

“The mascot was looking at the roof of the pier and his attitude showed that he was figuring out whether or not he could make the jump from the liner to the pier roof, a distance of some ten feet… So he threw caution to the wind and jumped. His black body glistened in the sunlight, and then like a broken aeroplane it began to drop. Rocket fashion it fell through the air, and a moment later The MacNab struck the water. The sound of the splash was heard both on the pier and on the ship.”

Quartermaster Angus MacLean, aka, “The Kaid,” witnessed his beloved cat make his death leap. MacLean jumped overboard, dove under the pier, and tried to reach for MacNab. But by that time the cat had been carried away with the tide. After swimming for about 15 minutes, the grief-stricken sailor was hauled back on board.


Captain Francis Henry Wadsworth, Caledonia, 1913 

As the other sailors gathered around MacLean, many of them had tears in their eyes. They had all loved their feline mascot, and his sudden death hit them all very hard. When Pursor Johnson and Dr. Jenkins went up to the forecastle to see what was wrong, they also joined in the mourning.


This is actually a sailor on the USS Olympia in 1898, but it could have easily been Quartermaster MacLean with Duffy MacNab on the Caledonia.

“We shall never see his like again, for he was indeed a rare cat. So loyal to the ship, and with it all so intelligent. It is hard to lose him,” said Pursor Johnson.

“Yes, indeed,” agreed Dr. Jenkins. “The MacNab was a most unusual animal. I have known cats in every port here and in Europe, but none of them could compare to poor old Duffy. He was an aristocrat through and through. He would only partake of the choicest food and was unusual in that he preferred tea to milk.”

The Caledonia Goes to War

One year after The MacNab’s death, the British government converted the luxury passenger liner into a troop ship capable of carrying 3,074 troops and 212 horses. For more than two years, the ship carried soldiers and their equipment to various locations around the Mediterranean.

On December 5, 1916, while carrying mail but no troops from Greece to France, Caledonia was torpedoed by the German submarine U-65.  Although his ship was sinking, Caledonia‘s Captain James Blaikie steered the troop ship toward the U-boat and tried to ram her. Caledonia did hit the U-boat, but the U-boat stayed afloat as Caledonia sank about 125 miles east of Malta, with the loss of only one life.


In 1938, Anchor Lines transferred the lease of Pier 64 to the Munson Lines. Anchor Lines moved its ships to Pier 71 at West 30th Street, which was long enough — about 700 feet — to accommodate its larger ships. NYPL digital collections


In 1940, the old wooden pier was completely renovated. The two-story terminal was later home to the Panama Line, which vacated the pier in 1961. The pier was condemned and finally torn down in 2006. 


The old Pier 64, where Duffy MacNab jumped to his death in 1913, was torn down in 2003. Today it is part of the city’s Hudson River Park. Opened in April 2009, the green recreational pier with sloping lawns and a grove of English Oaks is a favorite for New York City sunbathers. 


The next time I take a walk down to Pier 64, I’ll take a moment of think of The MacNab, the Scottish king of ship’s cats.