Archive for the ‘Cat Mascots’ Category

In Part I of this Old New York cat tale, we left off at the the car stables of the Forty-second-Street and Grand Street Ferry Railroad, on the east side of Twelfth Avenue at the foot of 42nd and 43rd streets. It is the night of June 12, 1886, and about a dozen cats are fighting for their lives as a large fire burns their home to the ground…


Engine Company 1, stationed at 165 West 29th Street (pictured here sometime between 1873 and 1881), was one of the many engine companies that responded to the car stable fire. As the stables continued to burn, many firefighters helped rescue the cats that had been living there.

The Rescued Cats of the Green Line Car Stables

From the June 14, 1886, issue of The New York Times:

Rescued cats were a drug in the market at the Forty-second-street fire early yesterday morning. The car stables seemed alive with them when the fire was under control, and a half dozen firemen each got a cat. They were scorched, drenched, and thoroughly frightened animals when the firemen took them in charge.

How they had managed to stay in the burning building for the two or three hours they must have been there before falling walls and floors sent them scurrying out of the doors into Forty-second-street without being burned to death is a mystery that even the firemen cannot solve.

Of all the cats saved by the firemen, there was one feline in particular that evidently had at least 10 lives. This kitty, later named Hero by the men of Engine Company No. 1, was rescued by Assistant Chief John McCabe.


Hero’s hero: Assistant Chief John McCabe.

According to the Times, the tabby had been seen lurking behind a chimney on top of the wall on 42nd Street just after the roof had collapsed. As the firemen approached her, she ran quickly along the wall toward the river, trying to limit the amount of time her paws had to land on the very hot bricks.

At one point she tried to jump from the wall to a telegraph pole, but instead she scurried along to a portion of the wall nearest the river, where the bricks were cooler. When the firemen found her again, they directed a stream of water against the wall below her in an effort to cool off the bricks. This only frightened her more, causing her to hide in space in the wall.

The tabby continued to hide for about an hour, until the firemen were forced to direct their hoses toward her once again to extinguish some flames in the area. Everyone had assumed the poor cat had roasted to death, but when the water hit the wall she jumped out of her hiding spot and tried to escape again.

About five minutes later, “a forlorn-looking cat with her hair well singed off” jumped from a window on 43rd Street. Assistant Chief John “Bucky” McCabe caught her, and, wrapping her up tenderly, turned her over to the care of one of the firemen from Engine Company No. 1.


Hero the tabby cat made her new home at the firehouse at 165 West 29th Street, pictured here sometime in the early 1900s.

The men immediately brought the kitty to their engine house and treated her burned and blistered paws with liniment and tender care. According to news accounts, by the next day, the cat the men named Hero was recovering, and her paws “were resuming something like their normal condition.”

The Firehouse at 165 West 29th Street


The old firehouse is still standing at 165 West 29th Street. Photo by P. Gavan

Metropolitan Steam Fire Engine Company No. 1 was organized on July 31, 1865, at 4 Centre Street (northeast corner of City Hall Park), in the former headquarters of the Exempt Engine Company, a reserve corps that was composed exclusively of exempt members of New York’s volunteer fire department. (The Exempt Engine Company was organized on November 14, 1854, at the home of H.B. Venn at 298 Bowery, a building with a very interesting history.)

On February 17, 1873, Engine Company No. 1 was reorganized at 165 West 29th Street (first photo above). A new firehouse at this same location was constructed in 1881 (photo at right). The firemen stayed at this location until 1946, when they moved to 142 West 31st Street, where today they share quarters with Ladder Company 24. (Incidentally, Father Mychal Judge was the fire chaplain at this firehouse until he became the first officially recorded victim of the September 11, 2001. attacks.)

The firehouse on West 29th Street was constructed on what had once been the estate of James A. Stewart. Stewart was a wine merchant who had a country seat along what was once called Stewart Street, a diagonal street that intersected his property bounded by 29th and 31st streets, the Bloomingdale Road (Broadway), and the Fitz Roy Road (near today’s 8th Avenue).


In 1809, James A. Stewart sold about 71 lots on Stewart Street (depicted in blue and green on the 1867 map) to Matthias Ward, who in turn conveyed the lots to David Dunham in 1810. The lots were sold at auction for the Dunham estate in 1825 to Charles Smyth.

In 1809, James A. Stewart advertised for sale or lease “a very convenient country seat” and about 71 lots (each 25 feet x 100 feet) along Stewart Street. According to the ad, the home was very roomy, and featured four rooms on the first floor, fireplaces, a coach house, stable, about two acres of mowing ground or pasture, a garden with fruit trees, a good well, and “a cistern that never fails.” The ad also boasted that Stewart Street would be “the handsomest road in the city,” as it was 58 feet wide and featured two rows of trees.

In 1810,  Stewart asked the Common Council to accept Stewart Street as a public road. But Street Commissioner Samuel Stillwell said that the diagonal road might interfere with the the new grid plan then under consideration (the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811).

Stewart Street remained as just stakes in the ground until it was eventually reorganized into conventional lots. However, the buildings on the north and south sides of 30th Street between 6th Avenue and Broadway still follow the original diagonal, as one can see in Google Earth:


All of the buildings on the south side of West 30th Street have recently been demolished to make way for the future Virgin Hotel at 1205-1227 Broadway, so today only those buildings on the north side of the street preserve the old diagonal line from Stewart Street. 

 The Demise of Deputy Chief John McCabe

John McCabe, better known as Bucky, was a printer by trade who started his long career with New York City’s fire department as a runner for Oceanus Engine Company No. 11 at 99 Wooster Street.  He joined the city’s new paid fire department in September 1865, was promoted to Battalion Chief in 1881, and to Second Assistant Chief in 1884. By the time he retired due to health reasons in 1893, he was Deputy Chief of the department.


Deputy Chief John McCabe around 1893.

On the morning of April 25, 1895, John Bucky McCabe left his home at 78 Washington Place, bought a revolver and a pack of cartridges, and walked over to the John E. Milholland Club at 111 Clinton Place (today’s 8th Street). John was president of the political club, which had been founded in 1893 to fight the “Platt Machine” and “Boss Platt” (Thomas C. Platt), the reportedly corrupt leader of the Republican Party in New York State.

At 12:15 p.m., after talking with some friends in the club for about an hour, John McCabe walked into the back room and shot himself in the head. According to news reports, McCabe had been privy to corrupt activity and so he chose to end his life rather than testify and implicate his close friends (including state senators and officers in the fire department).

As General O.J. LaGrange, president of the Board of Fire Commissioners, told the press during the hearings on April 28, “He  had  been  trusted  by  his  associate,  or some  of  them,  with  things  that  he  could  not tell.   He   expected   to   be  called   before this   committee. He  had  Irish  blood  In  his  veins, and  could  not  be  an  Informer.”

The Demise of Hero the Cat 


John E. Milholland was a newspaper editor and social reformer who played a large role in the city’s pneumatic tube mail system. He was also very interested in advancing the rights of the colored race (which back then included Jews and African-Americans), and was a founder and treasurer of the NAACP.

Three months after McCabe’s death, on July 16, 1895, a fire started in the cellar of the firehouse at 165 West 29th Street. Nearly all the members of the company were in the firehouse at the time, including another man by the name of McCabe — Engineer Thomas McCabe.

Although the men were able to save the horses and the fire apparatus, two gray cats that made their home in the cellar perished in the fire. I can’t say for sure that one of these cats was Hero, but one has to note the irony.

The Car Barns Burn Again

On March 4, 1906, the rebuilt car barns at the foot of West 42nd Street were destroyed in another spectacular fire. This fire was way more devastating then the one 20 years earlier; one man was killed and the fire forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents in nearby tenements and patrons at the adjacent Terminal Cafe and Annex Hotel.

Once again the car barns were rebuilt (see photo below), but sometime before 1941 the building was demolished, leaving an empty 27,000 square foot lot. That year the lot was leased by a syndicate that planned to operate a large gas station on the site.


The car barns of the 42nd Street and 34th Street trolley lines in 1915. 

Today, the site where a tabby cat named Hero was rescued from a fire in 1886 is occupied by the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in New York at 520 12th Avenue (constructed in 1962).




In the late 1700s, The Hermitage residence was right about where McCaffrey Playground is today, on West 43rd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenue. New York Public Library Digital Collections

Part I of this Old New York cat tale begins in 1825 at the old Hermitage Farm on the west side of Manhattan…

In 1825, John Leake Norton distributed some handbills advertising a raffle for his land on the west side of Manhattan. His plan was to divide his portion of the Norton Farm, aka The Hermitage Farm, into parcels of 4 to 16 lots, and sell them at a price beginning at $600 for the smaller parcels.

According to The New York Times, the drawing took place in the Shakespeare Tavern at Fulton and Nassau Street. “Over mugs of ale, between smoke rings drawn from long pipes, adventurous citizens bought the Norton farm.”

That same year, John L. Norton ceded to the City of New York all that land which would be required to open 39th through 48th streets. The city paid him $10 for this land.


The “sunken lands” along the Great Kill are clearly depicted on the Randel Farm Maps, drafted between 1818 and 1820. John L. Norton’s Hermitage is also shown (far right) as well as a few other smaller buildings on the family’s estate.  

The Hermitage Farm had been in the family since about 1780, which is when John Leake purchased a tract of about 80 acres between present-day Broadway and the Hudson River from Matthew Hopper. Much of the property west of the Eleventh Avenue comprised “sunken lands” that were under the Hudson River and the Great Kill, a large stream that emptied into the Hudson at the foot of what is now 42nd Street.

When Leake died in 1792, he bequeathed the land and the home he called The Hermitage to his niece, Martha, the wife of Samuel Norton. Upon her death in 1797, the property passed on to her sons John Leake Norton, Samuel John Leake Norton, and Robert Burridge Norton.

hermitagefarmmappaintThe Hermitage Farm was a diagonal tract between Broadway and the Hudson River, from about 40th Street to 48th Street. The Great Kill stream is also noted on this 1872 map. Click here for a more detailed view. Museum of the City of New York Collections 

In the years following the sale of the Norton Farm, residential development was brisk, particularly after the city’s first street railway — the New York and Harlem — began running from Prince Street to the Harlem Bridge in 1832. Commercial development also picked up along the Hudson River after the sunken lands of the old Hermitage Farm between Eleventh Avenue and the Hudson River were filled in to create Twelfth Avenue in 1862-63.

The Green Line Car Stables

In 1864, the car stables of the Forty-second-Street and Grand Street Ferry Railroad were constructed on land that had once been under water, on the east side of Twelfth Avenue at the foot of 42nd and 43rd streets. Immediately to the south of the three-story brick car stables was the large Consolidated Gas Company, and just to the north was the E.S. Higgins & Co. Carpet Factory.


This old car barn at 65th Street (circa 1900) was probably very similar to the car stables on Twelfth Avenue and 42nd Street. Notice the streetcars inside the building and the horses waiting outside. NYPL Digital Collections

The Forty-second-Street and Grand Street Ferry Railroad, also known as the Green Line because of the green lights on the cars, was a horse-drawn streetcar line that ran a zigzag path from the Weehawken Ferry (the West Shore ferry terminal) at the foot of 42nd Street to the Grand Street Ferry on the East River.

Approximately 570 horses were stabled in the Green Line car stables, along with about 50 trolley cars plus all the harnesses, bales of hay, and other equipment required to care for the horses.


The Grand Street Horse Car Depot at 653 West 42nd Street, E.S. Higgins & Co. Carpet Factory, and Consolidated Gas Co. were all constructed on what were once sunken lands on the old Norton Farm. (The blue line denotes the old Great Kill stream and the boundary of the old sunken lands.) Numerous brick and brownstone tenements and frame buildings are also evident on this 1885 map.  

The Great Car Stables Fire

At about 10:30 p.m. on June 12, 1886, night watchman John Horner noticed smoke coming from the third-floor paint shop at the northeast corner of the car stables. He ran out and sounded the alarm, but by the time the fire engines arrived a few minutes later, the entire stable, covering 8 lots on 42nd Street, 8 lots on 43rd Street, and the entire river front, was on fire.

At the time of the fire, about 565 horses were in the building, including five that were upstairs in a special hospital for the horses. One sick horse was in slings awaiting treatment.


The Forty-Second Street and Grand Street Ferry Railroad terminated at the Grand Street Ferry depot at the foot of Grand Street and Broome Street on the East River. Here, passengers could take a ferry to either Grand Street or Broadway in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The New Metropolis, 1899; Collection of Maggie Land Blanck.  

Under the direction of Superintendent John M. Calhoun, all of the employees on site were able to lead the horses safely outside (quite an amazing feat, considering that most car stable fires of this period resulted in the deaths of hundreds of horses). Only one horse — the one in slings — perished in the flames. The other horses were taken to Justice Murray’s coach lot on 42nd Street between 10th and 11th Avenue.

After all the horses were out, the men focused on saving the cars by pushing them out on the tracks along 42nd Street. All but 4 cars were saved, and almost all but 40 harnesses were also saved.


While all this was going on, about a dozen or more cats that lived in the stables, including one especially brave tabby, were fighting for their lives as the building continued to burn all around them…

In Part II, I’ll tell you what happened to the cats, and how one very brave cat found a new home at a firehouse in Chelsea following this event.





Handsome tabby Trent and Melvin Vaniman, the chief engineer of America, shortly after being rescued by the crew of the RMS Trent in October 1910.

The story of Trent, the large tabby cat made famous by an unsuccessful flight across the Atlantic in the airship America, has been told many times. My version of the story has a New York City history twist that you will not find in any other tale about Trent.  


On October 22, 1910, a month after the new Gimbel Brothers Department Store opened at Greeley Square in New York City, Walter Wellman’s 27-foot lifeboat and the large tabby cat that was rescued from his hydrogen dirigible, America, were on exhibition on the fourth floor of the new department store.

Trent, lying atop comfy pillows in a gilded cage, attracted crowds of sightseers — especially women and children — who couldn’t wait to meet the famous cat that attempted a trans-Atlantic crossing in an airship. As a continuous line of people tried to pet and woo him, Trent ignored their attention and declined to be sociable.

I’m going out on a limb here, but maybe the poor cat was trying to ignore everyone because he had just gone through a very dramatic experience that I know for a fact would have traumatized most cats for all the rest of their nine lives.

From Atlantic City Stray to Airship Mascot

americahangarThe America was a 165-long, non-rigid airship built by Mutin Godard in France in 1906 for the journalist Walter Wellman‘s attempt to reach the North Pole by air. The airship took off from Atlantic City, New Jersey, on October 15, 1910. 

In October 1910, journalist and pioneer airman Walter Wellman and five companions prepared to cross the Atlantic Ocean in the airship America. Trent was just a stray cat living with his twin brother in the airship’s hangar in Atlantic City when the airship’s navigator, Murray Simon, decided it would be good luck to have a cat on board the historic flight.

Trent — then called Kiddo — was tossed into the lifeboat, which was attached just under the airship. Here, radio man Jack Irwin had his post (America was the first aircraft to carry radio equipment).


Melvin Vaniman and Trent look like the best of friends in their publicity portrait. 

No surprise, Kiddo was not too fond of his predicament, and he put on a great display of anger and terror by meowing and running around the small space in hysterics.

Chief Engineer Melvin Vaniman was reportedly so annoyed by the antics of Kiddo that he made the first-ever in-flight radio transmission to a secretary back on land. “Roy, come and get this goddamn cat!” he yelled.


Kiddo was renamed Trent following the rescue. 

The plan was then to lower the cat in a canvas bag to a motorboat that was running beneath the airship. Unfortunately, the seas were too rough for the boat to catch the bag, so Kiddo was forced to continue the journey.

Eventually, Kiddo settled down and took his job as feline co-pilot quite seriously. (One of his duties was to try to keep the napping men awake by lounging on their faces.)

Navigator Murray Simon, who had told the press that one must never cross the Atlantic in an airship without a cat, wrote that Kiddo was “more useful than any barometer.”

Although the airship set several new records by staying aloft for almost 72 hours and traveling over 1000 miles, weather and other problems forced the crew to ditch the airship and join Kiddo in the lifeboat. Somewhere west of Bermuda, they sighted the Royal Mail Steamship Trent. After using  Morse code to attract the ship’s attention, Jack Irwin made the first aerial distress call by radio.

As the airship drifted out of sight — never to be seen again — the crew of the RMS Trent rescued all the men and their cat Kiddo and returned them to New York. Murray Simon reminded the crew that it had been a good idea to bring Kiddo on the journey, because cats have nine lives.


The airship America, as seen from the deck of the RMS Trent en route to New York City. 

Trent Goes to Gimbels

Following the airship’s rescue, Melvin Vaniman and Kiddo — now called Trent — were invited to help the Gimbel brothers celebrate the opening of their New York store on Broadway and 32nd Street. As this blog explores the history of New York City through animal stories, a pictorial look at the history of Gimbels is in store.

Although Gimbel Brothers New York officially opened on September 29, 1010, the history of this particular store at Greeley Square goes back to 1874, when the Hudson Tunnel Railroad Company initiated plans to construct a railroad that would connect New Jersey and New York City via a tunnel under the mile-wide Hudson River (today we call this the PATH train).

Construction began in 1874, but litigation and lack of funding caused numerous delays over the years. Finally in February 1902, the New York and Jersey Railroad Company took over all of the railroad company’s tunnels and lines of railway, including 4,000 feet of tunnel that had already been constructed.


Under the direction of William Gibbs McAdoo, the president of the New York and Jersey Railroad Company, the McAdoo Tunnel or Hudson Tubes, as it was called, accommodated electrified surface rail cars. The cars operated from a terminal in Jersey City (Journal Square) to a terminal in Manhattan at Christopher, Tenth, Greenwich, and Hudson streets. 

In 1904, the newly formed Hudson and Manhattan Railroad Company (H&M) filed an application to extend the McAdoo Tunnel to a larger underground terminal on Sixth Avenue at 33rd Street. The proposed site was occupied by several landmarks, including Trainor’s hotel and restaurant and the Manhattan Theatre (formerly the Standard Theatre) on Sixth Avenue, all of which were condemned and demolished in 1905.


The old Standard Theatre on Sixth Avenue and 33rd Street (later called the Manhattan Theatre), was being managed by James M. Hill when this photo was taken in 1895. The theater was one of many buildings demolished to make way for the 33rd Street terminal and, later, the Gimbel Brothers department store. New York Public Library digital collections. 

Many smaller old buildings on West 32nd and West 33rd streets were also condemned, including a house of prostitution called the House of Nations and six other properties owned by Albert J. Adams. Incidentally, Al Adams, as he was called, also had grand plans for the same site: In 1905 he had proposed to build a 42-story hotel on the site that was to be the tallest building in the world — more than 125 taller than The Times building and the Park Row Building, which were then the world’s tallest buildings.


Greeeley Square between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, looking southwest from about 34th Street. When this photo was taken, the Manhattan Theatre and Trainor’s restaurant were still standing across from the Sixth Avenue elevated train station. It was here that the Gimbel Brothers department store would be built in 1909.  NYPL digital collections.


The Broadway side of Greeley Square, as seen in 1807. NYPD digital collections.

On April 23, 1909, five years after the site was cleared to make way for the McAdoo system concourse at 33rd Street, the Gimbel brothers — Jacob, Isaac, Charles, Daniel, Ellis, and Louis — signed a 21-year lease with the Greeley Square Realty Company for the land atop the proposed terminal (the 33rd Street station did not open until November 1910).  Daniel Burnham (of Flatiron Building fame) was hired to design the new building.


Following five months of excavation work, construction on the new department store started in October 1909. NYPL digital collections

On January 30, 1909, The New York Times announced that the “massive store” would “be the terminal of the McAdoo tunnel system, or Manhattan tunnels, which, by the time the store building is completed, will connect with the Pennsylvania Railroad, Central Railroad of New Jersey, the Erie system, and the Lackawanna & Western Railroad, handling, it is estimated, 1,000,000 persons daily.”

On December 8, 1909, a copper box containing a history of the Gimbels and other data was placed in the cornerstone. The $12 million building was completed ahead of schedule on  June 11, 1910.


Here is Gimbels in 1920, three years before the department store merged with Saks (directly across 33rd Street), and five years before the Gimbels purchased the 18-story Cuyler Building (directly across 32nd Street) . NYPL digital collections 


Here’s a look under and above Greeley Square at Sixth Avenue and 32nd Street in the early 1900s. At the bottom, 50 feet below the street, is the new Pennsylvania Tunnel leading out of Penn Station. Above that is the Rapid Transit subway and then the tracks of the old McAdoo system (today’s PATH). Back then, there was also a surface railroad and an elevated train with a foot bridge that served Gimbels shoppers. 

In October 1925, Gimbel Brothers announced the purchase of the Cuyler Building on the south side of 32nd Street. To connect the Gimbels store with the Cuyler Building, a three-story, copper-clad sky bridge was constructed. This bridge still stands today, albeit, it is no longer functional (check out these amazing photos taken inside the sky bridge in 2014.)


The three-story sky bridge as it looks today. Photo by P. Gavan

On June 6, 1986, the Associated Press reported that Gimbels was going out of business. Today, the building that once paid tribute to a hero cat named Trent houses a JCPenney and the Manhattan Mall.

As for Trent, he lived out the rest of his eight remaining lives on land with Edith Wellman, the daughter of Walter Wellman, in Washington, D.C.


The Manhattan Mall and JCPenney now occupy the old Gimbel Brothers building, and Greeley Square is occupied by an open-air food market called Broadway Bites. Photo by P. Gavan