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Philip Hone’s New York
The magic of life in the, unfolding metropolis still breathes in the diary of a charming and witty mayor
August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
Daniel Webster was, perhaps, his most particular god, his frequent host in Massachusetts, his guest often. On one occasion the hospitality was involuntary but none the less enthusiastic. Hone was sharing a room with a political crony one night at a hotel in a particularly crowded Baltimore at convention time and was startled awake in the early hours, having retired while his roommate was still being sociable downstairs. Hone sensed a presence beneficent and powerful; he looked and “lo! the dome over the temple of Webster, the forehead of the great Daniel, with the two lambent stars set in the dark shadow of its architrave” (as Nathaniel P. Willis, a flamboyant newspaperman of the period, put it, to Hone’s considerable delight) loomed above him. Realizing at last that the apparition was no figment, but real, Hone sat up. “Sir,” he said to Webster, “I have no hat on, but off comes my nightcap in your presence.” And it did, sweepingly. His companion had offered Daniel his bed, there being no more room in town.
Changes almost incredible to Hone followed each other rapidly in the long years his individualistic diary covers. To cite a local instance, he sold his house in 1836 for $60,000 to be converted into shops. When he was a child there had been three shops along the whole length of Broadway, and now suddenly it was to lose its residential aspect. The upper portion of his premises was to be occupied by the American Hotel, whose adjacent building had been demolished in one of the many fires. But what astounded Hone was the skyrocketing of real-estate values, which he did not think could last. To the end of his life he would be kept marveling at how wrong his forecast had been.
He now bought for $15,000 a building lot on a corner of Broadway as far north as Washington Square—far uptown; and while a new residence was going up for him there, he rented a marble mansion nearby for $1,600 a year. Soon after moving in, he went to a party honoring the bride of a young son of one of his neighbors. The great majority of houses, including Hone’s, had no illumination but candles, and he often dwells on the beauty and the softness of the glow. But here was something revolutionary: The home is lighted with gas, and the quantity consumed being greater than common, it gave out suddenly in the midst of a cotillion. “Darkness overspread the land.” This accident occasioned great merriment to the company and some embarrassment to the host and hostess, but a fresh supply of gas was obtained, and in a short time the fair dancers were again “tripping it on the light fantastic toe.”
Gas is a handsome light in a large room…on an occasion of this kind, but liable (I should think) at all times to give the company the slip, and illy calculated for the ordinary uses of a family.
He was an originator and a director of the Delaware & Hudson Canal, for waterways were proving popular. He was also part proprietor of certain coal mines operated near its Pennsylvania end, the place of the mines being called Honesdale in his honor. He paid a visit there in 1841, in company with Washington Irving. The New Yorkers traveled on a horse-drawn canal boat, slept on plank shelves, and ate hardtack when not favored by the eager hospitality of widely spaced waterside friends. Said Hone: [Irving] enjoyed himself to the very top of his bent. He has been in perfect raptures all the way. I have never known him so entertaining. He jokes and laughs and tells stories.…In fact the whole voyage has been one of mirth and good humor.
To Hone the up-to-date was always something of an intrusion. They saw a railroad train carry off 900 tons of coal, and were told that it was a daily event—”fifty per cent more than the business of last year.” He appreciated that and could well enough enjoy the convenience and speed of travel under steam. In transit from Philadelphia to Washington, in a matter of hours, on a newly constructed Philadelphia & Baltimore Railroad, he notes that the same ride had always taken him two days and a night in the frigid stagecoaches and on the oar-propelled crossing of the often icy Susquehanna. A steamboat took him swiftly across the river now, carrying the passengers below and the railroad cars themselves above, with an ice cutter on the bow to boot. Hone’s only complaint as he re-entrained on the other side was a modern one, that the stoves made the cars “a little too warm.”
He was skeptical when told that steamboats might cross the Atlantic. He conceded that it would be “presumptuous to…doubt…the success of any new experiment in the mechanical arts,” but in 1837 he could not conceive of either safety or convenience in such a substitute for the sailing ships: In light headwinds and moderate weather, a steamer would go wheezing and puffing alongside of the proudest ship in the British or American navy, and passing, laugh her to scorn; but let the ocean be lashed into such a foam as I saw it several times last year, and let the waves run high as the topmast, and how is this long stiff vessel, over-burthened with the weight of machinery, with a burning volcano in her bowels, to ride on the crested billows and sink again into the dark, deep caverns? It may answer—and if it does, heigh for the Downs, the Mersey or the Seine in ten days!