The Mystery of the Underhill Medal

Front of the silver medal awarded to R.T. Underhill in 1847.

Front of the silver medal awarded to R.T. Underhill in 1847.

How did a silver medal from 1847, awarded to R.T. Underhill for the grapes he grew on Croton Point, end up buried in a garden on Long Island? That’s what reader Mike S. wants to know.

“Many years ago, possibly 25 or so,” he writes, “my grandfather was turning his garden in Shirley, New York. He heard a loud bang, and quickly shut off the rototiller to see what it was. After a moment of searching he found a large piece of metal. He cleaned it off, gave it to me, and told me it was a lucky charm.”

For Mike, his treasured “lucky charm” has become something of an obsession.

  • Who was R.T. Underhill?
  • What was the American Institute, the organization that awarded the medal?
  • Why is “R. Lovett” stamped along the bottom of the front side?
  • How did the medal get buried in his grandfather’s garden?

We can answer all his questions—except the last one.

Back of the silver medal awarded to R.T. Underhill in 1847 "for choice specimens of Isabella & Catawba grapes.".

Back of the silver medal awarded to R.T. Underhill in 1847 “for choice specimens of Isabella & Catawba grapes.”

The Grape King of Croton Point

As readers of this blog know, Richard T. Underhill was the “Grape King,” who built the first commercial winery in the United States on Croton Point. He began his vineyard by planting European varieties of grapes he purchased in Brooklyn from André Parmentier, a wealthy, educated Belgian who came to America to escape the French Revolution and started a nursery that included a vineyard. At first Parmentier sold only European grapes, but it turned out that they did not grow well in New York.

According to U.P. Hedrick’s authorative book, The Grapes of New York, Parmentier later added “the two American varieties, Catawba and Isabella, which were then becoming popular.”

Detail from “Gathering Grapes—An October Scene on the Hudson,” a wood engraving published in Harper's Weekly. The image depicts the Underhill vineyard in 1867.

Detail from “Gathering Grapes—An October Scene on the Hudson,” a wood engraving published in Harper’s Weekly. The image depicts the Underhill vineyard in 1867.

Underhill’s first batch of European varieties had died, but Hedrick says that Underhill “had been fired with a consuming desire to grow grapes. In 1827 he began planting Catawbas and Isabellas. This vineyard of American grapes grew until it covered 75 acres, the product of which was sold in New York City. This was the first large vineyard in the country.”

View of one of the American Institute's fairs from Harper's magazine.

View of one of the American Institute’s fairs from Harper’s magazine.

The American Institute

The American Institute of the City of New York (also known as the American Institute of the City of New York for the Encouragement of Science and Invention) was founded in New York on February 19, 1828, to encourage and promote “domestic industry in this State, and the United States, in Agriculture, Commerce, Manufacturing and the Arts, and any improvements made therein.” It attempted to fulfill that task by two means: first, by organizing annual fairs at which prizes were awarded to outstanding artisans and inventors, and second, by actively promoting government policies that would encourage and protect domestic manufacturing, agriculture, and commerce.

R. T. Underhill was a leading member of the Institute and the 1847 silver medal is one of many awards he and his brother, William A. Underhill, won over the years for their grapes, plums and quinces. 1

The Institute’s annual report gives us an idea of the size and scope of the 1847 fair. “The fair was opened to the public at Castle Garden on the 6th day of October, and closed on the 23rd. The exhibition consisted of productions from 2,194 contributors in almost every department of manufactures, the mechanic arts and horticultural production. The whole consisting of more than 20,000 articles . . . For about three weeks the place of exhibition is the centre of attraction for this city, the neighboring cities, and throughout our country, to distances almost incredible; crowds are continually flocking here to witness the grand display, which embraces the products of all occupations and the whole industrial community.”2

Robert Lovett, Engraver

The medal awarded to Underhill was designed by Robert Lovett, Sr., the patriarch of a family of famous engravers. He was born on March 19, 1796, and grew up in a quiet New York City neighborhood in an area now covered by the western end of the Brooklyn Bridge. After a brief military service during the War of 1812 he apprenticed in the shop of master stone seal engraver Thomas Brown.

Advertisment from Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, [Philadelphia], January 15, 1818.

Advertisment from Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, [Philadelphia], January 15, 1818.

By 1816 he had married and moved to Philadelphia to set up his own engraving business, specializing in dies and seals. By 1824 Lovett was back in New York City, where he set up shop at 249 Broadway. “His shop location moved several times over the years,” according to Lovett expert and collector Baldwin, “but he stayed in New York City until his death on December 31, 1874, just six hours after the passing of his wife of 60 years.”

Lovett has another Croton connection—he designed the medal produced for the Croton Water Celebration, when what we now call the Old Croton Aqueduct opened to public use on October 14, 1842. See an example of that medal here.

A Mystery

How did the medal end up buried on Long Island? The Underhills do have deep roots there. Capt. John Underhill (1608/9-1672), the founder of the oldest and largest Underhill family in the U. S. and Canada, lived at various times in Flushing, Southold, Setauket and Oyster Bay. One can speculate that perhaps an Underhill relative had once lived in Mike’s grandfather’s house. Whatever the case it’s great to be able to share this medal with our readers.

For more information on the Underhill vineyards, see these previous posts:


  1. See Underhill’s obituary in the Proceedings of the American Pomological Society, 1871.
  2. See the Sixth Annual Report of the American Institute of the City of New-York, 1848.

Hidden in the Trees

Sanford Robinson Gifford, American, 1823–1880. Hook Mountain, Near Nyack, on the Hudson, 1866. Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery. Click the image to enlarge it.

Sanford Robinson Gifford, American, 1823–1880. Hook Mountain, Near Nyack, on the Hudson, 1866.
Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery. Click the image to enlarge it.

This magnificent Hudson River School painting, Hook Mountain, Near Nyack, on the Hudson by Sanford Robinson Gifford, shows the view looking west from the southern shores of Croton Point. Hidden in the trees in the foreground is the rooftop and cupola of Richard T. Underhill’s Italianate villa, which he built in 1846 and christened “Interwasser”.

Detail showing the rooftop and cupola of the Underhill mansion on the southern tip of Croton Point. Click the image to enlarge it.

Detail showing the rooftop and cupola of the Underhill mansion on the southern tip of Croton Point.
Click the image to enlarge it.

The image is courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery, which has made “thousands of images of works in the Gallery’s collection . . . available for free download . . .”

For a similar view from higher up, showing the Underhill vineyards, see this previous post of a wood engraving from Harper’s Weekly.

You should also check out the Hudson River School Art Trail, which includes this painting in an effort to encourage people to “hike in the footsteps of Hudson River School artists . . .” to “see the locations that influenced famous American landscape paintings of the 19th century.”

History Underfoot

WAU Bricks

While visiting a home in the Harmon area the owners proudly pointed out the Croton Point bricks used in the floor of what had originally been a large covered porch. Well-worn from more than a century of use, many are stamped with the initials of William A. Underhill, who used the clay deposits to make bricks on the north end of Croton Point while his brother, Richard T. Underhill developed his famous vineyards on the southern end. The house also features other Underhill bricks, stamped with the letters IXL (a clever bit of self-promotion meaning “I excell . . . at brickmaking”), and stonework by masons who worked on the New Croton Dam.

For additional information about the Underhill brickyard, see this article written by Robert Underhill’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter.

Dr. Underhill’s Elevated Railroad

Unknown photographer, [Ninth Avenue from Gansevoort Street looking North], ca. 1870-1880. Gelatin silver print. New-York Historical Society

Unknown photographer, [Ninth Avenue from Gansevoort Street looking North], ca. 1870-1880. Gelatin silver print. New-York Historical Society

Here’s a rare photograph of the tracks of the West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway Company from the Tumblr blog of the New York Historical Society. As we recounted in a previous post Richard T. Underhill, the “Grape King” of Croton Point, was an investor in this company—which began the New York City transportation system.

Click on the photo to enlarge it.

R. T. Underhill—Doctor, Winemaker, and Investor in the First New York City Elevated Railway

Inventor Charles T. Harvey making a test run on December 7, 1867.

Inventor Charles T. Harvey making a test run on December 7, 1867.

The amazing thing about searching with Google is that not only can you find a needle in the internet haystack—sometimes you find needles you weren’t even looking for, like this story of Richard T. Underhill’s involvement in the West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway Company, the company that began the New York City transportation system.

First some background, courtesy of the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in New Freedom, Wisconsin:

“In 1867, Charles T. Harvey (1829-1912), a self-trained civil engineer . . . built an experimental single-track, cable-powered elevated railway from Battery Place, at the south end of Manhattan Island, northward up Greenwich Street to Cortlandt Street. His company had been chartered the year before under the name of the West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway Company, with subscribed capital of $100,000, to build a 25-mile elevated railroad from the southern extremity of the city northward through the city and thence to the village of Yonkers.

The half-mile line was dubbed the “one-legged railroad,” because the single track ran above the street on a single row of columns. The cable was a loop, driven by a stationary engine, that ran between the rails for propulsion of the cars, then returned under the street. The concept was similar in many respects to that used by the San Francisco cable cars five years later—the primary difference being that Harvey’s patent called for the car to be secured to the cable by a sort of claw that would grab onto metal collars woven into the cable rather than a Hallidie-type “grip.”

Cable car #1 of the West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway Company, shown in 1869 at the 29th Street Station.

Cable car #1 of the West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway Company,
shown in 1869 at the 29th Street Station.

The line opened for business July 1, 1868, and [after] the State Commissioners who authorized the “experiment” . . . declared it a success, the Governor authorized its completion to Spuyten Duyvil . . .

But the line had ongoing problems. The mechanics of grasping the cable proved less-than-perfect. Maintaining the mile-long cable was a problem. Having it “return” under the street was a problem that was soon fixed by having it return at track level, but it still had to be directed off the track and into the building where the stationary engine sat. Legal problems were constant, largely at the instigation of those who wanted the franchise for themselves.”

The line at 9th Avenue and Gansevoort Street, showing the cable mechanism under the tracks.

The line at 9th Avenue and Gansevoort Street, showing the cable mechanism under the tracks.

In his 1890 book The Most Notable Robbery of Modern Times—about the legal and financial chicanery in the early New York City transit system—Stephens O. Jennings wrote about Richard Underhill’s role as an investor in the West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway Company. Jennings knew Underhill personally and he not only adds to our knowledge about the “Grape King” of Croton Point, he prints a portrait of Underhill as well.

According to Jennings, Underhill “appreciated the desirability of more rapid transit between his country residence and city office, and at an early date investigated and advocated Mr. Harvey’s plans as having the germ of the greatly needed boon.”

Portrait of Richard T. Underhill from The Most Notable Robbery of Modern Times by Stephens O. Jennings, 1890.

Portrait of Richard T. Underhill from
The Most Notable Robbery of Modern Times
by Stephens O. Jennings, 1890.

“Dr. Underhill became a subscriber; he . . . gave personal attention to the progress made, and counseled with the projector in his arduous labors. In like manner Dr. Underhill’s memory should be coupled with the elevated system, and one incident will suffice to show the propriety of so doing.

As the time drew near in 1870 to open the railway to public use, he counseled great care in proving its safety.

A car loaded with a heavy test weight of pig-iron was drawn over the line by horses with satisfactory results. But this did not show the effects of speed, and Doctor Underhill favored a test as to that element of danger. Accordingly one afternoon, the test car was coupled to a passenger car, to be run over the route by the cable machinery. The Doctor, Mr. Harvey, and [this] writer entered the car, which was soon running at high speed. At the longest bridge and sharpest curve in combination on the route, the centrifugal force of the load shifted the supporting beams and bent a column arm, causing a section of the track to slide into the street below, and the car with its three inmates also went down. Providentially, no one was injured. When the track was repaired and new safe guards added, the same test was again applied, but at day-break, to avoid the previous danger to those on the street surface. Dr. Underhill had learned of the time, and, to the surprise of us all, appeared at the station at the dawn of the day and insisted upon going with the party as before. The trip upon this occasion was made without accident, and at its close he grasped Mr. Harvey by the hand and said, ‘Now we can conscientiously recommend this road as safe.’ The doctor was correct, as statistics show that that railway and its extensions transport passengers with less casualties per capita than any other in the world.

. . . New York City is indebted to [Underhill] to a marked degree for its present transit comforts.”