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.

Ruins of the Underhill Wine Cellars

Photo by Leslie V. Case. Used by permission of the Tarrytown Historical Society.

Photo by Leslie V. Case. Used by permission of the Tarrytown Historical Society.


Photo by Leslie V. Case. Used by permission of the Tarrytown Historical Society.

Photo by Leslie V. Case.
Used by permission of the Tarrytown Historical Society.


Case's notation in his photo album correctly notes the place and subject, but incorrectly attributes the wine cellars to the Teller family.

The notation in Case’s photo album correctly notes the place and subject, but incorrectly
attributes the wine cellars to the Teller family.

These undated photographs—probably taken in the 1920s or 1930s—show portions of what was then the ruins of the Underhill wine cellars on Croton Point. They were made by Leslie V. Case, who was superintendent of the Tarrytown Schools for more than 30 years. The photographs are glued to the pages of one of Case’s scrapbooks, now in the collection of the Tarrytown Historical Society, which has graciously given us permission to share them.

Portrait photograph of Leslie V. Case from a newspaper clipping in the files of the Tarrytown Historical Society. Used by permission of the Tarrytown Historical Society.

Portrait photograph of Leslie V. Case
from a newspaper clipping in the files of the Tarrytown Historical Society. Used by permission.

Mr. Case was not your average school superintendent. Among other things he was an amateur archeologist and geologist, who collected ancient Egyptian artifacts, gemstones, and Native American artifacts—some of which he dug up himself in his capacity as the chairman of the Westchester Historical Society’s Committee on Indian Remains. His historic 1848 house on Grove Street, in Tarrytown, eventually became the home of the Tarrytown Historical Society.1

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


  1. The house was built by Jacob Odell in 1848 as a wedding gift for his bride. Case purchased the house in 1918 and lived there until his death in 1937. His wife became the curator of the Tarrytown Historical Society and allowed portions of the house to be used by the society. In 1952 the historical society acquired the property through the generosity of John D. Rockefeller II.
  2. From an ad in the American Church Almanac and Year Book, 1878, placed by the company which was selling the wine. “For the purpose of closing the accounts of the Executors, the entire stock of wine left by Dr. Underhill, . . . which has now become very old and mellow, has been placed for sale in the hands of Messrs. H. K. and F. B. Thurber & Co , New York, who in turn are appointing druggists as agents to supply the retail demand.”

Dr. Underhill, a Patriarch and a Man of Renown

An advertisement from the 1865 Brooklyn Directory.

An advertisement from the 1865 Brooklyn Directory.

"Among all the rich and luscious terrestrial fruits which gladden the heart of man and delight his taste and renovate his health," wrote the Eclectic Magazine in April, 1864, "none surpass in variety and value the fruit of the vine. . . . In all ages and in all countries, where the soil and climate admit, the grape . . . has been the favorite fruit, and often the food and drink of man. Among grape growers and vine dressers, Dr. Underhill has become a patriarch and a man of renown. The grapes of Croton Point have long ago become celebrated for their richness and lusciousness, as many tongues can testify which have tasted their sweetness. Dr. Underhill is a benefactor of his age and race, for he puts more pleasant fruits and wine also into the lips of his fellow men than any man we know of. His Croton Point vineyards will be a lasting monument to his fame so long as his grapes grow and flourish. Think of fifty acres of the choicest grapes and of floods of wine made from the juice thereof. Thousands of baskets of rich grapes find their way into the mansions of our citizens and into their mouths also every year, followed, when the grape season is over, by thousands of casks of wine, which in all its varieties and pureness is for sale and can be had at No. 7 Clinton Hall, Astor Place, New-York. For all medicinal purposes and communion occasions, as well as to renovate impaired health, Dr. Underhill's varieties of wine is unsurpassed. All this and more also is due to his enterprise and skill in planting and cultivating vineyards so extensive."

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.”

The Underhill Vineyards, 1867

Harpers Underhill Vineyard_72dpi

Harper’s Weekly, October 26, 1867. Click on the image to enlarge it.

In October 1867, Harper’s Weekly published a full-page wood engraving of the Underhill vineyards. Entitled “Gathering Grapes—An October Scene on the Hudson,” the image takes us back to the time when Richard T. Underhill was the “grape king” of Croton Point.

How significant were the Underhill vineyards? In his multi-volume History of Wine in America, Thomas Pinney says the Underhills were the “first dynasty in American viticulture . . . The scale and the long life of their vineyards give them a claim to be the real founders of the winegrowing industry in New York.”

Let’s take a look at what the artist D. C. Hitchcock, aided by a team of Harper’s Weekly engravers, recorded for us more than 145 years ago . . .

Harpers detail Underhill mansion

Detail showing the Underhill mansion at the southern tip of Croton Point.

Harpers detail grape pickers

The faint white horizontal and vertical lines seen in these details are where blocks of wood,
each prepared by a different engraver, were glued or bolted together to make the larger image.

Harpers detail man and woman

Harpers detail man in cart

For more on “the grape king,” see here.

For information on how Harper’s Weekly woodblocks were produced, see the online version of
“A Visitors’ Guide to Harper & Brothers’ Establishment”
from the 1878 edition of the New York publishing house’s 314-page catalog.

The Grape King of Croton Point

Croton_grape

These two prints, from U.P. Hedrick’s, The Grapes of New York, published in 1908, show the grapes that made Richard T. Underhill famous as the “Grape King.”

Underhill 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. Parmentier started a nursery that included a vineyard. At first he sold only European grapes but, according to Hedrick, he later added “the two American varieties, Catawba and Isabella, which were then becoming popular.”

Underhill’s first batch of European varieties died, but he “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.”

Underhill’s hybrid grapes. “Croton” (above) and “Senasqua” (below) were described in An Illustrated Descriptive Catalogue of American Grape Vines, published in 1883:

  • Croton. Hybrid cross between Delaware and Chasselas de Fontainbleau, originated by . . . Underhill, of Croton Point, N. Y.; bore its first fruit in 1865. In 1868 and following years it obtained prizes at the New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Horticultural Societies and other grape exhibitions, attracting marked attention. The late H. E. Hooker, of New York, said: “The Croton succeeds very well indeed in some localities, and it is certainly one of the most delightful grapes, when well-grown, that I have ever raised.”
  • Senasqua. A hybrid raised by . . . Underhill, Croton Point, N.Y. from Concord and Black Prince. Seed was planted in 1863 and the vine bore its first fruit 1865.

See Underhill vineyard trade cards and magazine ads here and here.

Senasqua_grape