Reginald Pelham Bolton is considered the foremost authority on the history of Washington Heights and Inwood. Born in London, England, on October 5, 1856, Bolton was the son of James and Lydia Louise Pym Bolton. He majored as a consulting civil engineer. In 1878 Reginald married Ethelind Huyck in Sussex. They had two children: Guy and Ivy.
The Boltons moved to the United States and settled in Washington Heights at what is now 638 West 158th Street. In time he had not only become noted as an engineer but as an avid archaeologist.
Bolton’s family owned land in Inwood. Curtis and John Bolton, sons of John Bolton of Chestertown, Maryland, were the young first cousins of Robert Bolton of Savannah, the great-grandfather of Reginald Bolton.
The Bolton family had been in the cotton exporting and shipping business. The ravages of French privateers and the war with Great Britain (1812-1815) inflicted heavy losses on the firm, and cargoes of cotton were seized and confiscated. As a result of this, the Bolton brothers moved to New York City and started a new business in the shipping industry.
In 1817 the Boltons purchased a tract of land from the heirs of Jan Nagle, who was one of the original settlers of the community. This property is now part of the Spuyten Duyvil Creek and Inwood Hill Park. The parcel was exchanged in 1829 for lands upstate. The only remnant of the ownership was the Bolton Road which is now a pedestrian path in Inwood Hill Park. The entrance to the Bolton Road is designated with a stone, painted black, on Payson Street, between Dyckman Street and Beak Street.
John Bolton became Alderman of the Ninth Ward. In 1834 he was one of the Committee of the Board that had to report on the difficulties arising as to property lines due to the laying out of the City plan on its present rectangular lines.
Curtis Bolton became head of the firm of Bolton, Fox and Livingston, which owned a fleet of clipper ships known as the “Union Line,” sailing between New York and Le Harve. He was treasurer of the New York Institute for the Blind and a director of the Institute for the Deaf and Dumb. Both organizations shared the property on 163rd Street and Fort Washington Avenue. John Bolton passed away in 1838 and Curtis in 1851.
Reginald Bolton’s interest in archaeology had enabled him, with the help of his crew, to excavate many acres of rural land in northern Manhattan to find thousands of artifacts of the Weckquasgeek Indians and Revolutionary soldiers. Bolton gained recognition for his knowledge of Revolutionary War sites and was asked to be a consultant for Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown in Virginia and Fort Ticonderoga in New York.
Through his efforts, Bolton became a Life Member of the New York Historical Society and of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation (now part of the Smithsonian Institution). He was an associate member of the Westchester County Historical Society and a Vice President of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society and of the City History Club.
The Boltons were members of Holyrood Church when it was on Broadway and 181st Street. Bolton was the editor of the monthly newsletter for the church, which was obtainable by subscription for $1 per year. Holyrood Church is presently located on Fort Washington Avenue and 179th Street.
Bolton was Secretary for the Washington Heights Taxpayers Association, which existed in the early part of the 20th Century. As a member of this group, Bolton wrote a pamphlet in 1918 called “$5 Million Speedway, A Useless Driveway.” This was in reference to the Harlem River Speedway which was, in his opinion, a waste of $14,000 per year of taxpayers’ money. In 1937 the Speedway was extended to connect with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive.
Bolton was also known to have authored many books on the history of New York City and its surrounding areas. One of these is called “New York in Indian Possession,” published in 1920 in conjunction with the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation.
The book was well-received largely due to the attempts it paid to local sections of New York City. Even though there are some minor errors in it, most of Bolton’s interpretations and conclusions are generally accurate. The Museum, now a part of the Smithsonian Institution, is now located in the Customs House at Bowling Green.
His next book, “Washington Heights Manhattan, Its Eventful Past,” was published in 1924 by the Dyckman Institute. The information in this book had been gathered over a period of twenty-five years prior to its publication. The original maps used in the book had been given to the American Geographical Society, which at the time was located at the Audubon Terrace Museum Group Complex on 156th Street and Broadway.
The Society’s collection is presently located at the Golda Meir Library of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. The book is out of print and may be found at out-of-print bookstores. In New York City, there are three copies located at the Fort Washington, Washington Heights and Inwood Branches of the New York Public Library.
Bolton co-authored a book with William L. Calver of the New York Historical Society called “History Written With Pick and Shovel: Military Buttons, Belt Plates, Badges & Other Relics Excavated From Colonial, Revolutionary & War of 1812 Campsites.” Bolton also wrote “History of the Defense and Reduction of Mount Washington” (1901), “Relics of the Revolution” (1912), “The Bombardment of New York” (1915), and “Indian Paths of the Great Metropolis” (1922).
In the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum on Broadway and 204th Street there is a relic room on the main floor in the back of the house. For a while it was known as the “Reginald Pelham Bolton Collection Room.” This collection is the result of digs and excavations around and near the Dyckman Farmhouse during the period from 1905 to 1916.
The Relic Room, as it is also known, was initially put together by Bolton with the help of Bashford Dean, who was the curator of Medieval Armament of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The room remained untouched until 1991, when it was renovated and reinstated as a permanent collection for the 75th Anniversary of the opening of the house as a museum.
The Hessian Officer’s Hut in the rear of the property was also built by Bolton and his team in 1916 to show how the soldiers lived in these small but sturdy huts during the American Revolution. Many huts such as this dotted the community during the war.
Bolton had a passionate interest in the past. He preserved much of New York City’s earliest history and saved it from bulldozers and wreckers’ balls that had destroyed many of yesterday’s important relics.
While he was doing this, Bolton promoted technological improvement. As a civil engineer Bolton innovated construction and engineering techniques. He had proposed a high-speed underground railway system from the west in New Jersey and from the north in upstate New York to link with downtown Manhattan.
Bolton contributed to the heating, lighting and water system designs of the city’s first skyscrapers. In the late 1890s, Bolton reported that the cost of a sixteen-story, high-quality building that was steel-framed and fire-proofed that included all utilities and “a moderate amount” of exterior ornamentation cost between 36 and 40 cents per cubic foot.
In 1917 Bolton wrote a book entitled “A Municipal Experiment or The Hall of Record, Power Plant.” This book was an analysis comparing the use of small isolated steam power plants versus large public utility plants in New York City.
Reginald Bolton died on February 18, 1942, and his wife Ethelind died December 29, 1945. Both were cremated at the Ferncliff Cemetery crematorium in Hartsdale, New York, and the ashes are at Beechwoods Cemetery in New Rochelle, New York. Reginald Bolton’s funeral services were at the Daniel Coughlin Funeral Home at 4120 Broadway, and his wife’s services were at the Walter Cody Funeral Home at 1093 Saint Nicholas Avenue.
For information on the American Geographical Society Collection at the Golda Meir Library at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, call (414) 229-6282. For information on the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum located at 4881 Broadway at 204th Street, call (212) 304-9422. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian can be accessed at its Web site. Holyrood Church can be reached at (212) 923-3770.