The history of the Spuyten Duyvil Creek and the Harlem River Ship Canal dates back to the pre-colonial period of New York City. It has a rich history that encompasses the immediate area it serves.
Inwood Hill Park was known as “shorakapkok,” which is translated as “the sitting down place. The Mohican “showaukuppock” translated as “cove.” The Delaware Indians called it “w’shakuppek” which was “smooth still water” when interpreted from their language. According to Reginald Pelham Bolton, the noted historian and archaeologist of the area, another term used by local Native Americans was “saperewack,” which meant “the glistening place.” One of the tribal groups that lived in the area, the Rechgawawanc, had made their homes here in the sheltering hillsides and close proximity to the fishing and hunting spots.
At the point where the Spuyten Duyvil Creek and the Hudson River meet is an area known as Papparimamim. It was an island that the Rechgawawanc Indians used as a landing spot to trade. There are several meanings to “Papparimamim.” Some of its meanings are “to parcel out,” “divide and divert,” and “turning aside.” The site had become known as Berrian’s Neck and was used as a fortification during the American Revolution.
The Dutch settlers have various spellings for Spuyten Duyvil. One version was “spegkindiple,” another was “Spitton Devil.” According to “Father Knickerbocker’s History of New York” by Washington Irving, two other terms are shown: “spijt den duyvil” and “spiking devil.” Another expression that was used in 1693 was “spiten devil.” During the American Revolution, another version of the site had appeared: this was “speight-den-duyvil” and it was used by Johan Karl Philip von Krafft, a 2nd Lieutenant in the Hessian army under the command of General Knyphausen. The present-day term is a variation that is still used today.
During the colonial period, the Dutch and the English had different uses for the Spuyten Duyvil Creek. In 1667, a resolution in favor of building a road from Harlem to New York was proposed. Two years later the resolution was rescinded in favor of a route to the north which finally came about on December 7, 1676. On December 9th a lane was opened and was called the King’s Way which in time became the Kingsbridge Road. In 1769, milestones were erected on the western side of the roadway from lower Manhattan.
Johannes Verveelen, a Dutch landowner in the town of New Harlem, had a ferry at 125th Street and the East River that took passengers and cargo to the Bronx. After a period of time, Verveelen realized that people were going to the northern end of Manhattan and wading across the Spuyten Duyvil, thus avoiding the fare. He petitioned the authorities for an additional ferry charter for the new location and was granted one on February 27, 1669.
Frederick Phillipse was issued a royal grant confirming manorial rights from the crown and enlarging them to the manor of Phillipsburg in 1693. As part of the grant, the ferry was replaced by Phillipse and was named the King’s Bridge to honor King William III. Phillipse was allowed to collect tolls from a patent signed by Governor Richard Nicholls. This toll applied to people, cattle or anything else that crossed it.
In 1702 the property was willed to Phillipse’s grandson of the same name By act of the General Assembly of the Colony of New York on July 1, 1713, Phillipse was allowed to dismantle the bridge and rebuild it as a draw bridge. The present location of the bridge, if it were in operation today would be on Broadway near 231st Street.
On New Years Day of 1759 Jacobus Dyckman erected a toll-free bridge with the help of his fellow farmers to avoid paying the toll and allow for access over the river. This bridge, known as the Free Bridge, was located on 225th Street between Broadway and the intersection of Bailey Avenue and West Kingsbridge Road. It connected Manhattan with the Fordham section of the Bronx. A tavern was established by the Dyckmans on the Manhattan side of the bridge and was sold in 1772 to Caleb Hyatt.
During the American Revolution Hyatt’s Tavern became a guard house used by the Hessians after the fall of Fort Washington in November 1776. They had taken over the eight forts that paralleled the Harlem River.
In December 1777, troops under the command of General Heath attacked the Kingsbridge area with the objective of ensuring that the Farmer’s Bridge and the King’s Bridge were rendered practically useless, thus diverting traffic to a pontoon bridge which connected the Bronx with the northern end of Seaman Avenue. At the end of the war, the Free Bridge was reconstructed to continue normal traffic of goods and services.
In 1807 Jacob Hyatt leased the tavern to James DeVoe. The tavern’s more recent successor had become the Kingsbridge Hotel which had become a favorite for anglers and sportsman. The hotel was noted for its turtle soup. The premises was located on Muscoota (now 225th) Street.
In 1904, under authorization of the New York State legislature, the part of the creek that was filled in from dredging at what is now 225th street was filled in at 230th and lots were sold for housing. Broadway was widened in 1917 and the Kingsbridge Hotel, which was in disrepair, was razed.
One of the older and more colorful tales to come out of the area was that of Anthony van Corlear’s crossing of the Spuyten Duyvil. Van Corlear was a messenger of Peter Stuyvesant who sent him to warn the Dutch settlers and the Indians in what is now Westchester and the Bronx of the pending takeover of Nieuw Amsterdam by the British. According to a story revived by Washington Irving, van Corlear had jumped into the creek from a high promonotory in Manhattan in “spite of the devil” into high tide, and heavy winds subsequently drowned him trying to cross the creek.
In reality van Corlear waded across the creek. This story had been told and possibly exaggerated in a soldier’s journal in 1776. The journal was discovered by W. H. Shelton, curator of the Morris-Jumel Mansion.
The Johnson Ironworks foundry was a familiar sight on the peninsula of the canal from 1853 until 1923. While in operation the foundry manufactured everything from iron bars to automobile engines. In 1924 the buildings were razed, and the peninsula was empty until the end of the Second World War, when it was dredged and the channel was straightened. Part of the peninsula that was separated had been incorporated into Inwood Hill Park.
Chapter 586 of the New York Legislature was enacted on May 12, 1919, to create a Board of Conference to discuss how to straighten, widen and dredge the Spuyten Duyvil Creek. This legislation sounded the death knell of the Johnson Foundry. Work on the creek was started in 1898 and had to be completed.
Marble Hill was the name of the community at the northernmost tip of Manhattan, which was severed by the construction and rerouting of the Harlem River Ship Canal. In 1895, Marble Hill was separated from Manhattan and for a time was an island until the landfill from the dredging had connected this bucolic part of Manhattan to the Bronx.
After World War II, students from Columbia University established a boat club and other facilities at Baker Field in Inwood Hill Park. The group became interested in a rocky outcropping that needed some livening up. A large white “C” was painted on the on the wall facing the creek. Since then, the “C” has become a fixture for the area as well as a tourist attraction for the Circle Line Boat Tours.
The Spuyten Duyvil Creek has bridges crossing its banks. The railroad trestle has served the trains going to Albany from New York City since the 1840s. The Henry Hudson Bridge, built by Robert Moses in 1938, has offered a view of the canal and the Hudson River since its opening. The Broadway Bridge has been rebuilt three times to meet the needs of automotive and subway traffic.
Reginald Pelham Bolton, the noted civil engineer and historian for northern Manhattan, had a fondness for the Spuyten Duyvil. In his book, “Washington Heights, Manhattan, Its Eventful Past,” he describes it thus: “The crooked course of the Spuyten Duyvil Creek wound around the north side of Inwood Hill and bent sharply south around a marshy promonotory which seems to have been known to the native as Gowahasuasing. Through this point, the ship canal has been cut, leaving only its tip end as a small marshy islet, which serves to preserve the contour of part of the old creek.”