The Bedford Hills – A Region Now Traced by the Eastern Parkway
The Genesis of a Name – French’s Stopping Place.[editor note: this article was first published in thee 1888 Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Article was retrieved from http://eagle.brooklynpubliclibrary.org and transcribed by PlaNYourCity]
There was a rhyme in one of the children’s magazines not very long ago which ran somewhat in this wise:
Oh, sunflower tall,
Leaning over the wall
You think jolly Tim is exceedingly small;
But jolly Tim knows
That he grows and he grows.
Else how would he ever keep up with his clothes?
Likening the great City of New York to the sunflower, it no doubt feels, as it looks across the East River, that jolly Tim Brooklyn is exceedingly small, and yet it knows, and so do we all, that “it grows and it grows, else how would it ever keep up with its” boundaries, as laid out by the enterprising dealer in city lots?
It is no windy inflation, either, nor does its corpulence come from beer, but from a good, wholesome diet of flesh and blood in the shape of natural increase and new immigration. Brooklyn real estate may be held high in some places, but in no section is it inflated after the “wild cat” method. It may in some instances be held as high as it is likely to be worth for the next five years, but under no probable contingency will it ever be worth less.
Brooklyn started in at Het Veer, now Fulton Ferry; it grew up to Breuckelen at the present City Hall; it reached over and absorbed Waalboght and Kreupelbosch: it crept down the coast to Gowanus; it climbed the hills to Bedford and, gaining strength , it reached out its arms and gathered in Williamsburgh, Greenpoint and Bushwick, and finally East New York and New Lots have been taken into its capacious maw; and though its boundaries have thus been continually extended, “it grows and it grows,” and consequently “keeps up with its clothes.”
There is one section of Brooklyn which has not, for obvious reasons, grown so rapidly as those parts along the highways, but which is now being filled up. I refer to the Bedford Hills. Two centuries ago the Green Mountains extended up the coast from Gravesend Bay, across the present Greenwood Cemetery and Prospect Park and on in an easterly direction to East New York, the Cemetery of the Evergreens and thence continuing to the northeast over Long Island to Oyster Bay. Those hills in Revolutionary days wore covered with woods and, the woodland within the limits of the present City of Brooklyn having been apportioned to the different towns years before, the name of the range had been changed and different sections of the Green Mountains were known by different names.
The high hill just past of the park entrance was known as Mount Prospect and the hills generally ceased to be the Green Mountains and became the Mount Prospect range. That portion of the woodland adjoining Bedford which extended from the park to the Rockaway footpath, which passed through what is now known as the Cemetery of the Evergreens, also became known as the Bedford Hills, while those hills east of the footpath wore known during the Revolution as Bushwick Hills.
As time passed on the Bedford Hills were divided into sections and had different names applied to each. The Battle Pass, in Prospect Park, became Valley Grove. Then came Prospect Hill and Bedford Hills. The Clove road cut through the range just east of what is now Nostrand Avenue, and down in this hollow, just north of the southern cityline, Ralph Malbone, a well known citizen of Brooklyn, laid off a number of city lots and started what was subsequently known as Malboneville, along in the thirties. The exact boundaries of this section it seems impossible to obtain, but it may be set down as including the section between the Eastern Parkway and the city line, and from Nostrand to New York Avenue, although the territory as far west as Rogers and as far east as Brooklyn Avenue was sometimes included.
The Bedford Hills followed the line of the Eastern Parkway, on both sides, until about Buffalo Avenue, when the trend was more directly east than the Parkway – which followed a course slightly south of east and up to and around the west and north side of East New York. The Bedford Hills included, in a general way, all the territory between Atlantic avenue and the southern boundary line of the city, from Prospect Hill to east of Buffalo avenue, where the hills, as stated, did not extend south of the Parkway. East of Malbonoville came Crow Hill, extending to about Schenectady Avenue. Then Weeksville covered the territory to Buffalo avenue, and beyond the Hunterfly road to East New York was known as Carrsville. These divisions have existed for about fifty years. It is only possible to give these divisions in a general way, as the “oldest inhabitants” do not agree in laying out the boundaries, and it is a question if the lines were ever very decidedly fixed. As to the location of Crow Hill, for instance, it seems almost impossible to definitely locate it. Some persons go so far as to include the whole range from Bedford to Buffalo avenue in Crow Hill, but this is obviously wrong, for the Clove road cuts deeply into the range and would make it necessary to speak of it as Crow “Hills” to be correct. Others say it was on both sides of the Clove road near the Penitentiary; or, in other words, that it occupied the territory known as Malbonoville.Why any one should call a gulch or valley Crow Hill is a mystery. Still others locate this will o’ the wisp in the four blocks between Buffalo and Utica avenues, St. Marks avenue and Park place, and assign as a reason for its name that a great many negroes used to live there. That this latter section was within the limits of Weeksville there appears to be no question among those familiar with the neighborhood, and this supposed origin of the name does not hold good.
After diligent inquiry I have come to the conclusion that the limits laid down by Hartley French, who was born in Malboneville, comes nearest to the correct boundaries. They include the hill from Brooklyn Avenue to Schenectady. John Jennison, a horse trader on Fulton Street, who used to live near the Clove road, unravels the mystery of the name, or at least gives the only really plausible reason for it. He says there used to be bone factory on the hill and the name came from the large number of crows that flocked there. Probably the best known locality of those mentioned, the earliest to be laid off in lots, and likely to be the last to come prominently into the market, is Malboneville. Along about the commencement of the present century Ralph Malbone kept a grocery on Fulton Street, on the point made by the junction of Willoughby Avenue, and now occupied by the Jones Building. He made money and invested in real estate, and about 1830 he had a real estate office where the City Hall now stands. He bought land on the Clove road, near the southern city line, and laid out lots, which was the origin of Malboneville. About the year 1833 he built a house fronting on the Clove road, between what are now Crown and Montgomery Streets, which subsequently became well known to all sporting men, far and near, as French’s.
Tom French came, from Ireland about 1830, and engaged in peddling. He first had a grocery where the Penitentiary stands, but subsequently bought the house on Clove road from Malbone and had his store there. French used to keep groceries, dry goods and liquors and, in fact, a little of everything that goes to make up the stock of a general country store. Mrs. French kept the store, while Tom traveled around the country peddling his wares. Subsequently the house became a regular roadside tavern and was a great resort for the sporting gentry previous to and during the Civil War. In ante bellum times there was a stage line from Fulton Ferry to Bedford and thence, via the old Clove road, to Canarsie, then, as now, a great resort for fishermen. French’s was the stopping place of the stages. It was also the half way house for the farmers from the neighborhood of Canarsie, Flatlands, Flatbush, Sheepshead Bay, Coney Island, etc., and it was no uncommon thing in those days to see 100 farm wagons and other vehicles grouped in the neighborhood of French’s.
The house is one story and a half and has a basement. It is arranged with two large rooms in the basement, which were formerly used as store and kitchen, there being doors leading into them from the front of the house, on either side of the high stoop. On the first floor is a hall, with a large room on either side, one of which was used as a barroom, the other as a reception room, while on the upper floor are five bedrooms. A distinction used to be made in customers. The cheaper class of customers, who went into the grocery for their drinks, got them (whisky) for 3 cents a glass, while the more, aristocratic of the sporting men and farmers, who patronized the bar upstairs, paid 6 cents a glass for the same liquor. So much for style.
On the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas and New Year’s and other holidays French’s was a great resort for games. Crowds would congregate there from the city, and the country too, and participate in shooting matches, raffles, cock fights, foot and horse races and similar amusements. They used to tie a chicken to a stake and then charge the boys 10 cents a shot. The 100 yard horse or foot race, “two wet and two dry,” used to be a favorite amusement. That is to say, the parties would make up the race and bet $2 on the result, “two wet and two dry” meaning that the winner should keep his own $2 and treat the crowd with the winnings. But this once noted hostelry lost its claim to patronage when the old Clove road ceased to be a thoroughfare, and for the past twenty years has been a private dwelling. It is now occupied by Tom French’s only surviving daughter, Mrs. Welsh. The outbuildings of the tavern still stand: the old pump remains in front, where horses can be watered as of yore, though the road has been closed at the Eastern Parkway and ceased to be traveled, and a row of trees in front and one to the south indicates what used to be the tavern plaza. Out of eleven children of Tom French but five remain: Mrs. Welsh, mentioned above; Captain Henry French, of the police force; William, who is Supervisor of the Twenty-fourth Ward; Thomas, inspector for the Board of Health, and Bartley, who keeps a sale and exchange stable.
To the east of Malboneville, in the neighborhood of what would be Brooklyn Avenue, there used to be odd localities, with odder characters inhabiting them. Most of the middle aged men of to-day who were reared within the city limits at Bedford or south thereof can remember Snake Hollow, Kelley’s Hill and Stony Hill, and can recall Snake Mary, the Indian half breed; Papoose Indian, the fortune teller, and Peg Riley, the Queen of the Wards. The fair Peggy had a house that was on the Flatbush line at what would be the terminus of Brooklyn Avenue. It was half in the city and half in Flatbush, and when the officers would get after her for violations of the law in regard to liquor she would retire to the security of the end of her house across the line.
But the march of improvement is going on. The Eastern Parkway, frequently called the Boulevard, swept through the Bedford Hills and leveled a great portion of them; gradually the great banks are being cut away and the hollows are being filled; the hill east of Bedford is almost gone; the remainder of the Clove road down about Malboneville is being obliterated; Crow Hill is losing its crown, and streets are being cut through it; the hill is being dumped into the hollow, and there is a general leveling going on. Now is positively the last exhibition of those different localities in anything like their natural form, for the level, the compass and the carts are at work. Within the next five years the Bedford Hills will have nearly disappeared, and’ inside of ten years there will be nothing left of them, and where they stood will be graded streets and thousands of dwellings, a part of this magically growing city.
H. J. S.