The shoreline of New York Bay, specifically the Narrows, in Bay Ridge, near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, is one of Brooklyn’s most naturally beautiful places. Even today, with the highways, the buildings, and the bridge itself, it’s still easy to imagine what Canarsee Indians, then the Dutch, must have thought when seeing it. The bay is a truly beautiful sight.- Montrose Morris
Yesterday, Brownstoner’s Montrose Morris treated readers to another glimpse of Brooklyn’s little-known yet historically rich past. This time, the story was [partially] focused on a spot that should be familiar to Bay Ridge residents – Owl’s Head Park.
And the man who originally developed the land as a private country villa was none other than Henry C. Murphy, who as Montrose shows,”was one of Brooklyn’s most impressive individuals.”
Henry Cruse Murphy was born in Brooklyn in 1810. His parents, John Garrison Murphy and wife Clarissa, had settled in the town of Brooklyn [modern day Downtown Brooklyn] two years earlier. His father, a wheelwright, ran a successful business, and proved to be an innovative inventor with his development of new technology for team bolts – which were the teams of horses used at the time to pull freight across the East River.
As a prominent local businessman, Henry’s father John studied law and became active in Brooklyn’s civic life. He lobbied for the creation of Brooklyn’s first public school, eventually becoming a judge. Young Henry would soon follow in his father’s footsteps.
Henry Murphy graduated from Columbia with honors in 1830. He began studying law under prominent Manhattan lawyer and Brooklyn resident Peter W. Radcliffe. It was also during this time that Murphy began writing for the newspaper The Brooklyn Advocate and Nassau Gazette. It was just a few years later, after he had graduated law school, married Amelia Greenwood, and was practicing law at his office at Pineapple and Fulton Streets, when he would launch “his budding political career.”
After first becoming the Village of Brooklyn’s Corporation Counsel, Murphy became a Democratic Party representative, then City Attorney. Soon after the growing City of Brooklyn was incorporated, he was again tapped for Corporation Counsel, before establishing a law and investment firm with members of two of Brooklyn’s oldest families. The firm of Lott, Murphy & Vanderbilt “became one of Brooklyn’s power firms of the day.” Impressively, Murphy had managed to accomplish all this while still in his 20′s!
By the time Murphy was in his early 30′s, he had become a trustee of the Brooklyn City Library [which predates the New York Public Library], and was a founder of the Long Island Historical Society [now the Brooklyn Historical Society]. In 1841, he helped found the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Kings County Democrat – what would would later become the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a paper Montrose describes in her piece as “the daily chronicler of all things Brooklyn for over a hundred years. Murphy was one of the first editors.”
Never to let dust settle under him, in 1842, at the age of 32, Henry C. Murphy became Mayor of Brooklyn. Among his accomplishments were the expansion and paving of Myrtle Avenue, the organizing of the vast systems of warehouses along the harbor, and a comprehensive effort in improving the lives of the city’s poor. He seemed to be so popular that before his term of mayor was up, he was elected to Congress, in 1843, one of that Session’s youngest members. He only lasted one term, but managed to secure the Naval Dry Dock for Wallabout Bay, paving the way for the Navy Yard’s prominence during the Civil War and beyond. Unfortunately for his legacy, he also voted against the national abolition of slavery, asserting that it was a private state matter, and couldn’t be legislated on a Federal level.
A private citizen again, Murphy was still interested in politics, and after a very successful stint as Kings County’s representative to the Convention for the Revision of the State Constitution, in Albany, he was re-elected to Congress in 1846. His term ended in 1849, and he returned again to Brooklyn. As a private citizen with great influence, he was able to get the city to buy the land for Fort Greene Park, then called Washington Park. He also had his hand in other civic projects. According to his biographer,Henry Reed Stiles, Murphy narrowly missed being nominated as his party’s candidate for President of the United States, at the Democratic Convention in 1852.
The elections that year made James Buchanan the 15th President, and in 1857, he appointed Murphy to be America’s ambassador to the Hague, the Netherlands. Perhaps not the most prestigious of foreign posts, but Murphy took it, and spent the next few years shoring up foreign good will. He had always been a scholar and a student of Brooklyn’s history, and his posting in Holland afforded him the opportunity to study the Dutch, their history and culture, and the Dutch founders of Brooklyn. He learned to read and write in Dutch, and translated many early documents and histories of Dutch New York history into English. He wrote a regular column for the Brooklyn Eagle, describing Dutch culture and his travels in Holland.
In 1861, Republican president Abraham Lincoln was elected, and Murphy’s term as ambassador was over. He returned to Brooklyn, already committed to the Union cause. As rumors of secession and war abounded, even before Lincoln’s election, Murphy had been one of the State’s most effective communicators to the rest of Europe, and was very much aware of what was going on. Upon returning, he helped fund one of Brooklyn’s regiments, took care of some messy financial shenanigans going on in his firm of Lott, Murphy & Vanderbilt, and found himself in the State Senate again.
It was at this point in his life that Henry C. Murphy had purchased and began to develop his country estate in beautiful Bay Ridge – which up until a few years earlier had been know as Yellow Hook. An outbreak of Yellow Fever during the previous years, as well as the subsequent development of country homes for New York’s elite during the 1850′s, led to the name change.
He built an impressive villa on the most scenic property in what was still the Kings County town of New Utrecht. It was positioned on a bluff of land above Shore Road, overlooking the Narrows.
His summer home was in the words of Montrose, “a respite from the city, and a far cry from his brownstone at 133 Remsen Street, in Brooklyn Heights.” However, it was in this ocean breeze-filled Bay Ridge home – instead of what must have been a rather stuffy townhouse downtown – that the State Senate bill authorizing the Brooklyn Bridge was composed, and in 1866, was signed.
Bay Ridge’s Senator Street is named in honor of Henry C. Murphy, whose legacy also has a connection to South Brooklyn’s modern-day subway service. Murphy was the president of the Brooklyn, Flatbush, and Coney Island Railroad, which today is the NYC Subway’s Brighton Line. He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery.