Rambles about Town: Queen Street and Neuse River
[From: The Daily Journal, October 22, 1882]
A few steps from the corner and about half way to Gen. Ransom’s line fence, on the lot of Mr. Stimson, was Gracy’s Pond. It took its name from an old negro woman who lived for many years on the site where is now the residence of Mr. E. Quidly. The first time the writer of this ever witnessed any one on skates was on this pond. It was Horace Latimer, a young merchant who came here from the North and lived with us a generation. The scene of fifty years ago is still bright in our eye and we shall never forget how swiftly and gracefully he could move on the ice, either forwards, backwards or in circles. To us, a little boy, his movements were as incomprehensible and marvelous as is that of the great comet thrown out from the Creator’s hand and now rushing through the depths of space. Thousands of barrels of rosin were run into the pond afterwards from the distilleries near it, when it would not command sufficient price to bear shipping to northern markets. It would not at this time be suspected the place was once covered with water. It was from its position always the first to freeze and after a trial by the skaters, if of sufficient strength to bear their weight, they would go to larger ponds. Old Gracy had a crazy son, Jack, that will not be forgotten by those who were children when he was living. He was chained in the corner of his mother’s small house by the ankle. Though the chain had length to allow him to move about the floor and look out on the river shore, through a hole cut in the side of the house, for that purpose. At certain times he was very violent and savage, then such lofty kicking never was seen in this locality, if elsewhere. Nelse Seymour, the champion high kicker of his day, would have been ashamed of his efforts if tested with Jack’s. He had long arms and long legs and with his fists too he would hammer the weatherboarding as with a sledge. Children, unaccustomed to him, he never had to tell but once, when his head was sticking out the side of the house, “clear out” then such time would be made over the old Newbern course as would do credit to a Weston or a Rowel. Occasionally he would get loose with all the precaution used to keep him confined, and once on the street, the alarm would rapidly spread and there would be as much commotion as if a lion were out and roaming at liberty. The last time out he made for a man he happened to meet in a sulky, for a ride, and they had a close race on the Pembroke road. This fortunately ended the unfortunate creature’s life. When run down and completely exhausted a heavy rain fell upon him from the effects of which he never recovered, and died soon thereafter.
Neither the girls nor the boys of Jack’s day will forget old Aunt Gracy’s “honey pod” or locust tree. It was large and generous, giving its fruit freely from frost to mid-winter, then when the last pods were shivering in the cold winds, children were watching to see who would catch the prize, when it fell.
“Declining age with many a sigh
We like to dwell on these early scenes in our life, but others may not, therefore we will pass on and leave them for the moment behind us with a solitary glance at the remains of “Biddle’s Pen,” where with some others, still around us, we learned to swim as soon as we could walk there and when just sufficiently old to recollect it. We must take a glance also at the place where the old colored fishermen kept their canoes, now filled in with saw dust, and is part of Stimson’s saw mill wharf. With pole, hook and line they generally caught their fish and a dozen bunches then in market would attract more attention than a thousand or more would at this time. Such variety too, as we see daily was not then to them known.
Maj. Harvey informed me that a cod fish had been caught as high up the river as Street’s ferry on the Neuse. The porgy, now a fish of commerce, was never seen or heard of by our old fishermen. Capt. William H. Hill was crabbing with his children, from his vessel, on the Trent, at Newbern, summer before last and dipped up a very peculiar fish floating like a leaf on the surface of the water. It was ascertained it could [illegible], inflate itself with air and expel it, collapse and sink when disturbed. The fish also had long hair or beard similar to a shrimp about its mouth. It was given to me alive and survived some hours, subsequently, in a basin of water. I sent it to Raleigh dead, where a drawing was made of it by Mr. William Primrose and forwarded to Washington City to the Smithsonian Institution. There it was found to be a new variety and class and will no doubt appear in due time in some of the works on the mysteries of the seal. All rare specimens of fish, taken from our waters or the sea at Beaufort, should be sent either to Washington or to Raleigh. With a very little effort on the part of the people of this State a valuable Museum could be opened in the latter place for their instruction and amusement when visiting the capitol.
One of these fishermen we should not omit to mention was the old slave African preacher, John Cook. He was captured on the African coast while crabbing near the shore when a boy by a slaver and came to this country in 1805. Then bought and brought to Newbern by a Capt. Cook, from whom he took his name. Subsequently he belonged to Asa Jones, and finally his liberty was purchased. He commenced preaching in about 1820 and was ever afterwards respected by both white and black for his piety and circumspect behavior. The number of slaves he joined together in matrimony could be counted by the hundred during the period of his ministry. There is a monument erected to his memory in Cedar Grove Cemetery by his friends, “white and colored, in token of their respect and christian affection.” He died in 1856 in the 65th year of his age. All this was done in the days of slavery, bear in mind. We will mention in passing another one of the fishermen, Mingo Brimage. He had a giant frame and was a giant in strength. Mingo was a race rider on the old Newbern course when a boy and was ever anxious to relate, in after life, his experience and give his views as to the best horses in his time. Of course there are no such racers in this day, and neither would there ever be again, in the old man’s opinion, as those that crossed the line first with him. He was finally ruled off the turf in consequence of his size. His great strength enabled him when the lunatic Jack would get on the streets to capture him when others feared to attempt it. Mingo was a slave and hired his own time from his owner for a long period of years. He died at an advanced age some years ago. The encroachments of time are perpetually taking off the actors in scenes worth recording in the history of our town, and also the witnesses of them. Hence if some of the acts of our fathers are not preserved through the evidence of colored people, they would be irretrievably lost.
After the death of old Gracy, who had long watched her crazy son with the patience and anxiety of a mother, it fell to his sister Betty Kyler to attend to him. Jack was still kept in his old quarters on the river shore, while Betty lived in a small house on Craven street, on the same lot and near the present residence of James W. Walker, Esq. Her house was sitting on piles and surrounded by water, being over part of the creek before so often referred to. The front door was entered from a plank bridge, extending to it from the street. The street there too had to be crossed on a foot way after every ordinary rain, unless wading was preferred. Betty was a servant of John R. Donnell, coming to him with her family, through the Spaights and Leeches. Thus she had in her possession many of the old relics of those influential and distinguished people and among them old dresses worn in the days of Tryon, by Mrs. Spaight when Miss Leech, and no doubt worn too in the society of Esther Wake. On the walls of Betty’s house hung a heavy French plate mirror which had also been the property of Miss Leech and was in her chamber on East Front street before her marriage to the elder Spaight. This fact was made known to the writer by a stroke of lightning. In the summer of 1843 the lightning out of a passing rain cloud struck the end of Betty’s house running down the wall and shivering her mirror in a hundred pieces; at the same time dazing the old woman, who ran out in the street crying with her hands filled with broken glass and giving the history of her loss. The articles she had would make an interesting collection. Betty Kyler, the old cake seller, will be remembered by our people. A five cent ginger cake then and a few sticks of old Mrs. Abby White’s molasses sugar candy was bigger in the eye of a boy than now would be a baker’s shop or a candy store; the scarcity of those luxuries caused them to be appreciated. Add to the cake a bottle of the cakeseller’s ginger beer. Only fare slops it was too, and the boy was filled with ecstatic joy. In expressible happiness—like in after life, when a lover first, he did feel,
“That though the heart would break with more
Look up the street towards St. Cyprian church, near the southeast corner of the cemetery. It is said to be the highest point of land in the town—about 21 feet above the tide level.
Walking up the Neuse a few hundred yards from Queen street we pass a lot on which was at one time situated a grist mill. We distinctly recollect, when a boy, of seeing a man who had been stricken down in it by lightning, and those around him rubbing him with rum obtained from a rum distillery near to that place. It was Mr. Benjamin Hanks, a brother of Ellsworth Hanks, Esq., of Newbern. He had then but one arm. The lightning ran down his leg and bursted out the toe of his boot. He recovered entirely from the shock and moved to Washington, N.C., where for a number of years he was heavily engaged in saw mills. His father had a factory just north of the mill in which was carried on various kind of work; and only a few years before there was a rope walk west of it, and near where is now the Railroad machine shops. In it cordage was made for our vessels and for other purposes. Thus it is seen we had between Mr. Dunn’s truck farm and Queen street turpentine and rum distilleries, grist mills, a factory and a rope walk, and can be added ast the same time shipbuilding near the railroad wharf. There was much more money then involved in the business there than is at present.
We will extend the walk along the banks of the Neuse to the “swimming trees.” The stumps are only there—the trees are gone. War—ruthless war—swept these old landmarks, too, away. There is now but one tree left on the river side, and that is a scarred, blasted and leafless cypress. Previous to the war for generations what a lovely shore it was, fringed with evergreens.
Imagine a long stately row of cypress trees towering above a snowy belt of sand, and back of them cedars, darker green, shading the grass reaching from the sand up the slope fifty or sixty feet, and back to a footpath skirting the enclosed fields, they checked off with rows of cedars, beyond oak groves and the river rolling on in from one mile and a half in width, and you have some idea of the Neuse shore as it was in the olden time. But we are happy to have it in our power to give something on the subject from a distinguished citizen of another State. Hear him:
Richmond, May 5th, 1875
You have awakened all my desire to visit Newbern again. Some of the most pleasant remembrances of my life are associated with that quaint, dreamy old town. The blue Neuse, the sandy white shore, the old-fashioned houses, the kind-hearted people, all dwell in my memory and make a beautiful romance, colored with the rosy light which the imagination of boyhood throws around the happy past.
My old friend, Tom Watson, wrote a little poem on Newbern while I lived there, in which he described the river as lingering fondly beside the town, which it was unwilling to leave, the last lines running thus:
“Regretful waves, well may you weep and sigh
I have ever cherished a warm affection for Mr. Slover, and I was greatly gratified to read your account of his serene and useful old age, though I cannot fancy him as old. It was very considerate and kind in you to send me his photograph, which I greatly prize. He wrote me a letter which touched my heart on receiving the photograph I sent him through you. How much I wish I could accept his invitation and yours and make you both a visit. But I am a commissioner to the General Assembly of our Southern church, which meets in St. Louis on the 20th of this month, and therefore cannot come during the month of May. I have promised to deliver an address at the Commencement of the Female Institute in Raleigh in June, but it will be too late in the season to visit Newbern, I suppose.
Will you not come to Richmond at the reception of Foley’s statue of Stonewall Jackson in November next. The Governor and Executive Committee have invited me to deliver the oration on the occasion. A great concourse is expected here.
The above letter was addressed to the writer of this, and it is proper to state here that at the time it was written no one connected with it ever expected it would be given to the public. But being intended as strictly private, it furnishes us with the unembellished views of the eminent writer, and is thus the more valuable. We are satisfied if Dr. Hoge were conscious of the motives which now prompt its publication; he would consent to it, therefore we have assumed that liberty. The oration he refers to at the reception of the statue of Stonewall Jackson was delivered, as you know, with all the grace, eloquence and ability expected from him, and if expectation were at a high pitch not one among the thousands within the reach of his voice was disappointed with his great effort. The subject was grand, the orator was splendid. One is immortal. United are they now by a golden link.
Dr. Hoge was here a student of his uncle, the Rev. Dr. Drury Lacy, then minister of the Presbyterian church, and many a time and oft did he ramble up and down this shore, not only with “Tom Watson,” but with others whose company was even preferable to that cherished and devoted friend. A few were afterwards grandmothers, and many are gone who would write with him tender words on the sand.
“So our world is made
If Dr. Hoge were to return to Newbern he would ask: “Where is the world we left behind us?” On this shore he would see nothing to awaken a recollection of what the place was when he left it, approaching half a century ago. Time has not touched the river except to slightly increase its width. The stumps of trees, then twenty feet away, are now in the water. The change of all else is complete. In vain would he look around him for the green sward and white sand; for some favorite seat under the wide spreading boughs of the cypress; for the lovely, smiling group with whom he was accustomed there to meet—all, all, would be gone. The merry laughter of his young associates, which would echo and re-echo over the distant Neuse, has long died away, hushed in age and death. They have been so continually cut down until but few remain for the Reaper. They that are with us would appear in the scene more aged than our fathers when he was here. Changed, changed, changed—all is changed—and he would again exclaim: “Where is the world we left behind us?” Yet those that still survive could prove to him that the hospitality of our fathers has descended to the children, and from them at least he would receive a warm and heartfelt welcome.
Under the “swimming trees” first and last have been, either walking or riding, men and women among the most famous and eminent in the country. They were on the old Neuse road, an extension of Neuse, now East Front street, and let to Core Point ferry. The ferry was directly opposite the present Federal Cemetery, where at one time was Blount’s steam mill, and where is now an old fort. It was established in 1722, when by an act of the Legislature a road was laid out “from Core Point opposite Bath town to Newbern town.” The ferry and many hundred acres of land around it on this side of the Neuse belonged for a number of years to John Clark and on the other side, not Petipher’s, to Sheriff Williams, heretofore alluded to as trustee of the Newbern Academy. Elijah Clark was the nephew of this John Clark. His father having died when himself and brothers, Michael and John, were youths, they were sent to this ferry and there lived with their Uncle for some time. The name of John has thus descended to Dr. John D. Clark of Newbern and a little boy of another branch of the family here also has it, it having passed through five generations to reach him. Dr. Clark, however, is an excellent representative of the family and personally much resembles some of the members that lived long before him.
“Lo! all grow old and die—but see again
It was shown a week or two ago that two of his grandfathers, Taylor and Clark, lived with their ages added together 174 years. He need not therefore be in a hurry reflecting life insurance and he may know more about the history of his ancestors than we do. It would gratify all of us to hear from him on the subject.
We expect to allude to the Neuse shore once again when we continue our walk to Core Point ferry and then down the old Palace Avenue to the remains of Tryon’s Palace on George Street. D.