The building I have in mind isn’t here anymore. But that works because this entry is a bit of a bait-and-switch anyway. I just spent the last week in far northern New York state. What’s going on up there? Not much. It’s flat and pretty — they have a lot of trees. We had a book even, that was supposed to help us identify them all. But man, that shit is hard. I don’t know what this bark looks like. Would you call that reddish gray or grayish brown? I can’t tell. Let’s just name them all maples and be done with it.
I’m not sure what the main industries are up here, in Saint Lawrence County especially – rolling down from the Adirondacks to the Saint Lawrence River. There might not be too many of them. It keeps the population count low. That’s been the case since the area was first settled by Americans. The whole of Saint Lawrence County, as well as those surrounding it, were included in the massive real estate deal known as Macomb’s Purchase. Alexander Macomb bought 3.6 million acres from the state of New York in 1791, and set about selling the land in parcels. Every land deed in Saint Lawrence, Lewis, Jefferson, and Franklin County derived from that initial transaction. But the place was never popular, and financially the purchase was a failure for Macomb. It was such a failure it actually landed him in jail. The Panic of 1792 found Macomb $300,000 in debt to the state. He went to debtor’s prison for it, never to fully regain his fortune.
Before he went to jail he built a mansion at 39 Broadway, just above Morris Street, finishing it in 1788. In 1790 he leased it to President George Washington to serve as the presidential mansion. That was back when New York City was the capital of the country, before Washington D.C. was built. The rent on Macomb’s mansion was $2,500 a year, a huge sum at the time. At least one Boston newspaper bemoaned the lavish lifestyle of Washington as being anathema to republican virtues. They probably didn’t like the fact that he was renting his house from a man who’d gone to jail for over-speculation. I’m not sure if I just made up that word. But anyway, by the time the Panic of 1792 came around the national capital had been moved to Philadelphia, where it would remain until 1800. Macomb first made his money in the Revolutionary War, selling supplies to the British out of his base in Detroit. So he had that going against him too.
The site of his mansion in the city was supposedly on the spot of the first European habitation in Manhattan. In 1614, five years after Henry Hudson had explored the region, Captain Adriaen Block spent the winter with his crew, after his ship the Tyger accidentally burned down. He built a new boat, with the help of the Lenape Indians, and was the first European to explore the East River, Long Island Sound, and the Connecticut River. Block Island is named after him, and he may have been responsible for naming Rhode Island, after the red color of its soil.
The biggest landmark you’ll find named after Macomb is the Macomb Dam Bridge connecting Manhattan to the Bronx over the Harlem River. It takes its name from the dam Macomb built there in 1814, after he’d gotten out of jail. That was the same year his son (of the same name) became a national hero for defeating the British at the Battle of Plattsburgh, thereby ending their invasion of the northern U.S. from Canada. Plattsburgh is in Clinton County, bordering on the land that made up Macomb’s Purchase. The War of 1812 was about the last major historical event to come their way. Since then probably the biggest news in the North Country has been the slow return of the forests, as more and more farmlands revert back to nature. I believe it’s the same thing that would happen here, if everybody just gave up what they were doing and left. It might take a while longer, but eventually there would be more trees than you could classify. But wait a minute, why would you want to classify trees? It’s the summertime. Right now! My god, we’ve got to enjoy it. What’s the opposite of classifying trees? Yeah, go do that.
(Originally posted July 10th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)