by Anne Motto, Curator of Collections
April 25, 2023
Top photo: Poster for earlier flight by Charles Durant in his hot air balloon.
NYC was a happening place in the summer of 1833, beginning with the June arrival of President Jackson and his entourage that sparked grand festivities and spectacles. From hot air balloons to fireworks, the excitement of the days and weeks following was witnessed by Augustus Crane and his two elder brothers. Through letters now preserved in MCHS archives, they reported all they saw in wonderful detail to their brother John Josiah, then on his way to Canton, China (today Guangzhou), thus providing a uniquely vivid snapshot of events nearly two centuries ago.
According to eldest Benjamin Franklin Crane’s June 13th letter, the fanfare that greeted the president was unrivaled by anything in memory. “I think the crowd of people on the Battery, in Broadway, and at the windows and house tops exceeded anything of the kind I ever saw not even excepting the arrival of LaFayette,” he reported, comparing it to the parade held nine years prior upon the marquis’s triumphant return to the US. As Crane completed his letter the following day, one Charles Durant was floating overhead in a hot air balloon to mark the occasion. Later that evening, a “grand gala” was planned at Niblo’s Garden, a pleasure garden on Broadway.
Niblo’s Garden was also at the center of that year’s Fourth of July celebrations, as second eldest Theodore Crane told his brother in a July 5th letter. Sadly, he noted, the city rang in the holiday with “less than usual éclat and parade” due to the possible return of Cholera, which had ravaged the city the year before. Nonetheless, the garden “showed off in their best in the evening” welcomed 6,000 revelers by his estimate for a concert and “magnificent” fireworks display. The letters would continue for the next two years, chronicling how the Cranes perceived their 19th-century world and many of the minutiae of life that would never otherwise be recorded. Despite the immense distance through time, the “Canton letters” allow the reader a street-level view of a very different New York City (population ~200,000), before most of the landmarks that define its skyline were even conceived. Thanks to John Josiah Crane’s trip to China, and his brothers’ diligent letters, we can experience 1833 New York like it was yesterday.
1832 Map of New York City. In 1833, Durant’s balloon took off from Castle Garden for his 6th flight. It is also where President Jackson landed on his arrival in the city before parading up Broadway. Both Crane brothers lived just east of his route.