1. Education
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

New York City in the 19th Century Became the Metropolis Known as Gotham


In the 19th Century New York City became America's largest city as well as a fascinating metropolis. Characters such as Washington Irving, Phineas T. Barnum, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John Jacob Astor made their names in New York City. And despite blights on the city, such as the Five Points slum or the notorious 1863 Draft Riots, the city grew and prospered.

Building the Erie Canal

The Erie Canal was not located in New York City, but as it connected the Hudson River with the Great Lakes, it made New York City the gateway to the interior of North America. After the canal's opening in 1825, New York City became the most important center for commerce on the continent, and New York became known as The Empire State.

Building the Brooklyn Bridge

At the time the Brooklyn Bridge was proposed, the idea seemed preposterous. The idea of spanning the East River seemed impossible, and the story of the bridge's construction was full of obstacles and tragedies.

The designer of the bridge, John Roebling, died due to an accident at the bridge site, and his son, Washington Roebling, nearly didn't survive to complete the project. But the Great East River Bridge, as it was known, was finally opened in 1883.

Washington Irving, America's First Great Writer

The writer Washington Irving was born in lower Manhattan in 1783 and would first achieve fame as the author of A History of New York, published in 1809. Irving's book was unusual, a combination of fantasy and fact that presented a glorified version of the city's early history.

Irving spent much of his adult life in Europe, but he is often associated with his native city. In fact, the nickname of "Gotham" for New York City originated with Washington Irving.

John Jacob Astor, America's First Millionaire

John Jacob Astor arrived in New York City from Europe determined to make it in business. And in the early 19th century Astor had become the richest man in America, dominating the fur trade and buying up huge tracts of New York real estate.

For a time Astor was known as "New York's landlord," and John Jacob Astor and his heirs would have great influence on the growing city's future direction.

Cornelius Vanderbilt, The Commodore

Cornelius Vanderbilt was born on Staten Island in 1794 and as a teenager began working on small boats ferrying passengers and produce across New York Harbor. His dedication to his work became legendary, and he gradually acquired a fleet of steamboats and became known as "The Commodore."

Vanderbilt eventually began acquiring railroads, and became the richest man in America. At the time of his death in 1877 his wealth was estimated to exceed $100 million.

Horace Greeley, Legendary Editor of the New York Tribune

One of the most influential New Yorkers, and Americans, of the 19th century was Horace Greeley, the brilliant and eccentric editor of the New York Tribune. Greeley's contributions to journalism are legendary, and his opinions held great influence among the nation's leaders as well as its common citizens. And he's remembered, of course, for the famous phrase, "Go west, young man, go west."

Archbishop John Hughes, Immigrant Priest Wielded Political Power

Archbishop John Hughes was an Irish immigrant who entered the priesthood, working his way through the seminary by working as a gardener. He eventually was assigned to New York City and became a powerhouse in city politics, as he was, for a time, the undisputed leader of the city's growing Irish population. Even President Lincoln asked his advice.

Archbishop Hughes was based at Old St. Patrick's, the city's original cathedral on Mott Street, and the grand St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue was his idea.

Tammany Hall, the Classic American Political Machine

Throughout most of the 1800s New York City was dominated by a political machine known as Tammany Hall. From humble roots as a social club, Tammany became immensely powerful and was the hotbed of legendary corruption. Even the mayors of the city took direction from the leaders of Tammany Hall, which included the notorious William Marcy "Boss" Tweed.

While the Tweed Ring was eventually prosecuted, and Boss Tweed died in prison, the organization known as Tammany Hall was actually responsible for building much of New York City.

Vintage Images of the New York Draft Riots

In July 1863, at the height of the Civil War, the conflict suddenly seemed to arrive on the streets of New York City. A new draft to conscript soldiers for the war outraged the lower classes of the city, who felt they were being unfairly targeted.

The vintage images of the New York Draft Riots show the shocking level of violence. When it was over, hundreds were dead. And President Lincoln, hearing reports in the White House, was said to shudder in his chair.

The Five Points, America's Roughest Neighborhood

The Five Points was a legendary slum in 19th century New York. It was known for gambling dens, violent saloons, and houses of prostitution.

The name The Five Points became synonymous with bad behavior. And when Charles Dickens made his first trip to America, New Yorkers took him to see the neighborhood. Even Dickens was shocked.

Vintage Images of Phineas T. Barnum and His Amazing Museum

In the mid-1800s no trip to New York City was complete without a visit to Barnum's Museum, a huge building housing an amazing collection of "curiosities." You might watch a performance by General Tom Thumb, or see exotic animals brought back from the ends of the earth.

Today Barnum is sometimes thought of as a con man, yet in his day, the citizens of New York loved him. You paid your quarter to enter Barnum's Museum and you got more entertainment than anyone ever thought possible.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.