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UPDATE: The Breaching of Macomb’s Dam(n) Bridge

One writing truth that I learned (relearned?) writing Naming Gotham: The Villains, Rogues, and Heroes Behind New York Place Names is that book publishers are serious about word limits. Unlike a law review article where the word limit is more of a suggestion, my publisher gave me a hard upper limit for words in the book. I ran out of space long before I ran out of words. So, I have taken to blogging because there are more stories I want to tell. This is one of them. You can read about the book project here, and the first installment of this saga here. 

Macombs_Dam _Harlem_River_1850When we last met, Robert Macomb had constructed his dam(n) bridge across the Harlem River . The New York legislature had granted him the right to build the dam so long as it did not impede navigation. Legislation authorizing the dam explicilty required Macomb to build and maintain a lock to ensure that the river remained navigable. 

Macomb ignored this injunction, much to the fury of the growing population of Westchester that was now cut off from New York harbor.  After Macomb’s dam was completed, boats seeking to traverse this portion of the river had to unload above the dam, haul the boat over the bridge, and then reload the boat. This was hard, dangerous work that made navigation well nigh impossible.

Enter Lewis Gouverneur Morris, scion of the wealthy Morris family that owned parts of Westchester and much of the Bronx, including the areas presently known as Port Morris and Mott Haven.  The family was extremely politically powerful. Lewis’s grandfather was Chief Judge of the New York Supreme Court, and his great-uncle Gouverneur Morris not only signed the Declaration of Independence, but also wrote the preamble to the Constitution. Portrait_of_Lewis_Gouverneur_Morris

Westchester landowners  drafted a Remonstrance to the State Legislature. This Remonstrance, signed by more than 100 people, averred that before the construction of Macomb’s dam the Harlem River was navigated by schooners, sloops and other vessels. Although the main thrust of this Remonstrance dealt with the High Bridge and the Croton aqueduct, it also documented and complained of the navigation problems caused by Macomb’s dam. They appointed Lewis G. Morris as their agent for addressing this problem.  Lewis brought the Remonstrance to Albany, but also took on a less orthodox role in solving the navigational challenges.

Characterizing Macomb’s dam as a public nuisance, these leading citizens of Westchester decided to take matters into their own hands. Declaring that “any person injured or incommoded by said nuisance [could] abate the same,” they deputized Lewis G. Morris and vested him with authority to remove enough of it to allow navigation. They not only agreed to pay the costs of this direct action, promised to bail out anyone who was arrested, but also advised “We recommend the employment of a strong force of men and scows, that the work may be promptly effected, and to the end of obviating opposition.” 

Instructions to Lewis G Morris

On August 31st 1838, Morris and his entourage boarded the Schooner Superior and sailed up to Macomb's dam. They demanded passage through the dam to deliver a load of bricks upstream.  The Bridge keeper (remember there was an illegal toll bridge atop the dam) stated the obvious—that he could not let them through because the bridge had no lock and thus there was no way for a schooner to pass.  

On September 8th, Morris and entourage again returned in a sailboat and demanded passage through Macomb’s dam. Again they were denied, there being no lock that could afford them passage.

Finally, on the evening of September 14th, Morris and his entourage returned once more, this time on Nonarpiel, a vessel hired to transport coal from New Jersey to Morris’s residence upriver from the dam. Morris again demanded passage through the dam.  Upon being denied passage, Morris and his men began “quietly and in a peaceable manner commence taking down part of said dam and bridge, and did take up sufficient thereof to let said vessel pass through.”

Under Morris’s direction, 63 men spent much of the next week dismantling Macomb’s dam, ultimately removing roughly three spans of the dam and demolishing one of the abutments. Through her trustee, Mary Pell Cornell Macomb sued (Robert had already died) alleging a trespass. After a trial on the merits, the judge instructed that “if the jury should find [the dam] was a public nuisance then the defendant had a right to abate it by his own act” and “that in doing so, the defendant had a right to remove so much of the dam as was necessary to make a safe and convenient passage for all vessels.”  The jury ruled for Morris on all counts. The appeals court not only affirmed but also awarded Morris roughly $400--the cost of dismantling the dam.

In 1854, the City of New York repossessed Macomb’s dam, and four years later, the New York legislature finally directed New York City and Westchester County to remove the dam and build a new toll-free bridge. To facilitate navigation, this bridge was built as a swing bridge. The bridge was landmarked in 1992. 

Check out Naming Gotham to learn more about the gossipy backstory behind New York City infrastructure.

Bonus: The multiple civil proceedings that emerged from this incident were among the earliest affirmations of the federally guaranteed freedom of navigation and an early definition of waters of the United States. These cases also framed a robust theory of public nuisance that might be of interest to environmental lawyers today.

Added Bonus for Property Professors: Robert and Mary Macomb were extremely litigious.  One of their many cases, Baker v. Lorillard, provides a remarkable tour of estates in land, including how to interpret ambiguous grants after the legislative elimination of fee tails, the consequences of partitioning estates encumbered by life estates, and the various ways vested remainders might be divested by executory interests.


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