photo by Barry Solow
Everyone who was in Mrs. Barrett’s 1969 sixth-grade class at P.S. 26 in the west Bronx knows the tale of the unfortunate Anthony Van Corlaer.
According to the legend, Van Corlaer was a trumpeter in the New Amsterdam militia commanded by Peter Stuyvesant. In 1642, with the settlement under threat from British forces, the governor dispatched Van Corlaer north, into the wilds of upper Manhattan and to the Hudson River valley beyond, to summon reinforcements from the Dutch settlements that dotted the shoreline. It was a black, stormy night when Van Corlaer reached the mouth of the creek that separated Manhattan Island from the area now known as the Bronx.
It was a spot known for its treacherous currents even in calm daytime conditions, and the conditions Van Corlaer faced were neither calm nor daytime. No ferryman would attempt the crossing, but the fate of New Amsterdam hung in the balance.
Mrs. Barrett left out the part, recounted in 19th-century histories, where Van Corlaer took a long swig from his ever-present bottle. She also did not reconcile Van Corlaer’s 1642 mission with the fact that Stuyvesant did not arrive to govern New Amsterdam and the rest of New Netherlands until 1647. But she told us how Van Corlaer resolved to swim the dangerous channel “in spite of the devil” to complete his mission.
He never made it across. Some accounts say he was pulled under by the swirling currents. Others contend he may have been attacked and eaten by a bull shark. (As a current Florida resident, well aware of the bull shark’s habit of biting first and identifying its prey later, I dismiss that version out of hand. Six-foot bull sharks often bite, but they don’t consume five- or six-foot-tall men. Also, bull sharks are not common in New York City waters.) In any case, Mrs. Barrett told us that Van Corlaer’s misfortune gave rise to the name by which the place is still known today: Spuyten Duyvil, “in spite of the devil.”
Years later, I sometimes recalled Van Corlaer’s misfortune as I rode the Metro-North Railroad’s Hudson Line train to my job in New York City. The trains follow the old New York Central tracks, running due south along the east bank of the Hudson River. Just above the northern tip of Manhattan, where one set of tracks (now used by Amtrak trains from Penn Station) crosses the Harlem River over an old “swing bridge” that rotates on a turntable, Metro-North’s trains abruptly swerve eastward, hugging the Harlem River shoreline into the Spuyten Duyvil station.
This is the place where a southbound train jumped the tracks early Sunday morning, killing four passengers and injuring scores more, nearly a dozen of them critically. The train plowed through riverbank brush and came to rest with its nose just shy of the water. Though it will likely be some time before the cause or causes of the wreck are conclusively established, a simple look at how far the train traveled from its tracks made it clear that it took the curve far too fast.
History tends to soften the sharp edges of fact. Mrs. Barrett’s leaving out Anthony Van Corlaer’s jug is an example. Stories and legends merge, like that of Van Corlaer (who seems to have been real) and the bull shark (which likely was not).
Even the origin of Spuyten Duyvil’s name seems murky. Later researchers blamed author Washington Irving for having invented the fanciful account of Van Corlaer’s crossing. They believed the place got its name simply from its geography, as the mouth of a creek or location of a spring, or from its swirling currents.
The river itself is not the same one that Van Corlaer tried to cross. In Dutch times, the inlet led to a swampy, scarcely navigable creek, just north of the Manhattan outcrop known as Marble Hill. In the late 19th century, a new shipping canal straightened the river’s course and made the channel wider and deeper, so boats could freely travel from the Hudson River down to the East River and thence to Queens, Brooklyn and Long Island Sound. Marble Hill temporarily became an island. In the early 20th century, the river’s original course was filled, making Marble Hill geographically part of the Bronx, even though it remains under the jurisdiction of the borough of Manhattan.
I know the Spuyten Duyvil curve very well. Many times, after my train rounded that bend, I saw crew teams from Columbia University practicing at just about the spot where I pictured Van Corlaer making his ill-fated swim. When nor’easters pushed high water into New York Harbor, I looked for signs of the currents that might have dragged a young man under the surface. I never noticed any.
But Spuyten Duyvil remains barely tamed after almost four centuries of settlement. It still demands a traveler’s attention and respect, and every now and again the devil beneath the narrow waters claims another set of victims.