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Historic Houses

Where “The Great Little Dickens” was feasted by James Gore King

From Historic Houses of New Jersey by W. Jay Mills, 1902
Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2002

During the summer of 1832, the cholera year, when scared New Yorkers were dosing themselves with Dr. De Kay’s famous prescription of port-wine and Dr. Rhinelander’s equally famous one of brandy as preventives, James Gore King, the noted New York banker, and seventeenth president of the Chamber of Commerce, removed his family to his then only partly completed country-seat on the woody crest of the Palisades at Weehawken.

The house, a severely plain two-storied structure, though large and roomy, was surrounded by one hundred and eighty acres of land lying between the Bull’s Ferry Road and the river, and the adjoining Stevens estate on the south. After several years spent in beautifying a naturally fine situation, the place became one of the most noted residences in America, and was always visited by distinguished foreigners when stopping in New York.

James Gore King, was the third son of Rufus King, the eminent statesman. He attended school in London and Paris, and was graduated from Harvard in 1810. In early life he married Sally Gracie, a New York belle, and daughter of the distinguished Archibald Gracie. His brother, Charles King, who became president of Columbia College, also married into the same family, uniting his fortunes with those of another daughter, Eliza Gracie. At one time in his career he virtually controlled the operations of Wall Street, and earned for himself the soubriquet of “The Almighty of Wall Street.”

Instead of improving his large area of land at a great expenditure at one time, Mr. King went about it judiciously, and continued adorning and enlarging his gardens almost up to the time of his death in 1851 His wise plan seems to have attracted considerable notice. In an old number of the Merchant’s Magazine and Commercial Review, Freeman Hunt wrote that Lord Ashburton, when visiting the United States, was greatly charmed with Highwood and the “sensible manner in which Mr. King had laid out his grounds.

Many New Yorkers whose names are rocks in its social history were frequenters of Mr. King’s New Jersey home in the first half of the last century. His most intimate friend for a long period of years was Daniel Webster, who could often be found at Highwood, when away from his New England home. Among the tinseled names associated with the mansion is that of Madame Brugiere, a forgotten queen of New York society, who was a welcome guest of the Kings. At her pretentious residence, No. 30 Broadway, on the Bowling Green, the first fancy dress ball was given in the United States. The invitations to this affair were printed on strongly scented paper, and, as a wit has said, “the town was in a flutter of perfume for a week.” Her lovely daughters, Eloise, Nathalie, and Juliet, were poetically called “the Graces of Broadway.” Among the most frequent guests could be mentioned the name of Nicholas Biddle, “The King of Philadelphia.” He often brought his family from the Quaker City to sojourn with his old friend.

In the spring of 1842, when Mr. and Mrs. Charles Dickens were the social lions of New York City, they several times crossed the river to be entertained at Highwood. It has been said that the old merchant prince, who was a great admirer of the English author, was one of the planners of the famous “Boz Ball,” which was given at that place of memories, the Park Theatre, on St. Valentine’s night of the same year. Everybody who was anybody in the “upper ten thousand” attended, and the tableaux vivants which appeared on the stage from time to time during the evening were fine enough to furnish food for conversation many months afterwards. Subscribers to the ball who were prevented from attending in some instances sold their tickets for sums ranging from twenty-five to fifty dollars.

Reading over a portion of a list of the fashionable world who were there, one truly realizes that the metropolis is a city of kaleidoscopic changes, for few of the oftenest-printed New York names of to-day appear.

An old blue-blooded dame, of ancient lineage, who used to reside in one of the grand old mansions facing St. John’s Park, wrote not many years ago in some reminiscences on old New York, that all the old families were dead, and their descendants crushed on the rocks of adversity. The many forgotten ones who shone at the “Boz Ball” proves her lament to have been far from whimsically pessimistic. The Schuylers, Aymars, Colts, Leadbeaters, Randolphs, Lydigs, Lords, Hamiltons, Hunters, Bancrofis, and Ericssons were among the aristocratic families who resided on St. John’s Park. They all possessed keys to its gates, from which the public were rigorously excluded. During the first year of its existence it was cultivated and tended by the Black servants of several prominent families of Trinity Parish.

Although Dickens wrote that the Americans were by nature “frank, brave, cordial, hospitable, and affectionate,” and he had many proofs of all these qualities while in their midst, his mind was not above petty ridicule. Time has killed the sting of his famous description of an American reception, given to the world in “Martin Chuzzlewit,” and in it we can see today only a very mirthful picture of the “Boz Ball,” and the entertainments arranged for him which succeeded it.

Many of the celebrities who visited our country in the early days of the nineteenth century have been criticized for their lack of good breeding. Frances Anne Kemble, better known as Fanny Kemble, was received at all the best houses in New York City during her triumphant engagement at the Park Theatre in 1832. Three years after that date the publication of her Journal created a veritable sensation when her former friends learned her true opinion of them and read her strictures on their dress, habits, and manners.

Another woman not as noted, but guilty of greater vituperation, was the garrulous Mrs. Trollope. In her “Domestic Life of the Americans,” written from observations in the newly-settled western country, she characterized America with a caustic goose-quill.

Philip Hone, the distinguished New York City mayor, whose diary is as well known to all true Knickerbockers as that of the celebrated Pepys, gives an interesting glimpse of Highwood in an account of a farewell breakfast given there to Mr. and Mrs. Dickens on June 8, 1842, before their departure for England. He says:

We had a breakfast worthy of the entertainers and the entertained; and such strawberries and cream! . . . The house and the grounds and the view and the libraries and the conservatories were all more beautiful than I have ever seen them.

On the King estate was a wild ravine where a stream known by the name “Awiehawken” dashed over a part of the famous duel ground, which has been called the most interesting spot in the county of Hudson.” There handsome young Philip Hamilton in the dawn of his manhood fell by the hand of George Eacker three years before his father met a like fate from Aaron Burr. His second on that occasion was his cousin Philip Church, who had recently returned from England with his father, where he had been studying at Eton. These two grandsons of General Philip Schuyler are said to have been strikingly alike in personal appearance, and their remarkable attachment, which led them to be seen constantly together, is one of the pleasantest memories in the annals of the society of the period. There, too, came many a hasty man of honor who fared better than the unfortunate Hamiltons, De Witt Clinton, Richard Riker, whom the wits in “The Croakers” accused of shooting his own toes, Commodore Perry, Captain Heath, and many others of a list too long to enumerate.
Captain Deas owned the property on which the duel ground was situated. It is said of him that he always kept some member of his household watching from the Deas homestead for the appearance of possible duelists, and when any were sighted he himself would rush to the duel ground, and, according to Mr. Winfield, in his “History of Hudson County,” by his suaviter in modo or fortiter in re, often healed wounded honor and established peace.

Above the duel ground, nestling among a fine grove of ancient oak-trees, was a little tavern, or way-house, called the “Boliver Inn,” which should go down in history with the spot it gazed upon. The passing farmer or market woman always stopped at its bar for a “boliver,” or large double schooner of cider, sold for the small sum of a penny, and many times in the early dawn when the rising sun was tinting the cliffs of Weehawken and gilding the oak-trees an aggrieved gentleman and his second would appear at the door and rouse a sleepy landlady to get them a breakfast.

This is not the famous inn, or Mountain Pavilion, as it was called, at the top of the Hackensack Road, where Daniel Webster sometimes boarded in the summer-time, “to live in heaven,” as he used to declare. That was quite a fashionable hostelry in its day, and greatly frequented by the wealthy residents of New York, who came there to enjoy the air and the view.

Much has been written about the glorious view, which led James Gore King and many other New Yorkers to purchase summer homes in Weehawken. Verses are to be found in many old papers and periodicals of the period. A wit in the New York Mirror of July 7, 1832, wrote the following squib on it, which is interesting enough to be preserved:

Of Paris and its tempting shows;
Let Irving, while his fancy glows,
Praise Spain, renowned-romantic
Let Cooper write, until it palls,
Of Venice, and her marble walls,
Her dungeons, bridges, and canal.,
Enough to make one frantic

“Let voyageurs Mac-Adamize,
With books, the Alps that climb the skies,
And ne’er forget, in any wise,
Geneva’s lake and city;
And poor old Rome-the proud, the great,
Fallen-fallen from her high estate,
No cockney sees, but he must prate
About her-what a pity!

“Of travellers there is no lack,
God knows-each one of them a hack,
Who ride to write, and then go back
And publish a long story
Chiefly about themselves; but each
Or in dispraise or praise, with breach
Of truth on either side, will preach
About some place’s glory.

“For me-who never saw the sun
His course o’er other regions run,
Than those whose franchise well was won
By blood of patriot martyrs-
Fair fertile France may smile in vain;
Nor will I seek thy ruins, Spain
Albion, thy freedom I disdain,
With all thy monarch’s charters.

“Better I love the river’s side,
Where Hudson’s sounding waters glide,
And with their full majestic tide
To the great sea keep flowing:
Weehawk, I loved thy frowning height,
Since first I saw, with fond delight,
The wave beneath thee rushing bright,
And the new Rome still growing.”

After Alexander Hamilton’s death a monument to his memory was erected on the King estate by the St. Andrews Society of the State of New York, which stood until a short while ago. In the past it was a spot of great interest to the morbidly sentimental and romantic. Young maidens and old maidens came over from pleasure excursions at Hoboken and the “Elysian Fields” to view it, and old Federalists who had known Hamilton often spent hours by its side in mournful contemplation. A quaint story is told of two old gentlemen, who are remembered as making frequent journeys there. One was an American and the other a Frenchman, and when not talking of Hamilton they always seemed to be wrangling over the respective merits of Washington and Napoleon. “Great man, Washington, Pierre,” one would say; and the other would always answer, “Yea, great Washington; but, ah! my Napoleon !“-and so year after year they fought a senile battle of long standing neither ever won. Highwood was destroyed by fire several years ago, and the beautiful estate of the distinguished King family would be only a memory but for the name of the “great little Dickens,” who was feasted there.

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