James Gregory and the Dreamland Bell

By October 11, 2009blog
The 1885 Dreamland Bell as recovered by Gene Ritter in 2009

“The silver watch of the ringer and the silver tones of the bell still linger in the memories of thousands of American shipwrights”

– The Old Shipbuilders of New York, Harpers Magazine, July 1882

James Gregory, the fabricator of the recently recovered Dreamland Bell, ran a brass foundry at the corner of Cannon and Stanton Street in Manhattan, and is known to us principally because, in 1880, he cast the Mechanic’s Bell.

Marked simply “Mechanic’s Bell – Gregory – New York 1880”, it had a storied history. As fully described to me by Pat Prescott, the resource librarian at The Webb Institute, the bell was a triumph of The New York Journeymen’s Shipwright’s and Caulker’s Benevolent Society, rung by the workers of Manhattan’s 19th century shipyards to mark the 10-hour day they had won from owners accustomed to working them much longer. The bell was initially installed in 1831, recast and enlarged in 1834, and when it cracked in 1880, Gregory melted and recast it.

Mechanic's Bell in 1845
View of original placement of Mechanic’s Bell looking SE toward the East River, NYC, 1845

As the shipyards declined and left the city, it lost its purpose and was donated to the Webb’s Academy and Home for Shipbuilders in 1897. It remained in their custody until WWII, when to aide the war effort it was melted for scrap.

The Dreamland Bell, marked “James Gregory – New York – 1885” appears to have been a virtual twin to the Mechanic’s Bell. Five years younger, of approximately the same size, and in a similar four-sided framed mount, it stood at the end of the Coney Island’s New Iron Pier to announce the arrivals of steamships. It was in active duty until the 1911 Dreamland Fire. But where fire would consume its older sibling, for the Dreamland Bell it was a savior, burning the pier out from under it, allowing it to fall into the safety of the sea.

The 1885 Dreamland Bell as recovered by Gene Ritter in 2009
The 1885 Dreamland Bell as recovered by Gene Ritter in 2009

With its recovery, the fates of both bells were now known; but it was unclear what happened to Gregory himself.

We found tantalizing clues using Google Books: he was mentioned in an 1853 catalog; in 1861, he cast a part for the USS Monitor and was cataloged in Trow’s New York; in 1871, he was given an honorable mention for a gong and contributed $25 to the Chicago Relief & Aide Society for victims of the great fire; on Feb 5, 1889 his foundry was visited by the fire department.

But with nothing conclusive about his fate, I followed a hunch: I reached out to The Green-Wood Cemetery.

Green-Wood is a 478 acre National Historic Landmark in the heart of Brooklyn, a beautiful, active cemetery that was created in 1838 and is still serving as a cultural repository and final resting place for much of New York’s history.

Theresa LaBianca, Green-Wood’s Archivist, worked with me for many days to see if any of their James Gregorys was the right one. Addresses were compared, dates reviewed, grave sites checked, but still nothing conclusive.

Then Theresa’s fax arrived: “Eureka!” she proclaimed, and included a copy of a letter on James Gregory’s letterhead (“Brass Bronze and Composition Castings”), addressed to Green-Wood, dated Sept 25 1888, with instructions for his family plot.

James Gregory Letterhead James Gregory Letterhead

I soon stood in front of his tomb, a marble slab inscribed with text as simple and direct as his bells. He rests in Brooklyn, next to his wife, among the shipbuilders and Coney Islanders within Green-Woods gates, and about 5 miles from the Dreamland Bell. His firm appears to have carried on for several years past his death, run in part by his brother William, but this is a story for another day.

1890 James Gregory's Tomb at The Green-Wood Cemetery
James Gregory’s Tomb at The Green-Wood Cemetery

So here is Gregory removing the Dreamland Bell from its loam mold; and here, 124 years later, is diver Gene Ritter, wrestling the bell from the ocean sand in a similar act of revelation. With the help of the Coney Island History Project, it now travels Brooklyn, protected from oxidation (and perhaps fire) by a continuous sheet of water, representing layers of history extraordinarily rich and deep.

But history and time dissolve in the right-now joy of pulling the clapper and ringing the Dreamland Bell, hearing the peals that Gregory and almost three decades of Coney visitors would have, and being in the immediate presence of it’s silver tones.

My sincere thanks to Gene Ritter, of Cultural Resource Divers, and Tricia Vita, of the Coney Island History Project, for inviting me to join their adventure.

 

SE corner of Cannon and Stanton Street, NYC, 1938
Vicinity of James Gregory’ Shop, corner of Cannon and Stanton Street looking toward the East River, as it appeared in 1938.Everything visible in this image (and much more) was torn down to build Baruch Houses – just one of dozens of superblock projects executed by the NYCHA. The scale of condemnation, displacement and demolition employed in support of NYC’s mid-20th century housing projects is staggering. (Photo courtesy NYCHA Archives)

NW corner of Cannon and Stanton Street as it appeared in 1953
NW corner of Cannon and Stanton Street as it appeared in 1953 (Photo courtesy NYCHA Archives)

1879 Gregory Site Composite - David Grider
Composite of Google Earth imagery and 1879 Bromley Map (courtesy www.davidrumsey.com) indicating site of James Gregory’s shop and the original location of the Mechanics’ Bell. Note proximity to other machine shops and industrial uses, notably the Aetna Iron Works, suppliers of the engines for the USS Dunderberg as built by William H. Webb’s shipyards (a few blocks north at East 6th Street) in 1865. Thomas Edison bought Aetna in 1881 to form the Edison Machine Works and for eight years produced the world’s most advanced electrical power machinery before decamping to Schenectady in 1888. By 1893 Gregory’s shop had become a coat & clothing manufacturer; by 1915 through at least 1941 a movie theater; and, by 1959, condemned and razed by the NYCHA to build the Baruch Houses.)