Where is or was McGowan’s Pass?
McGowan’s Pass is in New York’s Central Park, in the approximate region of 104th to 107th Streets, just west of Fifth Avenue.
Is it a roadway? A path? Or what?
There is some debate about this. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, McGowan’s Pass was the name for the area between McGowan’s Hill (the present-day composting “mount”) and the swampy lowland to the north and west. The main highway ran through here: Kingsbridge Road or the Post Road, much of which now lies beneath Central Park’s East Drive. So far as this website is concerned, that’s what McGowan’s Pass is.
What are the other definitions?
At the time Central Park was laid out in 1850s, “McGowan’s Pass” meant a road in the deep wooded ravine that still runs northeast-southwest through the North Woods. It is even labeled that way on maps of the period. To confuse the issue still further, some modern books and websites identify the Pass as a narrow trail that led due north, through the present-day Harlem Meer. Both these alternatives are wrong.
How can you be so sure?
The area was pretty well documented during the American Revolution and War of 1812. British and Hessian soldiers of the 1770s and 1780s write of their time at “McGowan’s” (property), where they built camps and fortifications to defend the Pass. Published maps, diaries histories, and such minutiae as City Council minutes of the late 18th and early 19th centuries make it clear that McGowan’s Pass was the steep hill that descended northward from the McGowan house. This precipitous roadway did indeed lead down to a creek and marshy spot (site of present Harlem Meer), but this lowland marsh is never described as the Pass. As for that ravine path running northeast-southwest from this point: so far as any documents go, this was never called McGowan’s Pass during either the Revolution or the War of 1812.
Who was McGowan?
The McGowans, or McGowns they as sometimes appear, were a family of merchants, tavern-keepers, farmers, property developers, and city employees. The first McGowans were a pair of brothers from Ireland, Daniel and Andrew. In 1740 Daniel married a young widow (Catherine Benson Shourd, of Dutch/German/Danish extraction), whose family had been in New York for three generations. Daniel, Catherine, and their son Andrew owned the land that became known as McGowan’s Pass.
And they ran a tavern, did they not?
They did indeed; it was called the Black Horse Tavern and it came along with a farmhouse and ten acres of property along the Kingsbridge Road. Daniel bought it from Catherine’s brother-in-law, Jacob Dyckman, in March 1756.
It is not recorded whether Daniel enjoyed the tavern business. However, two or three years later he went away and was never heard from again.
He just disappeared?
His descendants liked to say he was a ship’s captain “lost at sea,” but we may regard this as highly dubious, inasmuch as Catherine’s first husband, Luke Sjoert (or Shourd), was also a captain lost at sea. (To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: To lose one husband to the briny deep may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.) Anyway, Catherine never married again after Daniel went off.
In the 1780s Catherine and son Andrew leased out their tavern to John Leggett (or Legget) and for this period it appears in maps and journals as “Leggets” [sic] or possibly “Leggett’s Half-Way Tavern.” This tavern’s site is about a hundred yards south of the McGowan’s homestead, near 102rd Street and East Drive, on the west side of present-day East Drive.
When did the tavern close?
The original one burned down in 1808 or 1809, when the McGowan family was still living across the road.
After the Civil War, other taverns or restaurants appeared nearby. From the 1860s to 1890s, there was a tavern called Mount St. Vincent’s Hotel, leased out to various managers by the Park Commission. In the 1890s it was renamed “McGown’s Pass Tavern.” It finally closed in 1915. Note that these establishments were on the site of the old McGowan house, not over the old Black Horse/Leggett’s spot.
What did these taverns look like?
The old Black Horse looked like a typical one-story frame cottage of the 17th and 18th centuries. The new Mount St. Vincent’s Hotel was a sprawling collection of brick-and-timber buildings inherited from a boarding school and convent; it looked very like the townhouses and public buildings that still exist in parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Finally it was rebuilt in the 1880s, with the “carpenter gothic” style that is still typical of Central Park.
Why did they rebuild it in the 1880s?
Because there was a huge fire the day after New Year’s 1881. It took nearly four years for the new Mount St. Vincent’s Hotel to reopen.
Why, pray tell, did it take so long?
Because there was lot of political opposition to it. Some people thought it was inappropriate for the Park Commission to be running an expensive saloon, particularly one patronized by the horsey set, Tammany Hall politicians, and various folks of unsavory background and morals. When it was reopened, the management took pains to emphasize the Hotel’s new wholesome, family-oriented character.
Go back to that convent and boarding school you mentioned. How did that get there?
By the 1840s the McGowan family no longer lived on the property; they sold about seven acres of it to a distant cousin named Thomas Odell. In 1846 a New York politician named Tighe Davy learned that some nuns from the Sisters of Charity were looking for property. Davy introduced the sisters to Mr. Odell, who happily sold the seven acres with the old McGowan house for $6000. The nuns moved into the old farmhouse, cleaned it up, hired workmen, added new buildings, and opened the Academy of Mount St. Vincent. The academy remained there until about 1857 when the Park Commission took over the school grounds (and the school and convent moved to Riverdale).
So then Central Park turned the old school buildings into a tavern?
Well, that was not the original intention. From 1857 to 1862 the Park Commission used the buildings as administrative and storage facilities. Frederick Law Olmsted and his family lived there for two or three years during the construction of Central Park. During the Civil War, the Park Commission handed the buildings over to the War Department as a military hospital.
By the end of the war, the northern part of the Park was developed, so the Park Commission decided to repurpose the buildings as one of the Park’s “houses of refreshment.” Beginning in 1866, they were leased out to a series of managers, who renamed the buildings “Stetson’s Hotel,” or later, “Radford & Ryan’s Hotel,” though the Park Commission and general public persisted in calling them “Mount St. Vincent’s Hotel.” By the late 1860s the Hotel contained a fine big restaurant, as well as a saloon and private rooms (widely rumored to be places of assignation).
Two other features are worth mentioning. The big chapel on the east side of the hill was used as a sculpture museum (ancestor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s sculpture wing). And there was a wide wooden staircase leading down to the fountains and greenhouses of the Conservatory Gardens.
And what became of the McGowans?
We lose track of them in the early 20th century. However: from the late 1700s till the early 1900s they mostly worked for the City government.
Andrew McGowan was a tax collector for the city in the 1790s and early 1800s. His son S. Benson McGowan (or McGown; he spelled it both ways) was a city appointee and assistant alderman in the 1840s and 1850s. He owned many lots between Fifth and Third Avenues, was a prominent Tammany Hall politician, and founded the Third Avenue Railway (now the Third Avenue bus line) in 1853. The value of his property appreciated considerably when Central Park was laid out and the Upper East Side was developed, and he died in 1882 a wealthy man. Benson’s nephew Henry P. McGown was a city judge; Henry P. McGown junior was for many years court clerk for the City.
Should it be McGowan or McGown?
The evidence of history, in maps, drawings, and official listings, is solidly on the the side of McGowan. Daniel’s grandsons S. Benson McGowan, Andrew McGowan, Jr., and Daniel McGowan all appear in city directories and newspapers as McGowan. Court cases mentioning the family and their property use that spelling as late as the 1890s.
However, there is also strong evidence that family member consistently used the “McGown” spelling among themselves. Publicly, they were listed as the McGowans, but they signed themselves McGown. (The two spellings are pronounced the same.) By the late 1800s, Judge Henry McGown’s family were insisting that “McGown” had always been the correct name. This may be why the Park Commission renamed the Mount St. Vincent’s refreshment house as McGown’s Pass Tavern (in 1891) rather than McGowan’s.
At Columbia University, there is a 1900 plaque commemorating the forts from the War of 1812, notably the Barrier Gate at McGowan’s Pass. As though in reply to this, in 1906 a plaque was put up at Fort Clinton in Central Park, commemorating “McGown’s Pass”! Around the same time, local historian Edward Hagaman Hall wrote McGown’s Pass and Vicinity, which is still one of the best popular references, with a useful bibliography. Hall’s book, readily available via GoogleBooks and other online sources, is arguably the main culprit for the “McGown” misspelling.
- McGown’s Pass Tavern, formerly Mount St. Vincent Hotel, a few years before it closed in 1915. Although the Park Commission officially used the spelling “McGown,” the New York Public Library wasn’t having any of that nonsense, and labeled the photo Central Park — McGowan’s Pass Tavern — East Drive! This picturesque site is now the Central Park Conservancy’s rubbish and compost dump.Thank you, CPC!