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P160, The American Magazine 1907--Wetter New York.jpg


WETTER NEW YORK

A TALE OF NEW YORK IN 1913

BY ELLIS PARKER BUTLER
AUTHOR OF "PIGS IS PIGS"

ILLUSTRATED WITH "PHOTOGRAPHS" BY A. B. PHELAN


IN June 20, 1913, I had just opened the door of my I little office in the Flatiron Building when the telephone bell rang. Only the week before, I had finished my college course and my father, the contractor, had asked me to hang around the office and answer the telephone for a few weeks while he made a hurried trip to California. He assured me that there was little likelihood of anything coming up that would require much attention during his absence, and that my principal duties would be to tell inquirers when he was expected back in New York, and to assure anyone that dropped in with a bill that he would settle it on his return.

"Hello," called a voice, when I had put the telephone receiver to my ear, "is this Phineas Briggs, the contractor?"

"No," I answered, and I was going on to tell the inquirer that father was out of town, but the voice cut in.

"Very well," it said. "I just wanted to know whether you were in town or not. Just stay in your office until I get there, will you? It is very important. This is John D. Markright speaking."

It was evident that the man had misunderstood me, but he had cut me off, and there was nothing for me to do now but await his arrival. I knew John D. Markright well by reputation. He was one of those who, in the enormous changes following the year 1907, had attained such tremendous wealth. In fact, he was not only the richest man in America, but it was computed that his wealth was greater than all the remaining wealth of the world, and that it was increasing at something like the rate of one hundred million dollars each day. It was not surprising that such a man should desire the services of a contractor like my father, but it was unusual that he should offer to come to our office, rather than issue an order to my father to go to him.

I had not long to wait. In less than half an hour the door opened and John D. Markright stepped inside. Often as I had seen his portrait in the newspapers, I should never have recognized the man before me as the great financier, had I not been expecting him. His long face was worn and sallow, as with the sadness of a thousand years. Ill health spoke from the wrinkles of his crafty face, and his immaculate grooming only served to emphasize his frailty of body. I could see that John D. Markright was a very sick man. But if I was astonished to see the embodiment of so much wealth a prey to the ills that attack common men, John D. Markright seemed still more astonished to see me. He had expected no doubt to see my father, and what he beheld was a youth with the effervescent spirits of a college lad still speaking from his eyes.

As soon as John D. Markright entered the room I began to explain the error he had made, but he cut me short again, in that tone, half imperious and half querulous, that I soon came to know so well, and as he went on I saw that he was still under the impression that I was the contractor. He expressed some surprise at my youthfulness, saying he had expected to find an older man, and then launched at once into the business he had in mind. As he whined along—now telling a bit of his plan, and now complaining of his health like a sick child—I began to see that he was offering me an opportunity to engage in one of the greatest contracting jobs the world had ever seen, and with all the rashness of youth I decided that I was the man to undertake it. My father, most conservative of men, would, I knew, not consider the idea for one moment, and here was the richest man in the world laying the opportunity at my feet, nay, begging me to take it. I was, it seemed, his last hope. Every other contractor to whom he had applied had refused to consider the idea as at all feasible and had looked upon it as the vagary of a senile dyspeptic. Senile dyspeptic or not, John D. Markright was still the richest man in the world, and the proposition was one that appealed to my boyish imagination.

"These doctors," he whined, "these doctors say I must get out of this climate, or die. They won't have it any other way—die or get out! Go to the Mediterranean, or die, they say. They all say it. And how can I leave New York? I can't! I can't!"


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THE FLATIRON BUILDING IN 1913
As you sail gently up Broadway or fish for tommy-cods off the Flatiron Building


He broke down and wept, and for shame and pity I hid my face. There was some thing so mean—so unmanly—in this old man clinging to the place where he had made his money and where he was still making it, and crying at the thought of leaving it, as a child cries when it must leave its silly toys at bedtime.

"I can't leave it!" he whimpered. "I mustn't leave New York! I would lose money if I did. And if I stay I will die, and the money will be gone—all gone!"

"Well, sir," I said, "I don't see what you are going to do about it."

"If you will help me," he said, wiping his eyes, "it can be arranged. The old man will fool them yet. I will stay in New York, and I will go to the Mediterranean. I will stay in New York and you will take New York to the Mediterranean."

As the immensity of the idea dawned on me I gasped, and well I might, for never had John D. Markright conceived such a plan before. Nothing but the threats of death and of pause in gain could have forced that abnormal shopkeeping mind to such heights of imagination.

I sat with my chin in my hand thinking for several minutes after he had ceased speaking, and he sat watching me with painful intensity. He seemed to be trying to read my thoughts as I thought them, and he waited with quivering lips my answer.

"It could be done," I said slowly. "Yes, it could be done, but the expense—have you considered the expense?"

"It will be awful," he answered with a groan. "Millions!"

"Billions!" I said calmly, and he answered with another groan.

"But your life—" I suggested.

"That's it!" he said sadly. "It must be done. And as soon as possible."

"There are preliminaries, too," I said. "Things not in my line of business. You can't run away with New York as you propose unless you own it. I will not be a party to any plan for stealing New York. I am an honest man, Mr. Markright, and I would not steal a pin. To you the theft of a bit of land like the Island of Manhattan may be but a little thing, but while my parents are but poor, they are honest, and it shall never be said that I brought their gray hairs to the grave by helping to run away with even a part of the State of New York."

"I'll attend to all that," he said nervously. "My agents will buy the whole business from the Battery to Spuyten Duyvil, and from the Hudson to the Harlem. I own a great deal of it now, and I will get the rest. I'll lose on it. It will tie up some ready money. But I have faith in New York real estate. I'll buy it all."

"Very well," I said severely. "See that you do. And another thing—I will not move the island an inch until you get permission from Congress and the State Assembly. I have an idea that this nation does not favor secession. I don't know how it would like the idea of having its leading city floated off to the Mediterranean, and tagged onto France or Morocco, or wherever you want it. I want to do the fair thing by the nation in which I was born."

"I'll attend to all that, too," he said with a peculiar smile, which made me think that after all there might be something in a faint rumor that had reached my ears to the effect that John D. Markright had some influence with our governing bodies. "Don't worry about that, my boy! The gentlemen you mention will be glad if I do not make them pay the expenses of our little moving day."

We then settled roughly on the terms of the contract, and John D. Markright paid down a check for a few millions to bind the bargain. It was all I needed. With his name back of me I should be able to command untold credit. He left me a different man from the one that had come sniveling to my office a few minutes before. Already his step was firmer, and he bore himself more nobly. He had faith in Ethelbert Q. Briggs, and the faith was well placed.

You must not suppose that I had undertaken this tremendous job without thought. My football training at college had taught me to concentrate a great deal of thought into a very short time, and in the few moments I had spent thinking while Mr. Markright waited I had not only roughed out the plan, but had arranged most of the important details. The plan thus conceived was the one I used when the work was under way, and that was less than a week later. With the enormous funds at my disposal I was able to work rapidly and employ immense bodies of proletariats at different points simultaneously.


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LOOKING UP BROADWAY TO TIMES SQUARE
"If New York could not go to Venice I would make a Venice of New York, and I did it in one night!"


As New York was an island my task was greatly simplified, for I did not have to cut it loose from the mainland. The fact that it was merely a point of solid gneiss rock, part of the firmest portion of the earth's surface, would have daunted some less daring contractors, but to me it was a favorable condition. Chicago, which is built on loose soil and swamp land, I would never have attempted to float off. To build a raft under a dozen square miles of swampy, crumbly land such as Chicago is built on would be too big a job for even me. I may say that I would be the last man in the world to try to float Chicago to balmy southern climes. But all that was necessary in regard to New York was to separate a thin slice of the upper part of the rock, and I then had the whole city, as I may say, on a platter.

Slicing off this thin layer was not such a difficult matter. Never in my life did I so appreciate the vast system of subways (or underground railways) as when I took this contract for removing New York. In the few years just following 1907 the city had been crisscrossed by new subways, running under nearly all the streets and avenues. These were, as you are aware, cylindrical tubes bored through the solid rock of the town, some ten or more feet below the street surfaces, and into these, as soon as John D. Markright had completed the purchase of the city, I had my laborers pack tightly sawdust, cotton, rags, sponges and any other materials that were of that nature. I had these rammed in and tamped home as tightly as possible, and then, at an appointed moment, I had great streams of water run into the subways. The various stations made handy orifices into which lo run the water, and as soon as the sawdust, cotton, dried-apples, rags, etc., felt the vivifying floods they began to swell gently and simultaneously, Just as the wooden plugs that the marble-cutter drives into the holes he has drilled into the piece of marble he wishes to split, swell under similar circumstances.

So gentle was the swelling process, and so evenly did the cleavage occur, that pedestrians on the streets did not notice the slight jar that told that New York had been separated from her rocky base. I had succeeded, as I had hoped, in slicing off the top of the rock, and I had New York on an immense plate of rock, to do with as I chose.

UPPER BROADWAY

"Where there was danger there is now safety, and where there was noise there is now peace"

The rest was very easy. With hydraulic jacks I raised the whole city sufficiently to insert an innumerable number of steel rollers under the rocky plate, while off the Battery, which was then the lower end of the city, I gathered an immense fleet of canal boats, tied side by side and decked over with a great wooden platform, like a floor. At a word from me the hydraulic jacks were removed and the city rolled slowly and gently onto the awaiting canal boat fleet.

When John D. Markright awoke the next morning I was awaiting him in his reception room in his mansion on Fifth Avenue. The transfer of the city to the floats had been done during the night, so as not to alarm the inhabitants needlessly, and even John D. Markright—poor sleeper as he was—had not been awakened. Of course there had been some little damage. The East and Hudson River tunnels had been pulled out by the roots, and the Brooklyn and other bridges had been broken like strands of rotten thread, and already—early as it was—we could hear the howls and imprecations of the commuters on the Long Island and Jersey shores, who had bought homes in those sections on the guarantee that they were but thirty minutes from Broadway, and who now found the distance doubled. I smiled as I thought what their rage would be when they found, a little later, their dear old Broadway located south by south-east of Italy—a distance so great that the hardiest commuter would feel appalled at the idea of making the journey twice daily. When the city reached its ultimate destination, however, I found the commuters less ill-disposed than I had imagined they would be. The commuter is so accustomed to putting up with all sorts of things that he is pretty well hardened.

"Well, Mr. Markright," I said cheerfully, as soon as I had shaken hands with the old gentleman, "how do you feel about taking a sea voyage to-day?" and then I had to explain that the city was afloat, for he could not believe it, so well had I managed matters. Luckily he, nor any other man, has ever had any cause to doubt the truth of my words when once I have spoken, and a smile of pleasure lighted up his wrinkled face.

"Good!" he exclaimed. "Let us get under way at once. I have——" he added, with something like a blush,—"I have bought a yachting cap. I thought it would be appropriate. Don't you think it would be appropriate?"

I could hardly repress a smile. A yachting cap on such a voyage as this could hardly be called appropriate. From the window where we sat we could look across Fifth Avenue into the vast expanse of Central Park, and beyond that, on the other side of the city, we could see the tall buildings. New York, although afloat, was still New York. Automobiles were whirring up and down the Avenue, and I knew that in the down-town districts the heavy trucks, and the street cars, and the elevated trains were moving the same as usual. In Wall Street the brokers and bankers were even then gathering as usual for their day of business, and, in fact, the whole life of the city was going on the same as usual. Unless Mr. Markright chose to sit on the edge of the city and let his feet hang over, I could not see how he could obtain the sensations of a yachtsman from the voyage the city was to make. Mr. Markright saw that I did not just approve of the yachting cap and he fell silent. But I had a bit of news that I thought would cheer him up.

"Mr. Markright," I said, "you may remember that when we discussed the purchase of the city you said you were willing to buy it, for you thought that it might be a good investment, even at the inflated prices you would have to pay. I am glad to be able to be the first man to call your attention to a money-making feature of which neither of us thought at the time. You have already made a splendid profit on the purchase, and you can take that profit whenever you choose."

I had heard that Mr. Markright had such prehensile ears that he could prick them up at the mention of any chance to make money, hut I had never seen him do this, as all my connection so far had been In the way of making him spend, which had a tendency to make the whole man limp and flaccid. Now, however, I really saw that aural phenomenon. At the word "profit" his ears seemed to quiver and then bent forward. The one farther from me really almost strained itself, so eager did it seem to get its full share of what I was about to say.

"Mr. Markright," I said, "you thought you were buying one New York, but you have bought two! In peeling off this city in which we are now sitting I left the old site of the city bare, and it lies to the north of us, just where it has always been, between the Hudson on one side, and the East River and the Harlem on the other. True, it is bare, and bleak, and rocky, but it is New York real estate none the less, and while we go sailing to the Mediterranean with one New York, the other remains at home and can be sold as you please."

If anything was needed to complete the happiness of (he old man, this was the thing, and we parted in the best of humors, I to attend to the last preliminaries of this vast moving-day, and he to see that one of his agents was left on the site of New York with authority to sell building sites, or ground leases.

I had computed that the progress of the city toward the Mediterranean would necessarily be very slow. To move such an immense float would be no easy matter, and I had no desire to have my rock plate crack. It was now the middle of August, but I hoped to have the city far enough south before cold weather to avoid any of the bad effects that the old climate of the city had been having on John D. Markright. To this effect I had engaged the entire fleet of river and harbor tug-boats that had added so much to the life of the waters about New York, and they were prepared to attach themselves to the enormous float whenever I should command them to do so, and I now gave the command. Never, I am sure, did such a team of tugs take in tow such a vessel. Great as was the weight of the float and its contents, the strength of the little tugs was more than sufficient to move it easily through the water, for the little tugs are boats of enormous power. As I stood on the point of the Battery with my arms folded, and gazed out over that teeming water where my thousand little tug-boats drew their towing-lines taut, a sense of exhilaration overcame me. When had a man ever undertaken such a contract? What other man would have dared to take it? I looked down at the prow—if I may so call it—of the island, to see what progress we were making through the water, and suddenly my exhilaration left me. Tugging and straining as my boats were, puffing and snorting as they were, the island was not moving an Inch! A wave of shame swept through my veins—and then I laughed! I had forgotten to order the cables that moored us to the State of New York thrown off! In a moment I was at a telephone and the order was given. The next moment I saw the little wavelets rippling about the point of the city, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I knew the good old town was on its way to sunnier climes. I turned away, and went up-town to my office. The voyage was begun, and the navigation of the city was in the hands of more experienced seamen than myself. I had a few business matters to attend to, and did not care to see the scenery. I had seen it before.

AN UPPER WEST SIDE STREET

"Business and pleasure occupy the people as usual!"

When I reached my office I stood for a few minutes looking out at the crowded junction of Fifth Avenue and Broadway, where they cross Twenty-third Street. Here were the same hurrying crowds that I had seen there of old. Below me I saw the same policeman guarding the pedestrians across the crowded streets, and the same sleepy cab horses drowsing in the sun along the edge of Madison Square. On the corner across the way a newsboy was crying the afternoon papers, and his voice came up to me, clear and shrill, above the rumble of the streets, and the clanging of the street cars. Thus, too, would the life of the city go on during all its long voyage, and even when it was safely moored at some coast where, perhaps, thousands of years ago, Ulysses touched in his little boat. And then, for the first time, I thought of my father, and turned to ring in a call for a telegraph boy. I turned from the box with a laugh. That was one of the things I had forgotten. There were no more telegraphic connections with the mainland. I saw that I should have arranged for wireless communication, but that, too, was one of the things I had forgotten.

Still, I could detach one of the tugs, and send it back with a message, and I turned to the telephone to do so, when a shock shook the whole building and threw me to the floor. I heard cries from the street, too, and the voices of drivers shouting at their fallen horses, and fear of a thousand different accidents passed rapidly through my mind. I turned to dash for the elevator, but before I had stepped into the hall my telephone bell rang furiously. I took down the receiver and held it to my ear.

It was one of the things I had forgotten. A man cannot be expected to remember everything, I hope. At any rate, John D. Markright had no cause to blame me, as he did. I did not put Staten Island where it happens to lie—some one else put it there. It was there long before I was born, for that matter, and the captains and pilots I had hired to attend to the navigation of the city should have thought of it. But they did not. They steamed their tugs straight for the Narrows, and steamed into them, and of course, when the city tried to follow through, it was too wide. It jammed in, and wedged in, and stuck fast there. I could have told those captains what would have happened, if they had asked me. But they didn't ask me. I blame them for that.

There was nothing to do about it. The town was stuck in the Narrows, and there, as you know, it has stuck ever since. There was much complaint the first few days, because the town was now in the mosquito belt, being attached to Long Island on one side and to Staten Island on the other, and John D. Markright was most rude to me, until I had seen his physicians and talked the matter over with them. They had been in almost constant attendance upon John D. Markright since the island of Manhattan had jammed in the Narrows, and they had suffered tortures from his nerves. He was rapidly becoming a nervous dyspeptic wreck, and this was aggravated by the noises of the city. The rumbling of cabs, the jangling of car bells, and the clinking of horse-shoes on the pavements were driving the old man frantic.

"We advised the Mediterranean," they said, "because there he would have quiet. This whole idea of moving New York was folly. It is not the climate he needs, it is the greater quiet. My own advice was that he should go to Venice; it was his idea that the Mediterranean was what he needed. There are no noisy streets in Venice——"

I did not wait to hear more. The next morning when John D. Markright awoke—if his feverish tossings on his bed could be called sleep—it was a new city that met his gaze. In such a cause I do not spare myself. I did not begrudge John D. Markright the labor of that night. If he slept but poorly, I did not sleep at all. From the Battery to Spuyten Duyvil my men were at work with chisel and pick-axe, with crow-bar and auger, removing the streets of New York! Have you ever, in the old days, seen the force of men removing the snow from the streets of the metropolis? It was thus I worked removing the streets themselves. First the main thoroughfares—Broadway, Fifth Avenue and the shopping streets—then the less important streets and avenues. Miles of asphalt my workmen rolled up as a man rolls a strip of carpet and dumped into the bay. Miles of cobblestones they punched through into the waters underneath the city. If New York could not go to Venice I would make a Venice of New York, and I did it in one night! One evening the whole population of New York was complaining of the crowded condition of the street cars—and the next morning there were no crowds on the cars; there were no cars; there were no streets; nothing but clean, noiseless canals where the streets and avenues had been.


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MADISON SQUARE
"The man now rides to his home on Fifth Avenue from his office in Wall Street, in his yacht"


I hope I did this all with no hope of political reward. I hope I only expected a few hundred millions of profit from it. I know this was so. But who can refuse the tokens of thankfulness forced upon him by a grateful populace? I did not wish to be made mayor of the city, but the city insisted. Its gratitude was overwhelming.

You who first see the city as it is now can hardly, I fear, understand the reason for this gratitude as you sail gently up Broadway or fish for tommy-cods off the Flatiron Building. The man who now rides to his home on Fifth Avenue from his office in Wall Street, in his yacht, and watches the ripples play across the surface of Fifty-ninth Street, knows, however, how much the town is improved. So does the woman who, in her little gasoline launch, visits the great stores on Sixth Avenue or Twenty-third Street, or who drives in the park in her white-winged catboat. Even the wash-woman, carrying home some one's week's laundry in her little canoe, has a word of thanks for me, while the visitors to the city who see its beauties from the decks of the excursion steamers are informed by the man with the megaphone that all this peace and beauty are due to my efforts.

For those who, in the old days, used the surface cars, there are the fleet passenger boats, and the users of the subway are provided with the nice warm submarine boats. Instead of the Fifth Avenue stages the conservatives are provided with a fleet of properly slow and worn-out lumber schooners. The honk of the automobile no longer frightens the wits out of the pedestrian. Where there was danger there is now safety, and where there was noise there is now peace. Our streets are always clean, and are not torn up day after day to permit the laying of pipes.

In summer the streets of the East Side are merry with the voices of the numerous children splashing about in life-preservers, while their mothers sit sewing in their skiffs, or bargain with the peddlers who steer their well-laden push-rafts from place to place, avoiding the vigilant eyes of the police tugs. In winter the skating is good. The life of the town goes on as before. Business and pleasure occupy the people as usual. Occasionally a man who has partaken of too much wine falls into Broadway and is drowned, and now and then a sloop is wrecked while rounding the windy corner from Broadway into Twenty-third Street, but no one is killed or maimed by the street cars, or rudely hustled into eternity by a fool in an automobile. Wetter New York is a nice place in which to live.

John D. Markright is now a well man, and he is profuse in his thanks to me. His renewed health is all due to the change I made in the city he bought, and of late years he has largely withdrawn from his financial exertions, as he now owns everything worth owning, and has a mortgage on the rest. But he still goes down-town every day, where he takes a moist, aquatic pleasure. Any nice day you may see him in the financial district, garbed in a diver's suit and guarded by one of the police tugs, playfully gathering up the money that other men have dropped in Wall Street.


WALL STREET

"Any nice day you may see him in the financial district, garbed in a diver's suit and guarded by one of the police tugs, playfully gathering up the money that other men have dropped in Wall Street"

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This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1937, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.