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Workers Find Historic Wall Underground in Battery Park

Wed December 28, 2005 - Northeast Edition
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NEW YORK (AP) But for the building of a subway tunnel, the old wall of square-cut stones 10 ft. underground probably would never have been found. And but for its location — at historic Battery Park, on Manhattan’s southernmost tip — it would not have attracted much attention.

But location is said to be everything in New York City, which explains why officials were throwing around superlatives like “incredibly exciting” and “astounding” to describe the wall, a remnant of early harbor defenses. One even called it Gotham’s archaeological equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

“Just when you think you’ve discovered everything in this city, you come across something like this,” said Robert Tierney, chairman of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said at a news conference Dec. 8 that the site was “literally the birthplace of New York City.”

“This is where history was born,” he said, “and this is the most important archaeological discovery in New York City in many, many years.”

At least, Benepe added, since the finding a decade ago of the African Burial Ground, a revolutionary period graveyard of slaves and free blacks, a half-mile to the north.

During Manhattan’s early history, various ramparts in Battery Park were the island’s last line of defense against attack from the sea. As far as is known, none of its cannons ever saw action. The only recorded firing of a harbor gun in anger was a “good riddance” shot from Staten Island at departing British warships after the American Revolution.

So far what is known about the 46-ft.-long section of wall is that it once was part of the harbor fortifications that existed for nearly two centuries before the revolution.

What’s not yet known includes which part —whether an actual fort or a related gun battery, and who built it, the Dutch East India Co., which founded the colony of New Amsterdam in 1623, or the British, who renamed it New York in 1665.

The wall’s survival is more remarkable, Benepe said, considering that the 23-acre park has other tunnels, an underground highway underpass, air shafts and landfills that repeatedly altered and extended its original shoreline over 330 years.

Uncovered by subway diggers around Thanksgiving and only partly visible from the surface, the mortared blocks are set at a right angle, suggesting the corner of a large structure — perhaps a star-shaped fort, or its foundation, that shows on maps dated circa 1744.

While construction on the subway tunnel is at least delayed by the find, the wall and its attendant mysteries were referred to archaeologists.

Possible clues lie in some artifacts found at the site, the most interesting being a 1744 British halfpenny bearing the likeness of King George II and a silver or pewter medallion dated 1755 with a figure and the name “Admiral Buscowan.” (An archaeologist familiar with the site noted, however, that coins are not considered reliable guides to dating ancient sites unless their location rules out any doubt.)

Warrie Price, founder-president of the Battery Park Conservancy, a private group devoted to protecting the historic site, carried a map showing Battery Park as it was in 1772-74, the same era as the British coin.

She said she bought the map years ago, “knowing that our history was going to tell great stories. This is a thrilling moment.”

Conservancy Chairman Bill Rudin compared the find to the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating from the time of Christ, which were found hidden in caves in Israel several decades ago.

City officials said the discovery would not significantly affect the $400-million subway project, the extension of a tunnel connecting the rail system to the Staten Island ferry terminal. And they denied a published report that a construction backhoe had damaged the wall.

But Benepe said it was “of the greatest importance to assess what’s down there and get it out of the way of the construction.”

A tentative plan, he said, is to recover the entire 46-ft. section that stands in the way of the tunnel, bring it to the surface and locate it near the site, “where it can be seen, experienced and interpreted by the millions of visitors who come to the Battery every year.”

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