By Richard J. Turk Jr. *
Emerson Hill is a fastness of the Island which has remained almost unchanged for several decades. How many visitors to this relatively serene and remote region - indeed how many residents of it, for that matter - ever paused to wonder how it got its name?
Emerson Hill was first so called by the late Cornelius G. Kolff, in honer of one of its most distinguished former residents, Judge William Emerson, and perhaps a little, or even more, in honor of the Judge's more famous brother, the poet, essayist and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. They were of the eighth generation, in direct line of descent, of a family of literary men.
Their grandfather, William Emerson, was minister of the church in Concord, Massachusetts, and the famed battle at "the rude bridge," the first of the American Revolution, was fought close by the manse which he was then occupying.
Their father, Reverend William Emerson, was minister of the First Church, in Boston. Appleton's Cyclo-pedia of American Biography (1888) describes him somewhat enigmatically, indeed almost paradoxically, as "a successful but not popular preacher." In any case he was successful enough that several of his creations were published, including such intriguing subjects as "Fourth of July Oration at Faneuil Hall, 1802," “History of First Church in Boston" and” Funeral Sermons." He also served from 1805 to 1811 as editor of the "Monthly Anthology," credited with being the forerunner of the "North American Review."
Of the mother of Judge William Emerson and his brother Ralph (and three other sons) we are told only that she was a woman "of great patience and fortitude, of the serenest trust in God, of a discerning spirit, and the most courteous bearing" (Appleton, supra). Truly admirable qualities, but, from what we read, ones which must have been almost a necessity for any New England wife and mother of her time.
By some time in 1830's our William Emerson had become known in Massachusetts as a lawyer of considerable ability. Perhaps seeing wider fields for the exercise of his talents, he elected to leave Concord, until then his only home, and come to New York City to practice. During some leisure period he and a friend came to Staten Island, for an outing. William immediately fell in love with the place, and decided to make it his permanent home.
He very soon returned for a second visit. This time he brought his family with him, and they all stayed for a time at a small hotel on Richmond Road, at Dutch Farms (Concord). In 1837 he bought some property on what is now Douglas Road, Emerson Hill, not far from Richmond Road. On this property there was an old-fashioned cottage, the building which Ralph Waldo later christened "+The Snuggery." Even then it was quite old, having been built long before the Revolution. Its shingle sides were vine-covered. There were shade and fruit trees on the lawn. A walk leading from Richmond Road to the house was sheltered overhead by an arbor of grapes (Concord grapes naturally).
The cottage had been occupied by British officers during the Revolution. The noted Loyalist spy, Ann Crocheron, had used it often, and Major Andre, whom there is reason to believe she had hoped to marry, had met her there frequently. In the locality it was said that the Howes and their generals had been entertained there.
William Emerson was not disappointed in his decision. He devoted some time and money to sprucing up and improving his new home and its surroundings. Brother Ralph was one of the first to visit there, and was assigned a little front room which overlooked the highway and extensive grain fields which lay beyond. Clearly he found it a second home much to his liking, for subsequently he spent a number of summers there. It was there that he wrote a number of pomes, and completed a series of lectures on "Representative Men" which he was later to deliver abroad as well as in this country, on various occasions and with some éclat.
The two brothers were extraordinarily devoted to each other. Both loved literature, words and creative literary work, as was natural in view of their heritage. Each admired the talents which the other displayed in his own particular field.
Another distinguished guest at the Snuggery was Henry David Thoreau. At that time public schools on the Island were poor indeed, and parents did not send their children to them if there was any acceptable alternative. This offered no problem to William Emerson, who had in his own home one of the largest private libraries in the country, and it was there that his children received their education. Thoreau was their teacher for a time, and we may be sure that he was a valued and delightful companion to the adults of the household as well.
Letters written by Thoreau, while here, to members of his family and to the Ralph Waldo Emersons show that he covered the Island pretty well, on foot. A fascinating story of the place as it then was could be spun from these letters alone, but for the present let this quotation from a July, 1843 letter suffices:
"I have pretty much explored this Island, inland and along the shore... I have visited telegraph stations (the Narrows), Sailors' Snug Harbor, Seamen's Retreats, Old Elm Trees, where the Hugenots landed; Britton's Mills, and all the villages of the Island. Last Sunday I walked over to the Lake Island Farm, eight or nine miles from here, where Moses Pritchard lived, and found the present occupant, one Mr. Davenport, formerly from Massachusetts, with three or four men to help him, raising sweet potatoes and tomatoes by the acre. It seems a cool a pleasant retreat, but a hungry soil. As I was coming away, I took my toll out of the soil in the shape of arrow heads, which may after all be the surest crop, certainly not affected by the drought."
Another letter of Thoreau's dated June 8, 1843, discloses that to the north of the Snuggery, between it and Clove Road, lived Peter Wandell, a Mr. Mell, and a Mr. Disosway; and to the south, John Britton, one Van Pelt, and a Captain Smith. Incidentally, at some time prior to William Emerson's advent the Snuggery had been known as the Wandal House.
William and Ralph Emerson and Thoreau were the ones who gave the name "Concord" to the locality which is still so called and which before their advent had been known as Dutch Farms. William Emerson in particular was most optimistic about its future, and envisioned it as being some day the country seat.
There may still be seen on the slope on the northeast corner of Emerson Hill, not far above Clove Road, a few well weathered tombstones, standing at a crazy tilt but still struggling to maintain their dignity. In the days of the Emerson’s a little Baptist Church stood there, and the Emersons attended its services. In fact another Emerson brother lay in that burying ground for a time, but eventually his remains were removed to the family plot in Massachusetts. The church building was demolished a long time ago.
William Emerson became County Judge of Richmond County in 1841, succeeding the renowned Henry B. Metcalfe, who at the time had served for only one year but later served for nearly thirty years. Judge Emerson remained on the bench until 1844, when he was succeeded by Albert T. Ward.
Few "off-Islanders," indeed, had come to Staten Island to live, prior to the time when William Emerson chose to make it his home. The fact that a member of so well-known and eminent a family chose to buy and settle down here attracted the attention and approval of the New York metropolitan papers, and caused some to-do among the rather plain folk of the Island. But they soon learned that he was no snob. Whether of high or of low estate, all were welcome at his home. Genial, courteous, sociable and good-hearted, he was generally liked and respected.
When yellow fever struck many homes and numerous deaths occurred daily, Judge Emerson was urged to take his family and leave the Island. Instead, at considerable inconvenience to himself and his household, he threw open the doors of the Snuggery to members of the families of his afflicted neighbors. Fortunately no one died at the Snuggery.
Tragically, the Snuggery was burned down in an autumn afternoon fire in 1855, and it seems probable that Staten Island was never quite the same to the Emersons after that. Many books and valuable manuscripts of both William and Ralph were destroyed. Because of their great affection and admiration for each other, their books and papers (including much valuable material handed down from a long line of literary ancestors) were intermingled at the Snuggery to a great extent. Also lost were valuable paintings and bric-a-brac, including a highly prized portrait of Ralph which William had intended to give to the State of Massachusetts, to be hung in the State House at Boston.
At some time after the fire Judge Emerson did build a handsome new residence in Emerson Hill, not far from the site of the Snuggery. He called the roadway which led up to it from Richmond Road the "Douglass Road" in honor of his wife. The road and the name endure to this day, but the road now extends in a tortuous course to the top of the hill and winds equally sinuously around the summit, and the name has become slightly corrupted by the dropping of the final "s".
Judge Emerson and his family occupied the new house for only a few years, after which they left Staten Island permanently and went back to Massachusetts. The new house later became known as the Unger estate. As for the Snuggery, as long as a half-century or more age, there was absolutely nothing remaining to show that it had ever existed.