Found Staten Island Stories 3: Buffalo Bill's Wild West, Mariners' Harbor, 1886 and 1888
This is the third in a series of of posts highlighting some of the fascinating stories from the historical Staten Island newspapers now being digitized and uploaded to the web. Find out more about this project at www.nypl.org/sinewspapers.
William F. Cody's Buffalo Bill's Wild West was an international sensation across the U.S. and Europe. In 1886 and 1888, it landed on Staten Island. In 1886, the Wild West came to the Mariners' Harbor and 1 to 2 million from the New York Metropolitan area followed. That's about one half to ALL of the NYC metropolitan area population at the time. The modern equivalent would be about 10 to 20 million people. This is the story of those shows, how they changed Staten Island, and how they helped save the endangered buffalo from extinction.
Staten Island hosts Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show
The story starts with local entrepreneur Erastus Wiman (left). He was a partner in the Wall Street investment firm Dun and Wiman and head of the Staten Island ferry and railroad companies. One day in 1885, Wiman had a somewhat scruffy looking visitor arrive unannounced at his Staten Island office. It was John Burke, general manager of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Co. Burke introduced himself:
"I have come all the way from Omaha, Mr. Wiman, to see you, and I hope you will not leave town without letting me have a few words.''
Burke pulled out a newspaper clipping from the Omaha Bee featuring Wiman's vision for outdoor amusements in Staten Island. He had a grand vision of a Staten Island tourist attraction featuring a major league baseball steam, giant stage shows, restaurants and gardens—all using Wiman's ferry service and railroad.
"I have been sent on to discover what are the chances for an alliance with the new Rapid Transit movement on Staten Island" said Burke, " and I want to secure your influence and energy in promoting our show at some good point on Staten Island."
Wiman took Burke in a carriage out to Mariners' Harbor, then undeveloped woods, and the two agreed to build out facilities for the Wild West show using Wiman's expanding railroad and ferry services. According to Wiman, it was Cody aka Buffalo Bill who named the Mariners' Harbor location "Erastina."
The grounds at Erastina were Wiman's second major tourist attraction on Staten Island. At the St. George end of his railroad Wiman, built a baseball stadium for his American Association team, the New York Metropolitans (namesakes of today's N.Y. Mets), along with a complex of gardens, restaurants, and other entertainment. The map above shows the North Shore Railroad, aka "The Buffalo Bill Express," had not only reached Erastina but extended beyond it by 1889.
The "Buffalo Bill Express" ran four miles along Staten Island's North Shore, connecting Wiman's attractions at St. George and Erastina beginning in 1886. (Source: The collections of Historic Richmond Town.)
From the Archives
What follows are newspaper accounts of the show at Erastina written with the humor (and typical stereotyping) which one might expect when Staten Island's "Mild Easters" met Buffalo Bill's "Wild Westers." First, members of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Co. had to set up their amusement park. Then, Buffalo Bill's enjoyed a grand opening in Erastina.
Under the supervision of Col. Bowsenwein, the grounds of the Amusement Co. at Mariners' Harbor, which a short time ago were little more than a swampy marsh, covered with scrub and mosquitoes, have assumed a very respectable appearance. Trees have been felled where necessary, low places filled in, a perfect system of drainage completed, and the dreaded mosquito can no longer claim the ground as his birthplace. Water has been introduced; electric lights will soon be ready; two miles of fence have been built; two immense stands with a seating capacity of 10,000 are about completed; a restaurant building 40 x 100 feet is nearly finished; stable and other necessary buildings will be erected. The race-track will soon be in good condition and ready for the great "Wild West." The change that has been made is wonderful and the short time that has been consumed reflects great credit upon Col. Bowsenwein and his assistants.
The "Wild West" combination comprises over 200 horses, a large herd of wild cattle, 100 Indians (Sioux, Arrapahoes, and Comanches), 40 cow-boys, pony express-riders, scouts, men of the plain, and Mexican herders. Besides these, there is Buffalo Bill himself, a lot of noted Indian chiefs, among them being Dumont, the Canadian rebel, and several famous marksmen of both sexes. The show will arrive here on the 23d inst., and the grounds will be opened to the public on Monday, 28th.
Mariners' Harbor Richmond County Advance, Richmond County Advance, June 26, 1886, Page 2
For the first time in nearly 1,900 years Mariners' Harbor was on Wednesday night brilliantly illuminated by the electric lights of the Staten Island Amusement Company at Erastina. Another surprise was in store for the staid and quiet citizens of the quiet village. About 4 o'clock on Thursday morning the place was invaded by a band of wild Indians accompanied by the great cow-boys. Great alarm and excitement was manifested by the inhabitants until, after a thorough investigation it was ascertained that no cause for such alarm existed, as the savages were part of the great "Wild West" exhibition and who quietly were landing from the steamer Kill Van Kull, who without taking a single scalp or giving the dreaded war-whoop, betook themselves to the prepared quarters within the Amusement Grounds. Our reporter met one lady who said that she would not now dare to go out of doors after dark, and that she would procure extra bolts and locks for her house, for fear these "wild injuns" would tomahawk her. Her fears were quieted, however, and the storekeeper lost the sale of a lot of hardware."
Wild Westers at Erastina, Mariners' Harbor, Staten Island. William Levi "Buck" Taylor, "The King of the Cowboys," center. (Source: McCracken Research Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West)
About 20,000 persons attended the opening exhibition of the Buffalo Bill's Wild West Combination, on the new grounds at Erastina yesterday afternoon. The programme consisted of some of the most daring feats on record, and was carried out in such a manner as to elicit round after round of applause. The whole performance was so grand and exciting that it is impossible to describe it. The audience was one of the most respectable that has ever attended an exhibition in this county. The season begins on Monday, 28th.
After settling in at Staten Island, the Wild Westers made a quick trip to Manhattan to drum up excitement with a parade from 42nd Street to the Staten Island ferry:
War Paint on Fifth Avenue The New York Herald, June 29, 1886
The invaders had come up from their camp on Staten Island in unromantic ferryboats instead of birch canoes, and landing at Twenty-third street and proceeding to Forty-second street, swept down the length of Manhattan Island to the Battery, a lurid line of copper-colored complexions and long-haired ponies. It was the Wild West showing the mild East what glories there are in life pure and simple. Men held onto their scalps, ladies blushed because the Indians were painted clear down to their waists, the small boy yearned to follow the tomahawk and car drivers swore.
At the head rode "Buffalo Bill," and for the time he owned the town. At least, he looked so. Then came cowboys in woolen shirts and a general trimming of revolvers, Mexicans with broad brimmed sombreros and fringe down their trousers, and Indians carrying spears and looking very bloodthirsty. In the procession were buffalo, dogs and an Italian with a monkey and a hand organ, who got in there by mistake. Then there were canoes, the Deadwood mail coach, the pony express and other western historical bric-a-brac. The long procession passed by, floated away to its island home and the city was left unscalped and unburned.
Before long, Erastina was hosting two shows daily at 3 and 8PM. The stands held 20,000 people, and the company boasted it had "night made day by 100 electric lights." The regular Staten Island Ferry was not enough to handle the crowds. Additional steamers were put in service directly from Erastina: the John Sylvester and Thomas A. Morgan to Manhattan, the Florence to Brooklyn , the Sylvan Glen to Long Island City, the Thomas P. Way and Magenta to Newark, and the Pinto to Elizabethport.
Many Happy People The New York Herald, June 29, 1886
. . . train after train packed full of sweltering humanity [arrived at Erastina]. The stream poured in over the new platform between the clean, high fences, and pretty soon the two big stands were black . . . On three sides were rolling hills clothed in fresh greenness and walled with dark woods. In front was the shimmer of the sea. There are fifty acres in the grounds devoted to the exhibition arena and the camp. Everything is on a big scale. The arena is like a monster circus ring. Around it the long rows of seats rise high one above another. Gleaming in a grove at one side are the white tents of the Indians, painted over with fantastic designs.
The Wild Westers made regular excursions to see the sites, meet the locals, and even go to church:
Among the Churches Richmond County Advance, July 3, 1886, Page 2
On Sunday morning last, Sergeant [Gilbert] Bates, the great U. S. World Flag carrier, [who had carried the American flag on a walking tour throughout the South following the Civil War, and later England, to demonstrate that the people of the world welcomed the stars and stripes, despite their political differences] attended the morning service at the Mariners' Harbor Baptist Church, with a body of Indians from the Wild West Show. In the evening, Hon W. F. Cody, with some thirty-five braves, attended the same church. At the conclusion of the sermon, he [Cody] recited in fine style a beautiful poem, and the Indians sang in their native tongue: "Nearer my God to Thee." Buffalo Bill gave us a donation in the sum of $35 towards extinguishing church debt. This pious investment is expected to pay a dividend tomorrow afternoon and evening when the Indians will pass the hat at the services to be held by them in the park.
On special invitation, Hon. W. F. Cody with a number of his braves, squaws, vaqueros, and cow-boys on the steamboat Florence yesterday visited the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where they were shown the different works and machine shops and the any matters of interest which are there to be found. The party returned to the Wild West, Erastina, in the U. S. Cutter Nina, well pleased with the trip . . .
But it wasn't all daytrips and church visits. With the crowds came thieves and vagrants.
Pick-pockets are very numerous in the vicinity of the Wild West Show, and on the boats and cars. A number of our own county people have been relieved of their tickets and valuables. We learn that a prominent carriage manufacturer, of West New Brighton, is among the sufferers. Moral — "Leave your watch with your uncle."
And as the Wild Westers got settled, their legend grew.
The Trigger The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 04, 1886, Page 7
If the members of the various gun clubs of Brooklyn should visit Erastina, Staten Island, and see the remarkable exhibition of skill in shooting glass balls and clay pigeons, made by the two colored girls and the Texas cow boy of Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West” combination. Such shooting has never been seen in the field in the metropolis before. It throws into shade every effort of Brooklyn's crack club shots.
Mariners' Harbor Richmond County Advance, July 24, 1886, page 2
The advent of the Wild West combination at Mariners' Harbor have opened up that hitherto almost unknown section of our beautiful Island to the great public, the result of which is already, and will be in the future, an increased demand for real estate and building lots.
And before long, the schools were taking field trips to Erastina.
Eight car-loads of happy children from the public schools of West New Brighton and Castleton Corners were at the Wild West show on Thursday afternoon accompanied by School Commissioner Frean and the trustees and teachers of the schools. Yesterday the school children of Northfield, in large numbers, spent the afternoon viewing the exhibition, and were pleased and delighted beyond description. On their return the war whoop could be heard in every street and on every block on of the village of Port Richmond.
The Wild West Combination have concluded an arrangement with the management of Forepaugh's circus and will exhibit in Madison Square Garden during the Winter.
The Staten Island Amusement Company (limited) have increased their capital stock, from $100,000 to $200,000.
The crowds at the great show continue as large as ever. More people have visited the neighborhood of Mariners' Harbor within the past few weeks than have been there since the world began (probably).
At the close of the summer, the Wild West moved their performances to Madison Square Garden for the winter in November of 1886. It was at this time they were joined by "the most influential Native American of the twentieth century," the Oglala Lakota holy man, Black Elk.
Black Elk Speaks (1931)
I was surprised at the big houses and so many people, and there were bright lights at night, so that you could not see the stars, and some of these lights were made with the power of thunder. We stayed there and made many shows for many, many Wasichus all that winter. I liked the part of the show we made but not the part the Wasichus made.
At Mariners' Harbor, Cody advertised that he had "The Largest Herd of Buffalo on the Continent!" But all his buffalo died of respiratory ailments in the winter at the Garden and there were virtually no buffalo left in the country to replace them. He was eventually able to purchase two buffalo from the Philadelphia Zoo and 14 more from a man in Kansas before departing for England. His horses also had health issues and for that he turned to the Saunder's Manufacturing Company of Port Richmond.
After a year, the Wild Westers took their act on the road again ... to Europe.
Gone, But Not Forgotten. Richmond County Advance, April 2, 1887, Page 4
The last of the "Wild West" on Wednesday embarked on a barge at the Wild West Dock, Erastina, and were towed to New York, where they were put on board the steamer State of Nebraska, which sailed Thursday for Europe. On the night previous a grand pow - wow was held and a general good time was enjoyed in their peculiar way. Several of the attaches were so "sick" on the day of embarkation that it was necessary to carry them aboard the barge. They will probably recover when they get outside on the ocean. All of the Indians went by rail to St. George, excepting one named Ugly Face who was seen wandering around the burg after his friends had departed. Friends put him on the train, when with a "ugh-how" the last of the Melicans departed. We wish them bon voyage.
Aboard the State of Nebraska at New York, 1887 (Source: Wikipedia)
Black Elk Speaks (1931)
Black Elk described the departure of the Nebraska:
They put us all on a very big fire-boat, so big that when I first saw, I could hardly believe it; and when it sent forth a voice, I was frightened . . . We were all in despair now and many were feeling so sick they began to sing their death songs. When evening came, a big wind was roaring and the water thundered. We had things that were meant to be hung up while we slept in them. This I learned afterward. We did not know what to do with those, so we spread them out on the floor and lay down on them. The floor tipped in every direction. At first the Wasichus laughed at us; but very soon we could see that they were frightened too, because they were running around very much excited . . . Afterwhile the Wasichus came and gave us things to tie around us so that we could float. I did not put on the one they gave me. I did not want to float. Instead I dressed for death, putting on my best clothes that I wore in the show, and then I sang my death song. Others dressed for death too, and sang, because if it was the end of our lives and we could do nothing we wanted to die brave.
The weather cleared but several elk and bison died the next day. While this was a financial blow to the show, the Native Americans saw deeper consequences.
... the Wasichus threw them in the water. When I saw the poor bison thrown over, I felt like crying, because I thought right away they were throwing part of my people away.
The Staten Island Amusement Company doubled down in their attempt to fill the void of the departed Wild West with two giant new shows scheduled to run simultaneously.
"The Fall of Babylon" The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 24, 1887, Page 15
Under the direction of Erastus Wiman and John W. Hamilton, preparations are under way at St. George Staten lsland for the representation of the "Fall of Babylon" a great spectacular production. The scenery some of which is as high as a six story house is now in Cincinnati—the property of the Order of Cincinnatus—and five trains of specially constructed railroad cars will bring it to Staten Island. An immense stage will be erected on the grounds, and no less than 1,000 persons are to take part in the spectacle, clad in armor and handsome costumes. Dressing rooms for 700 performers will be built under the stage, each apartment being lighted by an incandescent electric lamp, and 170 arc lights, with 90 calcium lights, will be used in stage effects. Open air ballets will be seen; the entire chorus of the American Opera Company has been secured, and an agent of the company is in Europe engaging other talent. The audience, which is expected will number from 20,000 to 30,000 every pleasant night, will be 350 feet from the show, that distance being necessary to see it in its entirety. No afternoon performances of the "Fall of Babylon" are to be given. The show will begin every night at 8, terminating at 10 o'clock, and special boats will be run from New York, Brooklyn, Jersey City, Newark and other points. The expenses will be $20,000 per week. At Erastina, where the "Wild West" was shown last Summer, Forepaugh's circus and menagerie will be the attraction. The Staten Island Amusement Company is to spend $80,000 in improving the grounds and erecting seats. Nearly eleven acres of ground will be utilized and picturesque effects are looked for. The animals in the immense menagerie will be shown in the grove adjacent to the arena. A space of 500 feet square will be covered with the canvas, at an elevation of seventy feet, with no sides.
"Major league" baseball also continued at St. George before performances of the "Fall of Babylon." Forepaugh's show featured several veterans of Buffalo Bill's Wild West such as Captain Adam Bogardus and Buck Taylor. Adam Forepaugh, the chief competitor of P. T. Barnum, opened his circus at Erastina on June 28, 1887. The show included "Wild West" and "Custer Battle" acts that had run successfully at Madison Square Garden following the Wild West's departure from that venue. It was Forepaugh who originated the Custer Battle and Cody copied it later. Forepaugh only lasted a couple of weeks at Erastina. Imre Kiralfy's enormous production of the "Fall of Babylon" lasted at St. George (at least) through August. The Metropolitans folded at the end of the 1887 season and rights to the players were sold off to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Buffalo Bill is encircling the earth with his Wild West show. Everywhere the fever follows his performances. Wherever he goes high-heeled boots, lariats, tarantula juice and hair rise to a fictitious value. Boys leave the farm to follow the show away. Picnics lose their flavor and seem flat. Climbing a shag-bark tree to fasten a swing does not seem so daring a feat as it used to . . .
And so it is likely to continue while Mr. Bill is on his wild, whooping, shrieking and Coliseum storming career. After a while it will not be the British Isles alone that will contribute to our languishing frontier cemeteries, but, saturated with a wild desire to snort across the American plains and provide themselves with Indian Pocahontases, the youth of all lands and all climes will buy wide, white, soft hats, fur pantaloons, with lambrequins down the sides; the low, gruff-voiced American revolver, with the dry, hacking cough; the noisy and voluminous Mexican spur and the foundered mustang, with one white eye and the gift of appearing to go like a cyclone, while really making mighty poor time. Then they will invade our Western borders and there will not be an Indian apiece for them by next spring.
After their European tour concluded the Wild West cast returned to Erastina on May 20, 1888. Black Elk missed the boat back to Staten Island and remained in Europe touring with other Wild West shows until Cody returned to the continent in 1889. Cody re-opened his Erastina show on "Decoration Day," now Memorial Day, May 30, 1888.
OUR ARRIVAL IN NEW YORK HARBOR. Story of the Wild West and Camp-fire Chats by Buffalo Bill
The harbor has probably never known a more picturesque scene than was witnessed yesterday morning, when the Persian Monarch steamed up from Quarantine, with Buffalo Bill standing on the captain's bridge, his tall and striking figure clearly outlined and his long hair waving in the wind, with the gaily painted and blanketed Indians leaning over the ship's rail, with the flags of all nations fluttering from the masts and connecting cables, and the band playing "Yankee Doodle" with a vim and enthusiasm which faintly indicated the joy felt by everybody connected with the Wild West exhibition, including the musicians, over the sight of home. The stolid Indians had lost their stolidity, and the white men on board declared that from the time the rising sun had enabled the redskins to discover America, or that part of it known as Staten Island, unwanted bustle and excitement had reigned supreme.
Cut Meat, American Bear, Flat Iron, Tall Horse, Kills Plenty and scores more of chiefs, braves and squaws hugged the ship's side and watched every movement of the accompanying tugs until the great vessel was towed up alongside the long wharf at Tom[p]kinsville, and the huzzas of two thousand small boys and the noisy excitement of what seemed to be Staten Island's entire population. And it was a great day for Staten Island. So far as is known the Persian Monarch is the first great ocean steamer which has ever landed there, and this, taken in connection with the unusual nature of her passengers and her cargo, furnished abundant reason for the greatest possible commotion, excitement and disturbance whereof Mr. Wiman's small kingdom is capable.
All the teamsters for miles around had been engaged to carry the outfit of the exhibition and of the exhibitors across the island to Erastina, and the wharf was in consequence a confused commingling of express wagons, butcher carts, carpenter's wagons and other kinds of vehicles, with horses attached generally on their haunches, in response to the excited demands of vociferous drivers. If this scene needed any further animation it was provided by the small boys dodging imminent death, and scores of pretty girls in their Sunday best, scurrying away from out the reach of the horses' indiscriminate hoofs . . .
I cannot describe my joy upon stepping again on the shore of beloved America. Though I had received such honors while abroad as few persons have been favored with, and scored a triumph, both socially and professionally, that may well excite my pride, yet "there is no place like home," nor is there a flag like the old flag.
The Wild West stayed for six weeks before continuing on to Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and Richmond, Virginia where they closed out their year on October 22, 1888. At St. George, another colossal Kiralfy spectacular, "Nero or The Fall of Rome" kept the seats of the evening ferries occupied all summer long.
The Erastina fair grounds continued to host small church and club picnics for several years afterwards. In 1892, the Erastina grounds were subdivided into smaller lots and sold off:
David Nesheim, of the University of Nebraska, makes the argument that Buffalo Bill, despite being a Buffalo hunter by trade, is the person most responsible for saving the buffalo from extinction. His thrilling scenes of stampeding buffalo herds made a deep emotional impact on the millions of Americans who saw his show. This lead to a national conservation movement which restored them to the wild - long before such conservation movements became commonplace. The American Bison population had dropped from well over 30 million to just 1,000 by 1905. That year fourteen conservationists met in the Bronx Zoo's lion house and formed the American Bison Society which bred the American "mother herd," re-introducing them to the American West starting in 1907. The Wild West shows had laid the groundwork for this. Today buffalo number over 300,000 across the American West and are widely recognized as a symbol of America. The echoes of Erastina live on in their thundering hoofbeats. Staten Island is filled with these fascinating, but little known, places and stories: More to come.
Richmond County Advance real estate ad and Erastina Place, Mariners' Harbor today (Source: Google Street View).
The Richmond County Advance was digitized and uploaded to the web from the collections of Historic Richmond Town. Funding for the digitization of Staten Island newspapers was provided through The New York Public Library's Innovation Project, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Charles H. Revson Foundation.