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The Amiable Child of Riverside Drive

Of the three private graves in Manhattan, two are given over to war heroes. The first is Grant’s Tomb in Riverside Park.

General_Grant_Tomb_Exterior_at_NightThe second, located just north of the Flatiron Building, belongs to military General William Jenkins Worth, who fought during the Mexican American War.

Worth_Monument_tight_crop_2The third, just below Grant’s Tomb at Riverside near 122nd, is one of the more touching stories in Manhattan history. It is a stone urn with the following engraving.

“ERECTED TO THE MEMORY

OF AN AMIABLE CHILD

ST. CLAIRE POLLOCK

DIED 15 JULY 1797

IN THE FIFTH YEAR OF HIS AGE”

Not much is known about the Pollocks of Harlem. The land was called Strawberry Hill at the time. Strawberry Hill had been the site of an early Revolutionary War skirmish, the Battle of Harlem Heights, on September 16, 1776. (The battle was a strategic victory for General George Washington, who used the area’s hilly terrain to ambush the British and repel the redcoats back down to lower Manhattan.) George Pollock was a linen merchant, but it is unknown if he was of Scotch, Irish, or English descent. It is, in fact, unknown whether he was the father or uncle of young St. Claire. What is known is that St. Claire died near the Pollock’s mansion on Strawberry Hill, likely due to a fall from the same high cliffs near the Hudson that helped General Washington in 1776. By January 18th, 1800, George Pollock had sold his property to Mrs. Cornelia Verplanck, when he wrote as follows:

“There is a small enclosure near your boundary fence within which lie the remains of a favorite child, covered by a marble monument. You will confer a peculiar and interesting favor upon me by allowing me to convey the enclosure to you so that you will consider it a part of your own estate, keeping it, however, always enclosed and sacred.”

Verplanck agreed, and though the land changed hands many times, St. Claire’s tomb remained undisturbed. By 1806, the land was bought by Michael Hogan, a former British Consul in Havana. He constructed a new building called Claremont Mansion, likely after his homeland of County Clare. Nearby Claremont Avenue was named for this mansion.) The Claremont was a popular inn and hotel for some time, until the City purchased the land for the development of Riverside Park.

riversidedrivepostcardSt. Claire’s biggest threat came on July 23rd, 1885, when former president Ulysses S. Grant died of throat cancer. Hours after his death, Mayor William Grace was urging his fellow new Yorkers to “initiate a movement to provide for the erection of a National Monument to the memory of the great soldier.” A committee formed to fundraise and select the design and location of the tomb. For the design, architects John Hemenway Duncan and sculptor John Massey Rhind won an 1887 competition  with a massive structure, 8,000 tons of marble and granite soaring 150 feet into the air. For the location, they settled on the site of the old Claremont Inn in Riverside Park Grant’s Tomb, where Grant’s widow Julia would be able to see the mausoleum from her home.

But the tomb faced unexpected opposition when Harlemites heard construction involved demolishing the tomb of little St. Claire Pollock. Locals passionately protested the plans, catching designers completely off-guard. In the face of overwhelming public opinion, Duncan and Rhind agreed to leave St. Claire in peace.

MNY63599Grant’s Tomb was finally dedicated on April 27, 1897. President William McKinley led the proceedings before an audience of thousands. Between 1897 and World War I, the tomb was America’s biggest tourist attraction. Millions of Americans flocked to see Grant entombed in a giant sarcophagus, giving rise to Groucho Marx’s classic riddle “Who is buried at Grant’s Tomb?” (Answer: no one. Grant is above-ground.)

That same year, 100 yards from Grant’s Tomb and 100 years since his death, the Amiable Child received his own little dedication with a simple marble marker. Since then, the tomb has been refurbished, the weathered marble replaced with a sturdier granite urn in 1967. A tiny stretch of West 129th Street was renamed St. Claire Place. Just last month, the New York Times memorialized St. Claire in a charming comic, reminding us that an amiable child will always be remembered.

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From The Bookshelf for Boys and Girls: Historic Tales and Golden Deeds (1912)

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