Today in History: We learn about the Haughwout Lift, the first passenger elevator

The H
The first passenger elevator was developed 159 years ago. – Photo collection 

by William “Doc” Halliday

One hundred and fifty-nine years ago today, on March 23, 1857, Elisha Otis’ first safety elevator for passenger service was installed at 488 Broadway at the corner of Broome in the E.V. Haughwout & Co. store in New York City.

The Wickquasgeck Trail existed on the island of Manhattan long before Europeans first explored the New World. This trail originally twisted through swamps and rocks along the entire length of Manhattan Island. In the Algonquian language the name of the trail means “birch-bark country”. When the Dutch arrived they transformed the trail into a road with the same name. It was subsequently call “Heerestraat”, and by the time of the American Revolution it was called Broadway Street. Today it is simply Broadway, a literal translation of the Dutch name, Breede weg into English. It runs about 33 miles from Manhattan through the Bronx, Yonkers, Hastings-On-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry, Irvington, Tarrytown, and Sleepy Hollow. Most Americans are familiar with the thoroughfare because of the location of the theater industry there.

During the early nineteenth century, SoHo had been a shopping destination for affluent New Yorkers. The term SoHo refers to the area South of Houston Street, and would later become known as the SoHo Cast Iron District. This area includes the northeast corner of Broadway and Broome Street. That land had been purchased in 1802 by John Jacob Astor.

Daniel D. Badger was born in October of 1806 on Badger’s Island just off the coast of Kittery, Maine. His family was shipbuilders and he started his career in a blacksmith’s shop in Portsmouth just across the bay. Badger moved to Boston and in 1842 set up a store-front with cast iron columns. In 1846 he relocated to New York City establishing Badger’s Architectural Iron Works there.

About five years after Badger’s birth, Elisha Graves Otis was born in August of 1811 in Halifax, Vermont where he lived the first twenty years of his life. He moved to Troy, New York and then the Vermont Hills on the Green River. He was unsuccessful with several businesses. In 1845 he relocated to Albany, New York where he worked for a toymaker. He invented and patented a robot turner that could produce bedstead posts at four times the speed as could be produced manually. Otis started his own business again and worked on the development of a safety brake that could stop trains instantly.

In 1848 John Jacob Astor died, leaving some property including the northeast corner of Broadway and Broome Street to his grandson, Walter Langdon Jr., the son of his daughter Dorothea. By the mid-nineteenth century, the SoHo area had deteriorated into a red-light district with brothels grouped mostly along Houston and Mercer streets.

In 1851 Otis then in Yonkers, New York, developed a safety elevator but did not bother to have it patented initially. He formed the Union Elevator Works, and then the Otis and Brothers Co. In 1854 he demonstrated the safety elevator, which prevented the fall of the cab if the cable broke, at the Crystal Palace in a very intense, death-defying demonstration. The only rope holding the platform was cut and the platform only dropped a few inches!

In 1856 Walter Langdon Jr. began building a large structure on his land at the northeast corner of Broome and Broadway.  The five-story, 79 foot tall building stretches nine window bays wide on Broadway and fourteen window bays wide on Broome Street and was constructed by architect John P. Gaynor. Instead of limestone, marble or brownstone the cast-iron facades facing Broadway and Broome Street were built by Daniel D. Badger’s Architectural Iron Works. Gaynor gained his inspiration for the building from the San Sorvino Library located on the Piazetta in Venice.

The building was clearly custom-designed for future tenant, Eder V. Haughwout. The E. V. Haughwout & Company store was a forerunner of the massive post-Civil War department stores. It combined showrooms and manufacturing into a single building: bronze, porcelains and silver on the first floor; china on the second; chandeliers on the third; and shop areas for silver plating, glass cutting, ivory turning, porcelain painting and other crafts on the fourth and fifth floors. All of the merchandize on each floor was made easily accessible by Otis’ invention of the safety elevator.

The store was world famous in its day. Their clients included the Lincoln’s, who purchased a china service for the White House, the Czar of Russia, and the Imam of Muscat. Gifts from Haughwout’s were presented to the Emperor of Japan and King Rama IV of Siam. The Haughwout store elevator, developed by Otis, revolutionized city life as we know it, enabling property developers to build multi-level skyscrapers worldwide.

William “Doc” Halliday is a historian and writer. He can be reached at doc@dochalliday.us .

William "Doc" Halliday

Historian, Political Commentator

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