Holland Tunnel Entrance, Holland Tunnel, one of many NYC place names from a real person

The Holland Tunnel. LaGuardia Airport. The Outerbridge Crossing. We’re all familiar with these locations in New York City, but what about the people they are named after? Sure some are obvious, like Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, but others are a bit more obscure. All of them have interesting stories. In her new book, Naming Gotham: The Villains, Rogues, and Heroes Behind New York’s Place Names, author Rebecca Bratspies takes readers on a tour of the roads, bridges, tunnels, parks, landmarks, and neighborhoods of New York City, to reveal the quirky and fascinating stories of the folks immortalized in NYC place names. Here, we pulled out 5 figures from Bratspies’ book to uncover the stories behind the places that bear their names!

Naming Gotham Virtual Talk

Naming Gotham book cover

Author Rebecca Bratspies recently joined Untapped New York Insiders for a virtual talk where revealed the hidden history behind even more NYC place names. A recording of the event can be seen in the Insiders Video archive which hosts over 150 recordings of past events! Unlock the archive by becoming a member today.

1. The Macombs

MaComb's dam park fountain

Macomb’s Dam Bridge which connects Manhattan to the Bronx across the Harlem River and Macomb’s Dam Park near Yankee Stadium are both named after Irish-born land speculator Alexander Macomb and his sons, Alexander Jr., and Robert. The senior Macomb and his brother William bought their first pieces of land in Michigan (where an entire county still bears their name) in 1776. After the Revolutionary War, they went their separate ways and Alexander tried his luck in New York City.

In New York, Macomb made the single biggest land purchase in New York when he bought more than 3.5 million acres of land including the Adirondacks and Thousand Islands, land once the territory of the Seven Tribes (Iroquois). After a brief stint in debtor’s prison, he purchased 100 acres of land in the Bronx where he built a grist mill on the Spuyten Duyvil Creek. He mortgaged the mill for a $10,000 loan but when he was unable to pay the loan back, lost the mill. Macomb’s son Robert took bought it.

In 1813, Macomb’s son Robert got permission from the New York legislature to build a dam across the Harlem River to power the mill. The permit stipulated that he was required to build a lock that would allow boats to pass along the river and that he could not have a toll on the bridge. He ignored both mandates. This caused major traffic on the river and greatly angered Lewis Morris of the Harlem Bridge Company. In protest, Morris and a group of supporters sailed up to the dam in a schooner named Superior. In order to gain passage past the bridge they started to dismantle it! The dam was deemed a public nuisance and in 1854, the City of New York repossessed it. The City claimed Robert hadn’t paid rent on the leased land since 1816. The current Macomb’s Dam, designed by engineer Alfred P. Boller, opened in 1896 and was the world’s heaviest movable object at the time.