On one of the rare sunny and dry fall days New York City experienced this fall, a group of Untapped New York Insiders met up with Urban Park Rangers for a climb to the top of Harlem’s Mount Morris Fire Watchtower in Marcus Garvey Park. The 47-foot tall, cast-iron tower is the last of its kind in New York City. Completed in 1857, the landmarked structure was part of the city’s early fire detection techniques and today stands as a testament to the strength of the local community that saved and restored it. Check out photos taken by our Insiders on an exclusive tour of the tower, which is rarely open to the public.
The tour started at the base of the tower in Marcus Garvey Park where we met up with our friendly and knowledgeable Urban Park Ranger guides. We gazed up at the tower and assessed the journey we were about to embark on. It was a perfect day to admire the foliage in the park, and we got to see an abundance of squirrels, including the elusive black squirrel!
The Mount Morris Fire Watchtower was the third of such structures to be built in New York City in the mid-19th century. The first towers were built of wood which, as you can imagine, was not the best material for something meant to detect fires. In the 1840s, inventor James Bogardus came up with a way to use cast iron as a building material and so the sturdy metal was used for new towers. The first cast-iron watchtowers were constructed on Ninth Avenue and West 33rd Street, and on Spring Street. The methods used to construct the towers with cast-iron inspired building techniques that would be used later in the century for the construction of skyscrapers.
On the way up, we passed the tower’s 5,000-pound bell. While not the original, it is from the time the tower was in use. The original bell by Jones & Hitchcock in Troy, New York was damaged, possibly by improper striking or manufacturing flaws. At first, the watchman rang the bell by pulling a lever on the observation deck above. The bell that hangs today was cast by E.A. & G.R. Meneeley, also of West Troy, NY, and cast in 1865.
In total, there were 11 fire watchtowers like this one in New York City’s network. When the towers became obsolete in the 1870s, Harlem neighbors requested that this one stay in operation for timekeeping. For the next half-century, the bell rang at noon and 9:00pm on weekdays, and at 9am and 9pm on Sundays.
Once at the top of the tower, we took in the sights! From this height, you can see out over the tree line of the park and into Manhattan, over Randalls Island, and out toward Queens and the Bronx. While up there, we saw many notable sights including the supertalls at the edge of Central Park, the George Washington Bridge in the distance, the RFK Triboro Bridge, and a few rooftop watertowers. The view today is quite different and much more built up than it was when the tower was first ereted.
The bell of the tower stopped ringing around 1909 and the structure began to slowly decay. Though left closed off and out of use, the tower was made a New York City landmark in 1967. By the 1990s, it was unsafe and in need of stabilization. The tower was taken apart in 2015, but thanks to a successful campaign by the Mt. Morris Park Community Improvement Association and Marcus Garvey Park Alliance, it was restored and reassembled in 2019 using original pieces and elements that had been meticulously re-cast and replicated. Today, the tower is prominently seen in the park, though it is only open to climb on rare special occasions.
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