Updated: May 5, 2020
On December 16, 1853, residents of a place in Kings County known as Yellow Hook met at the local schoolhouse, on the northeast corner of what's now 73rd and Third. The first schoolhouse in the area had been on Shore Road, around what became 87th and 88th streets; painted yellow, it was built ca. 1794, to accommodate the growing population and complement the existing school in the nearby village of New Utrecht, which was red.
It was torn down around 1851 and replaced with the new building on Third Avenue, “a two-roomed affair with [a] hall between,” the Eagle reported in 1896. It may also have been yellow. (By the turn of the twentieth century, the school had become so successful and overcrowded it moved to a larger, more modern building in a new spot—on 72nd Street, off Ridge Boulevard—and eventually evolved into the modern PS 102, whose name derives from the fact that it was the first school in what was then School District No. 2 of the town of New Utrecht; PS 104 was in Fort Hamilton, or School District No. 4.)
“Yellow Hook” was the name for a vague geographic area, south of Gowanus and north of The Narrows, or Nyack, the area that became known in the 1830s as Fort Hamilton village after the military installation it surrounded; Yellow Hook stretched from about what are now 60th to 86th streets, and maybe, at some point, even a little farther north, as well; the history is unclear. Since probably 1675, it had been home to Dutch farmers and their descendants, but starting in the 1840s, new kinds of people had started moving to the area—elites such as Rev. Dr. John Stone, the rector of Christ Church on Clinton Street, who built a summer home near what's now 72nd Street and Ridge Boulevard, and Henry Murphy, the one-time mayor of Brooklyn, who first developed an estate he said was called Owl’s Head, part of the present-day park. (It wasn’t.)
While the farmers were settled mostly along the shore, the newcomers settled mostly along the ridge, the glacial highland that at the time would have offered sweeping views of the countryside, waterways and surrounding country. It ran mostly just west of what's now Ridge Boulevard, which is how the old Second Avenue got that fancy name in 1909.
Yellow Hook was not quite a village, a term that suggests to me, from my reading, an intentional settlement along a square or main street, with clustered housing as well as perhaps a house of worship, a school, and/or other shared amenities. For almost two centuries, Yellow Hook had just been an agricultural community on the outskirts of the town of New Utrecht. Many of the newcomers settled on grand estates, separated by walks or carriage rides down rambling country lanes. The exception was Ovington Village, established within the general boundaries of Yellow Hook in 1850 by a cohort of artisans and craftsmen, and their families. They carved a main street, Ovington Avenue, that extended from Third to Stewart avenues (about halfway between what's now Sixth and Seventh).
Artists, farmers, elites and even fishermen were likely all at the December 1853 meeting, or at least their representatives. Little about it was recorded at the time, just a small item printed in the Brooklyn Evening Star (which was also reprinted soon after in the Brooklyn Eagle, with the misspelling "Bay Bridge"):
At a meeting of the inhabitants of School District No. 2, known as Yellow Hook, of the town of New Utrecht, at the district school house, on Friday evening the 16th instant, Thomas [Teunis] G. Bergen presiding as chairman, and Joseph A. Perry, secretary, it was resolved that the locality hitherto known as Yellow Hook, and included in the boundaries of School District No. 2, in the town of New Utrecht, be henceforth known by the name of Bay Ridge, and that application be made to the proper authorities for the establishment of a Post Office in the vicinity, to be designated as the Bay Ridge Post Office.
Perry, a founder and comptroller of Green-Wood Cemetery who today is buried just past the main entrance, was one of the newcomers; he lived near what's now Perry Terrace, which is named after him.
Bergen, descended from a prominent and spread-out Kings County family, was the quintessential local farmer, known colloquially (and sometimes derisively) as Uncle Tune. He bought a farm roughly between modern 75th and 77th streets, Shore Road to Third Avenue, in the 1830s, where he grew clover, nutmeg, corn, strawberries, pumpkins, potatoes, turnips, buckwheat, cucumbers, squash, grapes, cabbages, watermelon, cantaloupe and more.
But he was also much more: a noted surveyor, producing many maps and deeds; town supervisor (a local political leader); a one-term Democratic congressman (from 1865–67, just after the Civil War—not the proudest period to have been a Democrat!); and a leading genealogist and local historian, who published several books that are still referenced. His old house still stands on Shore Road, likely the oldest extant structure in the neighborhood, though it’s been altered over the years beyond recognition.
In August 1853, four months before the famous meeting, an even smaller item appeared in several New York newspapers, starting, again, with the Brooklyn Evening Star: “The name of Yellow Hook, Long Island, has been changed by the residents of that locality, to Belleville”—a French term meaning “beautiful town.” We know even less about this than the subsequent December meeting, but I would guess the decision was what we’d call an executive one, made by one or more powerful recent newcomers, with friends in the media, who decided they didn’t like the name Yellow Hook and wanted to change it. They likely felt empowered to do so—it’s not like Yellow Hook was an official name, just an informal one recognized and accepted by the locals for generations.
But perhaps those old locals took offense—that it wasn’t the newcomers’ place to change the name, and that the name “Belleville” wasn't the best choice anyway. Maybe this is what led, finally, to the meeting in December, so that all parties, once and for all, could get together, hash this out and settle on a new name.
Their meeting had little to do with yellow fever, despite what you may have heard. A terrible outbreak of that mosquito-spread virus did strike the area—three years later, in 1856, killing dozens after quarantine ships at northern Staten Island were moved away from New York and Brooklyn down closer to where the Verrazano Bridge is today. Local papers had reported on a yellow-fever outbreak in New Orleans in the summer of 1853, which killed almost 8,000 people, as well as an outbreak across the Narrows in Staten Island in 1848; within that context, yellow may indeed have had a negative connotation. Perhaps the New Orleans outbreak was the last straw for some of the newcomers.
But “Yellow Hook” was probably also just considered ugly. Most histories before the 1930s never mention yellow fever in the context of the name change. An excellent 1896 history says Yellow Hook was just an “inelegant name.” “When the [elites] moved into the old town…being conservative, they did not like to see ‘Yellow Hook’ at the top of their letter paper,” explains an article from 1915. “Yellow Hook did not sound well to these new settlers,” according to another from 1921.
Even some later histories eschew the yellow-fever story. “When wealthy folk flocked out there many years ago to build country homes,” a historian told the Daily News in 1938, “[t]hey didn’t think the Dutch 'Yellow Hook' sounded tony enough.” “Doesn’t [it] have a sinister ring?” a columnist wrote in the Home Reporter in 1962. “It sounds like the name of a pirate, or a typographical error referring to the classified telephony directory.”
Yellow Hook is usually said to have been named after the color of the sands or soil here, which, if true, made it even more irrelevant to the newcomers. Men such as Stone, Perry and Murphy weren’t here to farm or fish, so what would they have cared about the natural color of the soil or sands? They, and the Ovington settlers, were attracted to the area for its natural beauty, for the unspoiled countryside, for the high ridge offering panoramic views of the bay below. They would have wanted a name commensurate to its appeal, perhaps to attract similar elites to move to the countryside, adding more good citizens to the community (and increasing the values of their new properties); the farmers would have stood to benefit financially, as well, from increasing the price and value of their lands.
But “Yellow Hook” sounds like a swamp.
That’s why I believe one or more of these newcomers might have tried to make Belleville happen. But, honestly—that wasn’t quite good enough, either.
Many of the details we now have about the December 1853 emerged in the early twentieth century, thanks to newspaper interviews with Jessie Heinigke; they may be true, but they are also likely inflected with a bit of lore. Née Weir, Jessie married Otto Heinigke, son of one of the original incorporators of Ovington Village, in 1874, and she lived in the house he built for his bride—on a half-acre lot of Heinigke-family land on Ovington Avenue, No. 420—until her death in 1937.
“Otto Heinigke, the father of Mrs. Heinigke’s husband, was a painter of miniatures,” the Brooklyn Daily Times reported on a visit to the house in 1929.
Some of [them] still adorn the old-fashioned mantelpiece in the sitting room of the Ovington ave. mansion. The gas flame flickers, and sounds from the street scarce reach the sheltered room, set far back from the building line with shrubbery intervening.
“It must seem old fashioned that we have only gas lighting in this house,” Mrs. Heinigke said….”And yet this was the newest thing when we got it. Ours was the first house in all Bay Ridge to have gas put in…We get along quite well with only gas lights. The thing that strikes me most about the gone Bay Ridge, as I remember it now, is its wonderful natural beauty. In all my travels here and abroad I have never seen anything equal to it.”
…Mrs. Heinigke has a collection of more than 100 pictures of early Bay Ridge that bear witness to the natural beauty that so impressed her.
After Mrs. Heinigke died, prominent Eagle columnist Margaret Mara suggested transforming the house into a Bay Ridge museum. But that didn’t happen, and it was replaced by the present apartment building of the same address around 1949.
Mrs. Heinigke had been best known locally for cofounding the Bay Ridge Reading Club, which met at the Athenæum, a community center on Ridge Boulevard near Ovington Avenue, before the club raised enough money for a proper library, on 73rd and Ridge, a predecessor to the building there now. “In fact, she was on her way to a meeting of the [Club] when she was stricken [with a heart attack], dying instantly,” the Eagle reported.
Mrs. Heinigke told the Eagle in 1932 that she’d been at the 1853 meeting with her father, James Weir, though a few years earlier she'd said she’d been told about it by Perry, “the man who had called the gathering together.” Jessie would have been about three years old in 1853. “I remember how excited we were when my father went to that meeting,” she recalled.
(Disappointingly, the meeting seems to have been a nonevent for Bergen, whose handwritten and unpublished History of New Utrecht skips chronologically from cases of potato rot in July 1848 to the yellow-fever outbreak of the summer of 1856. The only mention of the renaming I found in the manuscript was in a footnote on a page about post offices: "Name [of Bay Ridge] changed from Yellow Hook around 1855 or 1856"—he doesn't even get the date right!)
“Several suggestions [for a new name] were submitted, but the gathering was receptive to none of them,” the Eagle reported, via Mrs. Heinigke. “Then James Weir spoke up.”
Born in Scotland, Weir moved to Bay Ridge after coming to New York in 1844 and lived on the south side of Couwenhoven Lane, part of which became Senator Street, at about what’s now Fifth Avenue, surrounded by his greenhouses (between 67th and 68th streets). He was “a landscape architect commissioned to design the Ketcham and Langley estates on the bay, between 60th and 65th Sts.,” Jessie’s son, Otto, wrote to the Eagle in 1938. “I believe he also designed the Townsend and Perry estates, which extended from 3d Ave. to below what is now Colonial Road, one at about [75th] St. and the other at [71st St.]”
He became prominent as a nurseryman and florist, having been associated in the laying out and planting of Garden City and furnished the trees for the planting of Bensonhurst…He was one of the founders of Christ Episcopal Church [then on 68th and Third, now on 73rd and Ridge], and served continuously on its vestry from then until his death [in 1891].”
By the 1930s, as Fort Hamilton High School progressed from an idea to a reality, at least two people advocated naming the new school after Weir, so prominent a part of the mythos of the community had he become.
Weir’s son, also James, stayed in the family business, building a greenhouse across the street from the main entrance to Green-Wood Cemetery, a structure that still stands and is being converted for use as a visitor’s center. There are still Weirs in the Brooklyn flower business, with a shop on Montague Street.
At the December 1853 meeting, “Pointing out that their community was on a high ridge overlooking the bay, [Weir] offered the name of ‘Bay Ridge’ for the consideration of the meeting,” the Eagle reported in 1932. “It was like the winning dark horse,” said Mrs. Heinigke. “Immediately the name was snatched up as the winner.”
The earliest reference I’ve found to Weir’s role in the renaming is Charlotte Bleecker Bangs’s 1912 social history, Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus. (Weir's 1891 obituary in the Eagle doesn't mention it.) I’ve found no first-hand documentation to back it up, so it seems to have been local lore, passed down from generation to generation, possibly by Mrs. Heinigke herself, who likely knew Mrs. Bangs and who late in life entered it repeatedly into the newspaper record, turning it into established fact.
The suggested alternative names that we know of, thanks to an interview Mrs. Heinigke gave to Home Talk in 1930, are Harbor Haven, Pleasant View, Bay Breeze, Bay Front, Bay View, Ridge View, Ridge Side and Narrows Nole (an obsolete word that meant head), circling around the ultimate winner without quite landing there—as though the old bay advocates were pitted against the new ridge advocates, and it took James Weir to bring them together. “A spokesman for the [local] fishermen wanted the section called Port Lafayette,” she also told the Brooklyn Daily Times, in 1929, “because of the lafayettes that were caught in abundance off Yellow Hook.”
(These fish are now usually called Spots, supposedly first called lafayettes because they started appearing in large numbers in the U.S. around 1824, when the Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of the American Revolution, famously toured the United States. Fort Diamond, off the coast of Fort Hamilton, obliterated by the Brooklyn tower of the Verrazano Bridge, was renamed "Fort Lafayette" around this time.)
In the early 20th century, those who remembered or had heard about the 1856 yellow-fever epidemic often assumed it had something to do with the old name Yellow Hook—that it had been a pejorative nickname assigned derisively to a plague spot. But “Yellow Hook did not receive its name because of the yellow fever epidemic that raged here at one time,” the Eagle explained, via Mrs. Heinigke, in 1932; “rather, it lost its name because of that plague.”
Fearing the yellow fever epidemic would always be associated with the name of Yellow Hook, a group of homeowners, who formed a civic group, called a meeting for the purpose of changing the name of the community.
But it’s not true—the renaming preceded the only local outbreak of yellow fever by three years. Likely, Mrs. Heinigke confused the timeline seven or eight decades later; she was by then an elderly woman recalling the events of her girlhood, refracted through decades local gossip and lore, without the benefit of searchable electronic databases to remind her of what had actually happened in 1853 vs. what had actually happened in 1856.
Soon, however, Heinigke’s assertions began to be reported as fact. By 1978, the president of the relatively new Bay Ridge Historical Society told the Daily News, “An outbreak of yellow fever in the 1840s made the formerly colorful designation seem less desirable, and in 1853 a group of citizens decided to find a new name.”
This has become a new kind of lore, passed down from Mrs. Heinigke to subsequent generations of Bay Ridge residents and historians. It’s now repeated anytime someone mentions Yellow Hook, or the renaming of Bay Ridge—but the truth is much more complicated.
Read about the early settlers, yellow fever, Fort Hamilton High School, the Athenæum and much more in our book How Bay Ridge Became Bay Ridge.