The History of Wall Street in NYC

Wall street first appears in the history of the city as a portion of a sheep pasture which was used in common by the inhabitants of New Amsterdam. Its natural condition was partly rolling upland and partly meadow of a swampy character. The name of the street originated thus: About the middle of the seventeenth century, the English in the New England colonies began to press heavily upon the Dutch in New Netherlands, and kept the worthy burghers of New Amsterdam in a constant dread of an invasion. Influenced by this feeling, the city authorities resolved to fortify the place, and in 1653 constructed a wall or stockade across the island, from river to river just beyond the line of the village. This wall passed directly across the old sheep pasture. Citizens were forbidden to build within 100 feet of the stockade, this open space being reserved for the movements of troops. It soon became a prominent highway, and the eastern portion has since remained so. The anticipated attack on the city was not made, but the wall was kept in good condition. Houses crept up close to the wall on the city side, and began to appear on the opposite side just under the wall. Thus a new street was formed, through which ran the old stockade. The open space along the wall was originally called The Cingel, signifying “the ramparts.” Soon after the town reached the limit of the military reservation, persons residing here were spoken of as living “long de Wal,” and from this the street came to be called “the Wall street,” which name it has ever since borne. The wall having fallen into decay, was demolished about the year 1699, and its stones were used in the construction of the old City Hall, which stood at the intersection of Wall and Nassau streets, the site now occupied by the Sub-Treasury of the United States. The old building was used for the various purposes of the city government until the close of the Revolution. It contained, besides the council and court rooms, a jail for the detention and punishment of criminals, a debtors’ prison, which was located in the attic, a fire-engine-room, a cage and a pillory. A pair of stocks was set up on the opposite side of the street, wherein criminals were exposed to the indignant gaze of the virtuous public.

At the close of the Revolution, the City Hall was enlarged and improved for the use of the General Government. It thus became the first capitol of the new Republic, and was known as Federal Hall. The first Congress of the United States assembled within its walls in the year 1789, and upon its spacious portico, in the presence of an immense multitude, George Washington took the oath to support and defend the constitution as first President of the United States.

Wall street was originally taken up with private residences, and the old views represent it as well shaded with trees. Even as late as 1830 it presented a very rural appearance between Broadway and William street. Prior to the Revolution, the lower part of the street had been built up with stores as far as Front street, and had become the centre of mercantile affairs in the city, the row of stores on Wall street being the first erected beyond Water street. About the year 1792, the old Tontine Coffee House was erected on the northwest corner of Wall and Water streets, and this became the favorite rendezvous for the city merchants, by whom, indeed, it was erected and controlled. In 1791 the Bank of New York was located at the corner of William street, and marked the first encroachment upon the strictly private portion of the street. It was also the first effort to make this locality the centre of the financial operations of the city. Other institutions and private bankers soon followed, and the character and architecture of the street began to undergo a change. The work of improvement went on steadily, and the Wall street of to-day is the result. Famous lawyers have also had their offices in this street. Alexander Hamilton’s sign might once have been seen here, not far from where his humble monument now stands in Trinity Churchyard, and the name of Caleb Cushing is still to be found near a doorway just below Broadway.


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