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Abolitionist House History

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1851 Dripps Map showing location of 857 RSD house, the year it was built  (yellow dot, above "John King")

As seen in photographs, the small Italianate house perched above the Hudson originally had an ornate porch, awnings on the upper windows and a cupola overlooking the surrounding area and the river.

Historian Matthew Spady, author of the recently published book, The Neighborhood Manhattan Forgot: Audubon Park and the Families Who Shaped It, tells us that according to the City Register Ledger, the land in question (Block 2135/Lot 23) was unlotted until Dennis Harris divided it in 1851 and sold lots 23-32 to John King.


Either Harris or King built the house, which appears on the Dripps 1851 Map, just north of Minnie’s Land, the Audubon Family Farm.

In 1854 the house and property (Lots 23-32) was sold to John Newhouse, a New York City judge.


The house can also be found on the Blackwell Maps of that time, at the Borough President’s Office.

The property seems to have changed hands several times, but was still in possession of the Newhouse family in 1868, and may have gone into the hands of Newhouse descendants for a time.


There were more sales of the property in the 1890s, when an owner split off the northern lots and kept the two southern lots in the plot. Then, in 1894, lot 23, now known as No. 857, began to fly solo. 

You can also find details about Dennis Harris and his other northern Manhattan enterprises like the New Congress Sugar Refinery and the Jenny Lind Steamboat and wharf, built in close proximity to the house still standing at 857 Riverside Drive.

"After Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, New York City had become increasingly dangerous for escaped slaves, so the new refinery and steamboat could have extended Harris's effort to move them farther up the river on their journey to freedom in Canada." (from page 69 of The Neighborhood Manhattan Forgot)

For a comprehensive illustrated history, virtual walking tours and much more, be sure to visit Matthew Spady's Audubon Park Website at

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Mathew Spady's new book:
The Neighborhood Manhattan Forgot 
(2020, Fordham University Press)

Who Was John King?



In 1850, minister and sugar refiner Dennis Harris sold a portion of his land adjacent to the Hudson River (known also as the North River).


The following year either he or John King built the small Italianate villa that still stands on the property, known today as 857 Riverside Drive.


While Harris’ activities as a crusading abolitionist are well documented, those of King (Harris’ onetime associate and employee) are largely unknown.


Now, however, thanks to the expanded availability of primary source documents and archival records, a few questions can be answered.


. . .

According to census and other official documents, John King and his wife, Jane, arrived from Kent, England around 1833, when both were 19 or 20 years old.


They already had two children, the start of a progeny that would, in time, number 12 (although only six would survive into young adulthood).


By the late 1840s John was working for Dennis Harris at the latter’s Congress Steam Sugar refinery on Duane Street in Manhattan.


During these years, as has been attested by abolitionist historians (citing recollections of the Underground Railroad leaders themselves), the Duane Street refinery was a hub of activity related to the shelter and protection of those seeking freedom in Canada.


One abolitionist recalled how Harris once sent a horse-drawn wagon to the office of the Anti-Slavery Standard newspaper, in order to help transport an enslaved man who was being concealed in a packing box.


Presumably, those who worked for Harris at the refinery assisted him in this effort.

. . .

In June of 1850 King, along with three associates, purchased the Congress refinery from Harris and started a new partnership named Howell, King & Co.

King did not change the refinery’s name.


John King was now partial owner of a site that had been described by one contemporary as a “Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad.”


Throughout 1851 and 1852 King lived at the new Washington Heights house (today’s 857 Riverside Drive) and commuted, either by rail or steamboat, to the Duane Street refinery.


Meanwhile his former employer Harris was readying plans for a new refinery to be constructed on the eastern bank of the Hudson, just downhill from King’s residence.


During this period Harris intensified his battle to end slavery through the hosting of freedom seekers and abolitionists at his Washington Heights church.


The idea that John King and 857 Riverside might have been connected in some way to whatever abolitionist efforts were taking place at Harris’ Washington Heights refinery is based on two documented facts:

  • The physical closeness of the house to the refinery, at a time when both were relatively isolated from other structures

  • King’s longstanding professional relationship with Harris

. . . 

In 1852 King left his firm and the house at 857 Riverside, moving to 31st Street for a short period before resettling in Illinois.


By 1856 he had moved again, to Keokuk County, Iowa, where he ran a 220-acre farm. 


He was working in this capacity as late as 1880.


Our hope is to bolster the likelihood of John King’s involvement with abolitionism through the discovery of additional references and documents.


JANUARY 22, 2021





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