January 25, 2012

The Astor Place beaver


As soon as I sighted the beaver plaque at the Astor Place subway station, shown above, I recalled a passage from Eric Jay Dolan's Fur, Fortune, and Empire about John Jacob Astor, his astute real estate acumen, the places in New York that bear his name and those he once owned that do not, and his role in the beaver fur trade. Here is an excerpt from a most excellent chronicle of the North America fur trade:
Not one to let his money sit idle, Astor plowed his growing profits from the fur trade into real estate.  His first purchase came in 1789, when he bought two lots of land on Bowery Lane for a little more than six hundred dollars....Over the years many of Astor's associates ridiculed his real estate transactions, especially those in which he acquired empty land well beyond the city proper.  They said he had wasted money on dirt and trees, but when the city expanded right up to the edge of Astor's holdings, he sold or rented his "worthless" land for enormous sums--including all of what would one day become Times Square.  When he was very old, Astor was asked if he had accumulated an excessive amount of real estate, to which he replied, "COuld I begin life again, knowing what I now know, and had money to invest, I would buy every foot of land on the Island of Manhattan."...Unwilling to sit on his laurels or his growing fortune, he was looking for ways to expand his operations and earn more.  And soon after Lewis and Clark returned from their epic journey, Astor's gaze shifted westward.  (pages 193-194)
The beaver, "a source of the Astor family wealth from fur trading," is depicted in a terra cotta and mosaic plaque by the Grueby Facience Company in 1940, according to nycsubway.org and the Arts for Transit website. (Aside: The latter website has been redesigned and is easier to navigate.)

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