Vantine::John Van Tine

Reminiscences of an old New-York Councilman--Taking a Fire Engine to England and Getting Andrew Jackson's Snuff-box for Garry Dykeman.
The New-York Times, Sunday, January 12, 1879

A few days ago a jolly party was gathered around the glowing stove in Uncle John Van Tine's place in Fair Haven, N.J., on the banks of the Shrewsbury. Through the windows they looked out on the wide expanse of snow-covered river to the far-distant Highlands, but could discover nothing of interest to relieve the monotony of the scene. They had exhausted the amusements of spearing eels and dredging for oysters through holes in the ice, and the time was beginning to hang heavily on their hands. While they questioned as to what they should do next, Uncle John appeared with a quanitity of lucious frozen "Shrewburys" that he had just opened; and while they ate them he was persuaded to related some of his experiences of year ago when he was a member of the Common Council of this City.

"Well, boys," he began, "it's an old story, and the papers had a good deal to say about it at the time, but, perhaps, you might like to hear how we took the old steamer Manhattan No. 8 over to London to show the Britishers a specimen of New-York's Fire Department. You see 'twas in '60, and I was in the Council, and we'd just been to a big expense fitting up a dock for the reception of the Great Eastern on her first trip across the ocean. I was Chairman of the committeee for her reception--they always put me on the reception committee for foreigners, Japanese Tommies, Turks, and the like--and her agent in this City was so pleased with what I did for 'em that he said to me: "Councilman, whenever you want to take a trip across, there's your ship, and it shan't cost you a cent."

Well, I was busy in the City Hall, you know, and didn't think much of going till one morning Chief Decker--he lived right opposite my place, the Chief did--came to me with a letter from Chief Shaw, of London, and, says he, "Councilman, read that." Twas an invitation to the Fire Department of New-York to participate in a grand international fire-engine tournament at the Crystal Palace, at Sydenham, and when I'd finished reading it the Chief says, says he: "By gracious! Councilman, how I'd like to go." I says to him, "Chief," says I, "you shall go, and I'll go with you." Then I took the Chief down to the agent of the Great Eastern and we showed him Chief Shaw's letter, and he said, "All right; how many was there of us?" and I said, "Six," at a venture, and he said he'd fix us, and then we went down to Aspinwall's, and he said that there shouldn't be any freight charges on the machine, and, by gracious! there it was all fixed.

When the time came for the ship to said the Chief couldn't go because his mother was sick but there was Foreman Charley Nichols and me and three others, and the machine was stowed snug enough down betwixt decks. We just a had a beautiful passage over, you better believe. Smooth! Smooth as a mill-pond all the time, and she never rolled no more than this house does now. Yes, Sir, it was a grand passage, and we looked for a big reception in Liverpool. But we didn't get it; there wasn't a soul to receive us, and we were left to look out for ourselves. We went ashore, and Nichols says to me, "What shall we do now, Councilman?" I says, "I don't know, Foreman: you're boss of this gang." Well, we got the machine ashore and put her in a stable, and telegraphed to Shaw that we were there.

It seems that he didn't really expect us to go over there with a machine, and only sent us the invite out of courtesy: but when he heard that we were really there he telegraphed for us to come on to London. There he had some of the boys down to meet us, and they took the machine up to one of their houses. We didn't like to leave it there because, you know, they was awfully cut up at our going over, but there wasn't any other place, and so she had to stay there. Well, when they heard she was there lots of them Lords and Dukes and other honorary members came down to see her. They examined her all over, and we was afraid they might fool with her some way and put up a job on us; we we couldn't do nothing, only watch 'em close. By gracious! it was an anxious time, I tell you, for us, for they saw that she was a better machine than any of theirs, and we was dead sure that they'd fix her somehow.

" When the day come for the tournament we couldn't run her out alone to the Crystal Palace, at Sydenham, you know, and we had to trust her to a dozen of them Britishers that was detailed a purpose. Just before we got to the place there was a steep hill leading down to the lake that we was going to get the water from. Well, they got all their own machines down safe enough; but when they come to take the old Manhattan down, by gracious! if they didn't let her run off the bank.

There she lay on her side, and we thought at first that the game was up; but we got her on her feet, and though one of the wheels was badly broke up, we took her on down to the lake and set her to going. She worked after a fashion, but she wasn't herself, and we didn't do any more than just come up to them, and they wouldn't give us any prize. There was an awful big crowd to see her play, all the lords and Dukes, and the Prince of Wales and other honorary members; but they didn't give us no reception such as we would have give them if they had acome to New-York; the Prince didn't even shake hands with me, and say "How are you, Councilman?" but we was left pretty much to ourselves.

We wanted them to let us fix her up and give 'em another trial, but they wouldn't do it, and so we brought her home again the same way we went. You just oughter have seen the storm we had coming back; I tell you boys a storm on the ocean is an awful thing. I was down in the cabin in the worst of it holding on for dear life; but Nichols he came down, and says he, "Councilman, if it's the last thing you do in life, you want to, you want to get up on deck and see her roll." So I got on deck, kinder crawled up on my hands and knees, you know, and, by gracious! I never thought to see anything like it. Roll? Well you can just bet she rolled. Down below was all the trunks and surplus baggage, and we gould hear them going ker smash over to one side, and then ker smash back again to the other. There was three horses down there, too, and she rolled so that their stalls broke loose, and we we could hear them horses going ker smash from one side to the other with the trunks. Nobody could help 'em, and next day when she got a bit more steady like, and we could get down and estimate the damage, them horses and the trunks was so mixed up together in little pieces that you couldn't tell which was which.

Well, we got the old machine home, and we got a big reception, too, from the boys, which was more than they give us on the other side. After that the old Manhattan was put up in Harlem, and they called her Undine 52, and she was the first steamer that ever crossed the ocean, and, by gracious! she'd a beat them Britishers, too, if they hadn't a run her off the bank.

"After all, boys, that trip wasn't a circumstance to the one that I took in the country about a score of years before that, and, if you like, I'll tell you about it. You see when Gen. Jackson got through with the war of 1812 folks couldn't do enough for him for giving the Britishers ballyhoo, as he did. Every city presented him with some testimonial, and New-York's was a snuff-box--gold and diamonds; cost $350; fine, you better believe. Well, when the old man died, his will said that all these testimonials was to go back to the cities they come from, and be presented to the men from each State who should prove bravest in the next war.

Well, the next war was the Mexican War, and after it was all over the question came up in the Board and Council who should have the New-York snuff-box. I was Chairman of the committee in the Council, and we investigated the claims of everybody, from Scott and Taylor down, and finally we decided that the bravest man from this State was Garry Dykeman, and that the snuff-box was to go to him. Now, Garry didn't have no more use for a snuff-box than I did, and there was a lot of remonstrances from the big-bugs that wanted it theirselves came into the City Hall from all over the country; but we didn't pay no attention to them, and I was appointed a committee of one to go down South to the Hermitage, and get the snuff-box and bring it home.

A thousand dollars was appropriated for my expenses, and, by gracious! I spent it, like a sailor, in 19 days--every cent of it. I took steamer from New-York to Savannah, and then the cars to Augusta, Atlanta, and Nashville, for, you see, I didn'tn know when I'd have another chance, and I was bound to see as much of the South as I could while I was there. When I got to Nashville I put up at the hotel, and told the landlord who I was, and that I wanted him to get me just the finest turnout in the City and never mind the expense. By gracious, Sir! you ought to have seen the style in which I rode out to the General's place, and may just imagine that I didn't disgrace New-York.

When we drove up to the house who should I see on the veranda but Andrew Jackson Donelson himself. I didn't say a word, but just handed him my credentials signed by the Mayor of New-York, and waited for him to speak. He didn't more than look at the name when he made me a bow and said, "Councilman, I have been apprised of your mision and welcome you, walk in;" but not a word did he say of the snuff-box. I spent the day with him, and he treated me like a prince; introduced me to his folks, took me all over the farm, dined me and wined me, but never a word of the box. You see, all the New-York Cusom-house fellows had been sending him remonstrances, till he really didn't know whether he ought to give it to me or not. Finally, he says to me: "Councilman, you have had a long journey, and must be tired; perhaps you'd like to retire?" I said, "Perhaps I would," and he showed me up stairs to Gen. Jackson's own room, and said that up to that time no one had occupied it since the General's death; but that as the representative of the great City of New-York he couldn't think of putting me in any room but that of the great man whom New-York had delighted to honor. He said good night, but never a word of the snuff-box, and I began to think that I hadn't got so easy a job on hand after all.

"In the morning he came to see how I had rested, and, said he, "Councilman, I had a consultation with my family last night, and we decided that you were entitled to the box, and here it is." With that he put it in my hand, and, by gracious! Sir, I was relieved. When I went down stairs he began to ask me about New-York, and to say how much he should like to visit the City, and run up to West Point and see his son who was there, for all them Southerners used to educate their sons at West Point at Government expense before the war. A hint was good enough for me, and, quick as thought, I says to him, says I, "Come back to New-York with me, and present the box to his Honor the Mayor of our great City yourself; it shan't cost you a cent." He says, "Done," and we shook hands on it then and there.

While we was at breakfast I happened to look out of the window and saw some mighty pretty things, like big icicles, hanging to a tree on the lawn. I asked what they was, and he said they was "stlactites [sic]" from the Mammoth Cave. I said, where is this cave? And he said, about 90 miles from there; and I said let's go home that way. He said it would cost a good deal more to got that way, and I said never mind the expense, the City of New-York was wealthy and she wasn't often represented in that part of the country. So we went to the Mammoth Cave, and to Louisville, and Chicago, and Buffalo, and Niagara Falls, and Canada, and the White Mountains, and Portland, and Boston, and Newport, and by the time we reached New-York I had just 10 shillings left of that $1,000. By gracious, boys, didn't we have a reception! You see I had telegraphed to the Hall when we might be expected, and the military was out, and the board and the Council in carriages, and bands, and we had a dinner and speeches, and I rather guess it cost the city another $1,000 before that snuff-box was handed to Garry Dykeman.

"How would I have come home if the appropriation had been $2,000 instead of $1,000? Why, by way of California or Europe, I don't know which; anyway, I wouldn't have let 'em appropriate all that money for nothing, by gracious!"