As a dutiful son of Staten Island, I have been warmed to know that Aaron Burr died in September 1836 in a hotel in Port Richmond, on the island’s north shore. Port Richmond was a short sail across the Kill Van Kull from Elizabethtown, New Jersey, where Burr grew up. I like to think the old man would stand on the shore line, or sit at a window at his hotel, gazing out at the waters he had plied as a lad, at the lands where he reached manhood.
But it also seemed a fortuitous intersection between my subject and my own life. Having called Staten Island my home for twelve years from age 12 to 23 — possibly the most formative years of all — I liked having Burr on my home turf.
Earlier this month I was back on the Island (as any Islander knows to call it). As we headed home, my beloved insisted that we look for the site where he died. So, following the vestigial directional instincts of forty years past, we took the spur toward the Bayonne Bridge from the Staten Island Expressway and dived off the highway just before reaching the bridge.
I unsteadily piloted us toward Richmond Terrace and set our course along the shoreline to the east. It’s got to be along here somewhere, I assured Nancy. I was looking for the main drag of the old Port Richmond. In 1836, when Burr was living and dying there, Staten Island was sparsely settled, and his hotel surely had been on the main road.
Nothing looked quite right. I never knew Port Richmond very well. Even in the sixties, there wasn’t a lot of reason to go there.
I was about to turn away from the shoreline when I spied a curve that looked promising. We pressed on. It wasn’t exactly what I remembered, but I thought it must be the main drag. We turned onto the street and pulled over. A young African-American woman was changing her shoes before entering a storefront church. She’s probably in the choir, I said. Then Nancy pointed across the street. There was a plaque on the wall of a three-story building.
We piled out of the car and there it was.
According to Judge Phil Straniere of the New York Civil Court, the building is now used as a public housing facility, largely for seniors — not so different, I suppose, from its use in 1836 when the penniless Burr died there. Judge Phil also claims that in our mutual youth, the building housed a pool hall on the second floor, with a restaurant on the first floor. Aaron might have approved.
There was just enough light for a farewell photo of my sweet girl next to the building, with the Kill Van Kull behind her. Burr could easily have seen the water from the building, but he probably would not have been looking at the water. He would have been trying to chat up that beautiful woman.