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Radical Growth and Change

within Rev. James Brownlee's 60 years of Stable Leadership 1835-1895

The young nation and our Old Dutch Church went through a number of profound changes.


In the middle of the 19th century, immigrants from Ireland and Germany came to Port RIchmond for jobs in Industries such as whale oil processing, succeeded by linseed oil processing (which operated until the 20th century); lumber and coal yards; dye processing; and oyster harvesting along the mudflats in New York Harbor.  Many successful oyster boat captains built mansions on Richmond Terrace facing the Kill van Kull in the 1840s and 1850s.  

The present church was built in 1844.  The name was changed from Reformed Protestant Dutch Church to the Reformed Church on Staten Island.

Rev. Brownlee was Northfield Township Schools Commissioner.  In 1866, when the neighborhood was incorporated, the name Port Richmond was coined by Brownlee to pay tribute to its maritime tradition.

Brownlee welcomed African-Americans to Communion

over objections of the Congregation.

To appreciate how radical this was we need only to refer to Rev. Cornelius Vander Naald writings on slavery in the Congregation and the Church in his comprehensive 1952 history:

"During the years of slavery it was the proper thing in Richmond County for all householders whose means were sufficient, and who required the aid of servants, to purchase and hold men and women as slaves.  Slavery was looked upon as one of the institutions of God designed to bring the colored race under the benign influence of the Gospel and no man nor woman was found so bold as to declare that it was wrong to trade human flesh and to enjoy and enforce service at the hand of those who no voice in the transaction. 


Ministers of the Gospel entered as freely into the buying and holding and selling of others and are said to have spoken sometimes in their sermons of the goodness of God in bringing the poor heathen slaves into such relations with the white people that they were offered the opportunity to have their souls saved."

The practice of having colored servants in the home was still in existence in the time of Rev. Van Pelt's ministry. Mr. Benjamin Perine, of Elm Street, Port Richmond, had the honor of being the oldest slave on Staten Island.  He died at the age of 104 years and 10 months, the last slave on Staten Island.  Mr . Perine's mother was a slave belonging to Van Pelt.  Her grave is in the shadow of the Port Richmond Reformed Church.  Benjamin was born at Dr. Van Pelt's house on Richmond Terrace on the west side of Heberton Dec 2, 1796, a little more than a year before the legislature of this state p[assed a law declaring that all children born of slaves after 1798 should be free.  He had a brother, named Fortune, Born Nov 11, 1804 and on July 11, 1805, Dr. Van Pelt issued a certificate announcing the fact and relinquishing all claim upon him. 

"It had been customary for years to have three services at the time of the Sacrament of Holy Communion -- one for the male members of the church, one for the female members one for the colored people. There were only two colored church members at the  time of Rev. Brownlee's installation, a brother of Benjamin Perine name Fortune and his wife, Hettie.  They were both well stricken in years and had been for a long time members of the church without reproach. 


The Rev. Brownlee did not think it right that there should be segregation of races at the Lord's Table and lashed out vehemently against the practice of slavery.  He presented to his people here the proposition that either these colored Christians be admitted to the services of the white members or he would forced to resign his pastorate and leave the Island.  Dr. Brownlee stayed.  Three highly respected men, together with their families, left the church, refusing any longer to attend the services."

Staten Island Historical Society

From Brownlee's last sermon February 3, 1895: 


"As the Father hath loved me, so I have loved you; continue yee in my love."  His voice and his body were weak. He died 18 days later at 86 years 10 months.  He served 59 years 6 months as our 12th minister  On the occasion of his 50th anniv, in 1885, of those who were original Congregants, only four remained.  One was the father of Jasper Cropsey, the architect and Hudson River School painter.

 Violent Competition between Ferries - September 2, 1838

On this day the steam ferryboat, Samson, was under the command of Captain Braisted.   It was owned by the the Richmond Turnpike Company, founded by Vice President Daniel Tompkins and owned by Oroondates Mauran.  Oliver Vanderbilt, a cousin, was in charge of the steam ferryboat  Wave.

On the way to Manhattan the Wave rammed the Samson.  So, on the return from Whitehall, the Samson rammed the Wave.

Angry Wave passengers attacked the office of the Richmond Turnpike Company.  The authorities had to be called.  Business was cut throat in this literal fare war.

Alfred H. Demarest was called as Associate Pastor in 1884. 
He became Pastor 1895-1901.
A Village Rises

In 1883, Port Richmond was described as a model village, an atmosphere it retains to this day:

The general appearance of Port Richmond is inviting and pleasing.  The streets are wide, well-macadamized and smooth; the sidewalks well paved and generally shaded by trees of large growth.   The business blocks are substantial and the dwellings range from pretentious mansions to quiet cottages.

In the 1880s, the Staten Island Railway constructed a North Shore branch with a stop in the village on Richmond Avenue, which had become a main shopping area of the island.

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