I've wondered what Louis Windmuller's life was like in the first few years after he landed. Although in time he became a well known personage the many summaries of his life and achievements that came to be published give little information about his experiences in 1850s Manhattan. We know that he arrived, age 18 and dirt poor, on a ship called the Hermann from Bremen via Southampton, that he lived in boarding houses and took whatever work he could get, and that he eventually found success as a commissioning merchant, one who imported goods on behalf of clients who wished to purchase them.
A letter he wrote a little more than a year after his arrival lets his German family know that only one of his New York relatives has given him any really useful help. This relation, a cousin named Henry Lefman, would, in time, become a mentor, business partner, and, shortly before his death in 1860, his father-in-law.
Like Lefman, but unlike his other emigrated relatives, he decided to change both his name and his religion. He dropped the umlaut from his surname and changed his given name from Levi to Louis. It's likely he abandoned Judaism as the same time, though there's no evidence of the change until later in the century. In 1859 he married in the Dutch Reformed Church, Hoboken, and in 1874 he helped found St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Woodside, Queens.
As I found in researching his uncle and cousins, city directories are helpful in locating his business and home addresses. In 1856 and 1857, they show him to be living at 21 Jay Street and working at his cousin's business at 242 Washington. In 1858 and 1859 his business address remains the same and his home is listed in one directory as 135 Hudson Street and in another as 222 Bloomfield Street, Hoboken. In 1860 there is no change of business address and his home is given as simply Hoboken.
Both his naturalization card and his passport applications also give useful information. This application from 1895 shows him to have arrived in New York on November 12, 1853, on the S.S. Hermann from Bremen, and to have obtained U.S. citizenship almost exactly six years later on November 28, 1859. The address given, 20 Reade Street, was his business address after Henry Lefman's death in 1860. At that time he partnered with another German immigrant, Alfred Roelker, in a commissioning firm called Windmuller & Roelker and set up shop there. The address remained his business address from then until his retirement early in the twentieth century.
Here is the 1895 passport application.
In addition to these sources, searching old newspapers turns up some useful items. Here, for example, is an ad he placed in the New York Times on June 6, 1856, to sell a horse.
After he gained success as a merchant and recognition as public figure, Louis Windmuller began to write for the press, mostly on reform politics, civic improvements, progressive economics and other matters of current interest. Very occasionally, these articles would give anecdotes of his early years in the city. One such was a letter to the editor of the New York Sun written February 2, 1893. His main purpose in writing was to argue for the construction of a bridge across the Hudson to connect Manhattan with Hoboken. During that period he served as vice president of an organization dedicated to that goal (a goal which would not be achieved until a couple of decades after his death).
I've transcribed most of the text of this letter lower down this page. In it, he refers to times past when snow and ice kept the horse-drawn stage coaches from running and sleighs were used in their stead, and when people would take their private horse-drawn sleighs up the east side of the city to a road that ran beside the Harlem River at the north end of the city. He remembers the occasions when the East River would ice over and when snow would be piled high on Broadway. He also gives anecdotes from two particular winters, one in 1857 and the other a few years before. During those times he was working with Henry Lefman in a business at 242 Washington Street in Manhattan. He tells us how in 1857 the ferry between Manhattan and Brooklyn was much delayed by ice on the river, causing him to be extremely late in returning from an important errand and causing Lefman to fear he had been lost for good. Then he relates an earlier winter's ferry delay when he, dressed in formal evening attire, must help break ice off the sidewheel while being ferried across the Hudson to take his best girl, Lefman's daughter, to a ball.
Text of Louis Windmuller's letter to the editor of the Sun, February 23, 1893.
Some Reminiscences of Old Times Long Before a North River Bridge Was Thought Of--------------
To the Editor of the Sun -- Sir: The memory of winters passed long ago is revived by the Siberian weather which we lately have experienced: the good old times when we rode up town in the stage sleighs of Kip & Brown, when merry bells jingled on the Macomb's Dam road, and ice formed occasionally, a natural bridge over the East River. I remember when snow was filed up throughout the length of the middle of Broadway so high that it obstructed the view across the street from the first story windows.
In 1857 my firm dealt with B., a manufacturer of china who kept his account in a Williamsburg bank. After luncheon, on a cold winter day, I started to have his check for several thousand dollars certified by his bank, as we did not want to use it otherwise. Leaving by the ferryboat at Peck Slip [from Manhattan to Brooklyn], I arrived in good season to accomplish the object of my journey. The return was more difficult however. Ice had accumulated in the East River, so that we did not reach the New York side until 10 o'clock at night. My partner had long been waiting in the office for me, expecting to use the money on that day, but finally had left in despair about seeing me again.
Some years previously [to 1857 - so this would be very soon after his arrival in New York] I lived in the boarding house of Mrs. F., 54 Barclay street, and my best girl was in Bloomfield street, Hoboken. She was sitting in her father's parlor on a fine winter evening waiting for me to take her to the firemen's ball, where I had been rash enough to invite her. Not minding the warning of my friends, I started in my "swallow tail" on regulation time, by the Chancellor Livingston [a ferry across the Hudson], but did not get far before we were stuck fast in masses of ice. The wheels [of the steamboat] absolutely refused to turn: with our assistance some of the deck hands finally allowed themselves to be lowered by ropes, with lanterns in one hand and shovels in the other, to remove the obstruction from the blades of our paddles. By heroic efforts they finally succeeded so as to be able to move. We effected a landing at Hoboken about midnight, and I met a reception from my lady as cold as the ice was in the river. We arrived at the ball in time for supper and the champagne soon revived our spirits; but I will never forget the worry of that long evening.
To travel up and down town in a snow storm was not a pleasant trip. Horses of the few lines of cars which existed soon were disabled, and to walk for any distance was hard work. Once I had to go from Robinson street to the vicinity of the Crystal Palace, when the snow had drifted many feet high, facing a cold northern wind. I was more than two hours on the way, and nearly exhausted when I reached Reservoir square, which is now known as Bryant Park.
The persons who grumble because trains are crowded, and swear when they are behind time, have never had such experiences, or must have forgotten them. To cross the East River is no longer attended with the delay of the old times since the bridge is completed. [This refers to the Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883.]
A similar structure over the Hudson is planned, and it seems strange that objections should be raised against building it; but there has been opposition to all the improvements which have ever been proposed. For examples we need not turn to the dark ages, when reformers were crucified and inventors burned at the stake. In our own time De Witt Clinton was called an arrant fool because he wanted to connect the waters of our great lakes with the Hudson by his Erie Canal.
When the Cologne Minden Railway was first contemplated, my native town of Munster sent a delegation to Berlin in opposition. Post chaises were good enough for the old fogies who actually succeeded in diverting the danger to Hamm, a distant and obscure village, which has since grown rich at their expense.
The opposition to the Brooklyn Bridge and to our elevated roads was hard to overcome. [This refers to the "El," or elevated subway lines.] Fears that property would depreciate by the latter may in some instances have been realized; but many thousands have been derived benefit where one has been injured. The elevated roads have developed the northern portion of the city and created values which would have barely existed without them.
The opposition to the New Jersey bridge originated in the fear of some land owners on the west side that they may be ruined. ...
This photo shows an ice-bound sidewheel steamer, though not a Hudson ferry.
This print shows the East River from the Brooklyn side, looking back toward Peck Slip where Louis Windmuller set forth one cold winter day in 1857 on his trip from 242 Washington Street in Manhattan in order to exchange a promissory note at a bank in Williamsburg. You can see the Peck Slip ferries in the background.
This print shows ice-bound ferries and other boats on the East River. The boat in the middle is a ferry.
This view of the East River in winter shows ferries maneuvering through chunks of floating ice. The ferries are moved by the new screw propellers not sidewheels, but there is a sidewheel packet boat on the right.
This shows the carnival atmosphere of Broadway in the snow. The big sleigh with its six horses is a replacement for the usual stage coach. There seems to be considerable artistic license taken in depiction of a fire company on way to put out a conflagration. The blue-coated sign-bearers are said to be advertising a nearby theatrical spectical.
This map detail view shows Washington, Barclay, Jay, and Hudson Streets in 1877. I've marked it so you can see where Louis Windmuller lived and worked and also where he took the ferry to Hoboken.
This is the full sheet at reduced size. Louis Winmuller's business and home locations are at center clustering around the black center line. Hoboken is at bottom left. Only a small bit of Bloomfield Street appears in that corner. Williamsburg is at top. The Brooklyn Bridge leading to it had not been built in 1857 when he set out on his wintry errand. You can download the full size version of the map from LC here.
This map detail shows Bloomfield Street, Hoboken, in 1881. I've marked it to show where my great-grandfather lived at 222 Bloomfield and also 76 Bloomfield where I'm pretty sure Henry Lefman and his family lived. The ferry slip is shown at bottom.
This is the full sheet at reduced size. You can download the full size version from LC here. It's marvelously detailed.
Here are some reports from the New York Times on severe winter freezes of the nineteenth century.
1. This excerpt describes the "Siberian weather" of 1857 and other freezes.
2. This account describes scenes such as those recalled by my great-grandfather.
3. This account describes the first crossing of the ferry on which Louis Windmuller set forth to Hoboken one winter's day.
Hoboken, New Jersey on wikipedia
Hudson River Bridge proposals
George Washington Bridge on wikipedia
Broadway, a celebration of the history of the great boulevard in the middle of the nineteenth century, from NYPL.
New York Winter Scene in Broadway, about Sebron's painting.
 Here are the three:
The unfriendly weather and the cold reception from our relatives which [illegible word] touched by conscience brought forth feelings of abandonment. ... Sad, but not giving up my courage, I wandered through the streets of the metropolis where you see the greatest poverty and the greatest luxury. New York is a great city and not without justification is called the Empire City. The best products, the [illegible word], the most beautiful works of art created by the civilized world find a market here. The flags of every nation are represented in the harbor and I believe that every nation or people on this beautiful earth is found on the streets of New York. The Spanish with their grandezza, the French with their inexhaustible politeness, the reserved Dutch, the attentive Chinese, the British with their decisiveness, all these nationalities are represented here. How amazed you would be if from your quiet Münster you would find yourself transported to Broadway, the premier street of New York. Your ears would become deaf from the noise of wagons which are all bunched up but still move in an orderly fashion; your eyes would become blind from the wealth and luxury of the Italian marble. You would be astonished to see the busy populace which runs as if it needed to reach the end of the world. I had enough time to observe this; for days I looked at this spectacle, however my thoughts were elsewhere. I began to think how I could make a living. After I had worked for a few days in the [illegible word] factory of Mr. Frankenheimer which was not suitable work for me, I decided to look up my other relatives. I found a helping hand from my cousin Henry Lefman. And he is now the only one on whom I can depend. Without him I would be lost. He is a well-to-do honest man. He is in every respect above Philipp Frankenheimer.Lefman changed his given name from Heinrich to Henry and his religion from Jewish to Dutch Reform. It's uncertain, but he may also have changed his surname from Leffmann or Lefmann to Lefman.
Concerning myself again, I received from my cousin a few [illegible word] purses, [illegible word] etc. with which I eagerly went to business. I also went to the houses of the wealthy (on Fifth Avenue, a row of palaces, and asked for the "lady of the house." I was quickly turned away and sometimes invited in and very seldom I sold something. Nevertheless for a time I did well and earned a few dollars a day but after a while my luck ran out and also my money. I then tried [to sell] other things, liquor, wine, and tea; but I had no luck or patience with these.
Later I got a position in a manufacturing business in Brooklyn and stayed there 14 days until I saw that the boss did not treat me fairly. At present I have no occupation but to go for a stroll. Yesterday I received a position starting March 1 in a dry goods store on Broadway due to a recommendation from Henry Lefman.
 Some of these directories are now available online; for others I've relied on research done in the 1980s by my aunt Florence Hadley Heynen. Here are citations to some of the online ones:
- Trow's New York city directory (J.F. Trow, 1856)
- Trow's New York city directory (J. F. Trow., 1859)
- Trow's New York city directory (J. F. Trow., 1860)
 This was one of the few of his endeavors which records show to have been unsuccessful. For a brief history of this and other attempts to bridge the Hudson in New York's North Harbor see Hudson River Bridge proposals.
 Here are links to the letter itself — four sides of one folded sheet.
 The city directories say that Henry Lefman lived at "Union Pl." in Hoboken but I've been unable to find that address. After his death his widow lived at 76 Bloomfield and this, conceivably, is the same "Union Pl." since there is an open square at the location suitable for crowds to gather and "Union Pl." (to me) suggests an open area for union demonstrations of solidarity (not unlike Union Square in Manhattan).