The history of the name of one of the narrowest streets in New York City can be somewhat difficult to piece together. One of the aspects that makes it most confusing to track is that it changed many times, both officially and unofficially, over the course of the street’s 200-year history. The street in question, today known as Charles Lane, first came into existence as a small, unnamed roadway on the north side of Newgate State Prison.
The prison, and the roadway, were first built in 1797, when the prison was still considered to be “up the river” from Manhattan proper. However, encroaching settlement and overcrowding in the prison lead to its closure in 1828. The prisoners were sent even further up the river, to the newly-opened Sing Sing Prison in Westchester County, and the land which the prison had occupied was acquired by the city. The city planners’ first move was to extend the already-existing Christopher and Amos (now West 10th) Streets to the Hudson River, and construct some other streets, including Charles Street, within the parcel.
The remaining land was then split into 100 lots and actioned off. However, the small roadway that was once the north side of the prison remained, and was known at the time as Bayard Place (although it had not yet appeared on any official map).
Amos and Christopher Streets, as well as the newly constructed Charles Street and as-yet-unnamed Charles Lane, all get their names from Charles Christopher Amos, the former owner of the estate which encompassed much of the land that became Newgate Prison. Amos inherited the estate from a relative, who purchased the property from Sir Peter Warren, once the largest landowner in the area. Christopher Street is the oldest street in the West Village, as it existed as the south border of both the Warren and Amos estates, well before other development in the area.
Once the prison closed and the property was opened for development, the proximity to the Hudson River piers, as well as the Hudson River Railroad, constructed in 1846, lead to a boom of commercial and residential development in the area. West Street, the western cross-street of Bayard Place, was home to many slaughterhouses during this time, which some believe may have contributed to Bayard Place’s next change in name. At some point during the mid-1800s, the street began to become known as “Pig Alley,” because of the pigs and other animals that were clustered in the small street, waiting their turn at the slaughterhouses on West Street. The name quickly gained in popularity, with some believing that the name could be attributed to residents of the tenement housing that was built up along the alley, replacing the unofficial “Bayard Place,” and was even used in newspaper articles and other descriptions of the area at the time. A “Map of the Wharves & Piers from the Battery to 61st Street on the Hudson River,” published by the city in 1860, shows a clearly labeled Pig Alley.
Like the larger West Village, Pig Alley, had a mix of commercial and residential buildings, a small-scale representation of the larger changes taking place in the neighborhood. There were some tenement houses built, as well as stables and carriage houses for the larger homes and businesses along Charles, Perry, and Washington Streets. At this time, however, it wasn’t considered a street in its own right, but more of an extension of the homes and businesses on Charles Street. Beadleston and Worez’s Empire Brewery, established in 1845 on Charles Street, used buildings on Charles Alley as a freight depot. Although still known generally as Pig Alley, the block also, gradually, became known as Charles Alley, a much more palatable name to those who actually resided on the street.
Henry Wyckoff, a businessman and real estate developer, build a steel factory in Charles Lane. A map from the late nineteenth century shows a boiler works on the street, and there was an iron railing factory at one time, as well as ice-houses, and the ever-present stables and carriage houses. Once businesses and homes were established on the street independent of those on Charles or Perry Streets, it needed an official name of its own for both legal and mapping purposes, and so the name Charles Lane finally came into existence. The street known as Charles Lane first appears on Robinson’s 1881 “Atlas of the City of New York.” The street continues to be known as Charles Lane today, and remains one of the smallest streets in Manhattan. It has no sidewalks, and is only one block long and fifteen feet wide.