Incredible photos of New York City when it was covered in farmland

1879Collection of The New-York Historical SocietyBrennan Farm House, 84th and Broadway, 1879.

Most New Yorkers today are living on what was once farmland.

As early as the 17th century, before Manhattan formed its famous grid, the island contained farms in neighbourhoods from Midtown to the Upper West Side.

The Museum of the City of New York’s online collection reveals what the city looked like at the time. The series, “The Greatest Grid,” features illustrations and photos of New York City’s former rolling hills, which were later demolished to create a flat streetscape.

Take a look at the city’s transformation below.

The Bowery is the oldest thoroughfare on the island of Manhattan. When the Dutch settled there in 1654, they named the path Bouwerij -- an old Dutch word for 'farm' -- because it connected cattle farms and estates on the outskirts to (what is today) Wall Street.

NYPL Digital Gallery

Source: The Encyclopedia of New York City

At the time, New York City (then known as New Amsterdam) featured rolling hills, forests, boulders, farms, and spaced-out homes. The 1776 illustration below is of present-day University Heights in the Bronx.

The New York Public Library
Thomas Davies, A view of the attack against Fort Washington and rebel redouts near New York on the 16 of November 1776 by the British and Hessian brigades, 1776.

Source: NYPL

This 1862 illustration depicts a triangular farm on Manhattan's Upper West Side during the Civil War. High property taxes discouraged landowners from building on their lots, and the area would not see full-scale development until the 1880s.

The Museum of the City of New York
Junction of Broadway and Eighth Avenue, 1861. Lithograph by George Hayward for D.T. Valentine's Manual, 1862.

Source: The Museum of the City of New York

Sheep grazed on west Central Park's Sheep Meadow from the 1860s until 1934, when they were moved to Brooklyn's Prospect Park and later to a farm in the Catskill Mountains.

The Museum of the City of New York
Pierre Martel, Central Park, 1864. Lithograph published by H. Geissler.

Source: Modern Farmer

The sheep's owners relocated, because they feared impoverished, Depression-era New Yorkers would eat the animals.

The Library of Congress
Central Park's Sheep Meadow, early 1900s.

Source: NYC Travel Guide

Beginning in the mid-19th century, Manhattan started demolishing the area's hills (and thus, farmland and some farmhouses) to make way for the city's level thoroughfares. The 1869 photo below shows a team of laborers excavating through a hillside to extend Eighth Avenue north.

Collection of The New-York Historical Society
Regulating and Grading Eighth Avenue, looking North from 106th Street, ca. 1869.

Source: The Museum of the City of New York

'The time will come when New York will be built up, when all the grading and filling will be done, and when the picturesquely-varied, rocky formations of the Island will have been converted into formations for rows of monotonous straight streets, and piles of erect buildings,' NYC landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted wrote at the time.

The Museum of the City of New York
View of the Brevoort Estate and Vicinity Between 54th & 55th Sts. near 1st Ave. Lithograph by Major & Knapp for D.T. Valentine's Manual, 1866.

Source: The Museum of the City of New York

Patrick and Mary Brennan's farmhouse, pictured below in 1879, lasted until around 1900. Edgar Allen Poe rented a room there. It's where he likely wrote 'The Raven.'

Collection of The New-York Historical Society
Brennan Farm House, 84th and Broadway, 1879.

Source: The Museum of the City of New York

The 1882 photo below was taken from the roof of a mansion that belonged to George Ehret, a successful brewer and one of the first wealthy New Yorkers to move to Prospect Hill (now Carnegie Hill).

Peter Baab/Museum of the City of New York
Peter Baab, Photographic series from the roof of George Ehret's home at Park Avenue and 94th Street, 1882 -- 83.

Source: The Museum of the City of New York

The photographer, Peter Baab, captured what he called 'the march of improvement.' New row houses and mansions began to overrun the old factories, squatter homes, and farmhouses that once dominated the Upper East Side.

Peter Baab/Museum of the City of New York
Peter Baab, Photographic series from the roof of George Ehret's home at Park Avenue and 94th Street, 1882 -- 83.

Source: The Museum of the City of New York

In the late 19th century, the city pushed to urbanize, and urban livestock -- from hogs to dairy cows -- were seen as a threat to the image and high-brow future of New York. As CityLab notes, many members of Manhattan's elite bought (or took) the city's farmland, often owned by those of lower status, during this period.

Museum of the City of New York
Lenox Farm Buildings, 1885.

Source: CityLab

Irish pig farmers and German gardeners, as well as the African-American settlement of Seneca Village, worked and lived on the land that's today known as Central Park. To create the park, the majority of their homes were destroyed in the 1860s.

NYC Parks
Workers start the extension of New York's Eastern Parkway, 1896.

New York's wealthy largely funded the city's parks and public spaces, in hopes of creating places where upper class women could stroll without coming into contact with those of lower status, according to historians.

In this photo from 1890, 94th Street had been cut through a hill next to a farmhouse.

Museum of the City of New York
Houses of Riverside Drive and 94th Street, looking west from 94th Street, June 1890.

The newly graded streets attracted residents to upper parts of Manhattan. Within two decades, apartment buildings replaced the farmhouses pictured in this 1998 photo.

Collection of The New-York Historical Society
James Reuel Smith, View of the southwest corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 124th Street, November 16, 1898.

New York's street grid became more dense throughout the early 20th century. Though the grid was great for housing, city commissioners soon realised the master plan -- and high land values -- deprived residents of space and sunlight.

NYPL
Manhattan's tenement row, demolition in progress, circa 1934-1938.

The city moved toward a more modern urban plan called superblocks. This required demolishing tenement buildings and constructing larger apartment buildings with spacious green areas in between. But New York City will likely never be as grassy as it used to be.

Museum of the City of New York
Aerial View of Housing Superblocks on the Lower East Side, April 30, 1952.

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