Twice at dusk every spring and summer, the setting sun lines up with Manhattan’s street grid, illuminating the city with the otherworldly spectacle known as Manhattanhenge. The phenomenon is a byproduct of the design for Manhattan outlined in the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan, the rectilinear grid of avenues running north/south with intersecting streets running east/west. The grid tilts 29 degrees east of true north to follow the backbone of Manhattan Island. The sun aligns with the tilted grid before and after the Summer Solstice, in late May and early July.
The name Manhattanhenge, coined by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in 1996, is, of course in homage to Stonehenge, the prehistoric ring of standing stones at Wiltshire, England, that aligns with the rising sun on each of the solstices, and is popularly thought to have been constructed for Druidic rituals.
Though the theory that the ancient Druids built Stonehenge has been disproved, the association persists. The idea became widespread in the 18th century due to the work of British antiquarian William Stukeley, who wrote Stonehenge: A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids (1740), and Dr. John Smith, who issued Choir Gaur: The Grand Orrery of the Ancient Druids, Commonly Called Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain (1771).
Inspired, perhaps, by these visions of an ancient mystical tradition, one of the first modern Druid organizations was founded in England in 1781 by Henry Hurle. Called the “Ancient Order of Druids,” it was created as a fraternal organization and established a quasi-Masonic lodge structure that eventually spread to the United States and Australia. The United Ancient Order of Druids’ first lodge in the United States, the George Washington Lodge No. 1, was established in New York City in 1839. An account of this event was reported in The Quarterly Magazine and Literary Journal of the United Ancient Order of Druids, published in London in 1841:
“At a meeting of the Washington Grand Lodge, held at the house of Br. Chinery, Brown Pitcher, No. 10 Frankfort Street, New York, May 8th, 1839 . . . for the purpose of considering a more efficient mode of carrying on the Druidical Order so as to render it . . . beneficial to all its members . . . [we are] taking the present steps to effect the following objects, which are principally the Social and Intellectual intercourse among all its members, and the establishment of a system of general philanthropy and benevolence, by providing for the sick and distressed, and the interment of its deceased members throughout the Order.”
The New-York Historical Society Library holds a rare copy of the Constitution and By-Laws of Washington Lodge, No. 1, of the United Ancient Order of Druids from 1845.
It originally belonged to John W. Morris, who, according to the 1845 city directory, was a grocer living on 3rd Avenue in Manhattan. Mr. Morris’s beautifully illustrated membership certificate (complete with an image of Stonehenge), found in the library’s collection of certificates, indicates he was officially “initiated into mysteries of Druidism” on February 11, 1846.
One wonders what Morris and his fellow Druids would have made of Manhattanhenge . . .
This post is by Marybeth Kavanagh, Reference Archivist.