The Victory Over New Jersey in the Hero Sandwich War (Artist Recreation)

Few Staten Islanders are aware of the incidents which are the source of the renaming of Richmond Turnpike as “Victory Boulevard,” coinciding with the creation of Hero Park to commemorate the site of the original invention of the hero sandwich by Armando Vespucci, as well as the astounding victory by Staten Island volunteers over the New Jersey Militia on that spot in a conflict known as The Hero Sandwich War (or “the food patent riots” or “food fights” as the Island’s heroism was described in Manhattan Newspapers).

The trouble started when Armando Vespucci, owner of a roadhouse and salumeria located on the current site of Hero Park, decided to patent the most popular item on its menu, a large sandwich filled with cold cuts on a slab of Italian bread. Vespucci called the dish “a sandwich of heroic proportions.” Locals refer to it simply as “The Hero.” And it became something of a sensation in 19th century Staten Island. So much so that word spread to New Jersey, and before long (in nearby Bayonne) a local haggis purveyor by the name of Angus MacMurtry (who was also a captain in the New Jersey militia), added the very same item to his offerings. Though he referred to the new sandwich by its colloquial name “The Hero.”

It was MacMurtry that first conceived the idea of patenting the Hero. To do so, he dispatched emissaries to the patent and trademark office in New York City. Unbeknownst to MacMurtry however, the Venezia Clam House across the street from his establishment was operated by a cousin of Vespucci’s who kept an eye on his every move. MacMurtry emissaries never reached New York, and, in fact, were never seen again. But subsequently, representatives of Vespucci did indeed arrive at the patent office.

When MacMurtry learned of the familial connection between the owner of the Venezia Clam House and Vespucci — and the fact that his patent had not reached Washington, while Vespucci’s had — he put on his militia uniform and went to work. After employing interrogation methods on the cousin, similar to those being debated today in regards to counter terrorism, MacMurtry became convinced that his emissaries had met with foul play. He resolved to arrest Vespucci. To do so, MacMurtry rallied his local militia members and they embarked to Staten Island via ferry with the express purpose of bringing Vespucci to justice.

As they marched down Richmond Turnpike (the current Victory Boulevard), word went out around the island of the invasion by New Jersey. Citizens of all the Staten Island townships flocked to the defense of Vespucci and his culinary creation (which rightly, or wrongly, was perceived as the source of the conflict). Out-gunned (some Staten islanders had nothing but dried Salamis which they used as clubs ), but superior in numbers, they were able to drive back the invaders from New Jersey after a horrific battle.

The question about the rights to the hero sandwich patent would go through a series of litigation and finally be decided by the Supreme Court. In a split decision, authored by Chief Justice Roger Tanney, the court ruled that no one could patent a sandwich, thus rendering ownership moot. So the Hero Sandwich Wars, although ultimately indeterminate in establishing ownership of the patent rights to the hero sandwich, proved a turning point in Staten Island history. Volunteers from throughout the island, who had previously identified themselves with various townships, (as opposed to Staten Island as a whole), had converged on the site of the current Hero Park and driven out the invading New Jersey Militia. From that point on Staten Islanders would have a collective identity — albeit a fractious one.

Interestingly, a recently published volume by the University of Texas at Austin Press, called Tortas, Tacos, and Gringos, The Diaries of a 19th Century Mexican Chef on Staten Island, raises new questions about the origin of the hero sandwich. This book is a collection of the never before translated diaries of Bernardo Blanco, General Santa Anna’s personal chef. Blanco accompanied Santa Anna (the former dictator of Mexico and winner of the Battle of the Alamo) to Staten Island on his mission to further the cause of chicle’s use as a rubber substitute. This effort failed, but in doing so it led to the creation of chewing gum (unbeknownst to General Santa Anna who soon returned to Mexico).

Bernardo Blanco, however, married a local girl and stayed for many years on Staten Island. He found work in the kitchen of Vespucci’s roadhouse and recounts in his diaries how some of his dishes became a local favorites. The most popular, he recalled, “was a sandwich I used to make for the General. I called it the ‘Torta Heroica’ in honor of the Presidente’s valor in his many War against the Gringos. I used to serve it to him before battles, when there was no opportunity to set up a proper field kitchen. I put in so much cold cuts and cheese that it was enough to sustain him for a whole day of fighting, and when Senor Vespucci put it on the menu of his roadhouse, it caused a quite a stir. The Staten Islanders had huge appetites and they loved the Heroica.”

This new discovery of General Santa Anna’s seminal role in the Hero Sandwich War (which he otherwise did not participate in) is an ironic contrast  to his experience in the similarly named Pastry War (also known as Guerra de los Pasteles and Guerre des Pâtisseries) which pitted Mexico against France. General Santa Anna had no role in the starting of that conflict and in fact had only recently returned from exile when it began. But in contrast to his non-combant role in the Hero Sandwich War General Santa Anna fought valiantly in the Pastry War, losing a leg in the process.

The Snug Harbor Bus Stop That Inspired Herman Melville’s Greatest Novel (Artist Recreation)

Herman Melville was virtually destitute when his brother Thomas, governor of the old sailor’s home at Snug Harbor, took him in and found him a position in the scheduling department of the Staten Island Omnibus Company, the organization whose mammoth, horse-drawn buses (affectionately known as “white whales”), achieved a commuting time comparable to today’s mass transit.

Though his new job had sounded dull, Melville was soon to learn it was just the opposite, as  immediately upon taking his post, he was confronted with a raucous crowd of concerned citizens who objected to the inadequate bus service that they felt was hindering the economic development of the island.

Herman Melville’s response to the stream of antagonism he encountered was a creative one. He devised a plan (later known as “virtual scheduling”) that was based on the concept of scheduling approximately twice the amount of buses that actually existed. This breakthrough diverted anger away from the Staten Island Omnibus Company’s office, and towards the company’s bus drivers who appeared to be perpetually late. Melville’s innovation increased office efficiency by 38%, and virtual scheduling is employed today by most large mass transit systems, including New York’s MTA. But despite this success, the author was forced to beat a somewhat hasty retreat to Manhattan, after a series of death threats from the local bus drivers union.

Before he left Staten Island however, Melville witnessed an event that burned itself into his psyche. He watched in disbelief, at the Snug Harbor bus stop, as a one-legged sailor chased fruitlessly for more than a mile after one of the “white whale” omnibuses — an incident that would serve as the foundation for his greatest work, Moby Dick. Despite his travails, Melville had fond memories of his time on the island. “Oh yes, I had written novels, before I went to Staten Island,” he recalled, “but it was in the scheduling office of the omnibus company there that I truly discovered the essence of fiction.”


October, 2011 is officially declared Forgotten History of Staten Island Month

Exciting News: By proclamation, October, 2011 is officially declared Forgotten History of Staten Island Month

Prior to that artist, Edward Weiss and the mysterious Dr. D. I. Kniebocker will preview the exciting things to come.

Artist Talk: 3pm, Saturday, September 17th
Snug Harbor 1000 Richmond Terrace SI, NY 10301, North Gate and Building C 

Free Admission

Edward Weiss will preview his upcoming work The Forgotten History of Staten Island, a month-long celebration of real and imagined historical events told through the eyes of the mythical, Dr. D. I. Kniebocker (Staten Island’s self-described “greatest historian”). The good doctor will give a reading by the North gate, the site that inspired Herman Melville’s greatest novel Moby Dick. This will be followed by an artist’s talk and exhibition of paintings created for the project in Snug Harbor’s oldest building, Main Hall, Building C. The artist will discuss his paintings, research and the meaning of forgotten histories.

The Forgotten History of Staten Island is done in collaboration with Rocky Hollow Press and was made possible by grants from the New York State Council on the Arts and the Council on the Arts & Humanities for Staten Island.