Predecessor of the Torrey Botanical Club: the Club

No one knows exactly when the Torrey Botanical Club began. The origins were so gradual that it is hard to tell. Some say that it began when John Torrey began a series of informal seminars in his home in the 1840's. But informal seminars do not constitute a club with membership open to anyone with an interest in botany.

In 1854 Torrey moved into a summer home above the Palisades cliffs south of Sneden's Landing (the western side of the famous Dobb's ferry).  He discovered a wealth of plant life on the rocky bluff and admired the beauty of the spot and its view of the Hudson. He lived here from 1854 to 1865. The Torrey house, sitting on some 36 mostly wooded acres, started out as one of just six rooms, but over the years the family added on many rooms. Torrey's house was where the house of the Director of the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory now stands.  The hill where Torrey lived is still called Torrey Cliff. The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory sits on a high forested bluff on the Palisades overlooking the Hudson River, about fifteen miles north of Manhattan.

Two of Torrey's friends, Dr. Cornelius Rea Agnew and Charles F. Park, bought land for summer places on the hill near the home of Dr. Torrey.  Dr. Agnew lived where the main Lamont house now stands while Park lived nearby at Seven Oaks.  In 1865 Torrey sold his house to Dr. Agnew and moved away.  He stayed in touch with his neighbors Agnew, Park and Gilman who were among the earliest members of the Torrey Botanical Club.  The house was struck by lightning in the 1890s and soon afterward torn down. (Haagensen 1986:71, 85-86).

Raymond H. Torrey lead a Torrey field trip there on April 18, 1936. He mentioned that Torrey's house stood on Torrey's Cliff. Mrs. Robert C. Hill showed the touring group her estate, called Niederhurst that adjoined the estate of Thomas W. Lamont. There were in bloom three acres of Dutchman's breeches at the time.

In 1854 he retired from Princeton where he taught chemistry. He remained for another year as Professor of Chemistry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. In this same year he was appointed Assayer of the United States Mint by the Secretary of the Treasury. It was located at 30-32 Wall Street. His office was on the second floor. His assistant at the New York Mint was his son Herbert Gray Torrey. (John Torrey had thought that Herbert had an aptitude to become a botanist of the first rank, but this was not to be.)

In 1855 Torrey's wife, Eliza, died. She had been plagued with innumerable ailments and had been an invalid for quite some time before her death.

In 1858 the idea of field trips occurred to John Torrey. Gathering local flora, Dr. T. F. Allen discovered a locality for Clematis ochroleuca and brought it in to John Torrey to look at. From that time forward, the group started field trips. Among the members of the group were Dr. T. F. Allen, Mr. W. H. Leggett, Mr. F. J. Bumstead, Mr. James Hogg, Dr. Hyatt, and D. C. Eaton (later a professor of botany at Yale).

Torrey had transferred his herbarium to Columbia College and the College in turn made him the curator of the collection. The budding TBC met at the Herbarium of Columbia College. Torrey lived in a house provided by Columbia College. The land was on the site of David Hosack's Elgin Botanical Garden. He did not move into the house until 1862.

The excursions of 1858 went as far as the Poconos of Pennsylvania, the far reaches of Long Island, and the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey. They said that the lists of plants noted during these field days were held in the Club's minutes for use toward a permanent catalogue of plants."

Among the genera which have received recent additions or corrections as the result of these field days are Ophioglossum, Dryopteris, Sisyrinchium, and Picea (p 556). Also important was the valuable works of members on local flora such as that by Drs. N. L. Britton and Arthur Hollick on Staten Island.

The vice-president was Dr. Timothy F. Allen (1837-1902), a specialist in Characeae (an algal family). There has been a notable tradition of attention to the charophytes from the time of the physician T. F. Allen (phycology) and C. B. Robinson who attempted to list the American forms.

1859 was the publication date of The Botany of the Mexican Boundary.

Torrey had two black maids. Torrey experienced the horror of the New York City Draft Riots. In a letter to Asa Gray (New York, July 13th, 1863) he commented:

"We have had great riots in New York today & they are still in progress. They were reported to us at the Assay office about noon, but I thought they were exaggerated. Fresh accounts came in every half hour, & some of our Treasury officers (occupying the same building with us) were alarmed. I had made arrangements for visiting Eliza, at Snedens, this afternoon, but just as I was starting Mr. Mason came in & said that he saw a mob stop two 3rd. Avenue cars to take out some Negroes & maltreat them. This decided me to return home, so as to protect my colored servants."

At 34th Street and 4th Avenue he was ordered out of a horsecar by a surly mob. He then was able to catch another horsecar."

In another letter dated July 15 he wrote:

"Yesterday there were cars only on the lower part of 4th Avenue -- all the others in the city, & the omnibuses were withdrawn. I was obliged to walk up from Wall St. in the heat of the day. On reaching home I found that we had been warned that all the College buildings were to be destroyed at night. Jane and Maggie had some of their most valuable articles packed, but we did not know where to send them. A friend took our basket of silver to her house. I look about to see what few articles I could put in a small traveling bag, but it was very difficult to make a selection. There were so many (to me) precious little souvenirs that it grieved me to think they would probably be destroyed. Then it did go hard with me to feel pretty well assured that the Herbarium & Botanical Books were to be given up! Yet we had a reprieve. Just as we were expecting the mob to come howling along, a person came in with a confidential message from a Catholic priest, that Gov. Seymour had taken the responsibility of stopping the draft, & the chief rioters were to be informed of this measure. . . .

"At our office there had been no disturbance in the battery of about 25 rifle barrels, carrying 3 balls each & mounted on a gun carriage. It could be loaded & fired with rapidity. We had also 10-inch shells, to be lighted & thrown out of the windows. Likewise quantities of SO, with arrangements for projecting it on the mob."

In 1865 Torrey sold the Palisades property to C. R. Agnew. He then made a trip to California where he could see in their natural habitats many of the plants that he had identified.

In a letter from Asa Gray to W. J. Hooker, dated April 24, 1865, Asa Gray mentioned that "our good friend Dr. Torrey sailed yesterday for California! Via the Isthmus, to return three or four months hence, perhaps overland. He is a much trusted officer of government, as assayer of the United States assay office at New York, and the secretary of the treasury, knowing that he needs some respite and change, has arranged this trip for him, upon business of the department, by no means of an onerous character. He has long wished to set eyes upon California, and I am glad he has such a pleasant opportunity of doing so." 533 Letters of A Gray

Official Organization of the Torrey Botanical Club

The official date accepted by the membership is 1867. This is amazing considering that Dr. J. Bernard Brinton did not found the Philadelphia Botanical Club until almost 1893 (actually established December 1892). And Philadelphia was the traditional home of American botanical studies.

In his presidential address, George Thurber said that during the summer of 1868, two enthusiasts frequently knocked at the door of Dr. Torrey's Herbarium in Columbia College. They were always greeted with two hands, and derived great pleasure in discussing some new plant found in the vicinity, or in comparing curious varieties and sports of familiar species. They had heard vague rumors of the existence of other collectors, more confirmed by the mysterious disappearance of a secluded path of Cardamine pratensis, which had been left a few days to perfect. The desire was frequently expressed to try to assemble these workers, so the effort was made. The meeting gradually increased in size and interest, until it became evident that we possessed a working force.

George Thurber said in his presidential address vol. 4 no 8 August 1873:26-39 that he thought that Dr. T. F. Allen was the one who suggested meeting at stated times. "Our beginning was such a gradual accretion that those of us who were among the original members can hardly tell how it came to be called even a ‘Club.'"

On a postcard C. C. Parry wrote back from Davenport, Iowa (October 30, 1886 in archives) that he had attended some early meetings of the TBC but had never enrolled as a regular member. "My recollections are that the early meetings were quite informal and of a social character."

John H. Redfield in a letter to Arthur Hollick (TBC archives, January 8, 1886) recalled the early meetings. Calling on a friend, Robert H. Browne, who invited Redfield to a TBC Meeting, Redfield remembered: "I found the doctor -- lovely and cordial as ever -- surrounded by a circle of 8 or 10, mostly young men, who without the slightest formality, were quietly chatting with him about various plants, just as school boys would flock around a teacher." He also mentioned that it became the custom that Dr. Torrey's family would bring in coffee and biscuits at 10 p.m. He also added about the founding of the group: "I doubt whether it came by any election -- but rather by elective affinity."

The exhibition and discussion of new or unusual species of plants as well as showing recently published books formed a principal part of the "social and cheerful meetings."

Early in the informal existence of the Club it was proposed to make a catalogue of the plants of New York and its vicinity. Back in 1817 Dr. Torrey presented to the New York Lyceum of Natural History "A Catalogue of the Plants growing spontaneously within 30 miles of the city of New York" and it was thought that a catalogue embracing the same territory would be useful to botanists, and show interesting changes in our local flora, in the obliteration of some species, and the introduction of others.

Working on the catalogue gave the group a common purpose and the association assumed a stability that it did not before possess and increased in numbers.

Those at work upon the new catalogue found that nearly a half century had passed since the completion of the first catalogue, and it was proposed that the semi-centennial anniversary of the presentation of the catalogue by Dr. Torrey to the Lyceum should be marked by a festival.

On December 20, 1867 TBC members were involved in the Torrey semi-centennial celebration at the anniversary of 50 years since Torrey in 1817 had presented his findings about local vegetation to the New York Lyceum. This semi-centennial of December 20th, 1867, still further united the members, and the present organization was effected (Dec 1870 Bulletin of the TBC informally called The Club). They met at the Astor House on one of the most furious of snow storm days. The club then had no officers. George Thurber presided at the table and made an address. It was the first public demonstration on the part of the Club, and one which, as the proceedings of the evening were published in the American Naturalist, first made the existence of the Club generally known.

As materials for the new catalogue accumulated and new helpers came into the field, it became necessary to have a medium through which the colleagues could communicate and it was proposed to establish a monthly Bulletin. The first number of the Bulletin appeared in January 1870. Primarily devoted to matters relating to the catalogue, it has also given many botanical items of general interest. They started out with a budding journal just four pages long.

At about the time the Bulletin was proposed, it was thought best the Club should adopt a distinctive name; that of the Torrey Botanical Club seemed the most fitting. (Presidential address) They came out with a charter on April 21, 1871 for what was called the New York Botanical Club. In 1872 they changed the name to Torrey Botanical Club.

In 1870 the group was simply known as "the Club." In that year the Club first published a list of its officers with the commencement of the publication of the monthly Bulletin of the Club (first published in January of 1870). Dr. Torrey was the first president (then simply known as chairman). His herbarium curator P.V. LeRoy was named secretary. The group membership listed thirty members (actually 29 since one member was deceased by time of publication). The following is a list of the officers and members of the club with the caveat: "As the association is rather informal, and somewhat fluctuating, we hope that errors and deficiencies will be pardoned."

Allen, T. F. M.D.
Austin, Coe F.
Bower, William
Buchanan, I.
Bumstead, F. J.
Day, W. De F.
Darby, John
Denslow, Herbert
Eaton, D. C.
Fischer, W. L.
Forman, W. H.
Gerard, Charles B.
Gross, O. R.
Hall, I. H.
Hogg, James
Hyatt, James
Leggett, William H.
Le Roy, P. V.
Merriam, James S.
Morris, O. W.
Perry, O. H.
Pollard, F. A.
Redfield, J. H.
Rockwith, F. A.
Ruger, M.
Torrey, John
Thurber, George
Ward, James W.
Wilbur, G. M.

Very little is known about many of these men. And this lack of knowledge occurred early on. In fact, in 1886 Arthur Hollick, who was not among the original founders, tried to find out who some of these men were and where they went and so he sent out a circular asking current TBC members if they knew anything about the listed men. Here is a little on the backgrounds of these men.

Coe F. Austin (1831-1880) was a specialist in the Hepaticae. William Starling Sullivant (1803-1873) had sent species to Torrey and Gray. Sullivant, a businessman from Columbus, Ohio, along with a professor from Amherst (Tuckerman), were primarily responsible for the investigations leading to the publication of the major floras on cryptogams of North America. Sullivant had several younger colleagues besides Lesquereux and James. Among these were C. F. Austin, a New Jersey specialist in hepaticology.

John Darby was proposed by Dr. Bumstead. He was a professor in geology and had published a book of lessons used in his classes.

Herbert M. Denslow was an Episcopal clergyman who had botany as a hobby. He was only fifteen years old at the time of the first dinner meeting in 1867. He later was president of the TBC in 1928 and 1929. He died in 1944.

At the time of the Civil War, fern specialist Daniel Cady Eaton (1834-1895) at Yale was the only other full-time botanical professor in the United States and was heavily committed to the study of ferns and their allies. Eaton published a catalogue of the flowering plants and higher cryptogams growing without cultivation within 30 miles of Yale College. In 1893 he published A Check-list of North American Sphagna. (p. 93) Eaton, along with Sereno Watson (1826-1892), were faithful students of Asa Gray who worked in his tradition.

James Hyatt wrote that he had met Herbert Denslow at his residence on Washington Heights. He said that when Denslow got into botany he knew he would die in a few years of his entering the study of botany. He subsequently died of tuberculosis.

"W. L. Fisher I think was connected with Central Park" wrote P. V. Le Roy. James Hyatt wrote that Fischer was a commercial flower gardener at 8th Avenue and 29th Street.

W. H. Forman I believe went west wrote P. V. Le Roy.

Isaac H. Hall wrote back to Hollick on a letter head from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

James Hogg was the brother of Thomas Hogg, Jr. (2820-1892). Thomas Hogg, Jr. was born in London, England. He came with his father, Thomas Hogg, Sr., to the United States when he was only nine months old. Thomas Hogg , Sr. was a successful nurseryman and florist in New York City. When he died in 1855, the two brothers Thomas Hogg, Jr. and James Hogg took over the business. Thomas Hogg Jr. was US Marshall in 1862 and as such went to Japan for a number of years where he took an interest in Japanese plants. He became a TBC member in 1882 and was vice-president of TBC from 1886 until his death in 1892.

P. V. Le Roy was Torrey's assistant at the Columbia herbarium.

William H. Leggett (1816-1882) was a graduate of Columbia College and founder and first editor of the Bulletin (which he founded as a private enterprise in 1870).

M. Ruger was for many years the chief organizer and leader of the club's excursions.

George Thurber was a grass specialist. He was also the second president of TBC.

About James W. Ward there were various suggestions of where he was in 1886: at Grosvenor Library, Buffalo, NY; a gentleman uptown; and gone to San Francisco to live.

Death of John Torrey

Torrey went with his daughter Margaret to California in 1872. This time they went by rail instead of by sea. John Torrey met Dr. C. R. Agnew in California on his travels in that state. Agnew made the trip much more manageable for Torrey. Later, Agnew purchased the Torrey summer home near Sneden's Landing (now Palisades, New York).

John Muir met John Torrey on Torrey's last trip to Yosemite. Writing to Muir in September, 1872, from the home of his friend Dr. Engelmann in St. Louis, Torrey expressed great satisfaction over the hours he spent with Muir in Yosemite. "That little Botrychium," added Torrey in reference to a plant Muir had sent him, "looks peculiar and I will report on it when I go home." He never did, and twenty-six years elapsed before any one else found a plant of this genus in the High Sierra. Muir noted on the envelope of Torrey's letter, "his last Yosemite trip," for Torrey died the following March. (The Life and Letters of John Muir by William Frederic Badè)

Upon his return journey, Torrey tarried awhile among the Rocky Mountains and ascended Torrey's Peak, which was thus named by his former pupil, Dr. Charles Christopher Parry (1823-1890).

Neither the winter trip to Florida in 1871 nor the California trip of 1872 arrested the disease which those who saw Torrey only at intervals could perceive was gradually wasting his body.

Just as the organization of TBC was being perfected, Torrey died. He had presided over the Torrey meeting on January 29, 1873. But the next day he was taken with pleurisy.

On March 10, 1873 Torrey died in his sleep in his home. The collaboration of Torrey and Gray was retired. Their collaboration on Flora of North America was never finished.

On March 13, the funeral was at the West Presbyterian Church located on 42nd Street. All the members of the Torrey Botanical Club attended the funeral, each of them wearing a sprig of Torreya. (In the TBS archives, there is an announcement of the funeral sent to William Bower from the Club secretary P. V. Le Roy, that has a piece of this Torreya pinned to it.) The coffin bearers included Asa Gray, Professor Joseph Henry, and President Barnard of Columbia College. Joseph Henry was the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and a long time personal friend of the Torrey family.

Torrey was first buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, but six weeks later his body was taken to the new family plot in Long Hill Cemetery, Stirling, New Jersey and placed in the Presbyterian section. The actual date of the boy transfer was April 29, 1873. Stirling is located in the southeast corner of Morris County, off Exit 40 of US I-78, east of the intersection of I-287 and I-78. The plot had just recently been purchased by Torrey's only son. Herbert Gray Torrey had a house at Stirling called Hilltop. (The Railroad Station Park -- now Turtle Rock Park -- was presented to Stirling by Dr. Herbert Gray Torrey.) Herbert Gray Torrey married Marie Louise Snow. The couple had two sons, John Gray Torrey and Ralph Guyot Torrey (1878-1893). John Torrey visited in Stirling several times.

In 1873, the same year that Torrey died, Asa Gray retired. In 1874 they published Torrey's "Revision of the Eriogonae" with Asa Gray. Also in the same year publishers came out with the "Phanerogamia of Pacific North America."

With the death of John Torrey, Dr. George Thurber became the president of TBC. Thurber was an authority on grasses and erstwhile associate on the Mexican Boundary Survey. He presided in this office for seven years.

The final organization of the Club was on April 29, 1873.

In a letter dated October 27, 1874 Thurber wrote that he was sorry he could not attend the first meeting at the new quarters, but that he had suffered a hemorrhage of the lungs and could not go out for fear of worsening his condition. The letter was on stationary with the letterhead Orange Judd, Co. Publishers, #245 Broadway; American Agriculturalist and Rural Books.

In 1875 on a trip to Appalachicola, Florida, Dr. and Mrs. Gray, guided by a local young man found a stand of Torreya. He took a branch large enough to make an official baton for the presidency of the Torrey Botanical Club. (Rodgers 1968:83-84)


In 1906 the American Museum of Natural History selected ten men who had advanced science the most in America. There was one botanist among the group: John Torrey.

In the mid 1960's Jack Frocht complained the grave of Torrey was all covered with poison ivy.

Letter of Laura S. Van Voast (Mrs. Albert B. Van Voast) to Dr. Steere (then head of NYBG), October 25, 1968:

I have in my possession three items that may be of interest to the Torrey Club: 1) a Torrey coat of arms; 2) a miniature of the wife of John Torrey with her small son, Herbert Gray; and 3) a photo of John Gray Torrey taken in 1896 at the age of 26.

"I would count it a joy to give any or all of these items to the Torrey Club."

These gifts were mentioned and acknowledged in the minutes for the November 11, 1968 meeting of the TBS.

On May 9, 1987 there was a rededication of the John Torrey grave in Stirling, Morris County, New Jersey near the home of Herbert Gray Torrey. A plaque was dedicated at the gravesite.