James A. Kelly, center, unveiling his map “Indian Villages, Paths, Ponds and Places in Kings County.”
By Geoffrey Cobb
A few years ago, I was writing a book about a legendary character in Greenpoint and Brooklyn history, the politician Peter J. McGuinness. My task was made far easier by an amazing trove of documents and newspaper clippings. While working through this amazing historical trove I often wondered about the man who assembled it. That man was James A. Kelly, whose legacy is an amazing archive of material on Brooklyn history. Kelly’s own story, though, is every bit as amazing as the material he collected.
James Angelo Kelly, Jamie to friends, was born on May 27, 1885, on a farm in County Longford, Ireland. He arrived in Brooklyn at age 6, with his widowed mother. Staring out from the deck of the ship, he was mesmerized by the first game of tennis he had ever seen being played on the Brooklyn shore. He and his family settled in an Irish community in the old 10th Ward, near Warren Street and 3rd Avenue.
Kelly’s story is all the more amazing when one considers his humble, working-class background. He began work as a sandhog digging tunnels with the Interborough Rapid Transit Construction Company in 1907, extending the first local train service from Bowling Green to Atlantic Avenue. By 1916, he was Team Foreman, digging a tunnel at the intersection of Greenwich and Dey Street in lower Manhattan, an area that had originally been Manhattan’s shoreline. His team found a sunken ship which turned out to be the Tiger, a Dutch ship captained by Andriaen Block that had burned in November 1613. Amazingly, Kelly an amateur local historian, knew the Tiger’s history and excavated it. Knowing that the wood would preserve if kept in water, he had the remnants placed in a tank at a local aquarium. It was the first of many incredible historic discoveries Kelly made.
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Kelly was a true Renaissance man. He was a talented singer and raconteur who wrote three of his own songs and performed in Vaudeville. He toured the United States, Canada, England and even Australia while on the Vaudeville circuit. While in Australia, Kelly boxed a three-round exhibition with heavyweight Tom McMahon. Upon his return to America, Kelly served as First Lieutenant in the United States Army, fighting in France during World War I. While in the Army, he produced a musical called “Now and Then.”
Kelly returned to Brooklyn and needed a job. Well-connected to the Brooklyn Democratic machine of John McCooey, he was appointed First Deputy County Clerk of Kings County on January 26, 1926, where he worked until February 1964. Kelly made a name for himself in local politics by composing songs for the campaign of Jimmy Walker. He composed and copyrighted three songs, “When Scanlan Sang Marvourneen,” “The Birth of the Shamrock” and “If They’d Only Move Ireland Over Here.”
At a time when few academics studied local history, Kelly began to collect vast amounts of material that today form his archive. Unusual for his time, Kelly had a deep respect for, and interest in African American and Native American history, amongst many other areas of local history. In 1946, after studying copies of old treaties, he produced a map of Native American Brooklyn, showing the tribes that once inhabited the borough.
Kelly grew up in Gowanus, raised on stories of an undiscovered mass grave of Marylanders who had died during the Battle of Brooklyn in the American Revolution. In 1944, he was named by Fiorello LaGuardia as Brooklyn’s first Borough historian. That same year, Kelly supervised a dig at 429 Third Ave. to find the bodies of the Marylanders. Kelly was gutted when the dig found no remains, one of the few failures in a career of successes.
Kelly established Brooklyn as birthplace of Winston Churchill’s mother Jennie Jerome, and succeeded in getting Churchill to visit his mother’s home. He helped expand knowledge of Giovanni de Verrazano who discovered New York Harbor on April 17, 1524, and he helped preserve the historic Wyckoff House, among many other achievements. He also served as the Director and Executive committee member of the Long Island Historical Society, receiving a Distinguished Service to Brooklyn award at the 10th annual dinner of the Library Associates of Brooklyn College on December 12, 1959, and had an official day named after him by the Long Island Historical Society: James Kelly Day, Jan. 31, 1966.
He retired in 1964, after 38 years of work as a records clerk, but he was not finished. Kelly established the Brooklyn Historical Studies Institute at St. Francis College where he set up an archive and also lectured on local history, while continuing to work as Borough Historian. Kelly died in 1971, leaving a massive legacy to the study of Brooklyn history we still feel today.