Cars, Electricity Make News In November 1900
Get into a conversation with a long-time Queens resident and you’re likely to discover a subscriber of the Long Island Star-Journal, a daily paper that informed the community about local and world news until it folded in 1968. A banner across the Star-Journal masthead reminded readers that the newspaper’s name came from the merger of the Long Island Daily Star (1876) and the North Shore Daily Journal--The Flushing Journal (1841).
Welcome to November 1900!
It was an election month and Queens County overwhelmingly voted for William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic president candidate known as the "Great Commoner" who billed himself as fighting for the interests of the little people. However, the country reelected President William McKinley and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt. As the Star-Journal put it, "McKinley Makes a Triumphant Sweep—the election is over and the Republican Party is successful in the entire country. The result is an unqualified endorsement of President McKinley’s foreign and domestic policy."
The foreign policy referred to was U.S. presence in the Philippines, where the native people were objecting to the American occupation, and in China, where the Boxer Rebellion was being put down by Western powers. On November 30, the Star-Journal ran a piece on one James McKeon of Sunnyside, who was "a sailor on board the United States battleship Oregon." The ship had been sent to China in June but ran aground in the Straits of Pechilli for a week before she could be refloated. "The ship is one held dear to the heart of every American and her rescue from such an undeserved fate is largely due to the heroism and devotion of the crew of the gallant and battle-scarred craft." McKeon assured his mother that the ship’s crew was unlikely to take part in combat and he would not be in any personal danger. Three months after the battleship returned to the United States, McKinley would be assassinated in September 1901 while in Buffalo, New York for the Pan-American Exposition.
The Pan-American Exposition was lit by electricity produced from nearby Niagara Falls. Queens was not far behind in municipal electrification which marked the beginning of the twentieth century. On November 30, the Star-Journal remarked with pride that over 35 miles of Queens highways were now lit by electric arc lights. "[A] ll the main thoroughfares of the Borough are now illuminated from the East River and the Brooklyn boundary to the villages of Jamaica, Flushing and Newtown. These avenues, so popular with wheelmen [cyclists] and pleasure drivers, can now be traversed for miles over the well-lighted roadways as easily and as safely by night as by day."
The Star-Journal noted, "[T]he riding of the automobile has become a feature of late in the streets of the Borough of Queens. Nearly all of these automobiles are owned by wealthy residents with homes on Long Island and the machines are frequently used for riding into town for business, shopping, pleasure, etc. But right now there is trouble here in Long Island City for the automobile. It seems that there is a section of the Marine law which prohibits ferry boats from carrying inflammable fluids, and the provision compels ferry companies to see to it that automobiles containing gasoline shall not be allowed to cross unless the tanks containing the fluid are empty." The newspaper related a sad tale of a young man who, wishing to use the ferry that ran from Hunter’s Point to 34th Street in Manhattan, was compelled to empty his car’s tank and watch the precious fluid run out into the street. Eventually the automobile would have its revenge over the ferry, however. The Queensborough Bridge, opened in 1909, became the favorite method of crossing the river, putting the ferry out of business.
Even before the bridge made Hunter’s Point more accessible, it was a center of industry at the turn of the century. On November 30, 1900 the Star-Journal ran an interview with an old-timer from the neighborhood. "A Star reporter had an interesting little chat with Mr. Jacob E. Hunter at his home on Hunter Avenue this week. Mr. Hunter is now in his 64th year, but he recalls a number of interesting facts relating to Hunter’s Point and Long Island City in its pioneer days of half a century ago. He is a member of the family from which Hunter’s Point derives its name. Hunter Avenue is named in his honor."
When the Hunter family moved into Queens, it was a landscape of farms and woods, but the old family homestead had long ago been demolished. "’Young man,’ said Mr. Hunter, ‘I want to tell you that Hunter’s Point as I first knew it was the prettiest spot in all New York State. Perhaps you don’t believe that and I don’t blame you very much, considering present appearances, but it is true just the same. There weren’t any smokestacks to belch out along this part of the river. I remember my father and I used to row across [Newtown] creek and walk along the river bank to Williamsburg where we would take the Grand Street ferry and go over to Barnum’s Museum. It was down on the corner of Fulton Street and Broadway then, and a right interesting place it was for us boys too. There were all sorts of curiosities and animals and they had a sort of vaudeville entertainment, too. It beat your swell theaters, let me tell you!"
Hunter explained that in the 1850s the view of the city from Hunter’s Point was not very good, as the building of Manhattan had not spread much above 23rd Street. "Herald Square was a waste of rocky land and [what is now] Central Park was about the dirtiest place I ever saw. It was a sort of cow and pig pasture combined.
"I can remember when Newtown Creek was a pretty and clear stream, and not marred by factories and filled with grease and oil. And do you know, I used to catch all the fish and soft shell crabs the whole family could eat, out of that creek? It wouldn’t take me more than half-an-hour to get a big catch."
On November 16 the Star-Journal reported that a piece of Queens history was about to disappear, the Blackwell mansion in Long Island City. "The old house is fast going to pieces. It is to be torn down or what is left of the old structure is to be razed. The most interesting part of the old dwelling is the Dutch door at the main entrance on the river side of the house. The door is gray and weather beaten and creaks on its hinges that have done duty for more than two centuries. In a small panel over the knob is the mark of confiscation of the King of England. Jacob Blackwell, the original owner of the house, was an American patriot and when the British soldiers marched into town he had to flee with other patriots. His property was confiscated in the name of the king and a mark—an arrowhead—cut in the front door."
That’s the way it was in November 1900.
Compiled by Clare Doyle, Librarian, Greater Astoria Historical Society.
For more information, contact the Society at 718-728-0700 or visit www.astorialic.org.