Freedom Train Rolls Into Queens
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).
On the morning of December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, the “Freedom Train” rolled into Queens and stopped in Flushing for a four-day stay before going on to Jamaica for another two days. It carried priceless documents—the original Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation and other important historical papers and artifacts. The train, officially known as “The Spirit of ’76,” was gleaming white with red and blue stripes. It had traveled 35,779 miles, the longest train tour in history. Since its first stop in Philadelphia on Constitution Day 1947, it had been in every state in the union. Queens was the 318th stop on its journey. About 22,955 school children and adults visited the train during its stay in Flushing. In its entire journey, over 3,255,000 Americans had visited the train.
Marine Corporal William S. Gerichten of Forest Hills, and Henry J. Sperlin, of Glendale were among the 26 Marines who had been assigned to guard the train. These men had to pass rigid requirements for the privilege of guarding the train. In addition to weight and height specifications, they were also investigated by the FBI.
The month began with some residents of Hallett’s Cove protesting eviction from their homes to make way for the Astoria Houses development. More than 150 tenants had received eviction notices. At the ceremonies for laying the cornerstone of a new building, they stood quietly and bore placards calling attention to their plight. Borough President James A. Burke assured tenants that they would not be forced to leave without provision for adequate housing. John Lane, Director of the Hallett’s Cove Tenants’ League summed up the tenants’ fears, “This is for poor people, and it seems we are not poor enough.” Income restrictions on residents in public housing meant that only about 10 percent of those evicted would be eligible to move into the Houses once they were completed.
However, on November 29 the first six families moved into one of the first completed Astoria Houses buildings. The first family to move in was that of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene DeVeau, who had been evicted to construct the Houses (families like this were called “site families”). They were returning to 3-02 Astoria Blvd., their old address, where their apartment had been a five-room, cold water, walk-up in a six family building, which was demolished. The new apartment was also five rooms, but the new six-story building housed 45 families “in a clean modern style.” Some 1,101 families were to be housed in the Houses when all buildings were finished.
The corporation seeking to build what is now known as the Queensview Cooperative Apartments presented a memorandum of understanding regarding the construction of the project to the city. Construction of the apartments was contingent upon the city turning over some of the land it intended to use for the construction of the Ravenswood Houses to the private corporation and authorization to build 14-story structures. The buildings would be the tallest in Queens. There would be 728 apartments, which would sell for $11,000 each, with a $2,200 down payment and a rent of $17.75 per room to cover expenses.
On December 19, a Sunday, a 20-hour snowstorm began. When it was over, 19.6 inches of snow blanketed the city. Fortunately, by Monday morning rush hour busses and subways were on a normal schedule. The city marshaled 17,000 men to clear streets and all secondary arteries were predicted to be cleared by the end of the day.
Unfortunately, the storm took nine lives, including that of Police Department Chief Inspector Martin J. Brown, 58, of College Point, who collapsed and died of a heart attack after shoveling snow in front of his home. Brown was the second highest police official in the city. Tragically, Brown’s friend and former colleague John J. Gallagher, 70, also died while trying to free his snow-covered auto. He had been head of Queens detectives for 15 years, until 1936.
In Flushing, the case of the “firebug burglars” was solved when 10 year-old Robert and 8 year-old John (family name withheld by the Star-Journal ) confessed to burglarizing and torching two Flushing homes. Robert had been arrested three times previously for burglary, and John had three burglary arrests and 12 summonses before the Juvenile Aid Bureau for other offenses on his record. The boys’ mother, Mary, commented of John, “He is a bright boy, ahead of his year in school. He just needs hospital care.” She said that he was well liked in the neighborhood and usually well behaved, but that “Every once in a while something will go wrong and he gets into a scrape.” Mary also said that her husband was a good father, but “He takes him to movies, baseball games and plays in games with him, but it just doesn’t do any good.”
On December 26 in Flushing, a reverent gathering at the Bowne House commemorated the 291st anniversary of the Flushing Remonstrance (dated December 27, 1657) by reading the 23rd Psalm from John Bowne’s Bible. Supreme Court Justice Charles S. Colden followed with a reading of the Remonstrance itself. The document protested religious persecution by the governor of New Netherland, Peter Stuyvesant. Preserved in the State Capital in Albany, it is regarded by historians as one of the foundation stones of religious freedom in America. It was partially destroyed by fire in 1910.
In entertainment news, actor Errol Flynn was arrested for kicking a Queens policeman in the shins. The incident occurred shortly before 2 a.m. when Patrolman Joseph Birgeles of Woodside stopped the cab Flynn and a companion, Robert Wahn, were riding in to investigate the driver’s license of their cabby. Flynn and Wahn attempted to intervene and were taken off to the East 51st Street (Manhattan) police station. As Wahn was being booked for disorderly conduct, Flynn allegedly kicked the patrolman in the shins. Flynn was also booked for third degree assault, and he and Wahn were released on bail. The next day, Wahn appeared for a court appearance, but Flynn failed to show, an act of contempt which caused the judge to revoke Flynn’s $500 bail and issue an arrest warrant. Flynn, who had been a contender for the light heavyweight boxing title in the 1928 Olympics, had “figured in several one-punch Hollywood brawls.”
Playing at the movies were “Cry of the City,” starring Victor Mature and Richard Conte; “A Foreign Affair,” starring Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich and John Lund; “Rachel and the Stranger,” starring Loretta Young, William Holden and Robert Mitchum; and “Philadelphia Story,” starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart.
That’s the way it was in December 1948!
For more information, contact the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-728-0700 or visit www.astorialic.org.