2008-06-18 / Star Journal

'Uncle Jim', Veteran Queens Politician, Dies In June 1921

According to a sympathetic editorial in the Star Journal, the Commerce Department revealed that Newtown Creek "has a greater commerce than all the canals of New York State combined".
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 June 1921!


On June 1, the Star Journal reported the death of venerable politico "Uncle Jim" Robinson, who fell onto the subway tracks at the Wall Street station before an oncoming train. His loss of life shocked the many who knew him throughout Queens. He was about 80 years old.

"Uncle Jimmy" was born in Roslyn in the 1840s, when Queens included its current neighbor, Nassau County. Arriving in Long Island City in 1863, he opened a hotel at 7 Borden Ave. near the 34th Street ferry that was popular with "men of leisure" from many parts of the city and state.

Robinson took to politics as soon as he was old enough to vote. A Democrat to the core but defined by a strong sense of personal loyalty, his friendship "was valuable and eagerly sought" by local leaders. He served as Queens Assemblymember for two terms, County Coroner for nine years, process server with the District Attorney's office, and at the time of his death, Deputy Sheriff.

Robinson was a staunch ally of colorful Long Island City Mayor Patrick "Battle Axe" Gleason and later, once Queens became part of Greater New York in 1898, to Joseph Cassidy. "Uncle Jimmy's" association with Gleason, however, engendered many "picturesque tales" of his own, one of which was when he nearly came to blows with prominent social reformer Anthony Comstock when Comstock tried to barge through his hotel to get to the poolrooms in the rear.

A Star editorial eulogized him, "'Uncle Jim' was one of the last of the sturdy figures who played a prominent part in the political history of Long Island City in the days before it became part of Greater New York…Positive in his likes and dislikes, he was no milk and water character. Though long actively interested in politics, he was not the type that steers a devious course, veering and trimming, seeking always to be with the winners. He liked to win and fought to win, but never watch the struggle from the fence."

On June 2 reports surfaced on the zealous enforcement Prohibition by the police. One report told of seizing more than 50 gallons of liquor and arresting three saloon operators. One of the men detained, Thomas Lynch, manager of Laurel Hill's Celtic Park, was held on $1,000 bail after patrolmen had first incredulously stumbled across 21 one-quart bottles of whiskey, four five-gallon crocks of rum, one two-gallon demijohn and a bottle of wine at the park itself. Having been able then to obtain a search warrant, they came across more liquor hidden in a room in a nearby bar.

Jacob Pospisil was detained after police found a flask of whiskey in a saloon he recently bought, and a third man, Joseph Schmittberger, met the same fate after police raided his saloon and found whiskey there as well. Schmittberger knew the jig was up: He waived his right to a hearing and like Lynch was also held on $1,000 bail for the grand jury.

Later in the month, three men from Manhattan and a local restaurant manager were arrested in Ravenswood for a similar violation of the dry law. Two police officers walked into the establishment and found the patrons imbibing. According to the police, they swallowed the liquor before the glasses could be examined, yet the men were taken into custody anyway along with two alleged bottles of whiskey. The drinks cost them 50 cents each but bail for all four was set at $500.

As these incidents made headlines, the first public meeting for the proposed anti-dry parade on Independence Day in Long Island City was announced by the Ravenswood Republican Club.

For those who preferred their milk chilled, the Star Journal asserted, "Put This Economy in Your Home"- the innovative, cork-insulated, Alaska Refrigerator. Exclusively sold by the Henning Borsheck Heyser firm located on then Steinway Avenue near Broadway, models ran from $10 to $110, depending on their size. Your fridge could have an exterior of solid golden oak or white enameled, but regardless: "They give perfect, scientific re-frigeration. They keep food correctly cold." (This was due no doubt to the cork insulation.) "You can pay more," boasted the ad, "but there are none better."

On June 3, the Transit Commission (a precursor to today's MTA) approved plans to change the Queensboro subway route from 42nd Street, between Times Square and Grand Central Station to a diagonal route under Bryant Park along 41st Street. This was not what was initially proposed, however, as the original plan called for an extension to pass under 42nd Street itself- deemed too complicated "in view of the shuttle service between the West and the East Side subways."

Among those firms who submitted bids for preliminary work in Manhattan along 41st Street between 6th Avenue and Broadway was the Sweeney and Gray Company of Long Island City.

For those enamored of their Bluetooths and BlackBerries®, here follows a humble reminder of how modern communication as we known it began, courtesy of the New York Telephone Company:

"Say Bill, when you get that job done, here are a lot more."

"More! We've handled over 194,000 telephones in New York in the past 17 months. Are they coming in as fast as ever?"

"Just about. While you installers are connecting a thousand telephones, applications for nearly 900 more come in. That is one reason why it takes so long to cut down the waiting list."

"Bill" certainly made the point. Although tens of thousands of telephones were installed in the preceding 18 months, with 58,200 unfilled applications, the typical subscriber was on a fivemonth waiting list. Fundamental changes were promised as "new buildings, new cables, new switchboards, and other central office apparatus" demanded more telephones. It was a "real job" to meet with increasing consumer demand for this era's new "must have" item.

On June 11, described as "a matter of vital concern to Queens", $305,000 was earmarked to improve both Flushing and Newtown Creeks, perhaps even connecting them.

According to a sympathetic editorial in the Star Journal, the Commerce Department revealed that Newtown Creek "has a greater commerce than all the canals of New York State combined". More cargoes (in tonnage and value) were transported in its four miles than on the Mississippi River. With the proposed plan to develop the waterways to meet their potential, it appeared that Queens residents have reason to be optimistic, as their borough's future prosperity was at hand.

That's the way it was June 1921!

The Queensboro Bridge, among the latest in Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series, is available through the Greater Astoria Historical Society or at local stores. The book is crammed with hundreds of images of the borough's favorite bridge, tracing its history from blueprints to the eve of its 100th birthday.

Also available is Arcadia Publishing's Postcard History Series: Long Island City, depicting the communities of Long Island City Astoria, Ravenswood, Dutch Kills, Hunters Point, Blissville and Sunnyside through hundreds of postcards datng from the last decades of the 19th and the earliest decades of the 20th centuries.

Shop on line at www.astorialic.org for the perfect gift for the local history buff in your family.

The Greater Astoria Historical Society meets on the first Monday of every month from September through June at Quinn's Gallery in the Thomas M. Quinn & Sons Funeral Home, 35-20 Broadway, Long Island City.

For more information, contact the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit www.astorialic.org.

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