Great Change And Progress In 1906 Queens
Welcome to June 1906! ith infrastructure developments taking shape and new residential neighborhoods coming on the market, June 1906 was a month of great progress and change for Queens.
Dedicated in 1877, The Queens County Court House had already produced its fair share of controversy. Situated in far Western Queens near the Long Island Railroad terminus, its location sparked a split which caused the easternmost parts of the borough to secede and form Nassau County in 1898. The Court House itself was gutted by fire in 1904 and stood as little more than a burned out hulk when the Board of Aldermen met on June 12 to discuss its fate. The Board appropriated $250,000 to rebuild the structure, complete with iron staircases, elevators and fireproofing. The foundation and side walls are all that remain of the original building.
While plans for the new County Court House in Long Island City began to take shape, more affluent New Yorkers flocked to Eastern Queens to check out prime housing in Douglaston. Many parts of the city’s largest borough and beyond were now accessible by telephone, and those wealthy enough to own a new automobile zipped along her country roads. Modern day Queens, with its bridges, roads, trains and housing developments was beginning to emerge, but the price for many would be steep.
At the far eastern end of the borough, the Rickert-Finlay Realty Company was busy touting the neighborhood of Douglaston as the next gem in the string of opulence that was the Long Island Gold Coast. Advertisements in the Long Island Weekly Star offered the best of early 20th century luxury to prospective buyers.
“Over a mile of shore front covered with Grand Forest Trees. Bathing, fishing and sailing right at your door. 20 minutes from Broadway when Pennsylvania tunnels are completed.”
The community is still home to the exclusive Douglaston Yacht Club, and the Colonial Revival and Arts and Crafts architecture of the landmarked Douglaston Historic District stand as reminders of the neighborhood’s turn of the century elegance.
The four East River tunnels would soon bypass the 34th Street ferry and bring even more pleasure seekers to Queens, with many also commuting into the city for work. One morning in June, however, ferry passengers were greeted with an unforgettably grisly sight. Soon before docking in Manhattan, those on board witnessed a geyser of compressed air, mud and water shoot up from the incomplete Tunnel B, followed by the appearance of two lifeless workers floating on the water surface. The remaining 19 laborers themselves barely escaped drowning, calmly exiting through an escape hatch after the tunnel quickly filled with water. Their workplace sat under 25 feet of East River water and an additional 25 feet of silt some 1,000 feet from the Manhattan shoreline.
The telephone knit together the growing borough, still a patchwork of industry, civic infrastructure, farms and gilded affluence. With the New York and New Jersey Telephone Company, one could reach every town on Long Island, and “pay stations” in hotels and boarding houses offered prompt local and long distance service. The New York and New Jersey Telephone Company is one of the forerunners of today’s Verizon Communications.
Progress to Queens meant far more than luxurious mansions, glittering courthouses and telecommunication. The early 20th century saw the American worker fighting on every front for better treatment: higher wages, shorter work days and improved safety conditions. In June, 80 workers from the G.L Stuebner Iron Works in Long Island City continued a strike for a nine hour work day begun the previous month. Rank and file workers called for immediate change, but management wanted a one month notice to examine the issue. Stuebner was advertising for workers to replace those who had walked out.
Life wasn’t always a grind for the Queens working man and his family. The simpler pleasures of a breezy summer afternoon of entertainment, bathing houses and cool beer at North Beach always beckoned. The year 1906 was a banner year for this destination, now featuring a renovated pool, free vaudeville at Brook’s Casino and
new attractions added to Gala Park. Locals could take the Steinway horsecar line through Astoria for a Sunday afternoon of fun, and city dwellers from Manhattan could take a ferry right to Grand Pier for only 10 cents. North Beach closed in 1921, the Volstead Act emptying beer halls where refreshment, fun and innocence once flowed freely.
The booze flowed freely at the beer halls and beachfront resorts of Queens, and for many overworked, tired and frustrated young men facing another week of toil, the trolley ride home on Sunday evening was a special outlet for drunken, boorish behavior. Train conductors often bore the brunt, with many young men refusing to pay their fare and threatening physical assault if challenged. With the New York & Queens County Railway announcing it would press charges against these miscreants, the June 8 Long Island Weekly Star denounced the troublemakers, describing their behavior as “some bull-necked, heavy-jawed, young truck driver out for a day of it gets the idea into his head that everybody in Queens Borough is afraid of him and will immediately quail at the sound of his raucous voice”.
Trains, ferries, amusements and a sizzling housing market also brought trouble to the booming neighborhoods of Queens. On the evening of June 10, a Manhattan Social Club picnic at Schuetzen Park was interrupted by gunfire as a brawl broke out between rival groups of young men carrying revolvers. Officers Maher and Burke of the 74th Precinct gave chase, but the shooters escaped. The same day, however, a panicked drug store employee on 91st Street and 1st Avenue in Manhattan flagged down a police officer, claiming that there were six men in his store seeking help for injuries and “they are shot full of holes”. The young men, who were soon taken into custody, were fighting for the attention of a woman present at the outing.
One attraction that visitors to the borough in 1906 would no longer enjoy was Pettit’s Hotel in Jamaica. Counting among her guests George Washington, who slept there in 1790 and proclaimed the hotel “a pretty good and decent house”, the building finally succumbed to the wrecking ball in June. Crowds gathered daily outside the venerable institution, which each day revealed a long forgotten treasure as workers tore into her. One wall, which had stood for 100 years, surrendered $173 in cash. It was, perhaps, the hotel parlor that held the greatest secret. As laborers dismantled her fireplace, they uncovered a long forgotten tombstone. The monument marked the final earthly resting place of one Mary Valentine, who departed this world on October 14, 1820 at the age of 56 years, four months and seven days. Her epitaph read, in part:
“Weep not for me, my children, dear. I am not dead, but sleeping here.”
Open to the public, Saturdays, noon until five at “Quinn’s Gallery,” Fourth Floor, 35- 20 Broadway, Long Island City. Additional hours Monday and Wednesday two to five! Visit our gift shop on line. For further information, call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit, www.astorialic.org.