Industry, Growth In 1879 Queens
Welcome to February 1879!
In February 1879, The Daily Star took its readers on a journey around the globe. The Long Island newspaper brought accounts of plague in Russia, where the czar ordered the burning of villages to stop the spread of the epidemic. In Worcester, Massachusetts, locals brought suit against a skating rink for banning people of color from using its facilities. Meanwhile, in France, the Minister of War reinstated “La Marseillaise” as the official national anthem. Back stateside in New York, Reverend Bolen, having spent 15 years doing missionary work in Japan, raised funds at the Dutch Reformed Church in Astoria to establish a Christian university in the far off land.
Visitors to Queens in 1879 came to a community booming with new industry. Workers at Sunswick Mills on the old McAloney property in Astoria manufactured oilcloth for window shades and table covers, The Daily Star noting, “The work is being prosecuted with much vigor, and the good effects of the new enterprise are already being felt in the neighborhood in an increased circulation of money.” Not too far down the road, the Corona Straw Works produced 1,500 hats a day to adorn local heads. Economic growth, while bringing increased opportunity and prosperity, came with a heavy price. In early February, a fire broke out at David Rosenberg’s varnish works on 4th Street in Hunters Point. The fire claimed the life of one firefighter and seriously injured one other. Rosenberg, a German immigrant, came to New York City to establish his business after working for the Confederate Army in the Civil War.
Queens was just as industrious at play as it was in providing necessities to late 19th century America. In Woodside, the Greenpoint Shooting Club held a pigeon shoot, with contestants shooting seven birds each. A Mr. Krumbeck’s careful aim earned him a badge as the winner in the first round, and victors in further contests won cash prizes of $25 and $50. The Star proclaimed the affair “A fearful slaughter of birds...”.
While some hunted in Woodside, others were walking around Hunters Point. A walking match was held there at 1 a.m. on February 3 between firefighters Dennis Barnes, of the Engine Hose Company, and Patrick Gore of the old No. 5 Engine Company. Ambulating one mile in 40 laps around Monitor Park, Barnes cruised to an easy win and a $10 prize. About 25 spectators turned out for the early morning contest, including two referees.
In the freezing throes of winter, the borough was already looking forward to a summer of sand, sun and surf. Design was well underway on the world’s largest hotel far out in the western tip of the Rockaways. Amid desolate wind-swept dunes bristling with dwarf cedars, plans were afoot for a sprawling, Gothic-style hotel with broad piazzas and a 160-foot tower with electric lights visible for miles out to sea. Construction soon began on The Rockaway Beach Hotel, with the final structure to stretch for more than 1,100 feet and 250 feet back from the street. After encountering financial problems, the owners only opened a small part of the structure for business. The entire building was torn down for scrap sometime before 1890.
That month, the people of Queens traveled the world from the confines of their own living room, office or factory floor. The Daily Star also brought its readers on a journey through time. On Shell Road in Newtown (known today as Elmhurst) sat a stately, elegant mansion, one of several homes in the area once occupied by the Moore family. Benjamin Moore, an Episcopal bishop and president of Columbia University, and his brother Samuel Moore, a distinguished physician, were raised here. The bishop’s son, Clement Clark Moore, also raised on the family property, wrote the yuletide poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, better known as ‘Twas the Night before Christmas’.
One of the family homes, which still displayed ceiling beams hewn from the ancient trees that used to surround the property, made use of a stone well dug when Native Americans still lived in the area and hunted prey in the primeval forests. The grandest mansion of them all served as headquarters for General Sir Henry Clinton, Commander in Chief of British forces in North America during the War for Independence.
The Moore family tolerated the presence of the Redcoat officers, who protected their reluctant hosts from the predations of their own enlisted soldiers. One thieving soldier, in fact, was gunned down by a neighbor just across the street from the home. Stories passed down from former slaves told of old, shady trees on the Moore land where unruly British soldiers were hanged. Others were tied to the trees, their trunks a whipping post for lesser offences.
Looking back on the story of a young nation nearly 100 years later, The Daily Star could not help but wonder “Do the stately maidens of 1879, in their basques and plumes, as they dash past the deserted headquarters, ever reflect on those trials endured by their grandmothers, wending their way through the military throng surrounding Sir Henry? Too much of an effort they will say – but possibly the tradition of the military music and brilliant light which of yore streamed from the windows on the night of a military ball could even yet turn their gaze on the old house as they bowl along in their carriages.”
That’s the way it was in February 1879!
We are open to the public, Saturdays, noon until 5 p.m. at Quinn’s Gallery, 4th Floor, 35-20 Broadway, Long Island City. Additional hours Monday and Wednesday, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.! Visit our gift shop on line. For further information, call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit our Web site at www.astorialic.org.