2015-12-02 / Star Journal

Winter Sports And Fun At The Close Of The 19th Century

The Greater Astoria Historical Society presents pages from the Long Island Star Journal.

Welcome to December 1896!

Across the globe in the Philippines, on December 30, nationalist Jose Rizal was executed by Spanish colonial authorities for inciting rebellion. Another 50 years would pass before his dream of independence became a reality. On that same day, up in Canada, the Montreal Victorias bested the Winnipeg Victorias 6-5 to capture hockey’s third Stanley Cup. Closer to home, in New Haven, Connecticut, Wesleyan University defeated Yale by a score of 4-3 in what is considered the first official intercollegiate basketball game.

With the chilly, wintry weather driving many locals indoors, sporting events were also a big draw in Queens back in December 1896. Spectators poured into the Star Athletic Club clubhouse on Vernon Avenue and 9th Street (today’s 46th Road) for a series of boxing matches that month between local pugilists. The Star covered one of the matches that month, their vivid description transporting us across the years and planting us in the front row of the contest.

“A large crowd of men with sporting proclivities were spectators at the second tournament under the auspices of the Star Athletic Club Saturday evening, and saw some good sport. …Tom McDermott of Long Island City and Will Wallace boxed six rounds. It was a slashing fight and McDermott was declared the winner.”

That month, local merchants advertised a dizzying assortment of gloves, mufflers, “Glastonbury Health Underwear” to protect men from pneumonia and rheumatism, and the elegantly bound History of Long Island City was on sale for $5 at The Star office. Advertisements for coal abounded, not for naughty children’s stockings but for home heating, with Thomas P. Hunt on Steinway Avenue trumpeting “Comfort, Coal and Christmas.”

That December, a struggle of a very different nature was unfolding at the Fifth

Ward School in Astoria as student protest was in the air. When a teacher told young Bessie Renfrew to stoop down and pick up some papers the boys in her class had scattered on the floor, she refused, claiming that she

“came to school not to do menial work, but to acquire an education.”

Bessie was suspended from school pending an apology to her teacher.

History is silent as to the outcome of the dispute, but Bessie Turner Renfrew went on to marry a member of Astoria’s Hallett family before passing away in 1935.

Although locked in winter’s icy chill, talk in the Casina Beach section that month was of summers to come. The Casina Land Company had begun developing the old Woolsey estate into a summer resort area complete with convenient transportation, hotels for relaxation and splendid views of the rapidly growing city across the East River. A reporter from The Star sang the area’s praises as a vacation destination, claiming:

“There is certainly no finer site anywhere in the region of the Greater New York. The air is salubrious, the ground high and dry, and the scenery unsurpassed…[ there are] pleasing features all the way, among these being the farm houses and old fashioned places of residence.”

Developers had already planted 500 shade trees along Casina Beach, and Mashin’s Hotel stood ready to open its doors the following summer. Alas, the dream was not to be. The land was purchased by the Astoria Gas Company in 1898. It is now the New York Power Authority’s 1,335 megawatt Astoria Generating Station which now stands on a 300-acre complex.

Queens in December 1896 was a story of indoor boxing, student protest and land development. It was a patchwork of communities on the cusp of the 20th century and a wave of development that would leave it unrecognizable to those who knew its farms and country houses of yesteryear.

But December is also a time of tradition, a time of Christmas cheer, presents and entertainment. Here’s to another Holiday Season of friends and family, joyous celebration and well-heated homes.

That’s the way it was in December 1896!

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

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