2017-02-08 / Star Journal

Remember The Maine – And Astoria Ferry – In 1898 Queens

The Greater Astoria Historical Society presents pages from the Long Island Star Journal, compiled by Dan McDonald

Welcome to February 1898!

This month 119 years ago, events unfolded on the breezy, sun-blessed island of Cuba that would reorder the world map within the year. In the evening of February 15th, the battleship USS Maine exploded and sank under mysterious circumstances in Havana harbor. With a chorus of American voices crying for war against the once-mighty Spain, the young nation soon found itself in possession of an empire spanning the globe from Cuba to the Philippines.

Back home, the Long Island Rail Road Company offered free transport of all donations to the Central Cuban Relief Committee to New York City for shipment to the distressed tropical isle. With President McKinley urgently calling for aid to the embattled Spanish subjects, the collection date for donations was set for mid- February.

The Maine entering Havana harbor. January 1898. 
Photo Public Domain The Maine entering Havana harbor. January 1898. Photo Public Domain While Americans responded generously to their Cuban neighbors in need, locals in Queens perhaps had more pressing concerns in mind that February. With State Superintendent issuing a damming report on the state of the Queens County Poor House at Barnum Island, the future of the institution came into doubt. With the overcrowded facility in poor shape and no dividing fences between buildings, men and women were able to intermingle more or less freely. The report also recommended relocation of the able-bodied vagrants who crowded the almshouse during cold, winter months to the detriment of the aged and infirm permanent inmates. The Poor House was closed, and the area sold to developers for $40,000 later that year. Barnum Island became part of Nassau County with the partition of Queens in 1899.

That month, one of the largest land owners in the borough sold its extensive holdings and paved the way for the development that would overtake Queens in the coming century. Way back in 1835, Reverend Eliphalet Nott, President of Union College in Schenectady, New York, purchased the Hunter, DeBevoise and VanAlst farms in Hunters Point and later sold the land to the upstate institution.

In possession of valuable tracts of land in the First, Second and Third Wards of Long Island City that were ripe for further development, in February 1898 Union College announced one of the greatest real estate transactions in the New York City area that decade. The sale of the industrial and residential areas to an investor in New Jersey was estimated at $1.25 million. The venerable college contributed greatly to the development of west- contributed greatly to the development of western Queens in the 19th century, providing lots for the Long Island Rail Road, the ferry to Manhattan and the Queens County Court House.

February brought thick, dense fog to the East River, and potential hazards to those attempting to cross on the ferry to 34th Street. With pilots unable to see the course ahead, guided only by fog bells, the boats could only transit the river one at a time. In the dangerous weather conditions, an accident occurred when the ferry, Sag Harbor, unable to see its destination, violently struck a pier on the New York side, resulting in injuries to commuters. One passenger was thrown to the deck and kicked by a horse, and a frail, elderly gentleman was badly bruised by the collision and taken back home to Queens.

That's the way it was February 1898!

Compiled by Dan McDonald, Greater Astoria Historical Society. For further information, contact the Society at 718-278-0700 or visit their website at www.astorialic.org.

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