2018-02-07 / Features

William Steinway Diary First-Hand Account Of 19th Century Queens

BY JASON D. ANTOS


Steinway & Sons Piano Factory. 
Photo Jason D. Antos Steinway & Sons Piano Factory. Photo Jason D. Antos The complete personal diary of one of Queens’ most prominent historical figures is now available online, causing a celebration among local historians and researchers.

William Steinway, of Steinway Pianos, kept a detailed daily diary in which he wrote about his adventures (both business and personal) throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn and especially Queens. The son of Henry E. Steinway who founded Steinway & Sons Piano and brought the company to Astoria in 1870, William kept a detailed diary of his daily adventures.

Every page of the text, which is more than 150 years old, has been carefully preserved digitally by the Smithsonian Museum. Visitors can view the diary by going to www.americanhistory.si.edu/steinwaydiary/. The Smithsonian has also made searching through the diary easy with a word search field that brings up all the occurrences of the word in Steinway’s journey of 35 years, from 1861-1896.


William Steinway on the steps of the Steinway mansion in Astoria. William Steinway on the steps of the Steinway mansion in Astoria. The diary contains amazing moments in American history, including events like the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. On April 15, 1865 Steinway wrote, “Terrible News that at 9:30 p.m. President Lincoln has been assassinated at Fords Theatre in Washington, Secretary Seward and his sons dangerously injured & stabbed. Great excitement and grief throughout the City. Closing of the stores.” The searches bring up a typewritten transcription of the page and the original diary entry in Steinway’s cursive writing.

Steinway, whose mansion still stands until this very day, also details in his diary the development of a joint business venture between himself and beer mogul George Ehret. Their creation was the amusement park at North Beach (today’s LaGuardia Airport).

From 1886 through the first two decades of the 20th century, New Yorkers escaping the summer heat flocked by boats and trolleys to North Beach. Their destination: one of the great beaches and amusement parks of that era.

Steinway wrote in his diary, “Immense crowds of respectable People at Bowery Bay Beach, and my R.R. is unable to carry half the people,” Steinway’s June 20, 1886, diary entry read after the grand opening. “At 5 p.m. all the beer is gone, and people overflow Steinway village and drink all the beer there.”

Steinway and his North Beach partner fitted North Beach with all the latest technologies – among them gas lighting, electric lights that allowed night bathing, horse-drawn trolleys to the park, later replaced by electric lines, and water analyzed for purity. There were dance halls and beer gardens.

The diary contains many gems about the goings on at North Beach. “Some young men attempt to force their way from Rikers (Island) over our Beach but I drive them off with my revolver,” Steinway’s July 5, 1886, diary entry noted a short time after the amusement park’s opening.

The uploading of this rare historical document will help historians and researchers for years to come.

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