2018-04-11 / Star Journal

The GAHS Presents Pages From The Long Island Star Journal

Welcome to April 1883!

New York City lost one of its most renowned citizens on April 4, 1883, when industrialist, philanthropist and one-time presidential candidate, Peter Cooper, passed away in his home at No. 9 Lexington Avenue. Building his fortune from a glue factory on Kips Bay, he parlayed his earnings into successful real estate investments that made him one of the richest men in New York City in the 19th Century.

Among his lasting achievements were the founding of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, commonly known as Cooper Union, and patenting the manufacture of a gelatin dessert which later became Jell-O. His son, former Mayor of New York City Edward Cooper, and daughter, Amelia, wife of future Mayor Abram Stevens Hewitt, were at his bedside.

Not to be outdone by the rapidly expanding metropolis across the East River, the people of Queens had their own proud, centuries-old history. That April, a debate brewed in the pages of the Long Island Weekly Star. The Jamaica Lodge of the Masonic Veterans Association had claimed for some time that the Honorable Pierpont Potter was the oldest Freemason in the state, if not the entire country. Digging through the order’s records, however, the newspaper bestowed the honor upon another venerable Queens resident.

“We would not deprive Jamaica of any honor rightfully attaching to that enterprising burg, much less would we deprive Mr. Potter of any honor among the many which have come to him during his long and honorable life, but justice must prevail, and truth compels us to say that Uncle George D. Rapelye, of Corona, now in his ninety-sixth year, ante-dates Mr. Potter’s entrance into Masonic life by over five years. If the records, to which we have had access, are correct, Mr. Rapelye was initiated into the order in 1810, while it was not until 1815 that Mr. Potter took his first degree,” reported the Long Island Weekly Star.

Not only did Queens claim the oldest Freemason in the nation, it also boasted perhaps the fastest swimming cow in all 38 states. Billy McKiernon, proprietor of the Sunswick House on the shore of the East River, kept a Durham cow in a stable behind his establishment. Not wishing to walk the bridge to her pasture across a deep channel, the bold bovine simply plunged into the water and swam to her feeding grounds only to return later to be milked.

The Weekly Star reported “The strange freak of the animal has attracted very general attention, and almost daily large crowds congregate on the bridge to watch the swimming feat. The proprietor of the hotel offers to match the cow against any four-legged swimmer in the United States.”

In April 1883, Queens also bid farewell to one of its most distinguished people with the passing of Frederick H. Wolcott on April 11. A direct descendant of the Puritan Henry Wolcott, one of the founders of Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1630, the Astoria resident was also the grandson of Oliver Walcott, signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The scion of this old, historic family met with such success in the dry goods business that he retired to Astoria in 1852, where he built a beautiful 30-acre estate on Shore Road known as The Hill. In 1896, the bucolic, wooded grounds gave way to the River Crest Sanitarium, and St. John’s Preparatory School now occupies the site.

That’s the way it was April 1883!

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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