|OLD LONG ISLAND CITY|
LOOKING AT OLD LONG ISLAND CITY ACROSS THE LINE
By: R. Leslie Smith
I happen to have been born on Woodside Avenue (formerly known as the road from Newtown to Astoria) in Woodside and about seventeen feet east of the Long Island City line. When I had reached sufficient height to look out of our front bedroom window I would gaze upon the mansion of the late Elias Bragaw, his estate being located on the northwest corner of Woodside Avenue and Middleburg Avenue (now known as 39th Avenue). His estate consisted of several acres and at the northerly end of the property, adjoining the Long Island Railroad tracks, was a fair sized pond where we young Woodsiders spent our winter afternoons skating. This pond used to contain several large gold fish and the older boys would see a fish and throw a large stone at the spot, above the fish. This would cause a break in the ice and the bubbling water coming up out of the ice would bring up the fish. The youngsters did not enjoy this performance as the holes made in the pond interfered with our skating.
The pond also contained many silver fish. In my younger days I had a large Newfoundland dog which was very fond of swimming, and while enjoying a swim in the pond one early spring day she came out of the water with a silver fish on her back. One of my playmates discovered a tin can nearby, took the fish home and put it in his brother's aquarium. My dog was in the habit of taking her pups to the pond for a swim and one day I heard a pup yelping on the edge of the pond - his mother had gone home with the rest of the brood and for some reason it had not followed.
Adjoining the pond and running up toward the Bragaw mansion was a steep hill which provided a convenient place for sleigh riding, This property was part of a large tract belonging to the late William Bragaw, which ran westward about a mile toward Jackson Avenue. Adjoining the property of Elias Bragaw was the old Bragaw farm inherited and owned by his brother, Daniel. On this property was located the original Bragaw Homestead. A large picture of it is painted on the wall of the Director's Room in the Long Island City Savings Bank at Bridge Plaza.
About a half mile west of this pond, and also adjoining the Long Island Railroad tracks, was a larger pond with a big exposed rock in the center of it. This pond was known as the "reservoir" as the Long Island City authorities had at one time laid pipes from the pond with the intention of making use of the water for the city supply system; but the plan was never carried out. The pond was very deep and several Woodside boys, also those from Astoria, would enjoy its swimming facilities, but one evening while several of our local boys were swimming one of them disappeared under the water-and didn't come up to the surface. His body was recovered late that night. My dog also know about this pond and she used to lead her pups there for a swim, with the result that she would come home minus some of the pups which had been stolen by boys loitering around the pond.
One of the farms on Middleburg Avenue [now 39th Ave.] was occupied by Charles Conklin and family, and one Sunday morning Mr. Conklin asked his wife to come out and see how nice the pigs were. She followed his advice and a glance into one corner of the pigpen showed a shiny substance-which when dug up, turned out to be British coins valued at $2,000. The Bragaw property had been occupied by British soldiers during the Revolution and the coins were probably buried by someone in the British Army who did not get them honestly. In the old Bragaw mansion one of the doors of a china closet had a deep gouge and rumor had it that the damage was done by a British soldier's bayonet.
Walking down Middleburg Avenue you finally came to Jackson Avenue [now Northern Blvd. at this intersection]. The two streets met at the foot of a fairly steep hill, which is no longer in existence. Looking south on Jackson Avenue, to the spot where Bridge Plaza is now located, there was what might be called a. Medical Center, where on the east side we found Dr. Hitchcock who also owned the adjoining drugstore and he was present at my birth. His successor was Dr. Little, following him was Dr Strong. Dr. Burns lived next door. Later, Dr. Little built a large residence on the west side of the avenue and upon his death it was occupied by Dr. Macfarlane, who later moved to Broadway, Astoria. It then became the home of the Civic Republican Club.
Traveling down Jackson Avenue and continuing on Borden Avenue to the 34th Street [Manhattan] ferry , there were several buildings of some historical interest. Right opposite the ferry was the Queens County Bank, the only bank at that time between Flushing and the East River. This bank used to open at eight o'clock in the morning in order to enable depositors coming in on trains to the Long Island Depot to make bank deposits and then catch the ferryboat for New York. There were two lines of ferryboats running from the ferry slip at the foot of Borden Avenue, one to 34th Street, New York, and the other called the Long Ferry to James Slip, which was located to the north of Fulton Street, New York. Many people taking this ferry would walk over to the Wall Street district, which was pleasant until you had to pass the Fulton Fish Market and inhale the various fish odors emanating therefrom.
There was another steamboat line which ran a double-deck passenger boat from the Borden Avenue slip to the foot of Wall Street. This was called the "Bankers Line" and the fare was considerably more than on the ferries.
At the 34th Street ferry slip the Long Island Railroad built a shed and which Patrick J. Gleason, several times Mayor of Long Island City and the last Mayor before consolidation, claimed that several posts supporting the shed encroached on street property. He personally went on the promises with an axe and chopped down the posts. From then on he was called "Battle Axe Gleason", a name he became so proud of that he used to wear a diamond stickpin in the shape of a battle axe.
Prior to the building of the elevated railroad structures on Second and Third Avenues [formerly Debevoise and Lathrop Aves., now 31st and 32nd Streets], there were two steamboats on the East River running from lower New York to Harlem, one known as the "Sylvan Dell" and the other the "Sylvan Stream". The large bell on one of these boats was later acquired by the Woodside Hook & Ladder Company and, on its dissolution, became the property of St. Sebastian's Catholic Church. The steamboats used to stop at the foot of Broadway, Long Island City and residents living up as far as Steinway Avenue would walk to the East River and board the boats for downtown New York,
Coming back to the foot of Borden Avenue, at the intersection of Front Street [now 2nd Street], was located Miller's Hotel, which was a rendezvous for Queens politicians. The Queens County Republican Committee used to meet there and after the burning of the Queens County Court House the Queens County Bar Association held meetings there for a time. History has it that one of the Presidents of the United States used to stop there on his way for a weekend visit to one of his cabinet secretaries who lived out on the island. Many businessmen bound for Long Island trains would stop at the hotel for liquid refreshment.
Borden Avenue, from the ferry up to Jackson Avenue, was the early business section of Hunterspoint. Some of the early lawyers had offices there, including Alvin T. Payne, father of Alvin T. Payne, Jr., and Benjamin Payne. The shopping center of Hunterspoint-in the early days was on Vernon Avenue, between Borden Avenue and 3d Street [now 51st Ave.], where starting northward from the corner was Schwalenberg's Hotel, Brodie's Hardware & Plumbing Supply Store, with Fox's Photographic Gallery upstairs, then Schweikart's Mens Furnishing Store and New's Grocery Store on the next corner, Coming up Jackson Avenue, George W. Clay, real estate broker, built the first office building with an elevator; and north of the corner of Borden Avenue on the-other side of Jackson Avenue was Dillon's Department Store, which later became the Borough Hall and Tax Office.
The late George J. Ryan, onetime President of the New York Board of Education and later President of the Long Island City Savings Bank had his office on the other side of Jackson Avenue. He used to relate that when he originally occupied the office, he had built a not-too-ornamental counter across the front of it and one day Charles A. Tipling, one of the local lawyers, came in and called out "One beer please".
In the block above Dillon's Department Store was located a blacksmith shop where several of the old Hunterspoint residents used to congregate and indulge in conversation similar to that carried on in country grocery stores.
On the other side of Jackson Avenue, the Municipal Court for the First District of Queens, was located in a 2-story frame building, the courtroom being on the upper floor which had probably been living quarters at one time. On one occasion Judge Thomas Kadien, Sr. was trying a case involving a horse deal in which several tough characters from across Newtown Creek were interested. They became so noisy that the judge directed Richard Smith, one of the court attendants to sit in with the disturbers and try to keep them quiet. He succeeded in doing this but when the courtroom was cleared he found that his watch was missing.
On old 11th Street [now 45th Rd.], between Jackson Avenue and Vernon Avenue, the firm of Root & Rust built several houses which were termed "The Forty Thieves". Why they were so called no one today seems to know. Old 11th Street was at one time the Fifth Avenue of Hunterspoint, with several prominent Long Island City residents occupying the block between Jackson and Vernon Avenues.
Again traveling up to Bridge Plaza and to what would now be the north side of the same, was located Schwalenberg's Picnic Park [now Queensbridge Park], which housed a large meeting hall. Both Democratic and Republican conventions were held in this hall in the early days. I have a memory of this park for the reason that young farmers, in the old Town of Newtown, used to have a horseback parade to the park and indulge in target practice. On one occasion, when I was seven years old, I heard a band coming up Middleburg Avenue, followed by some of the young farmers on horseback, and as the procession turned into Old Bowery Bay Road [northern section is now Hazen St., which turns into Hobart St. as it travels south] on its way to Thomson Avenue (now Queens Boulevard) some of us youngsters followed the parade which took us all the way to Broadway, Newtown (now Elmhurst) and back, down to Woodside, where the procession stopped at Eberhardt's Hotel on Northern Boulevard, for refreshments.
We youngsters hung around outside hoping to get a nickel for holding one of the horses, but my stay was too short for that purpose, as my mother, who had been tracing the line of the parade all the way to Newtown and back, hustled me into our carriage and took me home, where I was confined to the yard for two weeks. Whether I would have followed the parade to Schwalenberg's Park is a question I cannot answer.
Traveling up Jackson Avenue and turning into Steinway Avenue (now Steinway Street), for a short time there was a racetrack at the intersection of these two streets. Later on, the ground was turned into a ball field where first the Glenwoods and later the Springfields held forth. Both of these teams were famous in amateur baseball circles,
A story is told about a lady having an argument with the Irish driver of the horse-car and she threatened to report him when she got to the end of the line at the 92nd Street Ferry, However, when she entered the small building used as a ferry office, who was standing on the other side of the counter but the driver of the horse-car who asked in his Irish brogue "Now what do you want?"
When Steinway Avenue was widened, houses had been removed from each corner of Broadway, and at the northwest corner a large hole was left in the ground. Over this was erected a small building used as a barbershop. At that -time barbers in Woodside were charging 15c for a haircut, while the barber occupying the Astoria shop was charging 10c. 17c youngsters would get 15c from our parents to walk down to Astoria for a haircut but midway there would spend the other 5c for candy". However, our journey to the barbershop was cut short by reason of a stone fight we had with the Astoria boys which prevented our later appearance in the Astoria section.
At the corner of Thomson Avenue and Jackson Avenue, the old Queens County Court House, which still stands, had been erected in the middle 70's. In 1905 the interior of the building was destroyed by fire and the various courts had to be temporarily housed in either Hunterspoint or Flushing. Across the street from the courthouse was located the old city hall for Long Island City.
On the other side of Jackson Avenue, opposite the Court House, stood a row of 2-family frame dwellings and around the corner was a 3-story brick building which was known as the "Priest's House". It probably housed priests for St. Mary's Church. These buildings formed the nucleus for the early St. John's Hospital.
Traveling up Thomson Avenue you would find a large brick building which was known as the Centennial Hotel, built by the Thomson family, which owned several acres of land in the vicinity and which gave Thomson Avenue its name. The hotel was built in 1876 at the time of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. In my days it was never occupied as a hotel. In fact, it proved a failure but, when it was built a horse-car line was run from Jackson Avenue up to the hotel and just before the building was removed for the widening of Queens Boulevard, it was being used as an automobile repair shop.
During the bicycle craze in the early 90's, there was a concrete path on each side of Thomson Avenue which made very pleasant riding for bicyclists. In fact, some of the Woodside young boys used to ride their bicycles down to the 34th Street ferry, stall them at Bresloff's Cigarstore, and take one of the ferries to lower New York in order to reach their places of business. The bicycles played a prominent part in both city and suburban life with the first plans for the Queensborough Bridge which was to be a double-decker, providing for a bicycle path.
In 1899 we had a smallpox epidemic in both Queens and Manhattan boroughs, of which Long Island City had its share of victims. In order to take care of those so afflicted a large frame building was erected in the center of what is now known as Skillman Avenue, a few hundred feet west of Old Bowery Bay Road. In Woodside and on the opposite side of Old Bowery Bay Road, Louis Sussdorf occupied a large mansion. He didn't like the idea of a wagon (not an ambulance) carrying smallpox patients making the turn opposite his gate on its way to the so-called pest house. Mr. Sussdorf went to court and tried to obtain removal of the pest house but was unsuccessful. Shortly after the epidemic ceased, Mr. Sussdorf died and as the funeral cortege passed through the gateway on his premises the pest house burst out into flames and was burned to the ground.
The Ravenswood section of Long Island City, especially along Vernon Avenue was in the early days lined with very large homes with beautiful gardens. It is told that one of the residents who moved to California had been so impressed with the beauty of the Ravenswood section that he named his estate "Ravenswood". A short distance above 92nd Street ferry was located a large stone dwelling known as the Halsey mansion which became the first Long Island City High School.
The bon ton section of Astoria was Woolsey [now 14th Street] and Remsen [now 12th Street] Streets, running north from Astoria Avenue [now Astoria Blvd. Was also aka Franklin Ave.], and traveling north from Astoria Avenue you would reach the shore road on which fronted several large estates, including the Woolsey, Barclay and Polhemus estates. In the late afternoon it was a pleasant sight to drive along the shore road and watch the "Sound" steamers go by on their way to New Haven, Connecticut. There was also a line of steamboats running from East 33rd Street, New York to Glen Island which was in those days a very famous picnic park.