Get into a conversation with a long-time Queens resident and you’re likely to discover a subscriber to the Long Island Star-Journal, a daily paper that informed the community about local and world news until it folded in 1968. A banner across the Star Journal masthead reminded readers that the newspaper’s name came from the merger of the Long Island Daily Star (1876) and the North Shore Daily Journal—The Flushing Journal (1841).
In 1921, the Star Journal runs a series of articles taking a look at Old Astoria Village’s colorful past.
Before the Civil War, women dominate education while men concern themselves with politics and public projects. The earliest schoolhouse, at the rear of St George’s, faces Main Avenue and is the center the Village’s social activity. When it becomes obsolete, the Darcy family buys it and moves it behind their house on Willow Street (today’s 18th Street). Well into the 20th century it is still around. After the Darcys move away, people want to preserve it, for, as we explain below, it plays an important role in the community’s history. Does this historic building stand today? Call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 278-0700 and let us know.
In a meeting at that little school house Astoria got its name. The group from St. George’s church favors “Astoria,” while everyone else wants “Hallet’s Cove”. The “Astoria” party wins when they assure everyone that John Jacob Astor, the richest man in America and living across the river in Manhattan, will give $5,000 to the trustees for a school if the new village is named for him.
Although Astor was America’s first millionaire, they soon discover he watches every penny. A delegation from the Village duly called upon Mr. Astor for his contribution. He responds, “well they gave a place out West my name (Astoria, Oregon) and I have never seen it nor am I likely to. I will give this new village on Long Island that has my name $500.”
And that’s all they get.
Auctioneer Roe Smith probably holds the record for selling more Astoria land than anyone else. He publishes his memoirs in an 1891 Star-Journal issue. Smith moved to Astoria in the 1830s just as the Village incorporated and the building boom starts. At that time, it is in his words, “pretty much farm land.”
There are only two streets. On Main Street (today Main Avenue) a few businesses huddled, and on Welling Street, sit a few houses. The young village, with only 800 people, has no physician, lawyer, or even constable. Just about the only retail business was a drygoods and grocery run by Henry Blackwell .
Stevens Point (at todays Hell Gate Ballfields) is named for General Stevens who lived on 30th Road near Hallet’s Cove. As a young boy, he participated in the Boston Tea Party.
Newtown Road is the lane that led to the Samuel Hallet Farm (1652). When Samuel divides his farm for his two sons, Main Avenue is the boundary. Main Avenue and Welling Court define the outline of the Hallet vegetable garden. The Hallet barn is at the end of Welling Court and their house is in today's Hallet’s Cove Playground. About 1837, the ancient Hallett farm is cut up into lots. Developer profits come from buying by the acre, and selling by the lot. The property is divided into 100/200 ft plots that sell for $150 each. Purchasers take possession by allotment.
In 1889, the old Woolsey estate is broken into 1,000 lots. The mansion house, built in 1750, is torn down. The original deed, in Dutch, is a grant by Peter Stuyvesant. Later, the estate is confirmed by the Duke of York to Thomas Lawrence in 1677. The Duke, who became James II, expected an annual peck of good winter wheat as rent for this Astoria land.
The Woolsey dock at the Hell Gate is a fine place for fishing. Large schools swim through the channel and past the dock with the ebb and flow of the tide.
A reef in the middle of the Gate, called Hog’s Back, is one of the great spots in New York for bass. The fish congregate by the rock and rub their backs on it as they feed. And if you knew where and when to cast your hook, you could take home several fish within the hour. However, if your dropped you anchor in the wrong spot, it could be disastrous. The swift current drags the nose of the boat under the water in an instant. Only by promptly cutting the anchor line and rowing downstream could one avoid foundering. It was said the water moved through the Hell Gate with the force of a mill race.
Berrian’s Island Channel, which meanders through a meadow in what is today the New York State Power Authority, is a fine spot for eel and flounder spearing in the winter.
The trolley, known as the “Green Cars,” runs through Dutch Kills connecting the Hunters Point and Astoria ferries which operate only to 10:15 p.m. and midnight respectively. If you don’t have your horse and buggy at night, you had to walk home to Astoria from Hunters Point. Astorians “thought they were in the clover” when ferries begin to run all night.
Late 19th century Queens is a quaint place. For example, along the Brooklyn-Queens border a number of homes straddle the county line. Several people can sleep in Kings and dine in Queens without ever leaving their house. Closing title on property like that is a nightmare.
In May 1899, the discovery of oil in Astoria during construction of a factory causes a flurry of excitement. The superintendent of the Wolkening Works on Mills Street, just north of the ferry, goes to work sinking a shaft near the shore. To his surprise he begins to pump up water and oil from six feet of bed rock. He steadily pumps barrels of water and the oily gunk out of the ground for five days. He preserves some of it in a bottle for chemical analysis. He sets fire to it to test its inflammability. It burned well. Its oil alright.
Under headlines, “Struck Oil,” the Long Island Daily Star reports news of the discovery. It spreads like wildfire. There is a good deal of speculation in the matter and discussion on what the future has in store. Although many don’t believe all the talk, others have great expectations and look for a great boom for this town.
People are known to go crazy over the discovery of oil and its consequent riches, the Star cautions, so it is best that the community should ease up and not take this discovery too highly. The paper wryly continues that certain old residents affirm that there were oil tanks on the spot years ago and that when one of them collapsed, the oil snuck into the ground.
The wildcat boom ends quietly.
That’s the way it is in Old Astoria Village.
(Although Astoria Village was incorporated in 1839, some buildings are even earlier and date to the 1820s. Several may go back much further. It is the only pre-civil war village yet intact within New York City. Its residents, who consider their community unique and special, are currently looking for ways to protect it from destruction by outside developers.)
For further information, contact the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 278-0700.