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Queens Chronicle

The Way We Were: A Look Back At Local News Through The Ages

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Posted: Thursday, March 14, 2002 12:00 am

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).

Welcome to the Hunters Point Ferry.

The LIRR’s 34th Street Ferry is done to death by the march of progress. It was once the most important travel link between Queens and Manhattan. For 67 years it operated across the East River between the foot of Borden Avenue, Long Island City, and 34th Street, Manhattan.

Service started on May 1, 1858, with the East River Ferry Company’s first boat, the “Suffolk.” Two other boats, the “Kings” and the “Queens” were later pressed into service. In 1887 the Metropolitan Ferry Company ran the ferry, and in 1902, it was taken over by the Long Island Rail Road.

The 34th Street Ferry was by far larger than its uptown rival, the 92nd Street Ferry. Service reached a peak in 1906 with 28 million people filling eight boats running every four minutes. By contrast, in its last few months, passenger service for an entire day could be comfortably held by one boat on one crossing.

What killed the ferry? The IRT tube to Atlantic Avenue in 1904, the Queensborough Bridge in 1909, the four Pennsylvania tubes to Long Island City in 1910, the Queensborough Subway in 1915, the Astoria and Corona “el” sections in 1917, the BMT in 1920.

Over two million troops during WWI were ferried on its boats. In one 12 hour period, 28,000 doughboys are loaded directly to troopships for France.

Everyone who became captain had to work his way from deckhand. The Star-Journal interviews Captain Will Hamilton, of Elmhurst, who is known as “Admiral of the City Fleet” and is currently on the Staten Island Ferry. Captain Hamilton got his start on the 34th Street run. “I left with regret for I spent the better part of my life on that boat.”

He continues. “Crowds that went to the racetrack and the German picnic parties heralded the opening of the “Beer Season” on Long Island. I used to carry about 40,000 racetrack followers in a day, about 10,000 in one hour—in addition to the regular crowd. That group was a good natured and orderly crowd. Every prize fighter was a sport of conscience. I knew them all by sight. Although they were herded on like cattle there were never any outbreaks by them.

“Near its two terminals were popular watering holes, Tony Miller’s in Long Island City, and McSherry’s on the Manhattan side. Many a male passenger stopped at these places and some were unable to walk on board in a straight line. At Miller’s place, a bell used to ring in the barroom warning the men that the boat was about to leave. This was followed by a wild scramble.

Sometimes the bell rang a little prematurely when the boat was coming in and the imbibers filed back into the saloon again and ordered another round.

The 34th Street Ferry was responsible for giving Mayor Gleason of Long Island City his nom de guerre, “Battle Axe,” that he used in his campaign for elections. “Paddy” Gleason deduced that the railroad people discriminated against outside teamsters by allowing express wagons to take possession of the front of the line enabling them to get on the boats first. The railroad had set up poles in front of the ferry to keep the express wagons in line—and to block the outside wagons from getting aboard. One morning, Gleason came to the ferry with a force of men with axes and cut the poles down. I saw this myself. There was also a goodly number in a crowd of spectators who were quite delighted with the proceedings and cheered Gleason on.

A few days earlier, the Long Island Rail Road had made an announcement. On March 5, 1925, the Hunters Point Ferry will pass into history. Until the very end, the city had vowed to fight to keep the service.

The passing of this institution will be without ceremony of any kind. To the new generation, the event perhaps will mean little or nothing. But to those old timers, in whose life the ferry had been intimately woven and who hold it in reverence for the memories of bygone days that it kept alive, well the ferry’s closing will be an occasion of fondness.

Only one boat, the “Southhampton,” is in service on that final day. Back and forth she plies all afternoon, each trip with but a handful of passengers. Borden Avenue, which only a few years before was clogged with city traffic, was alone and silent. The neighborhood has a sorry, deserted feeling since so many had moved away.

Barred are the wide entrances to the Ferry House. Admission is at a small door. The passenger who pays the nickel fare slips into the Waiting Room. A tiger cat lay curled asleep in a passageway where thousands of hurrying feet had trod in years gone by. A newsstand, candy counter and possibly a soda fountain are boarded up, perhaps for years. There are ghostly spirits in the center of the room. It is rumored that the terminal and docks are to be torn down the very next day.

That last trip carries no curiosity passengers but mostly relatives and friends of employees. A red fire glows from every pole in her stern. In maritime tradition, it is a signal of sorrow. A clanking of chains. The boat begins her last trip to Manhattan. It arrives without incident. A couple of passengers depart into the darkness.

A red fire glows, a distant bell tolls, and the 34th Street Ferry puts off for the final time—her last seven minute trip to Queens. As the boat churns out of her Manhattan slip, a small group of men grown gray in her service watch the waves and the light studded buildings recede. One doffs his hat and sadly says, “good-bye, good-bye.” Somewhere in the dusk and the distance an unseen bell was tolling a knell.

The ferry is an institution rich in memories, carrying a multitude on each load. The racetrack crowd, beach and picnic crowds, more staid community throngs, sober soldiers in khaki. On that last trip it carried only 23 passengers, two horse drawn wagons and one motor truck.

She docks. An iron gate rattles open. Her whistle screeches a swan song. The two horses, whose ears cock forward at the surprise of the prolonged shrill of whistles, now steel themselves to their task and drag their carts to the streets. The motor vehicle chugs a moment then silently ascends the incline.

The little group of passengers heads for the two red trolleys that are standing empty at the terminal.

That’s the way it was at the Hunters Point Ferry.

For further information, contact the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 278-0700 or visit our website at www.astorialic.org.

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