Our History: Market played important role in rural Queens life

By Joan Brown Wettingfeld

The famed old market section in Manhattan, Gansevoort, used by the farmers of Queens County since the early 1800s has been designated a historic district. The effort was successful after an intense campaign that took 16 years of patient resolution on behalf of the people who worked to save this historic area.

Gansevoort was one of two markets in Manhattan that was of tremendous importance to the farmers, which included the Wettingfeld farm in Bayside and a number of others.

The trip by wagon in those times took several hours by road and ferry, and many of the old hotels that were numerous then in Bayside were the by-way stops for farmers coming from farther out on the Island. The Egle Hotel on the corner of Bell and Northern boulevards was especially famous for this service. Farmers could be refreshed and the horses rested and watered.

Gansevoort Market consists of about a dozen city blocks that composed the site of the old mid-1800s farmers’ market. It covers from the northwest corner of Greenwich Village from West 14th Street to about five streets south.

Sitting on the edge of the Hudson, it posed enticing attractions for developers, but preservationists feared for the fate of the many fine examples of the work of famous 19th-century architects. In 1989 Regina Kellerman, an architectural historian, used city records to publish “The Architecture of the Greenwich Village Waterfront, an Archival Research Study.” It became the foundation for the study and research needed for the preservation of Gansevoort Market.

The market area took its name from Gansevoort Street, originally an old Indian trail to the Hudson River.

It became Great Kill Street or Old Kill Road, but it was renamed for Fort Gansevoort in 1837, which was built in haste in anticipation of the War of 1812.

The city had been contemplating a market for more than 50 years before plans were finalized. The Gansevoort Market finally opened in 1884 on the site of the former fort. Originally it was an open-air produce market.

A few years after its official opening a description appeared in Harper’s Weekly which sets the scene: “During the dark hours of early morning, as hundreds of wagons of all descriptions converge upon the market … pandemonium reigns as traffic chokes the thoroughfares for blocks around.”

By 1887, meat, poultry and dairy products needed a place to market and the city built the West Washington Market directly across West Street from the Gansevoort Market, which survived until 1954, when it was replaced by a Department of Sanitation facility. By 1949 the city had built the Gansevoort Meat Center, and produce — once the mainstay of the area’s economy — was eclipsed by the sale of meat.

Markets are tied to transportation and their growth depends on it. Long Island farmers relied on the East River for transportation before the advent of the automobile and bridges. These farmers were dependent on ferries; therefore, markets were located near the shoreline.

In 1854 the depot for the Hudson River Railroad built on Gansevoort Street attracted produce vendors. The railroad ran at ground level until 1934. It became an elevated freight line, the High Line, running one story above street level and passing through several warehouses on its way. The last train ran in 1980 and remnants remain today in the Gansevoort Market area.

From its beginning as an Indian trail, Gansevoort moved through 300 years of change and today shares its days and nights with new neighbors including galleries, restaurants and boutiques that operate out of typical but recast lofts and warehouses, as well as market buildings.

A final note of interest: Gen. Peter Gansevoort was the grandfather of author Herman Melville. Melville spent the years 1866 to 1885 working as a customs inspector for the Department of Docks in a long-since-gone warehouse on the wharf at the foot of the street named for his grandfather. Is it a coincidence that several famous authors such as Thomas Moore and Robert Burns worked at similar positions during their lifetimes?

The county of Queens and its residents — in this case, farmers — play a part in the often-forgotten moments of our history.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and free-lance writer. She can be reached at JBBAY@aol.com.

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