By The Greater Astoria Historical Society
When 1888 dawned, most locals were out for good, innocent, holiday fun. A local paper wrote, “Carriages commenced to flit hither and thither shortly after noon and towards evening the houses commenced to light up and the sounds of merry music and joyous songs reached far out into the starry night and told of the happiness and enjoyment within.”
Some people celebrated the new year in their own way. On Steinway Street, Max and Christina Halfmann turned out for a stroll on New Year’s Day, the wife attired in her husband’s clothing. When questioned by the deputy sheriff, Mrs. Halfmann replied that “the big young officer was not half a man to object to her having a little fun and her spouse Max, backed her up in her opinion.” Both husband and wife spent the first day of the new year in the county jail.
With the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest,” George Eastman introduced the Kodak camera.
The presidential election pitted Republican Benjamin Harrison against Democrat Grover Cleveland, with Harrison emerging as the victor, winning 20 of 38 states, despite losing the popular vote.
On Jan. 12, the Schoolhouse Blizzard struck from Texas to the Dakota Territory, claiming 235 victims, many of them children on their way home from school. Closer to home, Katz’s Delicatessen was founded on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Queens, not yet incorporated into New York City, extended from the East River to the sedate countryside that encompassed all of present-day Nassau County.
In 1888, the docks and factories on the East River were bustling with industry. On the evening of Jan. 19, an explosion ripped through the Standard Oil yards on 10th Street in Long Island City. The flames quickly spread through the refinery, lighting up the evening sky for a great distance. Terrible fires broke out along Newtown Creek with numbing frequency.
Meanwhile, citing the great increase in traffic over the nearby Brooklyn Bridge, traversed by more than 2.6 million people in the previous month, the Jan. 20 Long Island Weekly Star called for a similar structure to link the growing county of Queens to the hustle and bustle of Manhattan: “… the pushing of the Blackwell’s Island [bridge] cannot much longer be deferred, as it is growing to be an absolute necessity ….”
People crossing the proposed bridge would visit the Steinway section of Astoria, which was booming with local families snapping up lots and building homes. The Steinway family, after building a piano factory in the neighborhood in 1870, offered 400 acres of land for manufacturing and construction of new houses. As it was, residents could take a short trip on the Steinway and Hunter’s Point Horse Railroad to the Astoria ferry or travel through the German Settlement down to the Hunter’s Point ferry.
Throughout its long history, Queens has always been a global hub. At Scheutzen Park, German immigrants toasted the new year and sang along to rousing tunes that reminded them of home. The park, which stood at the southeast corner of Broadway and Steinway Street, welcomed all, from German singing groups, African-American church outings and presidential candidates stumping for votes.
Ships from all corners of the globe tied up at the piers of Long Island City, carrying materials such as wood for Steinway pianos and refined oil from the Standard yards. At the Inman and International Offices in Astoria, those with an itch to see the world could purchase steamship tickets to destinations as far afield as Liverpool, England, and Queenstown, Australia.
For more information, call 718-278-0700 or visit astorialic.org.