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Urban renewal has a long history in Queens

In conjunction with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, the Times–Ledger newspaper presents noteworthy events in the borough’s history.

With infrastructure developments taking shape and residential neighborhoods coming on the market, June 1906 was a month of great progress and change for Queens.

Dedicated in 1877, The Queens County Court House had already produced its fair share of controversy. Situated in far western Queens near the Long Island Rail Road terminus, its location sparked a split which caused the easternmost parts of the borough to secede and form Nassau County in 1898. The Court House was gutted by fire in 1904 and stood as little more than a burned out hulk when the Board of Aldermen met on June 12 to discuss its fate. The Board appropriated $250,000 to rebuild the structure, complete with iron staircases, elevators and fireproofing. The foundation and side walls are all that remain of the original building.

While plans for the new County Court House in Long Island City took shape, more affluent New Yorkers flocked to eastern Queens to check out prime housing in Douglaston. Many parts of the city’s largest borough and beyond were now accessible by telephone, and those wealthy enough to own a new car zipped along her country roads. Modern day Queens was emerging, but the price for many would be steep.

At the far eastern end of the borough, the Rickert-Finlay Realty Company was touting Douglaston as the next gem in the string of opulence that was the Long Island Gold Coast. Advertisements in the Long Island Weekly Star offered the best of early 20th century luxury.

“Over a mile of shore front covered with Grand Forest Trees. Bathing, fishing and sailing right at your door. 20 minutes from Broadway when Pennsylvania tunnels are completed.”

The four East River tunnels would soon bypass the 34th Street ferry and bring even more pleasure seekers to Queens, with many also commuting into the city for work. One morning in June, however, ferry passengers were greeted with a grisly sight. Soon before docking in Manhattan, those on board witnessed a geyser of compressed air, mud and water shoot up from the incomplete Tunnel B, followed by the appearance of two lifeless workers floating on the water surface. The remaining 19 laborers barely escaped drowning, exiting through an escape hatch after the tunnel filled with water.

One attraction that visitors to the borough in 1906 would no longer enjoy was Pettit’s Hotel in Jamaica. Counting among her guests George Washington, who slept there in 1790 and proclaimed the hotel “a pretty good and decent house,” the building succumbed to the wrecking ball in June. Crowds gathered daily outside the venerable institution, which each day revealed a long forgotten treasure as workers tore into her. One wall, which had stood for 100 years, surrendered $173 in cash. It was, perhaps, the hotel parlor that held the greatest secret. As laborers dismantled her fireplace, they uncovered a long forgotten tombstone. The monument marked the final earthly resting place of one Mary Valentine, who departed this world on October 14, 1820 at the age of 56 years, 4 months and 7 days.

For further information, call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit our website at www.astorialic.org.

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