This Woodhaven school was torn apart during a devastating storm 125 years ago: Our Neighborhood, The Way it Was

Courtesy of Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society

Last month, we wrote about the tremendous storm that struck Woodhaven 125 years ago on July 13, 1895. The worst scene of destruction was at P.S. 59, the newly built two-story brick schoolhouse at University Place (95th Avenue) and Rockaway Boulevard.

The roof of the schoolhouse was ripped off and the upper half of the building collapsed. “I could see flying bricks and debris of all kinds, and then the whole landscape was obscured by clouds of dust,” said one eyewitness. “Great beams and roofs blew about for the space of fully half a minute.”

Only that this storm struck on a Saturday prevented this from being a far more tragic tale. No one was injured inside the collapsed school building. Outside, however, was a different story.

One block east of the school, at Third Avenue (84th Street) and Rockaway Boulevard, 16-year-old newlywed Louise Petroquien, was at her sewing machine when she heard the commotion outside. Looking out the window, she saw the massive dark cloud overhead and ran outside to warn her mother.

She emerged from a side doorway but before she could shout out a warning, a large beam torn from the roof of P.S. 59 slammed into her head and neck, killing her instantly. It was her mother, returning after the storm had passed, who found her daughter’s body next to the steps leading to their home.

The storm moved south and out toward Jamaica Bay, leaving an eerie silence amidst the massive amount of destruction in its wake. Although there were close to 150 home damaged, accounts vary on how many homes were completely destroyed, and the number is probably somewhere between 15 and 30.

In the days following the storm, over 100,000 people came to Woodhaven via the Long Island Rail Road on Atlantic Avenue to view the damage. While locals bustled about, clearing away debris, visitors dropped coins and bills into barrels set up for the close to three hundred people who lost everything, or nearly everything, to the storm.

The main attraction for the visitors, however, seemed to be the home of Ms. Petroquien. The family permitted visitors to enter her home, through the door which she had rushed out of, stepping over the spot where she lost her life. They were led into the parlor where they could view and pay respects to the young bride, who was lying in a rosewood coffin under a large pile of flowers.

For over one hundred years, stories looking back on the storm of 1895 have referred to Louise Petroquien as the sole fatality from Woodhaven. However, one small victim of that storm has been forgotten over the past century — 5-year-old Johnny Kolb.

The boy had been playing on Atlantic and Rockaway when the storm hit and afterwards he was discovered lying under the rubble by P.S. 59 School Superintendent William F. Buckley. Buckley was also a member of the Woodhaven Volunteer Fire Department and had heard the cries for help from the young boy. He carried Johnny Kolb inside where a doctor examined him and found that the boy had broken both an arm and a leg.

However, the next day, his condition took a turn for the worse and he passed away, bringing the number of Woodhaven fatalities to two. Both Louise Petroquien and Johnny Kolb were buried in Cypress Hills cemetery on the same day.

Today, the intersection of 83rd Street and Rockaway is now part of Ozone Park. There is nothing to indicate that this was once the scene of a powerful and destructive storm. An office building stands where the school once sat; for many years, this building was well known as a Friendly Frost appliance store.

What happened there 125 years ago serves as a reminder that we are forever at the mercy of nature and its tendency to humble us without warning.

The current site where the old P.S. 59 once stood. (Courtesy of the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society)

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