Notable Men of the Borough of Queens Part III

William Steinway

A history of the borough of Queens could not be considered complete without mentioning the part William Steinway has played in its development. His name has been referred to before, but something more has to be said. It is probably known to most readers of this sketch that Mr. Steinway's father was a prosperous manufacturer of pianos in Germany when the revolution of 1848 and other political changes as good as destroyed his business, inducing him, although arrived at the ripe age of fifty-three years, to emigrate to America with his family, in order to mend his fortunes. He began in a small and cautious way and prospered beyond all expectations. The house he founded on this side of the Atlantic soon became one of the most important ones in the piano industry. This is well known, but must be stated as an introduction.

The name of Steinway became important for Queens when the son of the first Steinway, William, induced his firm to erect a factory on Long Island. Most, if not all, the instruments the firm sold were up to about 187o manufactured at its plant in New York, between Lexington and Fourth Avenues and Fifty-second and Fifty- third Streets. What caused the managers of the business to look for other quarters and why they selected Astoria, can best be told in the words of William Steinway himself who explained the situation shortly before his death as follows : "For several years previous to 187o we had been looking for a plot of land away from the city, and yet within easy access of it, for the erection of an additional factory rendered necessary by the extension of our business. There were two reasons why we sought a place outside the city. In the first place, we wished to escape the machinations of the anarchists and socialists, who even at that time were continually breeding discontent among our working men and inciting them to strike. They seemed to make us a target for their attacks, and we felt that if we could withdraw our workmen from contact with these people, and the other temptations of life in the tenement districts, they would be more content and their life would be a happier one. Then there was a growing demand for more room to extend our facilities. The Fourth Avenue factory was inadequate for our wants, and we needed in addition shipping facilities near the water, and a basin in which logs could be stored in water to keep them from cracking. We also needed a large space for a lumber yard, a steam sawmill and a foundry, and many, many other important adjuncts to our factory facilities. After looking about for several years, we found the ideal place at the spot now known as Steinway.

At that time it was a beautiful garden spot, surrounded by waste lands and vacant lots. It was partly wooded, and on a bluff stood the handsome mansion of Benjamin F. Pike, the well known optician. This property gave us upward of half a mile of water-front, a navigable canal, and plenty of room for our own foundry. Of course we had to create means and facilities for reaching the place quickly, which occasioned a great outlay of money, and while difficulties had to be surmounted, the project has proved a great success. It is the geographical center of Greater New York. It is nearer to the city than Harlem, as it is only five miles from City Hall. The whole matter has had an ideal result, the relations between employer and employed are cordial in the extreme, and as an indication of how the latter have prospered, no less than sixty per cent of the men employed in Steinway & Sons' factory own their own houses, while some of them own two and more houses."

As has been mentioned before, Mr. William Steinway did not stop when he erected the factory and built a few houses for the working men. That has been done by so many manufacturers that it would hardly be worthy of extended and repeated mention. It was his ambition to make a model city of Steinway, and for this purpose he labored early and late, night and day. Neither did he put the factory and the workmen's houses down in the middle of territory far away from the city, and then left the residents to themselves and to their work. On the contrary, he never for a moment forgot that the first and direst need of the new settlement was better transportation facilities affording quick and frequent connection with Manhattan. He lived among his employees for many years, not only because the spot was very beautiful, but also that he might thoroughly understand what had to be done to make the village a place agreeable to live in. When the companies owning the surface car lines did not provide sufficient service, he bought them out, and he was the first, as has been mentioned, to conceive the idea of constructing a tunnel under the East River. It is a fact that he sank an immense amount of money in the effort to make Stein- way what in his mind it should be, and he held on with determined tenacity when almost every one of his friends advised him to give up his plans, and when many laughed at him for exposing himself to ruin. Time has completely vindicated him and proved the soundness of hi* judgment, although there was a period when it really looked as if he had taken too large a load upon his shoulders.

The Borough of Queens owes a heavy debt of gratitude to the late William Steinway. His case is quite different from that of the earlier settlers. They did indeed join their fate with that of the land they either took up under patents or purchased from the Indians, but they had not very much to lose, and they had certainly no idea whatsoever of the real value of their work for future generations. None of them could foresee that the fields upon which they worked would once be covered with dwellings, stores and factories, and that the land, which in return for their untiring industry provided them with a living and not much more, would make the possessor who was wise enough to retain it rich beyond the dreams of avarice. And not knowing this, none of them risked very much for the possession of the soil which they tilled, but they all did not hesitate to part with it when chance offered or when the desire to wander away came over them, or again when they believed that they could secure more and better land for the price which they received for the old homestead. With William Steinway it was different. He saw what would happen, he looked into the future, and he invested all he had and could get on the strength of an abounding confidence in the correctness of his judgment.

He knew that his losses would be enormous, that the greater part of a fortune amassed by the hard and incessant work of two generations might be swept away if events did not turn out as he had expected, or if only the turn that meant success
arrived a little later than he anticipated. But with dogged perseverance and with a cheerful optimism that was one of his most charming qualities, he stuck to the work he had cut out for himself, and he succeeded. That is, the enterprise succeeded, but he did not live to see it. This is the truly tragic part of the story of the life of the man who seemed to be sunshine itself. When he was suddenly stricken down, conditions did not look very bright. In fact, for several weeks before he was attacked by the disease that carried him away almost in a day after everybody believed that his recovery was assured, he knew that it would require his utmost efforts to bridge over a period of danger. It was done, as indeed he never doubted, but he did not live to see it, and he died with the knowledge that his favorite project, the enterprise in which his whole heart was interested, needed the most careful attention it had required since its inception. For this and many other reasons, we repeat, every resident of Queens should remember William Steinway with lasting gratitude. Without him the development of the borough would not have been nearly as rapid as it has been.

Captain J. Roemer, commanding officer of the Hamilton Light Artillery

Of the many veterans of the Civil War who went forth from Queens to defend the flag and the country, Captain J. Roemer, commanding officer of the Hamilton Light Artillery, which was recruited at Flushing, deserves especial mention. The command distinguished itself in many of the most important engagements, and its record is replete with deeds of daring and exceptional heroism. One instance will show of what stuff the battery and its gallant commander were made. When Burnside's army was driven into Knoxville by General Longstreet, and when it looked as if the rebels would surely annihilate the Union forces, Captain Roemer's command was ordered to defend the key of Burnside's position, Fort Sanders. They had been fighting for twelve days, under the most terrible privations, suffering from the cold and from hunger, for provisions ran low and only one quarter of a pound of bread was distributed to the men as the daily ration. On the twenty-ninth of November, 1863, Longstreet made a concerted move against Fort Sanders, and his troops succeeded in climbing upon the ramparts. The gun at which Captain Roemer was stationed had fired twenty-seven rounds of canister and was loaded with the last charge. A Confederate major laid his hand upon the gun and shouted : "Stop firing, the gun is ours," when the Captain ordered to fire and fourteen files of soldiers fell before the deadly hail. The enemy was terror stricken and either fled or surrendered.

The deed was timely, for at that moment Sherman's army was coming up to relieve Burnside. The siege was over, and Longstreet was compelled to withdraw, straining every nerve to get beyond striking distance of the Union army. The little command of less than half a hundred forming the Flushing battery had saved the day at the most crucial moment. When the fight was over and the tired captain stood leaning wearily against the caisson of the gun that had given the last shot, General Burnside rode up, and the following conversation ensued : "Good morning, Captain." "Good morning, General." "Captain, what made your shells explode so this morning?" "Oh, General, how should I know?" "What did you say to the Sergeant last night?" "I do not remember, General; I said much that it is best to forget!" "Well, I remember, and I am proud of it. Captain Roemer and his gallant battery will not be forgotten." The remarks General Burnside referred to were made on the evening before. It was then found that but little available ammunition was left for the next day's fight, and Captain Roemer decided to take recourse to some shells that had been buried by the rebels and were found by the Union troops when they entered Knoxville. These shells had corroded so that but few of them exploded. Captain Roemer had called for volunteers to help him bore out the old and useless fuses and insert new ones, a work naturally very dangerous. Sergeant Kauffrnann of the Forty-sixth New York Volunteers consented to assist, saying that if the Captain could afford to risk his life there was no reason why he could not do the same. They kept close under the shelter of the ramparts in order to avoid the risk of being struck by flying shot, and commenced their perilous task. But a shot from the rebel guns struck the rampart just above them, covered them with dirt and destroyed an ammunition box containing twelve shells. Fortunately they did not explode. The Sergeant said quietly : "Captain, if you keep on, you will blow us all up." To this Captain Roemer replied savagely: "Never mind, better be blown up here than go to Richmond as prisoners." Whereupon the Sergeant answered: "Very well, Captain, just as you say," and the work went on until it was completed. That was the conversation the commanding general referred to. Captain Roemer was brevetted a major of volunteers for brave and meritorious service upon the field of battle. He was a native of Hesse-Darmstadt, and had served in the German cavalry, but settled in Flushing in 1842.

William Hallett

William Hallett, who had come from England and arrived in Queens after a short stay at Greenwich, Conn., received on December 1, 1652, a patent for one hundred and sixty acres on Long Island, described as follows: "A plot of ground at Hellegat, upon Long Island, called Jacques' farm, and beginning at a great rock that lies in the meadow, goes upward southeast to the end of a very small swamp, two hundred and two rods ; from thence northeast two hundred and thirty rods, on the north it goes up to running water, two hundred and ten rods." In 1655 his house and other buildings were destroyed by the Indians and Hallett removed to Flushing where he was appointed sheriff, but deposed by Governor Stuyvesant, and also fined and put into prison, because he had permitted the Rev. William Wickenden from Rhode Island to preach at his house, and had partaken of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper from his hands. Hallett was a bitter enemy of Stuyvesant, as indeed all the English on Long Island were, and he warmly advocated the claims of Connecticut to the island when the population revolted from Dutch rule. He was a delegate to the General Court of Legislature of the colony of Connecticut and afterward commissioner or justice of the peace for Flushing. Later he removed again to Hellgate. The records show that in 1664 he bought from the Indian chiefs, Shawestcont and Erramorhar, a tract of land beginning at a creek "commonly called Sunswick," and extending westward to below Hellgate, including Hewlett's Island. This tract included nearly the whole of Hell Gate Neck, and was called by the Indians "Sintsinck." It embraced many parcels which had already been deeded by the Indians to other parties, and which had been settled upon, and they were, of course, excluded when the grant was confirmed by the English governors, Nicolls and Dongan. But we see here how the name "Hallett's Cove" originated. It has been mentioned that the Hunter estate was sold to Union College of Schenectady. This transaction became of such enormous importance to the development of the district known as Astoria, later incorporated in Long Island City.


Website: The History
Article Name: Notable Men of the Borough of Queens Part III
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Illustrated History of the Borough of Queens, New York City; by George Von Skal; Compiled By F.T. Smiley Publishing Co., New York City 1908
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