Hunting for History in Queens

Queens, that famous New York borough, has lived in the shadows of New York City for centuries. While its neighbor to the west has hundreds, if not thousands, of historic sites and landmarks, Queens is filled with plenty of history itself. Queens was settled in the seventeenth century, and quite in contrast with nearby city of New York. It wasn’t until ferries were replaced with bridges and tunnels that Queens became a part of the Big Apple. Despite the merger, Queens has retained much of its own flavor, culture, and history.

Image from pg.36

“God save us all!”
So just how far back does history go in Queens? How about to the Revolutionary War. In late August 1776, just as the British were sieging Long Island, American general Nathaniel Woodhull arrived in Jamaica, Queens, to lead a company of militiamen. Their orders were to secure 1,400 head of cattle. While George Washington was fighting the nearby Battle of Long Island, Woodhull sent his men to safety. Waiting on word from Washington, the solo general was captured by the British. Upon his surrender, Woodhull declined to swear allegiance to the crown, and infamously uttered “God save us all,” which inspired the wrath of one of the British officers. Woodhull nearly bled to death, and later had his arm amputated. He died from his injuries weeks later. The martyred general is memorialized with a cannon and a granite block placed on the grounds of the incident, as well as Woodhull Avenue.

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Motor Parkway
At the dawn of the twentieth century, the automobile was starting to become popular, and the grandson of industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, William K. Vanderbilt was an early adapter, and loved to race them. But getting a car to high speeds on an unpaved road was impossible, so the rich kid helped create a seventy-mile-long road through central Long Island, from Queens all the way to Riverhead. In 1908, ground was broken for the world’s first concrete highway, albeit limited-access. 

“All hail, those pioneers—Mr. Vanderbilt and his associates—who for the motorists of America and the world are thus blazing the trail for the motor roads, the motor streets, and the motor bridges of the future.” — The president of the Automobile Club of America

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World’s Fair
How does a thriving community make room for the biggest party on the planet? In 1936, Corona, Queens picked a swampy garbage dump for the future fairground. By March 1937, the site was ready for construction, and after the pavilions were built and 10,000 trees, 500,000 hedges, 400,000 pansies, and 1,000,000 tulips were planted, the World’s Fair was ready for guests. Ultimately, sixty foreign countries were represented, including the Soviet Union. The 1939-40 New York World’s Fair opened on April 30, 1939, and closed relatively quickly on October 27, 1940. Even though twenty-five million visited in the first season, the Fair was a money loser. As World War II loomed, steel from the temporary structures was needed for the war effort. Just a few years after the last guests passed through the gates, hardly a trace remained. The site became a city park, and the New York City Pavilion building became the popular Queens Museum.

Image from pg.148

World’s Fair, the Sequel
Hoping to outdo the previous New York Fair in 1939, the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair opened on April 22, 1964 to great delight. The centerpiece was the 900,000-pound steel Unisphere, which replaced the 1939 Perisphere on the same foundations, and still stands as the focal point today. Other remaining structures include the undulating concrete and glass Hall of Science, which was fully opened for the ’65 fair season, and the one-hundred-foot-high New York State Pavilion with its three towers and elliptical ring. Also still standing is the 120-foot-high Terrace on the Park building, which was originally the heliport for the fair. Today the site is dripping in irony — the Space Age architecture and imagery now feels more 1960s than the far off future.