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Build and they will come

             by Grace Polk

The year 1917 saw the extension of the New York City subways to the outer boroughs. Here from Queens Boulevard and 33rd Street in Long Island City one can only imagine the development to come.

Recently, I spent a fascinating four hours in the archives of the Queens Public Library researching the history of the area where I grew up.  I won't go back to the Mespat Indians, but if you want to, this history will help.  Long Island City was created in 1870 and included hamlets like Blissville, (named for Neziah Bliss, landowner in the 1830-1840's), Dutch Kills, Steinway, Sunnyside, Ravenswood, and the village of Astoria. Long Island City then had 12,000-15,000 residents.  By 1872 there was a ferry from Astoria to 86th Street in Yorkville. In 1898, Long Island City surrendered its independence to become part of the City of Greater New York.

It is believed that Sunnyside got its name in 1850 when a railroad station was built across from the Sunnyside Roadhouse Hotel on Jackson Avenue to accommodate visitors of the Fashion Race Course in Corona. Shortly thereafter, a small hamlet was established between Northern and Queens Boulevards, which became known as Sunnyside. The name Sunnyside probably originated earlier, with a family of French Huguenot immigrants named named Bragaw, who built a house in 1700 on the crest of Sunnyside Hill. The family came to the United States from the Palatinate on the Rhine in 1675.

In 1900 cows still grazed in Sunnyside, while Long Island City slowly grew. This scene, looking towards Hunter's Point, is from Vincent Seyfried's book, 300 Years of Long Island City, 1630-1930.

The Morrell House on the corner of Woodside Avenue and 39th Avenue was still standing in 1924.

In 1979, Newsday reported there was a Gosman family farm house built in 1782 on what would become 48th Street; it was destroyed in 1904. The house had rings and bolts in the basement walls for securing slaves who misbehaved. Sales of slaves in Queens were recorded until the 1820’s. In 1904, the De Beauvois family (from Leyden) homestead was still standing. Henry DeBevoise was twice elected mayor of Long Island City. In 1883, while serving his first term, he was jailed for embezzlement. 

Historic Dutch homes existed in Sunnyside, including the Jacob Huethner house at Skillman and 45th Street. In 1904 he had a vegetable farm, with duck pond, and sold his produce from his horse-drawn truck around the "neighborhood." Eventually he opened a country store on Queens Boulevard, built in 1909. (Today one of the early stone Dutch houses from 1709 still stands in an industrial section of Ridgewood, not far away: the Onderdonk House.)


Northern Boulevard was built in 1859, facilitating travel for those who wanted to take the 34th Street ferry. The LIRR existed already in 1875, serving Brooklyn, Long Island City and Woodside. The Newtown Register reported a new station was to open in Sunnyside on the Long Island and Flushing Railroad at 35th Street and Jackson Avenue in 1875.

Public School 3 in Sunnyside. The school burned down shortly before steam shovels ate away the big hill on which it stood. The surrounding area became the Sunnyside Yards of the Long Island Railroad Company.

Queens Boulevard elevated subway constru

The trolley was still running in 1916 on Queens Boulevard, as the subway was being constructed above it.

In 1909 the Queensborough Bridge was built, and with it Queens Boulevard stretched out east to the middle of the borough, and a subway link to Manhattan was created. The New York subways were extended to the outer boroughs early in the 20th century, reaching up to Inwood, Riverdale, the Bronx, and out into the desert that was Queens (see picture above). The image is the newly constructed elevated IRT (Interborough)  subway at 33rd Street/Rawson in 1917.

Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. "Plate 3:  Bounded by (Dutch Kills Creek) Water Street, Borden Avenue, Orton Street, Thomson Avenue, Van Dam Street, Skillman Avenue (Sunnyside Yard), Laurel Hill Avenue, Foster Avenue, Heiser Street, Bliss Street, Anabelle Avenue, Celtic Avenue and Review Avenue." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1909.

This incredible map from 1909 shows the construction of the Sunnyside Railroad Yard before the Gardens were conceived.  Blocks are drawn but there is little build up. If you look in the lower right hand corner you will find Bliss Street ending at the number (4). You see Dutch Kills Creek and Blissville neighborhood.  Follow the link to zoom in and out.

The Pennsylvania and Long Island Railroad assembled land from 1902-1906 to construct the colossal freight yards. Most of the land was low-lying, and therefore cheap; they gradually purchased all the land south of Northern Boulevard between 21st and 43rd Streets. The entire area was leveled to an elevation of 50 feet above the tide. A thousand men moved enough dirt to fill the 250 acres of the upper valley of Dutch Kills Creek. They cleared the mosquito-infested swamps and built apartments with imported labor. The new Sunnyside Rail Yards opened in 1910. Even today, a persistent gardener digging deep will find the odd rail car part or railroad tie segment.


They eventually sold off 52 acres of vacant land they didn't need for the Sunnyside Yards to developers called the City Housing Corporation who held onto the idle land until time and ground was ripe for construction. The CHC counted Eleanor Roosevelt as an advising director of the Corporation. (More about that later.)


In the 1920's things got moving in Sunnyside. Millionaire financier Jay Gould (as in the Great Gatsby) built fancy indoor tennis and badminton courts, a private catering club for his rich friends, and a carriage house on 45th Street and Queens Boulevard. Factories sprouted to the west in Long Island City. And the CHC got busy.

Copyright © 2017 Grace Polk.  

All Rights Reserved.

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