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Woodhaven, surprisingly, has an exciting history

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The seekers of knowledge arrived at Eldert Lane and Jamaica Avenue, at the site of the old Union racecourse, at around 11 a.m. on a terribly muggy, overcast day.

Guide Jack Eichenbaum, Ph.D., arrived soon after to conduct the tour of Woodhaven. Yes, Woodhaven. No, it's not known as the most swinging place on earth, but it does have its own peculiar and interesting history, not the least of which is the enormous Franklin K. Lane High School across the street from where we'd gathered.

The school manages to be in both Brooklyn and Queens at the same time, for Woodhaven is right on the cusp of both boroughs. Before we set off, Eichenbaum gave us a little more history of the place - such as how it was at first called Woodville until they found out that a town upstate was also called Woodville; how the el terminated right past the scary Cypress Hill cemetery and one had to take a trolley to go further east; how Forest Park, which we could see on the horizon, is the edge of a terminal moraine, where a great glacier pushed down from the north and quit, and everything to the south is flat to Jamaica Bay; and why the Long Island Railroad runs down the middle of Long Island and not at its edges (because it was the quickest way to get to Boston in the 1830s and '40s. This is true. You'd take it out to Orient Point, take a ferry, and then pick up a train to Boston).

According to Eichenbaum, working class Woodhaven really hasn't changed, architecturally, in some 75 years, with most of the houses being built between 1900 and 1930. Only a few of the old houses are "Queensmarked" - singled out by the Queens Historical Society for special interest, like a key pattern in the string course or an original door from the 19th century.

As we walked around we saw a nice mix of homes with small, lovingly tended but theme-less gardens out front. The Woodhavenites were frankly bemused, and gave us looks that demanded, "What are you people doing here?"

"Why you make da picture?" croaked one gentleman as the writer aimed her camera at a gargoyle.

"Oh, I'm with the newspaper," she replied.

"Oh," he said, and went on about his business.

We passed the Woodhaven Baptist Church, a tidy, gabled country church, then turned up Forest Parkway, which was developed for Woodhaven's upper classes. Consequently, there are very few through-streets along the parkway, and lots of dead ends, so the hoi polloi couldn't easily access this part of the nabe. There are a handful of big Queen Anne houses, tall, old, shady trees and surprising front gardens: one sported a planting of yuccas with creamy yellow flowers, another a cherry tree with ruby red fruit fattening on it. One of the houses was where Betty x bb wrote "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn."

The terrain grew gently hilly as we approached Forest Park. Eventually we reached the beautiful, curious, useless Fire Alarm Telegraph Station at an edge of the park at Woodhaven Boulevard, then passed the apartment houses built on the site of an old reservoir near Victory Field, and paused under the old, rusty Rockaway Railroad bridge on Park Lane, which used to take the rich out to their watering places on the peninsula.

We passed a factory that had been converted into lovely condos and then pushed on to PS 66, one of the first schools built in Queens after it became a borough. The vaguely Dutch colonial building is about one hundred years old and, to tell you the truth, we weren't completely sure it was still in Woodhaven - we'd come to the edge of Richmond Hill.

We then tramped back down to Jamaica Avenue, and came upon the oldest right-of-way in the borough, a driveway right next to the Cordon Blue catering hall, which used to be one of those ornate Loew's movie palaces. The right-of-way dates back to the 18th century and used to lead to the cemetery of the Wyckoff and Snediker families, and if there hadn't been a fence at the edge of the Cordon Bleu's parking lot, it still would have.

We soldiered on to St. Matthew's Church at 85-45 96th Street, a relatively new church built to look old and English, and we went around the back to the quiet, shady cemetery of the old settlers, which is now looked after by Arthur O'Neeley.

The cemetery was a dump till around 1997, when the Queens Historical Society and others decided to clean it up for good. There are about 136 burial sites, and the oldest one known dates back to 1793.

Our last stop was St. Matthew's itself, a building with a square bell tower, a cool, stony interior and beautiful wood-beamed ceiling. St. Matthew's is an Episcopal church and so looks a little Catholic inside, with a lady chapel, a baptistery, a holy water font near the door, a stand of votive candles in one corner, and lots of gold ware. The stained glass windows in the clerestory represent folks associated with the establishment of the Anglican church, including St. George (patron saint of England), St. Andrew (Scotland), St. Patrick (Ireland) and St. David (Wales).

Further back, near the entrance, are stained glass windows depicting Albert Schweitzer and Pope John XXIII, the artists' nod to ecumenicalism. The late Pope has a halo like the saints, but his is blue instead of gold, as he hasn't been canonized yet.

Dr. Eichenbaum conducts a variety of walking tours during the spring and summer, from Harlem to Jamaica to Woodhaven. To get his schedule and updates, contact him at jaconet@aol.com or call 718)-961-8406.

Reach Qguide writer Arlene McKanic at timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 139.

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