Richmond Hill walking tour offers links to boro history

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Not many people are aware that the first car phone was actually invented in 1919 by Alfred H. Grebe at his radio production factory in East Richmond Hill.

It is also a lesser-known fact that Capt. William A. Lighthall, a steam engine engineer who lived in a farmhouse on Jamaica Avenue and 127th Street, created the surface condenser, a machine that produced clean drinking water at a majority of military bases along the East Coast.

These historical treats are just a few of the things Nancy Cataldi and Carl Ballenas will discuss on their walking tour through East Richmond Hill sponsored by the Richmond Hill Historical Society. Cataldi, the president of the society who has run walking tours for seven years, said she likes to show people a variety of sites.

"It's really interesting to see what's still there," said Cataldi about the tour that takes place this Saturday, May 3. "No one has really explored that part of Richmond Hill."

Cataldi and Ballenas will be walking east from Lefferts Boulevard toward the Van Wyck Expressway. Some of the buildings on the tour include the Grebe radio factory, the house where the Marx brothers lived with their mother in the 1920s, and the old Dauers Casino, which is now an old lumberyard on 127th Street slated to become an apartment complex.

Ballenas said the two-hour tour will include discussions about the people who lived in East Richmond Hill and the neighborhood's trends in the late 19th century.

"We want to surprise them (the participants) a little bit with things they never knew about," Ballenas said. "We want to show the progress that's been made and recall the struggles of the past."

Ballenas said one unusual habit of people living in East Richmond Hill was to move their farmhouses and barns that were in the line of proposed street developments. He said three farmhouses, the Bergen, Briggs and Lefferts houses, were all moved to make way for construction.

"The Bergen Farm was moved to the corner of Lefferts Boulevard and Jamaica Avenue in 1892 to make way for the extension of Hillside Avenue," Ballenas said. "We just don't know how they did it."

Biographies of Richmond Hill personalities to be discussed on the tour will include Lighthall, who was one of the oldest steamboat engineers in the United States when he died at the age of 76 in 1881. He had constructed and operated steamers that crossed lakes throughout New York state.

Cataldi said the past tours have drawn between 10 and 40 people. She said the tour would go on even if it rained. She suggested people interested in taking the tour should wear comfortable shoes.

"This time, we wanted to see some different things," said Cataldi, who is already planning the next tour. "At the end of the tour, we always end up doing some extra stuff."

The society tour will begin at 1 p.m. at the parkette near the E train station on Jamaica Avenue. The cost is $3 for historical society members and $5 for all others. Cataldi said people with questions can call 718-847-6070 for more information.

Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 7:04 pm, October 10, 2011
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