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QueensLine: New Astoria train caused a lot of headaches in 1917

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On July 20, 1917, the first train ran from 57th Street in Manhattan to Ditmars Boulevard in Queens. The trip over the Queensboro Bridge took eight minutes. It carried only city officials and chamber of commerce members and made no stops. Its progress was a triumph as both bridge pedestrians and track workers cheered as it made its way along the 20-minute trip.

The Queens Chamber of Commerce, which played an active role in the line, touted the success of the fourth link between Manhattan and Queens —the others were the Queensboro Bridge; the Pennsylvania Railroad, now the Long Island Rail Road tunnel; and the Steinway subway tubes, now the No. 7 line.

They recalled that the project seemed stalled when railroad ties that were promised were never delivered. They dispatched an agent who found the cars filled with the missing ties on a rail siding outside St. Louis, Mo. It seemed the war effort had fouled the rail network. After straightening out the mess, the agent sent the train to New York.

Three days later, after waiting nearly a decade, the line opened and immediately drew criticism from the community. The first train from Ditmars Boulevard unexpectedly and unceremoniously stopped at Bridge Plaza. The sleepy passengers were ordered off. Staring in disbelief, they watched as the dispatcher sent the three cars on to Manhattan — clattering over the Queensboro Bridge with no passengers!

On the other Ditmars-bound platform, passengers got angry when they had to wait a half hour to arrive at the terminal at Ditmars Boulevard. Later that evening, their woes increased when they discovered the Ditmars line, like the rest of the Second Avenue system, virtually shut down at midnight.

The following day, the first impressions of the new elevated line were in. Headlines were negative: “Astorians object vociferously to Bridge Plaza Station” and “New ‘el’ service inadequate, crush at Plaza.” It seemed the morning rush, spread over several hours, was not the true test for the system. The evening commute, between 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., proved to be the busiest hour with thousands descending on the elevated station.

The problem got worse when careless Manhattanites, used to having the Second Avenue local all to themselves — with one destination: Harlem — did not understand it shared the same track with a new local bound for Astoria. Thousands of bewildered commuters were milling around Bridge Plaza on the first day looking for service that would take them to Manhattan.

Adding to the chaos, a steady stream of Astorians poured out of subway cars from Hunters Point and Grand Central. Trains on the bridge from the Second Avenue el were backed up, unable to reach Bridge Plaza in the confusion. Extra guards were called in to physically shove the crowds into packed cars.

Reports from Grand Central Station, which was to theoretically enjoy a drop in traffic, showed the subway platforms were as crowded as before.

For more information, call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit astorialic.org.

Upcoming events at the Greater Astoria Historical Society

Where: 35-20 Broadway, 4th Floor, Astoria

History Roundtable — The American Revolution: The United States was born when we officially severed ties to the British Empire. Explore and discuss the events and personalities behind July 4th and the Declaration of Independence. Film viewing: Liberty: The American Revolution.

When: July 17, 1 p.m.

Lecture & Beer Tasting — Beer Gardens of Queens: In honor of the Centennial of Bohemian Hall join us for an armchair tour of the Beer Gardens in Queens! Learn about the history of beer gardens and how they became a favorite past time in the 1900s. This lecture will include a beer tasting with a discussion of what makes each brew unique and the harvesting of hops around the world. Must be 21 or older

When: July 21, 6 p.m.

Contact: Please call for reservations for this event at 718–278–0700.

Cost: $20 per person ($12 GAHS members)

Movie — The 1900 House: Vicariously experience a time-travel journey back to everyday, middle-class life in Victorian London as the adventurous Bowler Family spend three months living in a townhouse carefully restored to reproduce the ambiance and amenities of the year 1900. This film explores the radical changes in family and domestic life that have occurred over the past 100 years through scientific and technological innovations.

When: July 31 Aug. 7, 1 p.m.

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