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The Chinese Farmers of Astoria

By the 1890s, there were 5-10,000 Chinese men living in New York (and about 100 Chinese women.) Among the things they missed most—no doubt well down the list from their women—were traditional Chinese vegetables. 

It wasn’t long before some of these immigrants realized the opportunity and set up farms in the outlying areas of New York. One Astoria farm is described in an illustrated article, “A Celestial Farm On Long Island”, found in an 1893 issue of Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly. This one was to the east of the Astoria Silk Works, located at 23rd Avenue and Steinway Street. It is also mentioned in the 1902 book, New York Sketches, by Jesse Lynch Williams, from which the illustration at right was taken.

An article from 1906 mentions another farm located near Steinway. I’ve found other mentions of this farm and believe it was located along Bowery Bay, between Steinway and what was then called North Beach but is now LaGuardia Airport. I found the census page (image below) that lists these farmers. Their place was located on Bowery Bay Road, and their closest neighbor was a German piano maker, who obviously worked in Steinway.

You can see that several of these Chinese were married and had been in the U.S. for ten to twenty years. Their wives were waiting for them back in China—patiently, one hopes.

Bowery Bay Road was an old thoroughfare the remnants of which are 20th Road in Steinway and Bowery Bay Boulevard, located just east of the LaGuardia runways. North Beach was an entertainment center. A sort of low-end Coney Island, I believe, where gambling went on very openly.

Crossing New York by Ferry in 1900

By 1910, there were more than a dozen bridges and tunnels crossing the East River of New York. But in 1900, there was just the Brooklyn Bridge. It carried a staggering amount of traffic, but clearly it wasn’t enough.

The first steam ferry service across the East River was initiated by Robert Fulton in 1814. By 1900, numerous ferries crossed from half a dozen ferry terminals on Manhattan to terminals in Brooklyn and Queens. In the Google map I created for my book Crossings, I added most of their routes. 

The ferries carried both people and horse-drawn carriages and wagons. There were three cabins on the modern ferries of 1900. On the main deck, a cabin was provided for each sex. Most likely it wasn’t modesty that necessitated providing a women’s cabin, but rather the appetite for cigar smoking among men. It was taken as a given that women didn’t smoke. But if by chance a woman did, she could go to the unisex upper-deck cabin. 
Between the two main-deck cabins, an open area ran the length of the ferry. This is where horse-drawn vehicles made the voyage. You can see horses in the first image.

Most of the freight that moved in and out of New York went by water. There was just one railroad freight line into Manhattan, and no line at all between Brooklyn and Queens on Long Island and the mainland. But there were small freight rail lines that served their factories. To move their freight cars to and from rail heads on the mainland—most often in New Jersey—they used barges laid with track known as car floats. These were loaded and unloaded at specialized docks. Then a tugboat would haul the barges to a similar dock at their destination.

Vice Dens of the Eastern District

The article at left appeared on the front page of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of November th, 1900. Of course, there was no recent upsurge of vice in the Eastern District, just an upsurge in pious morality. The scolds were on the march and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was hopping on the bandwagon. These periodic eruptions of civic censure had become a prominent feature of life in New York after the Civil War. The apparatus du jour was the Committee of Fifteen, a group of self-appointed guardians public morality.

The Eastern District comprised Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick. Much of the article is taken up by the reporter’s first-person account of visits to various vice dens. What it amounts to is a lot of suspicions about gambling and prostitution. But what he finds just as troubling is the mixing of the races. This is a perfect example of how Southern racists had managed to export their fear and loathing of African-Americans northward.  The Eagle regularly referred to African-American neighborhoods  as “negro colonies.” In fact, African-Americans made up barely 1% of Brooklyn’s population in 1900, and the percentage had actually fallen over the previous decade.

While there was plenty of gambling and prostitution going on, the author seems peculiarly inept at finding any proof of it. The various vigilante committees and their investigators generally did a better job. But for them, too, racism, xenophobia, and classism featured large. This is well documented by Jennifer Fronc in her book New York Undercover.

The politicians and police were generally forced to take up the mantle for a time. But they had learned how to set the public against the scolds. They used what’s now called triangulation to appear as the reasonable center between the extremes of wantonness and puritanism.  In the spring of 1901, the police began strictly enforcing the widely unpopular state law against the selling of liquor on the Sabbath. This law had a number of loopholes and enforcement had typically been lax. But instead of targeting the seedy Raines Law hotels, the police took on the German dance halls of Williamsburg. These places catered to middle-class families at a time when the weekend lasted from Saturday evening until Monday morning. Saturday night was the one night the average person could have some fun and not be facing a 10- to 12-hour workday the next morning. Though  the halls were closed Sunday, where they erred was in staying open past midnight on Saturday. So the police clamped down and turned another group of upright citizens against the crusaders.

The hypocrisy is best summed up by an episode involving Michael Minden. Minden owned a variety of hotels and saloons, and there is little doubt gambling was an important part of his business. His hotel at the top end of Broadway in Williamsburg was raided. No one was found to be actively gambling, almost certainly because he’d been tipped off by a friendly precinct captain. However, a roulette wheel and some other bits of gambling gear were seized. Without any actual evidence of gambling, the case against him was dismissed. Then, a while later, Minden’s lawyer went to court and successfully sued for the return of his roulette wheel.

The Don't Worry Movement

 In 1894, Theodore Frelinghuysen Seward, a musicologist, published a book entitled The Don't Worry Philosophy.  He followed this up with Don't Worry: or, Spiritual Emancipation in 1897 and The Don't Worry Movement in 1898. The Don't Worry doctrine was somewhat vague, but it was essentially an attempt to rescue the essence of Christianity from all the layers of dogma built over the previous 2,000 years. Though even Seward had trouble providing a succinct definition. 

The public at large, however, had no problem deciding on a far simpler definition. As a follower of the Don't Worry doctrine, you needed to simply toss your cares aside. Seward attempted to channel the public's enthusiasm for the movement into organized circles of Christian brotherhood. How successful he was isn't clear. But the version created in the public imagination flourished until at least the 1920s.

Outside of Seward's own writings, it's difficult to find any serious articles on the topic. But searching the phrase "Don't Worry Club" in newspaper databases turns up hundreds of references of a lighter sort. Sometimes these are just the little bits of humor newspapers of the time stuck between stories, like the one above. In one I found in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a woman complains that her husband's friends advised him to join the Club before getting married. Then there are longer humor pieces, such as "A Short Tale of the Don't Worry Club," which appeared in The New York Times in 1903.

But apparently there were also some semi-organized, or ad hoc, clubs. The one in Brooklyn seemed to be principally an excuse for going on Sunday outings. An article in The Eagle from July 1901 is entitled "Exalted Optimists' Outing." In this adventure, the "aggregation without a home, an organization or any hope of future temporal existence," traveled via the Long Island Railroad to Montauk. Reference is made to the baggage car and worrying while traveling through "no license" (dry) towns. I infer that they had a bar set up there.

Not surprisingly, it didn't take businesses long to exploit the doctrine's popular appeal. I've seen ads that mention the Club for no-worry loans, no-worry dresses, no-worry fur storage, etc. One popular use was on brass tokens. Tokens like these were already popular at the time and the Don't Worry theme was something all sorts of businesses wanted to be associated with. As the reverse of my "Old Prentice Whisky" token (above) illustrates, these made use of various good luck symbols, such as shamrocks, wishbones, horseshoes, and the then-innocent swastika.

Travel by Steam: City to City

If you traveled any distance in the early 1900s it was almost certainly by steam power, either by railroad or steamship. The northeast U.S. was extremely well-covered by rail lines. In fact they had generally over-built, there being more track than could be profitably maintained. Which is one of the reasons railroads, like airlines today, frequently found themselves in bankruptcy.

Major cities, and many smaller ones, were serviced by multiple railroads, usually running along somewhat different routes. And each railroad ran many different trains. So figuring out the best route between two cities could be difficult. The bible of rail travel was The Official Guide of the Railways. Several of these are online, including a 1904 edition at Google Books. Under listings for each railroad it has schedules for every passenger train. Finding the schedule for trains between New York and Albany on the New York Central is fairly easy. But for smaller cities on less prominent routes, it can be time-consuming. And comparing trains on different railroads can also be difficult. I imagine most people going on complex trips relied on a railroad or other agent.

Passenger fares were rarely published, but seem to have been approximately two cents per mile, so a one-hundred-mile journey would be about $2, equivalent to $50-$100 today, depending on how you compare prices. I don't believe express trains generally cost any more. But by stopping in only a few cities, they did shave a great deal of time off a trip. Limiteds were usually the fastest expresses. With limiteds, at some stops passengers could only board, and at others, only disembark. This shaved off a little more time. For instance, on the New York, New Haven and Hartford (NYNH&H), an express from New York to Boston took about six hours and a limited about five hours.

On the larger railroads, expresses usually had Pullman parlor cars. These cars were owned by the Pullman Company and leased to the railroads. Pullman maintained the cars and the porters manning them were Pullman employees. Most sleeping cars in 1900 were coaches that converted into sleepers. The facing seats combined into a berth and a second, upper, berth folded down from compartments that looked similar to the overhead storage bins on planes. In the photo at right, one side is made into berths, while the other is still configured as a coach. Privacy was obviously problematic.

These cars were also usually Pullman-owned and travelers paid an additional $2-$3 for the privilege. That's about what a room would run in a nice, but not expensive, hotel.

Travelers between coastal cities could usually opt to take a steamship. These boats plied the Great Lakes and ran all up and down the East Coast. The 1903 Appletons' Dictionary of Greater New York lists more than a hundred routes between New York and other cities. Most are to nearby cities, but others serviced Boston, Washington, and Savannah. The steamship routes usually paralleled railroad routes, and the cost was comparable. For instance, a ticket on the NYNH&H from New York to Boston would run about $5. That's about what a cabin on a steamship would run, though there was also a $3 option if you would forgo the cabin.

The chief difference was that the trains were much faster. As I mentioned above, the Limited to Boston took just five hours. The steamship took closer to twenty. The trains also ran much more frequently. I assume most people opting for the steamship simply saw it as a more pleasant way of traveling. Which explains why many of the nearby routes offered excursion fares. The routes up the Hudson were especially popular with day-trippers.

Buffalo at the Turn of the 20th Century

Labor Day Parade in Buffalo, ca. 1900.
Until 1817, Buffalo was a small village like many others along the Great Lakes. But that was the year work began on the Erie Canal, which would link Lake Erie with the Hudson River. Completed in 1825, the Canal was a very costly, and risky, public works project. But it was wildly successful and would assure the prosperity of New York State--and, even more particularly, that of New York City, at the base of the Hudson, and Buffalo, at the western terminus of the Canal.

Elevators, canal boats, lake steamers & harbor ferry.
At a time before railroads, or even serviceable highways, goods could be brought to Buffalo by ship and transferred to canal boats. Grain was the main cargo of the ships arriving from the Midwest, and Buffalo soon became a major distribution point for wheat and other grains. In 1842, the first grain elevator was built in Buffalo. The elevator used steam-powered conveyers to unload the grain from ships and into bins within the large wooden tower. Throughout the 19th century, the towers grew in number and size, even as railroads supplanted the Canal.

By 1900 Buffalo held a key position as a transportation hub. Grain, iron ore and lumber came in from the west, while coal and other goods arrived from the east. As a consequence, both flour and steel mills developed into major industries. And since all the major railroads of the northeast serviced Buffalo, they too became major employers. The population of the city was growing rapidly and stood at 350,000. Buffalo was then the 8th-largest city in the U.S. (in 2011, it was #72).

As with a lot of American cities, Buffalo was in the middle of a great building boom. In 1896, Ellicott Square (above) was completed. Taking up an entire city block, it was at the time the world's largest office building. What's more amazing, it still is intact.

Another amazing thing about Buffalo is the devotion of its fans to its history. One of the best local history sites on the Web is Chuck LaChiusa's Buffalo Architecture and History, which has individual pages for individual buildings as well as architects. For instance, there is a page for  Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed a number of Buffalo's parks, including Delaware Park, seen above on a busy day.

But no discussion of Buffalo in 1900 can be complete without mention of the grain scoopers and the harbor ferries, both explored at local history sites well worth visiting.