After conquering the world of music and ascending the pinnacle of New York’s cultural scene with America’s premier entertainment and lecture space, Steinway Hall, the Steinway family turned their interests towards the ‘high tech’ of their age: transportation.
The family needed to insure that workers and residents in their community could have the best of both worlds: easy access to big city Manhattan as well as the advantages of living in a small town like Long Island City. Besides, there were all those empty lots in their settlement that had to be sold. Transportation easy and cheap was the key.
Their deep pockets made the chronically ailing Long Island City street car lines easy prey. The family’s legendary brilliance at problem solving ensured that those street rails not only ran on time, but expanded into a regional network that was unthinkable prior to their involvement. In 1883 William Steinway incorporated the Steinway & Hunter’s Point Railroad Company as a holding company after merging the Long Island City street railways into one entity. He built a massive car depot with shops, offices and storage areas on the west side of Steinway Street above 20th Avenue.
The Steinways were just getting started.
During an 1888 trip to Europe William met Gottlieb Daimler who held patents on the first practical internal combustion engine powered by gasoline. After the two took a ten mile drive in Daimler’s new horseless carriage Steinway and Daimler agreed to a partnership, Daimler Motor Company, which would initially focus its attention on stand-alone engines and motor boat production. Although American roads, unlike those in Europe, were not yet ready for automobile, towns and cities around the country were in the midst of a great boom in street and highway construction. It was only a matter of time before the American public would be receptive to the automobile.
Their first shop was a little building on the east side of Steinway Street between 20th Avenue and 20th Road in 1890. One could argue the Automotive Age began there for at the same time Henry Ford was still feeding teaspoons of gasoline to an experimental motor in his wife’s kitchen.
In the early 1890s, William, as chair of the New York City subway commission, helped design the city’s transit network. On paper a series of lines were drawn connecting the Bronx and Brooklyn with Manhattan. He did not neglect this opportunity for his community: Long Island City/Astoria’s excellent transit is a legacy of this attention.
His dream remains incomplete to this day: the 31st Street elevated line was to originally reach North Beach, today’s LaGuardia Airport.
In 1892, the Steinway Railway company undertook a large-scale engineering project after William Steinway made the decision to switch from horse power to electrification of street railway network. A great power plant, built on the East River at 1st Street and 27th Avenue, had a large reserve capacity that enabled it to furnish power for his piano factory and sell power the local residents.
Things suddenly took a quick turn. Daimler, beset by legal problems, could not contribute his share of the joint venture. Patience wore thin. “I have serious apprehensions as to monetary outlook,” William wrote in his diary, “and curse its draining me of money and resolve to stop it.”
William’s troubles where just beginning as his health was failing. A planned East River Tunnel linking the intersection of Vernon and Jackson with the Grand Central Terminal was halted after only a few months when a tremendous explosion killed and injured scores and literally rocked Hunters Point off its foundations.
In a scramble to retrench the Steinways sold their traction interests to a Philadelphia syndicate in the fall of 1895. The new entity, the New York & Queens Railway, went on to knit the scattered hamlets and villages of Queens together.
When William Steinway died in 1896 the Steinways liquidated their Daimler interests (the factory had built only one automobile) and stepped back from syndicates formed for transportation projects as the Queensboro Bridge and the East River Tunnel. Nephews studying engineering were called back to the factory to run departments that made pianos. The Daimler factory was destroyed in a 1907 fire.
The late Henry Z. Steinway, who had an office in Steinway Hall had a fascinating collection on Steinway memorabilia. One of the items was a map, attached to a prospectus, which outlined plans for vast New York metropolitan transit system. A single rail line linked New Jersey with Manhattan, Long Island, and New England. Tunnels were planned under the Hudson and the East Rivers. A viaduct headed up 21st Street and crossed into the Bronx by way of bridge over the Hell Gate.
Throughout the closing decades of the 19th century, the country remained in locked in depression. The Steinways never could raise money for their dream. It remained in a file cabinet for a century.
If William could have lived a few years into the 20th Century it would have been so different. Trusts and monopolies were able to command sums of money undreamed by families as wealthy as even the Steinways. By 1917, the Pennsylvania Railroad brushed off those plans and built the Sunnyside Yards, Pennsylvania Station, and a rail system that connected our city to both with New England as well as the American heartland. William’s New York subway network collected its first fare in 1904. The East River tunnel, still called the ‘Steinway Tubes,’ opened in 1915 (the 7 Train runs through it). By 1918 automobiles were commonplace.
If William had reached his mid-80s and he would have seen his dreams become reality.
One can argue that Long Island City, the Borough of Queens, the City of New York and our metropolitan region developed in the ways that it did because of those dreams the Steinways had while looking out over their village from a mansion on an Astoria hill.
Next: Renaissance Man