Coe’s Mill, Queens

 

The street behind Forest Hills Cooperative Houses skews off the grid by a few degrees and was part of the ancient North Hempstead Plank Road. Reflecting its history, the one-block road is named Colonial Avenue. For nearly three centuries, the road traversed a small island in the middle of Horse Brook. On the island were a gristmill and a hotel. 

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In 1930, the Long Island Expressway obliterated all traces of the mill and its island, which was no wider than the highway. So much of early Queens history is associated with this mill, perhaps even the reason why today we speak English instead of Dutch.

Where it Stood

The story of Colonial Avenue begins in 1652 when English settler Captain John Coe established a gristmill on an island in Horse Brook to supply the residents of Newtown with bread.

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On the 1891 Joseph Bien atlas of Queens, Horse Brook meanders eastward across the landscape. Paralleling it on the south is the highlighted North Hempstead Plank Road. Coe’s Mill stood at a point where the road crosses the brook.

A couple of blocks north of Coe’s Mill, the plank road merged with Corona Avenue, becoming Strong’s Causeway, which crossed the salt marsh of Flushing Meadows on its way east. Jamaica Road on the map above its today’s Queens Boulevard.

The Coe Family

The Coe family arrived in America in 1634, settling in the Puritan colony of Massachusetts. A year later, the family relocated to Connecticut. The patriarch Robert Coe had three sons, John, Robert and Benjamin, who each figured prominently in the transition period when New Netherlands became New York. The family crossed the Long Island Sound in 1644 following a dispute within their church. Together with the Rev. Richard Denton, they founded the Town of Hempstead. Today it serves as the seat for Nassau County. Coe was also among the founders of Newtown and Jamaica, the latter town serving as the seat for Queens County.

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The border between the Dutch and English colonies was a blurry one and the influx of dissident puritans and Quakers to Long Island caused friction with the Dutch administration. Although the above map dates to 1815, it illustrates the early settlements founded by the English. New Netherlands and Connecticut both claimed the entirety of Long Island. Eventually they settled on a border that today separates the counties of Nassau and Suffolk.

Skirmishes occurred on the border and following the successful Native raid that destroyed Maspeth in 1643, English settlers accused New Amsterdam of not doing enough to protect them against Native attacks. Settler Richard Brutnell authored a rumor that Stuyvesant would ally the Dutch with local Natives in a likely war against the English, and that the local English colonists would also be slaughtered in this scenario. In nearby Flushing, English Quakers clashed with Dutch authorities over religious practices, a protest known as the Flushing Remonstrance.

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Crimea on Horse Brook

In 1662, John Coe and his sons authored a letter on behalf of English settlers on Long Island requesting that their towns be annexed to Connecticut. An action resembling what ethnic Russians did in Crimea in March 2015, petitioning for Russia to annex Crimea.

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At the same time, the Newtown settlers elected delegates to meet Governor Stuyvesant to defuse tensions. The colonists swore loyalty to the Dutch, who in return approved of democratic elections within the settlements of Hempstead, Flushing, Newtown and Jamaica. Nevertheless, mistrust and accusations of dual loyalty persisted as the number of English settlers on Long Island rapidly outgrew the Dutch. 

In August 1664, four English frigates commanded by Captain Thomas Nicolls sailed into the harbor of New Amsterdam and the colony peacefully surrendered to the English in exchange for guarantees of religious tolerance. New Netherlands became New YorkSuffolk County was detached from Connecticut and awarded to New York, putting all of Long Island within one colony.

Historical Events at Coe’s Mill

Throughout the colonial period, slave labor powered the mill. The 1892 book The Skillmans of Newtown, author Francis Skillman visits the crumbling mill and imagines its past. Skillman uses a racist term to describe slaves dwelling in the basement. New York abolished slavery in 1827.

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The Coe house is an historic house, and the Coes were of the stuff that make their mark by changing a dynasty; their particular job in this respect having been the ousting of the Dutch and the introduction of the English; the stifling of old Stuyvesant and, the advent of Governor Nicolls—all of which was accomplished ‘by those hearty men in twelve years—from 1652 to 1664…

Skillman also noted that Coe’s Mill was the site of the first recorded criminal sentence in colonial Newtown:

Captain Coe and his mill have left behind them a precedent in criminal jurisprudence as carried out in 1660, when a thief detected stealing corn from the mill was condemned to walk a certain distance, with two rods under each arm, to the sound of the official drum beaten before him.”

It was from a dock at Coe’s Mill that John Coe had sailed to Hartford, Connecticut with a request for annexation. The mill operated until 1875 and for its last remaining decades it served as a hotel.

Corona Park

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In 1887, farmland to the north of Coe’s Mill was developed as Corona Park. Broad Street ran through its center and Corona Avenue (marked by trolley tracks) ran on its north. The village’s main street, Broad Street kept its extra width and later renamed Saultell. An alley named Westside Avenue delineates the village’s original western border. The one-lane alley still exists today. As for the island, it’s as wide as the highway that was built on top of it.

Last View of Coe’s Mill

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As Skillman described, to passersby at the end of the 19th century, Coe’s Mill was an ancient relic, a place to reminisce about the past. In the following century, the only attempt to memorialize Coe’s Mill was a historical marker installed by the State Education Department on Colonial Avenue. “On this site, 1655, Captain John Coe erected the first grist mill in Newtown, used as a mill by Rapelye until 1875.” The sign disappeared long ago.

The Highway Arrives

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In 1930, highway promoter Horace Harding succeeded in laying down a road from Queens Boulevard to Flushing Meadows as part of a future highway extending to the eastern tip of Long Island. As the planning map above shows, Nassau Boulevard (highlighted) was slated to run over Coe’s Mill. After Harding’s death in 1929, the boulevard was renamed after him. In 1954, it was upgraded as the Long Island Expressway while retaining Harding’s name on its service roads.

A Changed Landscape

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Less than a decade after Harding’s death, the “valley of ashes” that was Flushing Meadows was transformed into the site of the 1939-1940 World’s Fair. Grand Central Parkway was constructed along the fair’s eastern side. Horse Brook was gone, a dried-up plain no longer fed by the stream.

The red triangle above indicates the site of my parents’ home, built in 1950 atop the former stream bed. Colonial Avenue is to the left of the triangle. Its intersection with Horace Harding Boulevard is where Coe’s Mill stood. Following the construction of boulevard, two gas stations were built on either side of the highway and are still there today.

Before and After

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Above is Colonial Avenue looking north towards the Long Island Expressway, which separates Forest Hills from Corona. Not a trace of Coe’s Mill remains.

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Looking west, we see an endless stream of traffic on the Long Island Expressway. The yellow line indicates the path of Colonial Avenue. Coe’s Mill stood in the middle of this highway. Going back to the pre-colonial times, the land around Horse Brook was a vast marsh.

Memorializing Coe’s Mill

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A block to the east of where Coe’s Mill stood is the 112th Street Footbridge crossing over the Long Island Expressway. Its name is a placeholder on the street grid but the actual 112th Street is nowhere near the bridge.

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Considering the footbridge’s proximity to Coe’s Mill, I wrote a letter to local Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland proposing to rename its as Coe’s Mill Footbridge. That was last May. I have yet to receive her reply.

Renaming this otherwise uninspiring footbridge after Coe’s Mill would spark the imaginations of its users, encouraging them to think back in time to a family that had a crucial impact on New York by founding some of its oldest settlements and ushering in the English takeover of the colony.

A renamed Coe’s Mill Footbridge could spark further efforts in remembering Coe’s Mill, such as a mural on its tall concrete walls and historical panels on the bridge walkway illustrating the long gone Horse Brook and gristmill that were covered by the highway. Perhaps at a future date when the footbridge is rebuilt, it can also be designed with its history in mind.

Research Sources:

  • Bartlett, Joseph Gardner “Robert Coe, Puritan: His Ancestors and Descendants” Published by the author, 1911
  • Bolton, Reginald Pelham; Hall, Edward Hagaman Hall “Historical Guide to the City of New York” City History Club of New York 1906
  • Riker, James “The Annals of Newtown, in Queens County, New-York: Containing Its History” D. Fanshaw, 1852
  • Seyfried, Vincent “Corona: From Farmland to City Suburb (1650-1935)” Edgian Press 1986
  • Seyfried, Vincent “Elmhurst: From Town Seat to Mega-Suburb (Queens Community Series)” 1995
  • Skillman, Francis “The Skillmans of New York” Kessinger Publishing, 2009
  • Walsh, Kevin; Kadinsky, Sergey “Our Mr. Brook” Forgotten-NY March 2008 http://forgotten-ny.com/2008/03/our-mr-brook-sergey-kadinsky-follows-the-former-horse-brook/
  • Walsh, Kevin “State Historical Markers in New York City” Part 2” Forgotten-NY March 17,2013 http://forgotten-ny.com/2013/03/state-historical-markers-in-new-york-city-part-2

For More on Horse Brook:

Visit the Forgotten-NY page on Horse Brook.

In the News:

DNAinfo reports on a grant awarded to a community garden in Dutch Kills, Queens.

The Architect’s Newspaper reports on the eight redesign sites for Parks Without Borders announced today by NYC Parks.

City Limits paddles down the Bronx River.

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