As downtown Flushing becomes more crowded with condo and hotel towers pushing the skyline as high as airplanes from nearby LaGuardia Airport allow, it is difficult to imagine the neighborhood as it was when the first Quaker settlers arrived there in 1643.
In 1908, John H. Innes designed a map of late 18th century Flushing for the City History Club of New York. A copy of this map can be found at the Library of Congress, along with similar maps for Queens’ other early settlements, Jamaica and Newtown. Looking at these maps is like taking a tour back in time to when Queens was emerging from the American Revolution, still rural with street patterns that are still here today.
Where it Was
Zooming out on the title card, Innes puts east on top rather than north. The T-shaped intersection of Broadway (today’s Northern Boulevard) and Main Street serves as an ideal point of reference for orienting around 1780s Flushing. The northern side of Broadway has the Linnaean Garden, a plant nursery so famous that President Washington visited it in 1790 on his tour of Flushing. All that remains of this garden is Linnaeus Place, a C-shaped alley branching off from Prince Street. Farrington’s Neck is today marked as Farrington Street, named after an early settler family.
For the purpose of this blog the fascinating item on the map is Town Pond, a body of water located where today’s abandoned RKO Keith’s Theater stands. The pond was used as a watering hole for cattle. According to the 1909 Historical Guide to the City of New York, the pond was filled around 1843.
It was fed by a brook that originated on the Garretson property across Main Street from St. George’s Episcopal Church. Flowing out of the pond, the brook flowed towards today’s Leavitt Field, continuing north where it flowed into Mill Creek.
According to Smith
The next map chronologically is the Elijah A. Smith map of 1841, which shows Town Pond gone. Although the southern branch of Mill Creek has retreated further from its original source, it is surrounded by plant nurseries. Two smaller contributing sources, Nell’s Spring and Mitchell’s Spring are marked on Smith’s map. The latter is in proximity to Innerwyck, the Mitchell family’s historic home that stood until 1959. At the mouth of Mill Creek, crossed by College Point Causeway is a mill that gave the creek its name.
According to Roullier
In 1894, G. A. Roullier and Robert A. Welcke’s map of Flushing shows homes lining up along the prescribed street grid. The historic village is not so isolated anymore with the Whitestone and Port Washington branches connecting it with the rest of Long Island. For reference, I outlined Leavitt Field and the Flushing Greens traffic malls on Northern Boulevard. At the time, Leavitt Field was not yet developed, still a swampy tract where the creek’s water emerged to the surface. If you recall my mention of Gustave Roullier, he was the engineer responsible for Flushing’s water supply in the late 19th century. his water works at present-day Harvey Playground and Kissena Park succeeded the springs that appeared on the 1841 Smith map.
The 1924 city aerial survey has the colonial roads highlighted: East-west for Northern Boulevard; Main Street making the T-shaped intersection, and another T to its right with Bowne Street; and Union Street running north askew to the emerging grid. In blue is another pond on the site of Leavitt Field, with the brook flowing into Mill Creek. In my book, this brook is described as the southern branch of Mill Creek. The field was developed in 1933, to this day used by the students of nearby Flushing High School.
Site of Town Pond
Through the 19th century, the property where Town Pond flowed was the site of Flushing Hotel, a popular stop on the east-west route between New York City and eastern Long Island. For farmers heading to the big city, this hotel was their last rest stop before the ferry to Manhattan at Hunter’s Point. Behind the hotel one could see the Prince Nursey and the wide expanse of the Mill Creek wetland.
The hotel operated until January 1917, as seen in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle illustration on the left. It was demolished in September of that year. Unclear is the date of the hotel’s construction. Did it replace Town Pond or predate it? Innes’ map shows the pond, but not the hotel, while the newspaper account of the hotel claims that President Washington ate a roasted ox here; with the future King William IV visiting it during the British occupation of New York in the American Revolution.
The successor to Flushing Hotel was another great destination structure: RKO Keith’s Theater, designed by architect Thomas W. Lamb. Its Spanish Baroque interior with a starry ceiling was as much an attraction as the vaudeville plays and films that were advertised on its curving marquee. In 1985 developer Tommy Huang closed the theater and let the building go to waste. Three decades and many owners later, the building remains vacant and in a sad shape.
Between Main Street and Union Street, Northern Boulevard has traffic malls separating the flow. They have the appearance of a town square with benches, flagstaff, and monuments. Historically known as Flushing Greens, the median facing Flushing Town Hall was renamed in 1942 for local resident Daniel Carter Beard, founder of the Boy Scouts.
Seeing the median’s first appearance on the map in 1841 means that this tiny park predates Manhattan’s Central Park by 16 years. Comparing Smith’s map to the Innes map, it is possible that Town Pond occupied not only the RKO Keith’s property but also the traffic lanes between the former theater and the traffic median, as seen in the above street view.
Looking at the 1904 Belcher-Hyde Atlas, we see Flushing Greens at the historic intersection. The only trace of the southern branch of Mill Creek is Leavitt Street on the northeast corner, marked in parentheses as Spring Street. This was Nell’s Spring a half century earlier.
For an intersection and neighborhood that have experienced so many changes, there’s one more item to mention that is not there today: the King Neptune Fountain of Flushing, which stood in the median of Northern Boulevard at Main Street. As Northern Boulevard was (and still is) one of the principal east-west routes on Long Island, the fountain was a point of reference to countless travelers between 1874 and 1947, the year of its removal. The 1935 photo above comes from Todd Berkun’s Places That are no More blog, which tells the fountain’s story in detail. As I document the city’s waterways, if one is interested in NYC fountains still in operation today, visit this Parks Department page.
Town Pond is a hazy memory, marked only on John Innes’ map. Its site would be unrecognizable to the farmers whose cattle cooled off in this pond. Likewise as Flushing continues to build upward and become more crowded, the green traffic median will be there to connect to the past.