Tuesday, March 22, 2011

QUEENS SCANDAL - La Guardia Airport's Rise from Infamous Gambling Den

I recently came across an old picture book of New York, printed in 1947.  Within was a photo of “La Guardia Field, New York’s busiest airport”.  La Guardia Field?  New York’s BUSIEST airport?  The intrepid researcher in me started digging.

LaGuardia Airport, nee La Guardia Field was born from the sad destruction of the Gala Amusement Park in North Beach which was a renowned Queens resort area at the turn of the century.  

 It was closed by Prohibition and razed in 1929 to become a 105-acre private flying field called Glenn H. Curtiss Airport, after a famed Long Island aviator.

Glenn H. Curtiss, aviator
As an interesting aside, after the  Wright Brothers received a 1906 patent for their flight control method, they fiercely defended the patent suing foreign and domestic aviators & companies, especially Glenn Curtiss, in an attempt to collect licensing fees. After WW1 began, the federal government pressured the U.S. aviation industry to form an organization that allowed sharing of aviation patents.

Glenn H. Curtiss Airport was soon re-named North Beach Airport in 1930 after Glenn Curtis died at the age of 52 from complications following an appendectomy.  From these seeds grew LaGuardia Airport, named for Fiorello H. LaGuardia, former Mayor of New York.

Now, we go back to the beginning………………………………………………

William Steinway
 North Beach was a resort area resplendent with beaches and pavilions on the Northern Queens shore, built in 1886 by piano manufacturer William Steinway and other investors including brewer George Ehret. Before the nearby swamps and creeks were paved over by the Grand Central Parkway, the area was often called “Frog Town” because of the overwhelming croaks of the multitude of residential frogs!

Originally intended as a quiet family resort for German immigrant families, it grew to become one of the first huge  “family resorts” (vying with Brooklyn’s Coney Island, which was founded several decades earlier) to appeal to the mass market,  attracting over 75,000 visitors every Sunday. In those days Saturday was still a workday, so North Beach was reached with hourly Sunday ferry boats from Manhattan and trolley service from both the 92nd and 34th Street ferries.
1893 Map of North Beach

The North Beach Resort boasted its many attractions:

 . Silver Spring Park, “the coolest retreat at Bowery Bay with old shade trees, nicely arranged dancing pavilions, and picnic grounds”
. Sanford’s Point Hotel, which “served George Ehrets Extra Beer on draft, singing societies and chowder clubs were a specialty”

. Kohlers New Pavilion, with “sausage and soda water stands, shooting galleries and swings, dancing (afternoon and evening) and a band concert at night.”
1900 photo of the Beach Club
Henry Daufkirch’s Bay View House and Pavilion, where “one could enjoy variety performances by first class talent on Sundays”
. Muff’s Bowery Bay Boat House, “widely known for its boating and fishing”

. The Club House and Grand Pavilion had “choice wines, liquors, and cigars, meals at all hours…and theatrical performance daily (with a change of program weekly)”

. Free summer fireworks each Tuesday and Thursday.

. Gala Park had daily shows with Chief Red Eagle and Tribe”

Finally, the famous Bath Pavilion at North Beach offered “25 tickets for $4, single tickets at 25 cents, (children 15 cents.)”

All was not always idyllic, though: someone lit a bonfire near the Grand Pier to chase away mosquitoes and when the police came,”Manhattan toughs” fought with them and a Samuel Hamberger was fined $10”; Sany Massinni, 16, was arrested after shooting up the place at Old Bowery Bay Road and Ehret Avenue and a fleecing victim claimed to the police that men trimmed him regulation style” by robbing him of $100 at Jackson Mill Pond.
By the late 1890’s, North Beach seemed to have become a gambling haven. The New York Times wrote an expose on August 2, 1897, noting though there were all kinds of legitimate diversions, it was quickly becoming the “ Monte Carlo of Greater New York. Roulette, rouge-et-noir, and every other of the old forms of gambling was boldly exemplified in the open roads, in full view of the police officers, and with no interference from them. The fact that this was so brought such a multitude to North Beach yesterday as had never gone there before, and every boast which left the Ninety-Ninth Street Ferry, East River, and every trolley car from Brooklyn carried hundreds of men who wanted to risk their week’s wages with the vague hope of making a big winning. There was not a fair game in the whole array, which comprised at least fifteen kinds, and there was not a man who staked his money who got a cent of it back except the ‘cappers’ who lead on the unknowing and the inexperienced ones”

“…So great was the gambling fever that ..victims gathered around the tables ten rows deep…and tore one another’s clothes off for the chance to lose their money”
New York Times, August 2, 1897

Even the local police precinct seemed to be complicit, charged by the New York Times with overlooking Sunday drinkers and gamblers with under-the-table bribes. The expose further mentioned that not only was the gambling activity occurring within a few yards of the Police Station, but a reported outed ” Policeman Badge 192” standing in front of the “Geoge Bonhag Pavilion” only 10 feet from where one gambler operated his game. 

When questioned by the reporter, the policeman replied “I have no instructions to stop any games” and referred the reporter to the Chief of Police at the nearby station house only a few yards away. 

The Chief  was out but the officer in charge (AND the Police Chief’s brother!)  Police Sergeant Joseph Corrigan, claimed there was no gambling operation in North Beach and “ ..and if the reporter showed him one, he would give him a box of cigars”. He vehemently added that  “those games was on the private property of a brewer and the police had nothing to do with it.” When the police chief was found driving around in his buggy midst all the gambling operations, he remarked innocently that he “was only paid to look after the property of North Beach Improvement Company”

The August 4, 1897 issue of the New York Times mentioned that their “professional gamester” expose of the week before resulted in  “breaking up their nest”. The police chief apparently drove along gambler’s row Saturday night with warnings, and by the next morning  the gamblers had “hastily packed their roulette tables ..and went”

On May 25, 1891, the New York Times wrote “…Vigorous protests are made every summer by the church people and others at the desecration of the Sabbath and the permitting of ball-playing and other games, the Wild West show at North Beach, and the open selling of whiskey and beer in the numerous parks and beer gardens…it is openly charged that the inactivity of the authorities is entirely due to the use of thousands of dollars of ‘hush money’ each session by the combination of park owners.”

Even so, the August 21, 1904 New York Times boasted: “The attractions and amusements at North Beach are not affected by the weather.  Shooting the chutes is refreshing; zip, exciting; tangled wildwoods, mirth provoking; circle swing, novel; swimming pool, inviting; bathing pavilions, cooling; toboggan slides, elevating; mammoth carousels, interesting; and mammoth auditoriums, satisfying.  The many shaded walks and groves are daily sought for the family gatherings and outings.  The all-water route from East One Hundred and Thirty-Fourth or Ninety-Ninth Street is enjoyable, and the boat and trolley route from the East Thirty-Fourth and Ninety-Second Street Ferries is pleasant.”

New York Times excerpt
Alas, by the early 1900’s, the neighboring Flushing and East rivers had become so polluted that oily mud came to replace the beach sands and swimmers began going elsewhere.  The area that was enclosed as an amusement park (boasting the East Coast’s first Ferris Wheel) ended up as the North Beach’s only draw after most of the pavilions were replaced with a huge beer hall  - HUGE mistake!  

North Beach became known for its free-flowing alcohol consumption and gambling, and was avoided by families with young children who chose instead to travel to the wasteland then called Brooklyn to go to Coney Island.

To add insult to injury, Prohibition’s 1920 Volstead Act banned the sale of alcoholic beverages.  Shortly afterwards, in 1921, the amusement park went bankrupt and closed.  The resorts are now buried under the runways of LaGuardia Airport.

North Beach languished from 1917 to 1929. A reporter viewing its remains wrote ”nominally still in existence but actually long dead.”

In 1925, the North Beach pier, which extended 700 feet out into Bowery Bay and had a massive 300-foot-wide two-story pavilion on top, was consumed by fire due to faulty wiring.  Apparently, “thousands arrived in automobiles, on foot and by trolley” to watch the inferno.

By 1929, a Queens building boom drew settlers further east in Queens with inadequate transportation to North Beach leaving it virtually deserted.  It was razed and became the small private airport first named Glenn H. Curtiss Airport.

 One day, New York’s famed temperamental Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (nicknamed “Little Flower” because he was only 5 feet tall!) had a fit when his TWA flight landed at Newark Airport because at the time, it was the only commercial airport serving the New York City region.
New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia

The problem?  LaGuardia’s ticket read “New York”, so he DEMANDED that he be flown to New York and ordered that the plane be redirected to Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennet Field (opened in 1931), giving an unscheduled press conference along the way.  

He urged New Yorkers to support their own airport within the city, wanting Floyd Bennet Field to be the main Air Terminal for New York, with plans to shuttle passengers back and forth to Manhattan in flying boats.

American Airlines was the only airline agreeing to move its Newark operations to Brooklyn to start a pilot program but it failed after a few months.  Passengers complained that the voyage from Floyd Bennet Field to Manhattan took longer than from Newark, though the Mayor even tried to offer police escorted airport limousines in order to convince American Airlines to continue to pilot program. 

Additionally, this was the time of the Great Depression: air travel was an expensive luxury and passenger aircraft largely used their cargo areas to carry airmail. Contracts with the United States Post Office guaranteed the airlines profits on empty flights, and since Mayor LaGuardia couldn’t convince the Postal Service to move its NYC operations from Newark to Floyd Bennet Field, other airlines wouldn’t relocate either.

Mayor LaGuardia began exploring other options, since the already existing tiny North Beach Airport was too small.  Built jointly by the City of New York and with backing from the WPA (Works Progress Administration), construction began in 1937 on a new airport, making LaGuardia Airport the first in the United States to be financed, designed, and built in full partnership with the federal government.

The construction required moving ash and debris landfill from Rikers Island (which was then a garbage dump) onto a metal reinforced framework. In fact, the framework below the airport still causes magnetic interference on compasses of outgoing airplanes (there are signs on the airfields warning the pilots)!

Actually PRE-DATING this new airport development was Holmes Airport, another small airport that had opened in Jackson Heights on March 16, 1929 built by real estate developer E. H. Holmes on 220 acres of undeveloped land he owned. The very first scheduled flights from New York City began later that year when Eastern Air Express initiated a 2-day run to Miami.

Holmes Airport Postcard
Holmes Airport had it own colorful history:

In April 1930, thousands of people took promotional $1 plane rides there as an experiment to see if the expense or fear of flying kept the public from taking flights.

On Sunday, November 11, 1934, sixty-four planes took part in a 30-mile (48 km) novelty race involving a treasure hunt and pie-eating contest, the winner returning in 28 minutes.

The Glenn Curtiss and  Holmes Airports, side by side
In 1931, Goodyear built a 220-foot-long hanger to accommodate its blimps and conducted sightseeing flights on them.  In 1936, a Goodyear blimp based at Holmes Airport provided the first aerial traffic reports.

In 1937, the airport's owners sought a court injunction to stop New York City from spending $8,444,300 to develop what would become the future LaGuardia Airport only a mile or so away.  The request was denied.  When LaGuardia Airport finally opened in 1939, Holmes Airport sadly closed the following year, and the northern part of Holmes Airport's land was later developed into the Bulova Watch Factory site.

Not to be outdone by the building of LaGuardia Airport, Newark Airport began renovations, but could not keep up with the new Queens airport, which Time Magazine called, "the most pretentious land and seaplane base in the world."

Even before the airport was completed, Mayor LaGuardia was astute enough to secure commitments from the 5 largest airlines (Pan American Airways, American, United, Eastern Air Lines and Transcontinental & Western Air) that they would use the new field as soon as it opened.
In October 15, 1939, the airport was christened the “New York Municipal Airport” changed on November 2 to “New York Municipal Airport - La Guardia Field”.  It opened for business on December 2nd.  It cost New York City $40 million to turn the tiny North Beach Airport into a larger 550-acre modern facility. 

Alas, Mayor LaGuardia’s enthusiasm about the project didn’t seem to be shared by much of the public, who regarded it as a $40 million dollar waste of money, but the fascination with flying grew and thousands of people came to the airport to pay a dime fee just to watch the airliners take off and land.  These tiny fees added up and 2 years later, the fees combined with parking fees had provided an additional $ 285,000 in revenue.  The airport soon became a huge financial success and was even used during World War II as a training facility for aviation technicians. 

The name wasn’t changed to “La Guardia Airport” until June 1, 1947  when it was leased to the Port of New York Authority control

Transatlantic airline flights started in late 1945, with some continuing after Idlewild Airport (named after the Idlewild Golf Course on which it was built) opened in July 1948. The last international flights  shifted to Idlewild in April 1951.

Idlewild was  renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport on December 24, 1963, one month after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.