Posts Tagged ‘Astoria Queens Stephen Halsey’

The scheme behind the way Astoria got its name

May 1, 2023

Some long-established New York City neighborhoods got their names from nearby natural landmarks; others took the moniker of an early landowner or the landowner’s hometown in England or Holland.

But the story behind the name Astoria, in Queens, is a little more about wheeling and dealing. It focuses on an ambitious 19th century developer who was hoping that New York’s richest man, John Jacob Astor, would invest thousands of dollars to help build the neighborhood if it carried Astor’s name.

First, a brief history of the East River enclave that would become Astoria. Colonized by the Dutch in the early 17th century, the area was occupied by William Hallett’s vast farm. Hallett lent his name to what was then called Hallett’s (also spelled Hallet’s or Halletts) Cove, which is marked on the 1873 map below.

“Over the next 100 years, Hallett and his descendants developed the area into a thriving farming community,” wrote Ilana Teitel in a piece on the website of the Old Astoria Neighborhood Association. “Early settlers transported grains, livestock, timber, and firewood across the river from Hallets Cove to the growing city of New Amsterdam.”

By the early 19th century, the Hallett family sold off much of their farmland. Wealthy Manhattanites replaced the farm fields with summer villas, turning Hallet’s Cove into a placid resort area for boating and breezy river strolls.

The slow pace of the area began to change with the arrival of Stephen Halsey in 1835. A fur trader, Halsey had big plans for Hallett’s Cove. His idea was to develop it into a modern town with houses, businesses, churches, and factories. But he needed money to get things going.

That’s where Astor (above) came in. “Halsey had connections to the biggest fur trader of the time, John Jacob Astor,” explained Teitel. “He proposed that Astor donate $2,000 towards the construction of a new Episcopal female seminary in exchange for naming the village after him.”

An 1896 article in the New York Times recalls a slightly different story, with Halsey proposing to Astor that he contribute $10,000 to $15,000. In return, Hallett’s Cove would bear his name.

What was Astor’s response to this idea, which he may have pondered across the East River in his Manhattan country estate house (appropriately named Hellgate, above) off today’s East 87th Street? Teitel wrote that Astor ponied up just $500.

Most sources point out that Astor never visited the enclave that would take his name. But the Times has it that Halsey brought Astor to Hallett’s Cove and showed him around.

“Shrewd old Astor looked about and found that the first church in Astoria was just struggling into existence—St. George’s Episcopal—so he contributed just $50 toward its erection,” stated the Times. “He got the honor of having the village named after him, the church got the $50, and the only unhappy people recorded were Mr. Halsey and his fellow village trustees.”

Even with so little of Astor’s cash, however, Astoria thrived—becoming a diverse residential suburb and manufacturing hub in the consolidated New York City on the 20th century (above, in 1915).

Halsey is also remembered; his name graces a junior high school across the borough in Rego Park. And Hallett’s Cove survives as Hallett’s Point, a luxury high rise.

[Top image: MCNY; MNY12251; second image: Beers map, 1873; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: Househistree; fifth image: MCNY; M3Y44321]