BY JACKIE STRAWBRIDGE
Although the neighborhood bears his name, Astoria owes little of its legacy and charm to John Jacob Astor.
Rather, we have a fur trader named Stephen A. Halsey to thank for the community’s existence, according to Greater Astoria Historical Society executive director Bob Singleton.
“[Halsey] would go home to Flushing on a ferry boat, and he noticed this promontory sticking out in the middle of Hell Gate, and thought, ‘oh, this would be a really nice place for a community,’” Singleton said.
“He saw this land, and in his mind, he saw roads, streets, people populating churches and schools, all these wonderful things,” Singleton added. “He was a person of great vision who saw opportunity and brought it into fruition.”
Halsey founded the area, known then as Hallett’s Cove, in 1839. In realizing his vision for the area, Halsey turned for financial help to New York’s wealthy, such as John Jacob Astor, the first American multimillionaire and, according to Singleton, a notorious tightwad. In return for an investment in the community, Hallett’s Cove was renamed for the tycoon.
“They thought they’d get thousands of dollars out of him,” Singleton said.
Instead, Astor donated just a few hundred dollars, which went to the construction of a young women’s academy, The Astoria Institute.
The Astoria Institute stood close to St. George’s Episcopal Church on 27th Street until it was torn down in 2008.
Astor himself never visited Astoria, nor the west coast city that bears his name, Astoria, Oregon. Members of the Greater Astoria Historical Society have said they want to work with elected officials to make Astoria, New York and Astoria, Oregon sister cities.
According to Oregon’s Astoria Riverfront Trolley Association, Astor’s fur traders set up a post in 1811, making it the oldest American settlement west of the Rockies.
In building up our Astoria, Halsey donated land to various churches, bought a ferry boat for service to Manhattan and created a turnpike to Flushing, which is now Astoria Boulevard.
Singleton also credits Halsey with creating the art- and artisan-friendly environment that still defines Astoria today, after he brought in a number of weavers to work in a neighborhood carpet factory.
“He had a long-term view of the community,” Singleton said, adding that it is this attention to the defining characteristics and the potential of a community that organizations like the Greater Astoria Historical Society seek to continue.
Halsey himself left the area somewhat mysteriously – it is unclear to this day where he is buried, although rumors have floated around the First Reformed Church of Astoria, which Halsey helped found.
Ultimately, Singleton said, the story of Halsey and Astoria is one of both smart business and creative foresight.
“There was a lot of pride by the people that started Astoria,” Singleton said. “There were people with a lot of vision, [who] were willing to bring some of those dreams alive, and were successful at it.”
Reach Jackie Strawbridge at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 128, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JNStrawbridge.