Walk around the neighborhoods of Northwest Queens tells the story. Take a left on Steinway Street and head toward Bowery Bay: there’s the Steinway Street Pharmacy. There’s Steinway Wines & Liquors and Steinway Auto Repair. There’s the Steinway Thrift Shop.
It’s remarkable, when you think about it: nearly two centuries ago, a middle-aged cabinetmaker in Germany’s Harz mountains decided to try his hand at piano building. No fanfare, no hype — just a set of tools, some wood, and a home workshop. And yet, that single decision, made by Heinrich Engelhardt Steinweg in the early 1830s, would set in motion a series of developments that would forever impact the most populous and legendary city in the United States. Heinrich would go on to move to America and open a piano company. That piano company, Steinway & Sons, would become part of the fabric of New York City and would play an intrinsic role in developing the borough of Queens.
Of course, Steinway & Sons was founded in Manhattan in 1853, in a rented loft on Varick Street. But in 1870, the family business was exceeding expectations, and Heinrich (now Henry E. Steinway) and his sons were looking for a location to expand its manufacturing facilities. The draft riots that shook New York several years prior had doubtless left their mark on the family, as well. On one terrifying night during the riots, Henry and two of his sons stood at the gates of their factory, bribing an angry mob not to torch it. A move away from the tumult of Manhattan seemed prudent.
By this time, Henry’s fourth son William had taken the lead in business operations while his brothers focused on piano design and manufacturing. William was drawn to a tract of land in northwest Queens for several reasons: it was affordable, it offered easy creek access to the Long Island Sound and the East/Hudson River for shipping, and it was far enough from Manhattan that it might, he reasoned, slow down the influence of the piano builders’ unions on his workers. “We sought a place outside the city,” he wrote in his diary, “to escape the machinations of the anarchists and socialists. . . [who] were continually breeding discontent among our workmen, and inciting them to strike.”
Between 1870 and 1871, William purchased more than four hundred acres of wooded waterfront, farmlands, and meadowlands near Bowery Bay and across from what is now LaGuardia Airport. In 1873, he built a new factory on part of this parcel to house the Steinway & Sons lumber mill and foundry. Construction of additional factory facilities in the area would soon follow.
Then, thinking of both worker housing and a new real-estate income stream, William began building houses around the factory, making the new residences available for rent or purchase by his workers. (Following a wave of strikes in the 1870s, other American industrialists followed similar plans; company-owned housing gave employers leverage over employees, who could be evicted or foreclosed upon in the event of disruptive labor protests.) A few of these homes still stand, and colloquially, this region is still known as “Steinway.”
The next step was to establish community services, including roads, schools, churches, and utilities. Within a few years, William had, in effect, established “Steinway Village,” a Steinway & Sons company town roughly encompassing the area that is today bounded by Bowery Bay to the north and Ditmars Boulevard to the south, between 31st Street and Hazen Street. By the mid 1870s, some four hundred workers were employed by Steinway & Sons in Queens, making parts that were then shipped across the East River to the old Manhattan factory for assembly. Steinway Village was populated mostly by German–born tradesmen and their families.
William also intuited that his workers and their families would need outlets for recreation in order to maintain morale. In 1886, he opened an amusement park at North Beach, later called Bowery Beach. Visitors entered under a huge sign — “Welcome – W. Steinway & Sons” — to enjoy a park featuring music, a beer hall, dancing, a roller coaster, a Ferris wheel, a carousel, fishing, weekly fireworks displays, and swan boat or gondola rides in Bowery Bay. Daily attendance often hit fifty-thousand people during summer weekends, and lights powered by the Steinway power plant showed many New Yorkers their first glimpse of electricity.
William Steinway was well on his way to becoming one of the wealthiest men in New York, and, with the means to afford a summer home, he sought the quiet of Queens as an escape from the bustle of Manhattan. Along with his other land acquisitions, he also purchased an Astoria estate from ophthalmologist Benjamin T. Pike, Jr. for $125,500. This mansion, which still stands and has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, became the Steinway family’s summer home in the late nineteenth century.
By the time he died, visionary William Steinway’s dream of a company town had been realized, though his goal of removing his piano workers from the influence of organized labor had not. Organized labor would simply follow the workers to Astoria. The lithograph (above) depicts Steinway Village in 1896, the year of William’s death.
*Some text excerpted from Images of America: Steinway & Sons, by Laura Lee Smith, with foreword by Michael Feinstein.