A look back at life on the 'border'
by Ed Wendell
Jul 21, 2015 | 4504 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The aftermath of the great storm that hit Woodhaven, 120 years ago this month.
The aftermath of the great storm that hit Woodhaven, 120 years ago this month.
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It was 120 years ago this month, July 13, 1895, that Woodhaven was hit with a powerful storm that brought with it great destructive force. It appeared with no warning, first striking Woodhaven at Jamaica Avenue and Elderts Lane near the home for truants, the future home of Franklin K. Lane High School.

Passengers on the Brooklyn, Queens County and Suburban Railroad, which had just been electrified the year before, huddled inside their derailed cars as telegraph and trolley poles came crashing down around them.

The storm cloud moved swiftly south, injuring residents who were being battered by a massive amount of debris that was flying through the air. Once the storm began to hit the houses in Woodhaven, the debris that began to fly became decidedly more dangerous.

The worst scene of destruction was at the newly built two-story brick schoolhouse at University Place (95th Avenue) and Rockaway Road (today, Boulevard). PS 59 had been built in 1890 on land purchased from manufacturer Florian Grosjean, whose legendary factory and clocktower still stands on the border of Woodhaven and Ozone Park.

The roof of the schoolhouse was ripped off and the upper-half of the building collapsed. Only that this storm struck on a Saturday prevented this from being a far more tragic tale. No one was injured inside the collapsed school building. Outside, however, was a different story.

One block east of the school, 16-year-old newlywed Louise Petroquien was at her sewing machine when she heard the commotion outside. Looking out the window, she saw the massive dark cloud overhead and ran outside to warn her mother.

She emerged from a side doorway, but before she could shout out a warning, a large beam torn from the roof of PS 59 slammed into her head and neck, killing her instantly. It was her mother, returning after the storm had passed, who found her daughter’s body next to the steps leading to their home.

In the days following the storm, over 100,000 people came to Woodhaven via the Long Island Railroad on Atlantic Avenue to view the damage. While locals bustled about, clearing away debris, visitors dropped coins and bills into barrels set up for the close to 300 people who lost everything, or nearly everything, to the storm.

The main attraction for the visitors, however, seemed to be the home of Ms. Petroquien. The family permitted visitors to enter the house through the door which she had rushed out of, stepping over the spot where she lost her life. They were led into the parlor where they could view and pay respects to the young bride, who was lying in a rosewood coffin under a large pile of flowers.

Today, the intersection where the most destruction occurred is now part of Ozone Park. There is nothing to indicate that this was once the scene of a powerful and tragic storm. An office building stands where the school once sat; for many years this building was well known as a Friendly Frost appliance store.

In fact, much of early Woodhaven is today known as Ozone Park, and the Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society will be giving a free presentation entitled “Woodhaven & Ozone Park – Life on the Border” at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, August 11, at Neir’s Tavern, 87-48 78th Street.

In addition to the storm of 1895, we will look at the arrival of the Atlantic Avenue Railroad (and subsequent submersion), the history and tragic story behind the Grosjean Factory, and the story of the murdered school teacher and eventual execution of his murderers, one of whom was the youngest person sentenced to death in New York.

You will hear tales of the almost Wild West atmosphere that defined the old days of Woodhaven and the early days of Ozone Park. There will be a few surprises and, of course, there will be pictures; lots and lots of old pictures.

The two communities of Woodhaven and Ozone Park have a shared history, and we look forward to sharing it with you next month at Neir’s Tavern.

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