We Change at Jamaica, But Jamaica Has Been Changing for 300 Years

    By Kathleen Lonetto

           The land that would eventually encompass the Township of Jamaica was an immense and serene
    tract that stretched from the hilly center of Long Island to the south shore bay. The land was inhabited
    by the Rockawe Tribe of Indians who called the area “Jamaco.”
           The Dutch purchased the land in exchange for two guns, one coat and a quantity of powder and
    lead, not an unusual contract for the times. In 1665, several inhabitants of Long Island’s Hempstead
    settlement admired the area and moved from their home on the Plains of Hempstead with the approval
    of the Dutch. The Dutch Government signed a contract between themselves, the English settlers, Daniel
    Denton, Roger Linas, and the local Indians for a settlement to be established.
           That particular tract of land included an extremely productive beaver pond that existed east of what
    is now 150th Street. However, the settlement that grew in the area now known as Baisley Park had no
    official name. For quite some time, it was known as “the land that exists between Canarsie and
    Hempstead.” In 1656, Peter Stuyvesant addressed the first town meeting near the beaver pond. At the
    meeting, Director Stuyvesant named the Township “Rustdorp,” meaning a quiet or restful place.
    However, the citizens of Rustdorp Township did not approve of the name and when the English took
    control of the Dutch colony in 1664, the Indian name was modified and Jamaica has been called by its
    ancestral name ever since.
           Jamaica was always a peaceful township except for some internal bickering between various
    religious sects. The people were successful at raising sheep and beef cattle as well as in breeding fine
    horses used for racing around the beaver pond. Although agriculture was an important aspect of the
    township, the area became known for the many thoroughfares. Even in the 1600s, farm wagons made
    Jamaica a stopping place.
           By 1662, Jamaica Township included an inn, a tanner, miller and blacksmith to serve the numerous
    farms. There was also an official town drummer. Abraham Smith was chosen to beat the drum in order
    to summon the inhabitants to town meetings. If they did not comply with the signal, the townfolk were
    fined a penalty. Punishment was not confined to imposing fines, however. There was a town whipper for
    more serious crimes and, as late as 1808, the Township was securing new sets of stocks for the public
    humiliation of local lawbreakers.
           The Revolutionary War brought about upheaval and hardships as the residents were forced to
    quarter His Majesty’s forces. They also donated all available lumber for firewood until there was not one
    dwelling in the township with a full piece of fence.
           The British tore down the Town Meeting House in 1777 and there were the dreaded robberies,
    hunts for runaway slaves, midnight lynchings and fights that plagued citizens. General Nathan
    Woodhull, the Patriot leader, was captured in the Jamaica vicinity while fleeing from British forces. He
    was overtaken by the 17th Light Dragoons outside of a tavern and slashed with swords until he finally
    died of his wounds.
           The harsh period, however, provided its share of entertaining events. The British forces discovered
    the enjoyment of racing around the beaver pond. During the occupation, they held several racing events.
    One particular race was for a purse of 20 guineas for the winner of a three heat race.
    King George III inherited the throne of England on Oct. 25, 1760. However, a ball was held in October of
    1779 in Jamaica to celebrate the accession. Local citizens were invited to join the officers of His Majesty’
    s Army in drinking and dancing to the health of King George. Since most of the citizens were in
    sympathy with the King, they enjoyed the event.
           The Irish nationals might just have had one of their earliest American celebrations in Jamaica. In
    1880, St. Patrick’s Day entertainment was offered to the Irish volunteers who were serving against the
    Patriot forces. The piper offered military tunes that told of the Irish fearlessness in squelching the
           Perhaps the greatest figure to claim Jamaica as his hometown during this period was Rufus King.
    Although born in Boston and influential in Massachusetts Politics, King chose to locate his family in
    Jamaica Township. He had been successful quite young in life as a soldier, a member of the
    Massachusetts Legislature and a delegate to the Continental Congress where he helped draft the United
    States Senate. Later he became Ambassador to England. In 1805, this dynamic young man purchased 90
    acres of land for $12,000 from Christopher Smith, a local farmer. At that time, there was a small
    dwelling located on the farm which was believed to be the original parsonage of the Episcopal Church.
    This dwelling dated back to the early 1700s and had been used by Reverend Poyer of the Grace Episcopal
           King renovated the small home, adding rooms and gardens until the King Manor was complete. His
    son, John Alsop King, was elected to Congress, chosen Governor of New York and was influential in
    forming the Republican Party. As early as 1897, the City of New York realized that the King Manor was
    a priceless portion of their heritage and it took possession of the mansion, preserving it until today for
    all to enjoy. Rufus King is now buried in the Episcopal Churchyard.
           Ever since the 1757 horse races began around the Jamaica beaver pond, the area has been known
    for its love of the racing sport. As Jamaica became more ‘civilized,’ the horse racing became more
    organized. In 1821, official racing was transferred, by order of the Governor, from the Hempstead Plains
    track to Union Racecourse. In 1841, the purse was already in the amount of $20,000. And, during that
    decade, it was popular to pit the northern horses against southern rivals.
           In 1894, Aqueduct Racetrack was opened, soon followed by the Jamaica Racetrack. The crowds
    laughed in 1874 when jockey Ted Sloan began to sit low on the back of the horse to permit the least
    resistance to the wind. His posture appeared foolish compared with the erect stride of the other jockeys.
    However, when Sloan began to win race after race, his fellow jockeys began to emulate his actions. The
    modern racing form was developed by this jockey in Jamaica. Today, the internationally known Belmont
    and Aqueduct Tracks are still active and very much a part of Jamaica’s heritage.
           George Washington passed through the township on his journey across Long island. It is believed
    that Washington stopped at the William Warne Tavern, proclaiming that it was a “pretty good and
    decent house.” Washington had been impressed with the order, peace and cordiality of a township that
    was consumed with the restless need for improvement.
           As early as l797 there was a fire department. Two worthy newspapers, the “Long Island Farmer”
    and the “Long Island Democrat,” were housed in Jamaica during the early 19th century. By 1870, a new
    town hall was completed. The township was becoming an orderly community when a funeral procession
    for George Washington was organized; however, Jamaica managed to retain some rural charm.
           In 1786, the citizens voted that no hogs should roam freely through the streets of Jamaica.
    However, as late as 1890, one resident shot a rabbit for supper on the corner of Hillside Avenue and
    Parsons Blvd.
           Education was introduced to Jamaica quite early in its history. In 1676, an educator named Richard
    Jones was granted use of one small stone church for the purpose of teaching the students of the town.
    This action may well have been the beginning of a lasting tradition in the Township. By 1813, the public
    school system was established in Jamaica for an expenditure of $125.00. However, the township was
    known for its fine private schools even before the popularity of the public school system flourished.
    In 1791, the prestigious Union Hall Academy was built in Jamaica Township by residents of the three
    towns of Queens. An amount of $2,000 was pledged for the construction of the academy and it was an
    immediate educational success. Within four years after the original construction of the academy, it
    required expansion. At that time, in addition to a regular staff, there were five assistants to the principal
    as well as a library and research facilities. Some of the educators were well known such as Henry
    Onderdonk, the famous Long Island historian who taught at Union Hall between 1832 and 1865.
           In 1841, a fire nearly destroyed the academy while Walt Whitman was on the staff. As early as
    1816, it became so popular that a female school was added to the standard academy. However, the rise of
    the public school system provided too much competition for the fashionable educational establishment.
    Although other schools were being built such as the Maple Hall Institute, a private boarding school for
    boys, the Union Hall Academy was closed in 1873.
           Jamaica’s zest for religion was obvious even in its earliest days. In 1662, a simple meeting house
    was begun by Zachariah Walker on the present site of Jamaica Avenue. This was the first Presbyterian
    house of worship in the township. The church was enlarged in 1699 and provided a rewarding
    contribution to the community.
           In 1704, a yellow fever epidemic forced Governor Cornbury of New York to move his office to
    Jamaica. At that time, Jamaica Township became the temporary capital of the New York Province. Since
    the Governor was Anglican, he ordered the Presbyterians out of their church and made the structure
    into an Anglican Church. The church remained that way until 1728 when the Presbyterians won legal
    rights to worship within the church. Also involved in the bickering between various sects was the Grace
    Episcopal Church. The church was founded in 1702 as a mission church.
           Jamaica Township was so remote at that time that it qualified for consideration as a mission area.
    The church was used by some Presbyterians, a few Dutch Reformed worshippers and Quakers. There
    had been a small group of Anglicans who attended the church, however, they were asked to leave and
    hold their meetings In the Town Hall. It would seem that religious quarreling had reached its peak.
    However, in 1838, the residents of Jamaica witnessed the building of St Monica’s Church, the first
    Roman Catholic Church on Long Island. This caused new unrest that continued for decades to
           Aside from the schools, churches and agricultural interests, Jamaica had one predominant
    development in the township - transportation. As early as 1727, the first road was built in Jamaica and
    the township realized that its central location would contribute to its development. By 1809, the
    Brooklyn, Jamaica and Flatbush Turnpike Company had built a tollgate road that ran 12 miles from the
    ferry at Brooklyn to the Jamaica Avenue and 168th Street terminus. By 1866, Jamaica Avenue was a
    busy conduit with a horse-car trolley line of transportation.
    In 1887. Jamaica installed the second electric trolley system in the United States. The trolleys would run
    for approximately 45 minutes on a stretch of Plank Road. The ride was considerably eventful at times
    and the service generally at the mercy of the elements. Cars would constantly put passengers in danger
    by jumping the tracks. Also, they would have to stop if there was a cow on the tracks and service would
    constantly be hindered by the weather. Once, a conductor and a motorman were stranded during a
    snowstorm for three days at the Highbridge and Jamaica Avenue location. When remembering the fact
    that the pay for the men was $1.50 to $2 per day, the hardship was considerable. In 1948, bus lines took
    over the trolley route. Perhaps the ride had become more secure; however, the general excitement was
           For teamsters and those who did not care to use public transportation, there were always the toll
    roads. Until the last toll house was closed in 1903, Jamaica roads had four gates stationed throughout the
    township. The cost was a 5 cent toll to pass with a driver and team between Jamaica and East New York
    gates. On the Plank Road toll gate, the lease was for a period of 99 years and the owners would have
    collected even more than their share of tolls had some inventive drivers not cheated by steering their
    teams through the neighboring beer garden instead of paying the toll.
           The railroads also contributed to the growth and development of Jamaica. The first rail line was
    built in 1844. By 1913, there was a major station of the Long Island Rail Road at Sutphin Blvd. By 1918,
    the elevated line extended to 168th Street. These railroads caused an increase in population and industry
    in Jamaica Township. By 1880, Jamaica was the most important rail junction on Long Island and the
    1910 completion of the Long Island Rail Road East River tunnel expanded the population and growth of
    the township even more.
           By 1941, Jamaica junction was handling 500 transfers daily, making it a major transfer point in the
    area. Of course, the major culmination of Jamaica’s drive toward excellence in transportation and
    commerce was the completion in 1948 of Idlewild Airport, later to become JFK International. With the
    completion of this major world airport on Jamaica Bay, the Township extended itself well into the jet age
    of the 20th century.
           The population of the township grew steadily from 1,000 inhabitants in 1814 to 2,800 in 1835 and
    44,000 in 1919. In 1814, Jamaica was incorporated as a village and, in
    1830, the township was divided into 10 districts.
           One of Long Island’s oldest business establishments, J & L Adikes Inc, a wholesale grocery and
    potato house was built across from the King Manor. In 1850, an industrialist named John Pitkin built
    several small factories and named the area Woodhaven.
           In 1884, another subdivision was begun by Frederick Dunton who named the area for his New
    Hampshire birthplace, Hollis. A magnificent Naval Hospital was built for use by servicemen from all
    areas of the country who now found their way to St. Albans for treatment.
           A library was built on Parsons Blvd in 1930 which was one of the finest in the city system. The
    township was growing quickly and becoming more and more residential.
           The railroads and airport, schools and racetracks, Naval Hospital and historical figures all
    contributed to Jamaica’s history on a local level as well as spotlighting it internationally. Many of the
    landmarks are gone now. However, some still remain. Yet, as bulldozers clear away the past to make
    room for new residents and corner shops are dwarfed by huge shopping complexes, there is still a
    haunting sense of the past that lingers on the old streets and insistently exclaims that this was a very
    special place.

First Published in Long Island Heritage