An image of the Old Courthouse in Mineola, from the...

An image of the Old Courthouse in Mineola, from the frontispiece of the "History of Queens County, New York" in 1882, before Mineola became part of Nassau County.

At the stroke of midnight 125 New Year's Days ago, the most important metropolis of modern times was born from the state-sanctioned marriage of Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens.

Except for the three Queens towns that would separate into a new place exactly one year later — to be named Nassau County.

They had wanted nothing to do with the new metropolis.

“‘New York City was sinful. New York City was corrupt. New York City was dirty. New York City had values that had nothing to do with the good, honest folks of Hempstead, North Hempstead and Oyster Bay.’ Except, you know, they sold everything there, and they got their wealth through their connection from the city. But still, they wanted no part of it,” said Jeffrey A. Kroessler, a professor in the library of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of the forthcoming book “Rural County, Urban Borough: A History of Queens, New York.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • When modern-day New York City was formed 125 years ago, three eastern Queens towns were excluded. They had wanted nothing to do with the new metropolis, anyway.
  • Within parts of Queens, there had been bad blood boiling since at least the 1830s — over the location of the courthouse, who used the roads, and where criminals supposedly lived. 
  • Buoyed by the creation of the city, on Jan. 1, 1899, those three eastern Queens towns combined to become Nassau County.

Not that anyone asked them to join the new metropolis, anyway. The three towns were excluded from the vote that created the city.

“Part of it was simply geography. Part of it was population; there weren’t a lot of people out there. And another part of it was, shall we say, taxation. And that is that the towns that would make up Nassau County were much less developed than even Flushing and Jamaica, and so it would have taken a lot more investment by the City of New York to urbanize those places,” Kroessler said.

An undated early sketch of a planned community on the Hempstead...

An undated early sketch of a planned community on the Hempstead Plains. Credit: Collection of Vincent F. Seyfrie

So while Jan. 1, 1898, marked the consolidation of the five boroughs into New York City — following a nonbinding vote in 1894 by each borough to join, and a greenlight by the state in 1897 — it also set the stage for Nassau County, and Long Island as we know it.

In shadow of NYC success

New York City was a child of its time — conceived in the contemporary frenzy to minimize what was viewed then as counterproductive competition, via mergers, acquisitions and consolidation, a force seen in the business world through trusts and in government alike.

Pushed by the merchant elite, its aims were to improve New York Harbor; foster the development of shipping, utilities and railroads; and centralize government functions that were fragmented by some 40 local governments, according to “The Encyclopedia of New York City.” Plus, emailed David Hammack, a professor emeritus of history at Case Western Reserve University and author of the entry, "many investors wanted orderly development."

The consolidation created “the most extensive and populous city in the United States,” the encyclopedia says.

Crowds jam into Times Square to ring in 1937.

Crowds jam into Times Square to ring in 1937. Credit: The Associated Press/LHN

“Almost every city in the Midwest and Northeast has declined since 1950 — even Boston and Washington and Philadelphia but most especially Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Newark, Buffalo,” said the historian Kenneth Jackson, editor of the encyclopedia and a Columbia professor.

Not New York City, Jackson noted.

“I’m very interested in this topic: Why does New York seem to succeed when other cities don’t?” despite such features as high taxes, he said, adding: “It’s all counterintuitive. But, you know, something’s working here.”

Even before Nassau was created, there had been a push for more than half a century to carve out a new county from Queens, west of Suffolk, Kroessler said.

The Queens County Courthouse in an undated photo. It was built in...

The Queens County Courthouse in an undated photo. It was built in the 1870s in Long Island City. Credit: Nassau County Dept. of Parks, Recreation/Nassau County Photo Archive Center

Within what was then Queens County, there had been bad blood boiling since at least the 1830s — over the location of the courthouse (Long Island City? present-day Garden City Park?), roads funded by the western towns of the county but also used by the eastern towns, and claims by a lawmaker that the western towns were to blame for “two-thirds of the paupers and criminals" in the jail in 1875, two years before an earlier attempt to secede from Queens had failed in Albany.

But this time, on Jan. 1, 1899, buoyed by the 1898 creation of New York City, secession was complete: The three towns combined to become Nassau County.

Drawing the lines

The boundaries of the new city’s eastern border trace the town lines set up during Colonial times. “That line went back to the 1600s — that was the line, period,” Kroessler said.

Where did “Nassau” come from? That was a name for Long Island by the Colonial Assembly in 1693, he said. 

Other possibilities of county names considered, and ultimately rejected: “Ocean,” “Norfolk” (to complement Suffolk), “Matinecock” (after the native tribe), and “Bryant” (for the writer William Cullen Bryant, who lived in Roslyn).

A John Evers painting of the Sammis Tavern at Main...

A John Evers painting of the Sammis Tavern at Main and Fulton streets, Hempstead, in the 1860s. The village was in Queens at the time. Credit: Bill Davis

The Rockaways had been part of Hempstead Town but were allowed to vote to join New York City. The backers of consolidation wanted the area to be part of the new metropolis.

“They wanted to enclose every potential port for development, and that’s why it goes to Little Neck Bay, it goes through all of Jamaica Bay, and that’s why it includes all of Staten Island. Because they wanted to make sure that whatever harbor development took place was controlled by the City of New York,” Kroessler said.

A map rejected before consolidation had included certain parts of now-western Nassau, such as areas of Inwood, Lawrence, Cedarhurst, Elmont and Bellerose.

By 1896, The New York Times was advising that local politics would be dominated by “the ‘Tammany Tiger’ and the ‘Republican Elephant’” instead of at the local level.

“The time-honored village and town meetings and ballot-casting events must give way to the methods in vogue in cities,” the paper wrote.

The new metropolis — and the entities that would form Nassau County — meant colossal record-keeping headaches for the new city comptroller. He had to sort through the books of previously independent governments and protect the city's interests as debts were divided among various entities, including Nassau and Hempstead, according to the book “Power and Society: Greater New York at the Turn of the Century,” by Hammack, the Case Western Reserve professor emeritus.

One of the few remnants of what led to the contentious decades is a granite stone marker, on Jericho Turnpike near Herricks Road, in what was the epicenter of Queens County. 

It's near where the courthouse once was — and it’s now in front of a Lidl supermarket, in Garden City Park, in Nassau County.

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