Stephen Alling Halsey is universally considered the “father” of Astoria. He appears to have been a man of remarkable focus and drive – he created the neighborhood we now call Astoria out of whole cloth. Born April 7, 1798 in New York City into a family of business, his father was listed as a carpenter, but had enough success to set up shop as a lumber dealer as well. Stephen made his money buying and selling fur with his older brother, John. By the 1830s John C. Halsey & Co. is listed at 185 Water Street in an early city directory. In 1834 Halsey purchased a home in Flushing, Queens but continued to commute downtown via steamboat. It is said that, on his daily commute, Halsey “could not help noticing the green Astoria peninsula at Hell Gate and how rural and attractive it looked despite its close proximity to the city.” A year later, in 1835, Halsey settled in Astoria where he “conceived the idea of founding a new village complete with dwellings, stores, factories, schools, churches, etc.” Halsey’s first purchase was the Perrot Farm on 4th Street and Blackwell’s Farm up to 8th street, or the entire peninsula area. To say Halsey “created’ the area is objectively true – he did more than simply purchase the land. Between 1835 and 1840 Halsey laid out city streets, improved the waterfront, built wharves, and even bought the rights to the Hell Gate Ferry company in order to improve that, too. Halsey created today’s Astoria Blvd. (the Hallett’s Cove and Flushing Turnpike) in 1835 and Vernon Ave (Ravenswood, Hallett’s Cove, and Williamsburgh Turnpike) in 1838. He even personally solicited a stagecoach line to extend into Astoria using the Hell Gate Ferry. Riders could now travel from Manhattan (meet the coach at Tammany Hall, cross via the East Houston Ferry, then travel north through Brooklyn) three times a day.
In 1839, he moved to incorporate the settlement into a formal village. According to Vincent Seyfried, Halsey thought the name Hallett’s Cove was “too vague and more suggestive of a body of water than a land area,” and he sought out a new name. Halsey, in his business as a fur merchant, was acquainted with John Jacob Astor through his older brother John Halsey. Halsey hoped that Astor could be induced to patronage and that by naming the new village Astoria, John Jacob Astor would contribute $2,000 to a new Episcopal female seminary. (In the event, the less-than-subtle plan did not work – Astor donated just $500 for the seminary.) The “Act to Incorporate the Village of Astoria” passed the New York State Legislature on April 12, 1839. The first village election was held June 11, 1839. The size of the new village can be estimated by the fact that only 81 votes were cast. June 22, 1840, Stephen Halsey proposed an official seal for his town comprised of an American eagle and the words “Village of Astoria.”
Stephen Halsey went on to build himself a stone mansion near 2nd Street and Astoria Blvd. In 1842 he bought a new burying ground for his village. That same year he “induced the board” to create a fire department and personally donated a fire engine and fire house for the new operation. He continued being an advocate and supporter of Astoria throughout his life. He helped bring industry to the area, including a gasworks in 1853. After this date, Halsey largely retired from public life. He married two wives (both named Elizabeth) and fathered at least 8 children. He died, in Astoria, on May 5, 1875.
Oddly, Stephen Halsey is largely absent from many New York City histories. He was active in local politics and appeared frequently in court. This, compared with the remoteness of Astoria when compared to heart of New York society might explain Halsey’s lack of name recognition. It is interesting that Astoria is recognized for the Astor name today – a man who never lived there, never worked there, and showed small interest in helping it develop, while its actual founder is largely forgotten.
All quotes via Seyfried, Vincent F. 300 Years of Long Island City: 1630-1930. New York: Edgian Press, 1984