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QueensLine: Labor unrest, transit work marked 1916

It was October 1916 and Queens’ transportation system was undergoing a renaissance.

It was announced that, by the first of the year, passenger trains from Boston and other New England cities would be running across the new Hell Gate Bridge and through Long Island City into Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan. Also, freight service between New England and Long Island City and Long Island Rail Road stations was to begin on or before April 1.

The opening of this direct route to New England was expected to cause a manufacturing boom in Long Island City. In fact, several large firms were negotiating for sites near the LIRR freight yards in order to take advantage of these new, exceptional transportation facilities.

At the same time, the main construction facilities for the new 60th Street tunnel — which now carries the N, Q and R subway lines under the East River — were set up in Queens. Although a bonus was offered for its early completion — ensuring the tunnel’s completion in record time — officials still believed the project would take at least two years to finish.

Further downtown, service from Grand Central Station to Queens Plaza — now the No. 7 train — was to start when the new Queensboro Plaza station was finished. Trains across the Queensboro Bridge and elevated service to Astoria and Corona would begin the following January.

But there were multiple work stoppages that month. On Oct. 5, at the DeNobili Cigar Co. in Ravenswood, strikers hurled rocks at a wagon that attempted to deliver food to workers hired to guard a building during a strike and to watch over piles of tobacco in the warehouse from bursting into fire from spontaneous combustion.

Cries of “Let the scabs starve!” were heard. When the police arrested two strikers, female cigar workers tried to wrestle the prisoners from the officers. Although the patrolmen initially tried restraint, when the crowd became threatening they finally had no recourse but to start clubbing the strikers. Afterward, one of the women received a cut to the head. Others displayed arms which were black and blue.

The workers wanted a 5-cent increase for each 100 cigars finished.

On Monday, the 16th, 700 striking men and women, along with a 50-piece band, paraded through the streets of Ravenswood as a protest against the conditions at the factory. By then, a report was circulating that the closed plant would not manufacture cigars until February. In the months leading up to the strike, new management had increased production to the point that there was a surplus of 15 million –– enough to meet demand for months.

For more information, call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit astorialic.org.

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