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Theodore Roosevelt photo by Jacob RiisAbout Theodore Roosevelt

by Jeff Gottlieb, President of Central Queens Historical Society (c) 1999

Theodore Roosevelt in central Queens? 
Yes, the great T.R., outdoorsman, Harvard Phi Beta Kappa, New York City Police Commission President, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, war hero, New York State Governor, Vice-President, President, conservationist, intellectual, and American enthusiast, traveled at least four times to our borough.

Danish immigrant/journalist Jacob Riis was the reason for the first trip. A hard working, slightly-built newspaperman, Riis was a reformer. Years of coverage of news in lower Manhattan had left the Brooklyn advocate acutely concerned about inadequate schools, poor children’s play facilities, overcrowded housing, fire and sanitation dangers in the slums, and the use of child labor.
Riis, a thorough-going police reporter since 1877 for the “New York Sun,” decided to give his wife Elisabeth and five children some of their own space and freedom away from their crowded Brooklyn neighborhood. He decided to move to Richmond Hill.

By 1890, Riis had taken his lectures, writings, and observations, and produced the seething “How the Other Half Lives.” This detail on slums was noticed by the, as usual, crusading Roosevelt. -

T.R. had married Edith Kermit Carout, the former New York State Assemblywoman. A foe of tenant workshops, he was serving on the U.S. Civil Service Commission. Roosevelt was succeeding in doubling 
the number of positions opened to competitive examination and placing women, in many tests, on the same competitive level as men. At this time, he entered unannounced, into Jacob Riis’ backyard study.

“I have read your book, and I have come to help,” was the notation on the card signed “Theodore Roosevelt.”

The men got to know and helped each other. “He and I,” said Roosevelt, “looked at life and problems from substantially the same standpoint. Our ideals and principles and purposes, and our beliefs as to the methods necessary to realize them, were alike.”

On the day in 1895 when he was chosen President of the Police Commission of the City of New York, Roosevelt literally ran up the steps of police headquarters (after an 18-block walk), saw Riis and the young Lincoln Steffans of the Evening Post, and asked, “Where are our offices? Where is the board room? What do we do first?”
Also in 1895, the Hopedale railroad station at Union Turnpike and Hoffman Boulevard (Queens Blvd.), next to the Hopedale Hotel in Whitepot (Forest Hills), was moved to present-day Kew Gardens Road, adjacent to Maple Grove Cemetery. The line ran, incidentally, underneath the house of Murray and Carol Berger (100 82nd Road); they have found evidence of railroad construction under their premises.

Police Commissioner Roosevelt made a speech from the platform of the first train to stop at the site. Outside of a chance to visit Jacob Riis, he may have been thinking of the growing political importance of Queens. The legislation to create a greater New York (including the present five boroughs) was being studied in the State Legislature. Brooklyn was beginning to acquire 500 acres of woodland to be called Brooklyn Forest Park. While Cord Meyer, Newtown entrepreneur, was creating the village of Elmhurst, Richmond Hill was becoming a legal village in the town of Jamaica.

The Borough Grows
Growth was everywhere as the Queens population soared in the decade from 87,050 to 152,999. This was a chance to create news for a man three years away from becoming a candidate for governor.
In June of 1900, Governor Roosevelt arrived at the Church of the Resurrection to attend the wedding of Riis’ daughter, Clara, to a young doctor.
In 1917, Colonel Roosevelt came back. Rough Rider Roosevelt, hero of San Juan Hill, former President of the United States (Riis had written material for his 1904 campaign), survivor of an African safari and Amazon adventure, and failed presidential (1912) candidate, had come back to central Queens.

The Forest Hills Gardens Fourth of July Celebration Committee invited the war hawk to speak at Station Square. The ostensible reason was the dedication of a new concrete base and bronze collar for the flagpole on the Green.

Rare images of Theodore RooseveltSelect here for rare images of Theodore Roosevelt in Forest Hills

The Reception Committee was all-star. It included Grosvenor Atterbury, famed Manhattan architect and designer of early Gardens homes which became standard; Queens Borough President Maurice Connelly, a Forest Hills Gardens resident; John M. Demarest, General Manager of the Russell Sage Homes Foundation; Alrik H. Man, builder of Kew Gardens and president of the Kew Gardens Corporation; George & Meyer, President of the Cord Meyer Company, developers of Forest Hills; and Lyman Beecher Stowe; grandson of the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and later President of the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation.
A fighter for American preparedness, Roosevelt had wanted a confrontation with Germany almost from the beginning of the Great War. His impatience with President Woodrow Wilson was legendary, as he wrote, “...hundreds of American men, women, and children have been murdered on the high seas and in Mexico. (President) Wilson has not dared to stand up for them. He has let them suffer, without relief and without inflicting punishment upon the wrong-doers.”

American entrance in World War I in April 1917 brought happiness to the 58-year-old Roosevelt. All four of his sons were soon on the way (Quentin would die in July 1918), and any attempt to avoid responsibility for protecting America was treasonous in Roosevelt’s eyes. He knew some of his opposition. as far back as 1898. as the “ultra-pacifists, the so-called anti-imperialists or anti-militarists or peace-at-any-price men.”
Two thousand people waited patiently for Bishop Frederick Burgess. Episcopal Bishop of Long Island, to make his remarks. Then came Roosevelt. He excoriated “conscientious objection” and urged that the whole nation throw its strength into the conflict so that we might quickly win “the peace of overwhelming victory for righteousness.” America was not, in Roosevelt’s eyes, a boarding house for foreigners. All those residing in this country must be for the war, for the Allies versus the Kaiser, or be regarded as treasonous.
“We can have no fifty-fifty allegiance in this nation.” Roosevelt made that clear while insisting on English being the sole language in America and urging a law compelling all newspapers published in a foreign language to have an English translation, next to the foreign text.
German-American and Austrian-Americans should be treated fairly and not be excluded from war service or war-related service as the Red Cross had done, Roosevelt said.

Roosevelt was a year-and-a-half away from his death, his body already suffering from recurrent malaria attacks. But his will carried him forward in his last appearance in central Queens.

Rare images of Theodore RooseveltSelect here for rare images of Theodore Roosevelt in Forest Hills
About Jacob Riis /Noteworthy People of Richmond Hill / Maple Grove Cemetery /Historic Places of Richmond Hill, NY

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