07/31/14 10:45am

Grant Square postcard, 1918

The beginning of June, 1941 saw Brooklyn bracing itself for more bad news on the European war front. America knew it was only a matter of time before the country was going to war, and hatred for Hitler and his Nazis was growing. But in spite of everything going on at home and abroad, this was still New Yawk. Nothing gets a hometown crowd more riled up than a battle between Manhattan and Brooklyn, uneasy partners since Brooklyn gave up its status as an independent city to play second fiddle to Manhattan in 1898. It was like the relationship between the Yankees and the Dodgers; same city, different country. (more…)

07/29/14 10:45am

Grant Statue, postcard

In American history classes we learned that Ulysses S. Grant was the brilliant commander of the Union Army during the Civil War. He was appointed by Abraham Lincoln, and opposed his fellow West Pointer, General Robert E. Lee, during the horrendous War Between the States, the war which changed the United States forever. After the war, he was one of the most popular and well-known people in the country, up North, anyway. He would go on to win two terms as the eighteenth president of the United States. He was elected at 46, the youngest president of the country, at that time. He died in 1885, at the age of 63, a victim of throat cancer.

Some later historians regarded his presidency as pretty awful, due to the corruption of some of his key appointments, but he’s always been regarded with great pride and respect, especially in the years following his death. Today, history is much kinder to Grant as president, giving him credit where credit is due. His efforts to pull the country back together again after the war and his genuine efforts to include African Americans as full participants in American society are now lauded. Civil rights on a presidential level did not receive as much attention again until after World War II. Grant also presided over the country when technology and progress were making huge strides, helping to create a vital consumer middle class, and a changing America. (more…)

07/24/14 10:45am

LIAC, Union St. 1909, NY Daily Trib 1

After nine years in five other locations, the Long Island Automobile Club finally got their headquarters near “The Gateway of Long Island;” Grand Army Plaza. As Brooklyn’s first, and most elite automobile club, with members of such social standing as William “Willy” Vanderbilt, they were now located in a building that was worthy of their wealth and prestige. Yes, it was another garage, but what a garage!

This building was something out of Europe, with a façade reminiscent of the Austrian Art Nouveau Movement, called the Vienna Secession. It was a four story building built in 1904 as the Plaza Garage. Art Nouveau architecture is very rare in New York City, and rarer still in Brooklyn, but this garage definitely qualified, with sinuous arches over the main entrance and flanking windows, and some rather overdone Germanic –style Roman eagles at the top. It was designed by an architect named Oscar Lowinson. (Thank you, Christopher Gray.) (more…)

07/22/14 10:45am

LIAC Cumberland Ave Clubhs, interior, BE,1904

You might think that any invention as wonderful as the automobile would be embraced by everyone. Anything that could be done to improve motoring in Brooklyn, Long Island and the general New York City area would immediately be approved, and the car would take its rightful place at the head of the transportation table. Well, if you were an early 20th century autoist; one of the first people to own an automobile, you would probably feel that way. If you were everyone else, it was going to be a much tougher sell.

The Long Island Automobile Club was founded in Brooklyn in 1900 by four wealthy men who wanted a place where they could indulge in their new hobby of racing, tinkering with, and talking about automobiles. In a few short years, they grew in membership to several hundred car enthusiasts; all well-to-do men who could afford a custom vehicle that cost as much as many a working man’s entire yearly salary. Like the bicycle clubs many had belonged to only a couple of years before, the LIAC sponsored races, enjoyed outings and social events, and advocated for paved roads throughout the city and out on Long Island. (more…)

07/17/14 10:45am

LIAC Cumberland Ave Clubhs, 1907 BE

In 1900, a small group of rich Brooklyn swells organized this borough’s first automobile club. The automobile was still a novelty at this time; an expensive toy that only a few could afford. The Long Island Automobile Club (LIAC) was founded so these men could get together, discuss the wonders of this new technology, plan road trips, advocate for better highways and most importantly, race their automobiles. Whether they had fine horses, speedy bicycles or the new horseless carriages, wealthy men just loved races.

Part One of this history outlines the first years of the LIAC. The club grew fast, as more and more men bought automobiles. The earliest models were really just carriages with motors. They were open buckboards, some of them, with a steering wheel. They couldn’t go very fast, they stalled out a lot, and riding in one was a dirty and dusty adventure. As the technology improved, and automobiles got better, more and more people began motoring, and the national love affair with the automobile began. The autoists, as the club members were called, led the way. (more…)

07/15/14 10:45am

LIAC first run of season, 1905, BE

By the turn of the 20th century, bicycling had become the most popular sport in New York, as well as a practical form of transportation. Almost anyone could afford a bicycle of some kind, whether new or used, and almost anyone; young or old, rich or poor, male or female could ride. Cycling clubs brought people together for races, excursions and the shared love of biking and fun. The clubs and the sheer number of bikers had also successfully advocated for the improvement of streets. They put pressure on the city to pave more streets and open up dedicated biking paths.

Everything was going well for bikes and biking until the arrival of the car. When the first “horseless carriages” rolled down the street, they caught the imagination of the public like little has, before or since. Like small children whose attention is caught by some new toy, for a certain segment of the population, the bicycle was dropped like an old stuffed bear, as the car was taken up and embraced like an old friend. At this stage of the automobile’s development, it was a toy for only the wealthy. As quickly as the automobiles could roll out of the workshops, they were purchased by a select group of men who just as quickly formed clubs. Our story is about one of those clubs, Brooklyn’s own Long Island Automobile Club.

The first automobiles were not the sleek roadsters and touring cars of the Jazz Age, or even the practical designs of Henry Ford’s Model T’s. They were literally “horseless carriages.” The first car makers had taken carriage bodies and put simple combustible engines and a steering wheel on them. They were not enclosed, nor were they comfortable. They did not go particularly fast, and they were not mass produced. But they were still the coolest things on earth. (more…)

07/10/14 10:45am

Cycling 1898, GAP, NYParks 1

Brooklyn’s current cycling enthusiasm is not new. Today’s bicycle riders are continuing in the grand traditions of biking from the turn of the 20th century, when this two-wheeled adventure was at a peak that has yet to be matched. The bicycle was that period’s great equalizer. There were bicycles available for sale or trade for almost every income group, and the roads belonged to all. A poor laborer could find himself waiting to cross the street with one of the richest people in town. Men and women could ride together, and for the first time in memory, a modern single woman could ride the streets by herself, unaccompanied by chaperone or male companion. This relatively simple steel framed contraption on wheels was a major catalyst for change in American society, and after the bike craze of the fin de siecle, nothing would be the same again. (more…)

07/08/14 10:45am

Cycling, 1898, Home from CI, BE 4.98

The Sunday, April 3, 1898 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle features a special eleven page pull-out illustrated section devoted solely to the recreational sport that had captured the city – bicycling. It was probably the most comprehensive look at the phenomenon of cycling ever assembled in a newspaper before or since, and highlights cycling when it was at its peak, the first time around.

There were articles about advances in bicycle design and new accessories and innovations. The article featured a section about the newest cycling outfits for men and women. There was a story about long distance cycling trips, some as far away as Saratoga Springs, as well as shorter day trips within the five boroughs, Long Island and Westchester.

The state of roadways and the acceptance of bicycles as transportation were discussed, as was the political will to improve the pathways and streets for bicycle traffic. They wrote about the many different clubs that had formed, and lastly, there was even an article about trick riding, with illustrations. It’s fascinating, and one cannot help but make comparisons to the phenomenon of cycling in New York in 2014. (more…)

07/03/14 10:45am

BBG, Neptune Ave, CI, Showroom,1933 MCNY 8

In 1944, Mary E. Dillon was appointed the head of the New York City Board of Education. She was still the President of the Brooklyn Borough Gas Company, Coney Island’s independent gas company since the late 1800s. Miss Dillon had been an employee of the company since 1903, and had risen through the ranks to become the first female president of the utility in 1926. She was the first female president of any utility in the world. She was well equipped for the job, and ran BBG for a total of 23 years. When tapped for the position at the Board of Ed, she was already a long-time member of her local School Board 39.

She still remained president of BBG when she took the position at 110 Livingston Street. Used to being a first, she was the first woman to head the NYC Board of Education, too. Not bad for a woman who had to leave Erasmus Hall High School in her senior year to go to work to support her family. She never graduated from high school, which never stopped her from achieving great heights.

Brooklyn Borough Gas was one of the last hold outs in the great consolidation of utilities. Brooklyn Union Gas, the borough’s giant, had long ago absorbed almost all of the other gas utility companies in Brooklyn and was still looking to grow. Mary and BBG withstood several offers from BBG and other utility giants to consolidate. There are advantages to being smaller, but there are also restrictions. BBG needed several rate hikes over the course of the mid-20th century, and none of them were well-received, especially during the Depression and the early years of World War II.

Under Mary Dillon’s leadership, they had a new headquarters built at 809 Neptune Avenue, at the corner of Shell Road, which was opened in 1930. It was a beautiful state of the art campus, stretched along a large plot of land, and included company offices, a showroom and demonstration laboratory, repair rooms, garages and utility buildings, and the huge gas tanks that stood behind it all. It was the most beautiful utility complex in New York City, and it belonged to little Brooklyn Borough Gas. (more…)

07/01/14 10:45am

Brooklyn Boro Gas complex. 1933 MCNY 1

In March of 1926, Mary Estelle Dillon became the new President of the Brooklyn Borough Gas Company. She was the first woman in the world to head a utility company. From her office in Coney Island, she was running a five million dollar company with five hundred employees and a customer base of 170,000 residents of Coney Island, Gravesend, Sheepshead Bay and surrounding neighborhoods. Although the gas company had started back in the days of gas lights and coal stoves, Brooklyn Borough Gas had grown into a modern 20th century utility company, supplying gas to its customers for appliances and home heating.

Miss Dillon knew the gas business from top to bottom, and had really been running the day to day operations of the utility for years. She knew that gas may seem to be a man’s business, but it was used by women. Gas powered stoves and other appliances were the moneymakers for the company. Why not bring women into the gas company itself, by designing a headquarters and showroom where women could come in, examine and buy the latest gas-powered appliances, and learn new recipes and techniques in how to use them? She didn’t have to pitch this to anyone higher except the board of directors. They thought it was a great idea, and plans for a brand new headquarters for Brooklyn Borough Gas were put into motion in 1929, and the facility was completed in 1931.

The new facility was built near the old, on Neptune Avenue at Shell Road. The architects and engineers of the project were the Manhattan firm of Block & Hesse. They were quite busy in the 1920s and ‘30s, designing all kinds of commercial, residential and institutional projects throughout the city. The new facility had a business office where customers could pay bills, or speak to representatives. It had a laboratory for testing appliances, and a very spacious showroom where the newest appliances could be viewed and purchased. The “laboratory” was a huge test kitchen, where classes and demonstrations were given for not only stoves, but washers, dryers, fireplaces, heating stoves and other gas-fueled appliances. The company’s executive and business offices were here too. (more…)

06/26/14 10:45am

Bklyn Boro Gas, 1933, Neptune Ave, MCNY

The Brooklyn Borough Gas Company out on Coney Island was the little utility that could. After the Civil War, local gas companies sprang up all across Brooklyn to service a growing population with gas for lighting, heat and other uses. As time passed, the stronger companies absorbed the weaker ones. By the end of the century, most of the remaining gas companies decided to join together to form Brooklyn Union Gas. But not Brooklyn Borough Gas. They were not owned locally, their majority stockholders were a group of men from Philadelphia, and were able to resist Brooklyn Union Gas’ influence.

The company carved out its niche on Coney Island, servicing the communities of Gravesend, Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay. They were content with that, and settled down to strengthen what they had. By 1903, they had a young lady working in the office as a junior clerk. She was the only woman working in any capacity at Brooklyn Borough Gas at that time. Her name was Mary E. Dillon, and she was 17 years old. She had taken her sister’s place in the company when her older sister quit to get married, and Mary didn’t know anything about gas. Her sister had been BBG’s first female employee. For more background, please read Chapter One of this story.

Mary Dillon had determination and she was smart. She spent the next few years taking on any task in the company they offered her, and through that, became both office manager and an expert in all areas of the ever evolving gas business. By 1912, she was assistant to the general manager. She remained in that position until he decided to leave the company in 1919. By then, it was obvious that 33 year old Mary Dillon was the right person to succeed him as general manager.

During the late ‘teens, Brooklyn Borough Gas was trying to expand within its territory. Electricity had made gas light obsolete, but had opened up new technologies for gas production and use. Of course, like any utility, in order for them to change and grow to serve more customers, they wanted a rate increase, and that was not going down well with customers or local officials. (more…)

06/24/14 10:45am

BBG, Mary E. Dillon, Composite

Utility companies are one of the great constants in our lives. Very few of us live in a world where we don’t have to pay Con Edison, National Grid, or another supplier for electricity and gas. Today, natural gas is used primarily for appliances and heating, but throughout much of the 19th century, gas was THE utility, supplying light, heat and power.

As its use spread throughout the city of Brooklyn, gas companies were established to supply this increasingly necessary utility. Almost every neighborhood had its own gas company, with some neighborhoods served by competing carriers. Each had their own local gas plants, and their own lines which ran below the street and up into individual homes and businesses.

The competition, as you can imagine, was fierce. Everyone wanted to control their neighborhood completely and solely, and most of these companies were looking to expand into other neighborhoods and take them over as well. The more ambitious companies did just that, and by the end of the 19th century, Brooklyn had gone from many gas companies down to only a handful. In 1895, seven of them consolidated to form Brooklyn Union Gas. They reigned in Brooklyn as the largest gas utility until 1998, when Brooklyn Union Gas merged with the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) and became the Key Span Company.

Brooklyn Union Gas took over almost all of Brooklyn’s gas utility business. Almost, but not all. There was one holdout – a company that serviced far off Coney Island. This company was not power hungry, and didn’t want to take over other territory; it just wanted to be left alone to service Coney Island, the nearby beach communities and Gravesend. It was called the Brooklyn Borough Gas Company, and it had its headquarters and gas plant on Neptune Avenue in Coney Island. (more…)