Makers Mark?

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    Just the other day, I decided it was too nice a day not to go out for a stroll. Not having a whole lot of time to amble about, it was decided to “keep it local” and stay in Astoria. A few errands ended up being part of the excursion, and on the way home my path brought me to 46th Street between 25th Avenue and Astoria Boulevard where I encountered one of the many concrete arches that have carried the tracks of the New York Connecting Railroad since the time of the first World War. The tracks head east to the Fresh Pond and Sunnyside Yards, and west to the Hell Gate Bridge. Hell Gate Bridge began carrying rail traffic in April of 1917, by the way, which is what makes what I encountered on 46th Street so puzzling.

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    More after the jump…

    Often I will tell people that “Queens wants me to see something today, I just have to go and find it.” This is usually greeted with a slightly bemused expression that displays both sympathy and wariness, but I’m serious. Last Monday, Queens brought me to 46th Street, and she lent me the presence of mind to notice this “scratchiti” carven into the concrete arch. Truth is, I’ve walked past this spot hundreds of times and never spotted this before. It was the yellow paint, a coverall for some uninspired aerosol graffiti, which allowed me to notice the weathered missives.

    The one above says “J.H. July 3 1917.”

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    Another — there were only two — says “H.H. July 3 1917.”

    A bit of research on the date, which conflicts with the standard historic calendar for the opening of the Hell Gate Bridge, revealed something entirely new to me. Every reference I can find for the New York Connecting Railroad describes it as being opened for traffic on March 9th, 1917. Researching the date above, in connection with the NYCRR, it seems that the south side of the rail tracks (the section that connects Fresh Pond to Hell Gate via the familiar concrete viaduct snaking through Queens which was built by Andrew Carnegie’s American Bridge Company) wasn’t completed or opened until late July of 1917. Supposition ensues.

    Could these be the signatures of two of the laborers who shaped and built the arches?

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    Truth be told, I’d love it if they were. Problem with making that assumption is something called confirmation bias – it’s what I want them to be (such a cool idea) so I’m more likely to believe that these are in fact 98 year old makers marks despite a lack of supporting evidence. Things I can definitively tell you about July 3rd, 1917, a Tuesday, include – the Detroit Tigers were beat by the White Sox at Fenway Park 5-1, President Woodrow Wilson formally broke relations with Germany, and a particularly nasty race riot was in full bloom over in East St. Louis.

    I can’t imagine why anyone would carve them other then as makers marks.

    What do you think? Were a couple of stone masons carving their initials into wet cement on July 3, 1917? That’s going to be one of history’s mysteries, I imagine, but Queens sent me to get a few shots for her.

    Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman lives in Astoria and blogs at Newtown Pentacle.

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