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Long Island City’s Irish boss

Patrick J. Gleason.

By Geoffrey Cobb

Long Island City is a commercial and residential neighborhood in Queens known for its expanding skyline on the East River just across from Manhattan. It was, however, an independent city from 1870 through to 1898, and its last mayor was Tipperary-born Paddy Gleason.

Elected mayor three times in 1887, 1890 and 1895, Gleason's years in office are a classic study in boss rule and a mirror image of the Tweed era in New York City. An autocratic figure with a violent temper, Gleason viewed the city government as his fiefdom. A deeply polarizing figure, Gleason was attacked by his enemies for his alleged corruption, buffoonery and brawling. Gleason, however, was also adored by Long Island City’s Irish working class and especially its school children for whom he built the stately P.S. 1, which is now a branch of the Museum of Modern Art. He remains one of the most colorful and charismatic figures in New York City history, but also one of the most reviled and perhaps misunderstood.

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Born in 1841 in Fishmoyne, Co. Tipperary, Patrick Jerome Gleason was one of 10 children born into a family with a long tradition of fighting oppression. Gleason’s father once famously declared in court that he was “‘the father of seven boys’” ( later nine) and that he “‘thanked God that they were all rebels.” Patrick, though the smallest of his brothers, stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 250 pounds in his prime. As a young man, he excelled at boxing and was a champion local shot putter.

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After emigrating to New York in 1862, Gleason fought along with four of his brothers for the Union in the Civil War. He later went to California where his knowledge of distilling whiskey and shrewd stock speculation made him wealthy. He settled in Long Island City back in New York and set up a trolley line bringing visitors to Calvary Cemetery, but it was in politics where he would make his mark.

When first elected mayor, Gleason vastly expanded the size of local government, appointing his friends and supporters to key positions and attracted criticism from the New York Times and other newspapers for his dictator-like domination of Long Island City.

Gleason was a foe of the Standard Oil Company, but his true nemesis was the Long Island Railroad, which helped him to earn his famous nickname. The L.I.R.R brazenly fenced off its train line, allowing only ticketed passengers to cross its tracks and dividing the town from its waterfront. Gleason carefully orchestrated and a theatrically-staged raid against the railroad in December 1888. The mayor and some of his workmen converged on 2nd Street and Borden Avenue and informed the railroad officials that they had just 30 minutes to remove their fences, tracks and cars from 2nd Street. When the railroad failed to respond, Gleason, his Public Works Commissioner and 12 police officers chopped down the fences and ripped up the tracks with crowds of delighted onlookers watching.

The raid on the railroad earned Gleason adulation and the nickname "Battle Axe.” Thereafter, he proudly adopted the implement as his symbol, wearing a diamond studded axe on his tie.

The political boss’s office was eliminated in 1898, though, when Long Island City joined the merger that created the five-borough New York City.

Gleason’s death in 1901 was marked by a huge outpouring of grief and the largest funeral the area had ever seen. Most notable were the hundreds of teary-eyed children who adored the Tipperary native and lined the route to his burial in Calvary Cemetery.

Geoffrey Cobb will give a walking tour of Paddy Gleason's Long Island City on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 7, 2021, under the auspices of the New York Irish Center, 10-40 Jackson Ave.