Oct. 7, 2023 By Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society
It is entirely fitting that Neir’s Tavern celebrates its birthday the same month as Halloween, for every time you visit you are standing next to the many ghosts of Woodhaven’s past.
Neir’s Tavern (at 78th Street and 88th Avenue in Woodhaven) opened in 1829 as The Blue Pump Room by Cadwallader R. Colden, the black sheep of a wealthy and distinguished family (his cousin served as the mayor of New York City). Colden was a famed horseman who wrote articles about racing under the pen name “The Old Turfman.”
For a time, he was also the manager of the historic Union Course Racetrack, which sat directly across the street from his tavern where fellow horsemen would gather, lay wagers and dream up match races that would excite the betting masses.
The Union Course was a dirt-skinned track, each lap consisting of 1 mile. In those days, races were generally the best two out of three heats, where each heat was made up of four laps around the track. This meant that the horses could race up to 12 miles in a single day.
Races between horses representing the North and the South were popular events with the most famed race, between American Eclipse and Sir Henry, attracting over 60 thousand spectators.
In 1835, the same year that the community was officially named Woodville, the tavern was sold and renamed “The Old Abbey” and earned a reputation as a “notorious rumseller” that catered to the rougher crowds that now came to the races.
In the 1850s, banker and politician Nathan Graves purchased The Old Abbey, and he turned its reputation around as the racetrack went through a minor renaissance as Harness Racing, led by the well-known and respected horse trainer Hiram Woodruff and his wildly popular horse Dexter.
As more modern tracks opened, the Union Course lost popularity and temporarily closed during the Civil War as it was converted into a camp for Union soldiers. It closed for good just after the war and sat dormant for nearly two decades before the land was sold and divided up into lots where many of today’s Woodhaven homes would be built.
Over the decades, as time passed all around it, this tavern has been a constant regardless of whatever name it had at the time. In 1853 — when it was just 24 years old — people stood at the bar and argued about what Woodville’s new name should be (it would eventually be renamed Woodhaven).
In early 1876, when it was just 47 years old, people spoke about the tremendous fire that destroyed the Grosjean factory on Atlantic Avenue, leaving many in the community without jobs. A few months later, they celebrated when the new factory building reopened (a building that also still stands).
One day in July 1895, when it was 66 years old, patrons drank as they recounted their experiences about the deadly cyclone that had ripped through Woodhaven and just missed them on Snediker Avenue (now 78th Street).
In 1898, when it was pushing 70 years old, the tavern was purchased by Louis Neir, who added a bowling alley and a ballroom and renamed it “Neir’s Social Hall.”
And in October 1929, on the worst day that Wall Street ever endured, residents wondered what was going to happen to all of them, certain that a bleak future lay ahead. Some of them may have even wondered what the future had in store for Neir’s, which had turned 100 years old that very month.
Here in 2023 Neir’s is still alive and full of spirits of all kinds, including the many spirits of Woodhaven’s past who bore witness to all kinds of history going on all around them.
On Oct. 7, from noon to 6 p.m., Neir’s will be celebrating its 194th year with an Anniversary Block Party featuring games and face painting for the children, as well as a bounce house, live outdoor music, raffles, hot dogs, cotton candy and more. This is a free event and everyone is welcome.
And keep in mind that mingling in among the crowd gathered this Saturday will be nearly two centuries worth of gamblers and trainers and bootleggers and thousands and thousands of other locals who passed time inside of Neir’s Tavern, while time marched on outside.