Two-hundred years ago this month, the Union Course Racetrack opened in Woodhaven. It sat across the street from Neir’s Tavern, and on opening day Lady Lightfoot from North Carolina lost to the famed racehorse American Eclipse on October 15.
Running from Rockaway and Atlantic avenues to Jamaica Avenue, and from 78th to 84th streets, this massive track put Woodhaven on the map, not only bringing transportation to Woodhaven (the LIRR) but people, too. And they came here in droves!
One race, American Eclipse vs. Sir Henry in 1823, drew over 70,000 people. Another race, Fashion vs. Peytona in 1845, drew over 100,000 spectators. Vice presidents and governors mingled with us common folk as millions of dollars in today’s money regularly changed hands.
With the track and the people and the money came business. The perimeter of the track was populated with stables and blacksmiths for the horse trainers and the owners, and hotels and taverns for all the people that came to bet on the races.
What an exciting and interesting time it must have been to live in this community as it grew alongside the racetrack. The streets would have been filled with jockeys and gamblers and con men and farmers and cowboys, all of them with a dream of winning a pot of money at Union Course.
Of all the businesses that opened up in Woodhaven and witnessed all of this, only one remains: Neir’s Tavern.
Taking several aliases over the decades, starting as the Blue Pump Room and then The Old Abbey, it sat right next to this legendary racetrack and became a regular destination for those seeking food, drink and companionship.
When Joseph and Julia Neir took over the establishment in 1898, it took on their name for the next 65 years before being renamed after the track, which had by then long since disappeared.
Over its life, this establishment has witnessed a lot of history beyond the track and the many thousands of spectators who filed through its doors two centuries ago.
The track closed during the Civil War and was recommissioned as a camp for Union soldiers. Neir’s tavern was around to witness that.
When a devastating cyclone roared through Woodhaven in 1895, 78th Street and Neir’s Tavern were spared from the damage, but one can imagine people coming here to share their tales of survival.
In fact, the news accounts made note of the fact that several local taverns opened illegally the next day, a Sunday, and did a roaring trade.
On Black Friday in October 1929 when the stock market crashed, Neir’s Tavern had just reached its 100th birthday.
This corner bar has not only witnessed history, it has lived through enough history to become history itself. It has been through too many wars to count and been the site of sad farewells and happy reunions.
It has survived two worldwide pandemics. It has been the co-star in several films, and though it hasn’t been landmarked by the city, it will forever be landmarked in our hearts.
And if the racetrack put Woodhaven on the map, Councilman Robert Holden and Community Board 9 chair Kenichi Wilson officially put Neir’s Tavern on the map by co-naming the corner of 78th Street and 88th Avenue “Neir’s Tavern Way.”
In a celebration at the street corner last Saturday, residents gathered to hear Holden, Wilson, Assemblywoman Jenifer Rajkumar and Stephen Forte of the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association speak about the historical significance of Neir’s Tavern.
Congratulations to owner Loycent Gordon, his wife Aisha and their son Evan, and to all of the friends and staff at Neir’s Tavern for this well-deserved honor.