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The William Steinway Diary, 1861-1896

“Terrible Excitement throughout the City, resistance to the draft. Row of buildings on third Ave. burning down, also on Lexington Ave. Various other buildings fired by the mob. About 5 P.M. they appear before our factory Charles speaks to them and with the aid of Rev. Father Mahon they draw off....Charles gave the ringleaders $30-40 inc/n Money and one a check for $30. It was a terrible scene and we were of course all much exercised at the prospect of having the factory destroyed.”
—July 13, 1863, Diary Volume One

Witness to Participant in History

As the Diary progressed, William’s entries became more dense, the script more hurried, as he rushed to detail his growing participation in New York City life. In early years, he observed some of the most dramatic events of the time, including the fear and chaos of the 1863 Civil War Draft Riots and the city’s intense mourning after the 1865 assassination of President Lincoln. Endless meetings and events soon crowded William’s days as he was asked to take an increasing role in many circles. William’s business, civic, and social lives intertwined as his stature increased, especially in the German American community where his connections made him a powerful political ally. He advised President Grover Cleveland on many appointments and was a member of the Committee of Seventy tasked with fighting the corruption of Boss William Tweed’s Tammany Hall. Chairmanship of the city’s Rapid Transit Commission—known as the Steinway Commission—charged William with developing an underground transit system powered by electricity, a radical idea for the time. Although entrenched interests thwarted progress, William laid the blueprint for what would become the New York City subway system. His Steinway Tunnel burrowing under the East River takes today’s passengers between Manhattan and Queens.

July 14–15, 1863, Volume One, Civil War Draft Riots in New York
Following the federal government’s institution of a military draft in New York City, riots directed against the government and African Americans broke out in July 1863. During this time, William, his elderly father, and his brother defended their factory from mobs intent on destroying entire blocks of businesses and homes.
July 14th Tuesday.
"Early in the morning the trouble recommences, Soldiers with Cannon marching down third Ave. An immense concourse of people assembling near 34th extending from 2d to 5th Ave. terrible fighting between the soldiers and the mob. Col. O. Brien killed, heavy fires in the eve. factory stopped work yesterday and today. All business in the upper part of the City suspended, Negroes chased everywhere & killed when caught"
July 15th Wednesday.
fighting on 2d Ave near 21st street, the 7th and 71st Regts arrive in the City more fighting on 2d & 1st Aves Stores broken into and plundered. Citizens organizing for defending private property, patrolling all night, burning of an Irish shanty near Central Park. During the day I have walked down to the store and back again in the eve. and watch all night til nearly 5 O Clock A.M. in the shop. Find to my horror that all the knapsacks of the 5th Regt has been moved to our basements in the store. I have been unable to eat for the last 3 days except bread & drinking water for excitement.

From morning to night, William marshaled his stamina as he juggled commitments to Steinway & Sons with those of German American groups, banking boards, and powerful civic groups intent on achieving hotly debated goals in a period of widespread corruption. His entries reveal his determination to forge ahead, hosting one committee meeting at Steinway Hall on rapid transit, followed by another focused on bringing the World’s Fair to New York City. When necessary, an ailing William Steinway even presided over meetings from his bed.
May 19–26, 1890, Volume Eight, “Excessively Busy”
May 19th Mond.
As usual excessively busy. At 3 P.M. the Rapid Transit Commission meets...
May 20th Tuesd.
Am at Bridge Com. in afternoon and at L.K. in evg...
May 21st Wed.
In evg at Buildg Com. Deutscher Verein...
May 22d Thursd.
At Bk Metrop. Work home in evg
May 23d frid.
Rapid Transit Com. all meet at 107 E. 14th str. again; all present…Worlds Fair Meeting no Quorum
May 24th sat.
Excessively busy from morning til night at my office. Fine articles in the papers as I gave them to the press yesterday. Work til late at Mansion...
May 26th Mond.
The work on me is terrific, an immense crowd of people pestering til 6 P.M. Home at Mansion working

Lexington Avenue in flames, Civil War Draft Riots, New York City, 1863

Lexington Avenue in flames, Civil War Draft Riots, New York City, 1863
Courtesy of The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Steinway Commission rapid transit plan for a local subway under Broadway, 1891

“Steinway Commission” rapid transit plan for a local subway under Broadway, 1891
From New York City Rapid Transit Commissioners’ Board Report, 1891
Courtesy of Henry Z. Steinway Archive

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