The Nilsens of 235 Cochran Place


It was a chilly morning, in the low 40s, when the Nilsen family stepped off the Long Island Railroad in Valley Stream on Friday, May 1, 1925. The Nilsens were a family of seven: Alf, his wife Emily, and their five children: (Emily) Adelaide, (Alf) Edward, Robert, Russell, and Olive — ages 11, 9, 6, 1, and 3 months. The walk from the train depot, which at the time was on the northwest corner of Rockaway Avenue and what is now Sunrise Highway (near to where the car wash stands today), to their new house, was close to a mile. Emily carried three-month-old Olive, Adelaide had toddler Russell in her arms, and Alf and the boys lugged the suitcases ― which contained all their worldly possessions. Their abode, 235 Cochran Place, was in the brand new Gibson development. Their pace was slow, but scenic. Cochran, not yet paved, was mucky from the spring thaw, yet the sun was shining. They passed farmland along the way. Had their move been four years later, they could have taken the Far Rockaway train, which would have stopped at the Gibson station ― much closer to their home. But that train depot wasn’t built until 1929. 

In 1990, Helen Dowdeswell, from the Valley Stream Historical Society's oral history committee, interviewed Adelaide Nilsen Donaruma — Alf and Emily's eldest child. Helen asked Adelaide what brought her family to Valley Stream from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. “Bay Ridge was a Scandinavian neighborhood and a lot of Scandinavians had moved out [here] and we knew some of them." She recollected that on moving day, before they arrived in Valley Stream, a Long Island Railroad train collided with a bread truck. "Loaves of bread were flung from the truck landing every which way." 

Their new two-story clapboard framed home had three bedrooms, a kitchen, living and dining rooms, a full basement, and an inviting front porch. The 1,108 square foot house sat on a 40' x 100′ plot. Nice enough, but not the Nilsen's first choice. House 235 sat on the east side of Cochran Place, abutting the Far Rockaway train tracks. With five young children, the Nilsens preferred the west side of the street. But their apartment lease in Bay Ridge expired on April 30, and they couldn’t wait for a house on the other side of the road to be built, so they settled for number 235. The house cost $6,250; their down payment was $500. Frank Kondla, the first elected trustee of the newly Incorporated Village of Valley Stream (January 1925), sold the Nilsens their home. 

Cochran Place is one of the oldest thoroughfares in Valley Stream. In 1870, Robert Cochran, a prominent Westchester judge and district attorney, “bought six acres of land south of the depot, paying 1,200 dollars,” reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on December 12 of that year. He also purchased “eight acres a few rods north of the depot, where he offers lots at low rates.” The Cochran’s owned a house in Valley Stream, but not on Cochran Avenue. Their home was on the northwest corner of Central Avenue and (modern-day) Sunrise Highway, south of the tracks. Sunrise Highway did not exist at the time. Cochran Place first appears on the 1871 “Map of the Cochran Estate known as the Plan Property at Valley Stream, L.I.,” owned by E.B. Litchfield, from a survey by Jonathan Sammis. Electus Backus Litchfield is credited with laying out the village on Rockaway Avenue (north of the tracks), and the streets to its east and west. Litchfield and Cochran were land speculators. When a rail roadbed was laid (as it was in Valley Stream in 1869), speculators would swoop in, buy close-by land, build a saloon or two, and some “cottages,” and voilà! — a village was born! 

William Gibson (1880-1964), an Englishman, came to the States in 1886. Prior to constructing the community in Valley Stream that bears his name, he built apartment buildings and homes in Richmond Hill and Elmhust, Queens. Gibson was developed in two stages: "Old Gibson" was built in the early 1920s after Gibson bought 500 acres from Norumbega Real Estate and the Queen's County Water Company. The water company land once belonged to Franklin B. Lord, president of Queens County Water and a local Five Towns resident. Gibson's first built homes were on Roosevelt Avenue and its side streets. The land was lush and heavily wooded, known for its fantastic game hunting (a hunting lodge stood on the southeast corner of Rockaway and Brooklyn avenues). When development began, Indian arrowheads were unearthed. "New Gibson" got its start 1927 when 200 more acres were purchased east of Rockaway Avenue. Building slowed during the Great Depression and World War II. The Nilsen's held onto their property despite many foreclosures. 

Cochran Place is a long thoroughfare ― about three-quarters of a mile in length. Adelaide, in her oral history, reminisced about the families that lived there. Genevieve Elderkin lived at 230 and married Edward MacLean. Both were well-known Streamers who worked hard on behalf of the Village. Edward served on the Central High District and District 24 boards for many years. Both he and Genevieve devoted themselves to the PTA and BOCES. Helen Frering Zang lived at 224. Helen was a poet and civic activist. She wore many hats at the Valley Stream Historical Society and wrote Down Memory Lane, a column for the MAILeader. Perhaps one of the best known residents on Cochran was Tom Ward, who, in the early years, rented a room on the block. Ward was mayor of Valley Stream, a longtime Republican committeeman, and a Village trustee. He was a Valley Stream school district physical education teacher and director of athletics. For many, especially his students, he is fondly remembered as the owner of Pine Crest Dunes summer camp in Peconic. 

In 1895, when Alf was two, his family immigrated to New York from Oslo, Norway. His mother died relatively young, and the three younger children were put in homes. Alf, whose education ended in the eighth grade, was a hard-working man. He toiled diligently as a mate on a tugboat in New York Harbor until he became the captain of his own ship. As a tugboat captain, he was out at sea 24/6, so living in Valley Stream on a full-time basis was not possible. Each Sunday, Alf took an early train to Valley Stream to visit his family. On Sunday evenings, he took the last train back to the city. The Nilsens were practicing Lutherans. They attended Sunday services at Lutheran Church of Our Savior on nearby Rockaway and Dubois avenues. 

Tragedy struck on Friday, November 13 — the year the family moved to Valley Stream. Emily had hired a young local girl to help mind the younger children. Her instructions were to “tie two-year-old Russell to the front porch.” The girl followed half of Emily’s instructions. She placed the toddler on the porch and walked away. Russell wandered off. He crawled into the backyard, was struck by a passing train, and was killed instantly. 

In 1931, Emily gave birth to her last child, Joan. In a hard to believe scenario, Joan almost suffered the same fate as her older brother Russell. On Wednesday, June 3, 1936, four-year-old Joan was hit by a Transit Coach Company bus on Cochran Avenue. The Rockaway News reported “the child ran from the sidewalk out into the street in front of the bus as it was passing. She sustained skull injuries, a fractured right thigh, and multiple lacerations and bruises.” Leo Gagnon, from Rosedale, was the driver. Little Joanie was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Far Rockaway, where she recuperated. 

At the end of the tape, Helen asks Adelaide about her brothers and their livelihoods. Adelaide explains that her brother Edward tried his hand at tugboat navigation, but the work, which included stoking the coal-fired tugboats with a never-ending supply of fuel, became arduous and unbearable. Instead, he joined the Coast Guard. His younger brother Robert, followed in his father’s footsteps ― he became a tugboat captain. "All my people have been on the water for as far back as I can remember. That's all they ever did."

Long Island Railroad, Far Rockaway branch - looking north

1871 - Map of the Cochran Estate known as Plan of Property at Valley Stream, L.I.

2018 - 235 Cochran Place, Valley Stream, NY 11581 - Google Street View