This triangle is named after Major James A. McKenna (1885-1918), a native of Long Island City who was killed in the First World War. He attended local schools in Long Island City and Brooklyn and went on to Harvard University as an undergraduate. He completed his education at Fordham Law School.
In 1916, McKenna joined the 7th Regiment and fought on the Mexican border in 1916 and 1917. He was transferred to the 69th Regiment and made Lieutenant in 1917. McKenna commanded the 1st Troop ship of his infantry while crossing into France. In October of that year, he and his compatriots arrived in France, where he was promoted to Major. On July 15, 1918, McKenna encountered a gas raid at Champagne, but recovered quickly to lead a battalion across the Orcq River. His was the only battalion to cross the river successfully. While returning across the river the following day, McKenna was killed by a stray piece of shrapnel. His brother, who also served in the 165th Infantry, buried him immediately. In 1921, his remains were transferred to the Gate of Heaven cemetery in Mt. Pleasant, New York.
Located across the street from St. John’s Hospital, McKenna Triangle is bounded by Jackson Avenue, 45th Avenue and Thomson Street in Long Island City, Queens. The land that is now McKenna Triangle was granted by the Trustees of Union College to Long Island City on November 4, 1884. Union College had closed in 1883, and was at the time the oldest school in Jamaica, founded in 1791 by George Clinton and John Jay. On November 14, 1884, Parks gained administrative control of the land. Finally, on New Year’s Day of 1898, the title of this land was vested in the City of New York, when Long Island City and the rest of Queens became part of the newly consolidated city.
On July 11, 1911, the Queens Department of Parks separated from the Brooklyn-Queens Department of Parks. Three days later, the new Queens Commissioner of Parks took office and reported “four unnamed parks,” this property among them. The Commissioner reasoned that the triangle’s key location rendered it a stopping ground for large numbers of people, therefore, it “required an iron picket fence, deep fertilization and planting” to make it more aesthetically pleasing. He named this land Gleason Angle after Patrick J. Gleason (1844-1901), the last mayor of Long Island City.
Gleason was born in Tipperary, Ireland, on April 25, 1844. After being mistakenly arrested for murder in Ireland, he immigrated to New York in 1862. He served in the Union army during the Civil War, and had several unsuccessful business ventures before making a small fortune distilling alcohol in California. Gleason returned to New York in 1872 and began a political career as a Democrat, but quickly lost a bitter Assembly contest in Brooklyn. Known as “Paddy” to his constituents, Gleason served briefly as an Alderman from Long Island City and was elected mayor of Long Island City in 1887. He served until 1892, then was elected again in 1896. In 1898, the consolidation of Long Island City and the City of New York eliminated his position and ended his political career. In the late 1890s, he lost his money after unwisely investing in a streetcar line. He died bankrupt and in obscurity on May 19, 1901.
On December 17, 1919, the Board of Alderman renamed the land James A. McKenna Triangle to “pay tribute to one who made the supreme sacrifice in the World War.” A 60 foot steel flagpole stands in the center of the triangle, flying a single American flag and bearing a plate that reads, “Presented to the Major James A. McKenna Post by William H. Todd, Todd Shipyard’s Corporation, 1919.” Todd’s Shipyard, formed by the merger of three companies, opened in 1916 and served the Union during the Civil War. After the war, the enterprise steadily expanded and now includes numerous operations and employs thousands of workers, being one of the more successful shipbuilding companies in an industry that waxes and wanes with the times. Along with many others, Todd believed that Major McKenna deserved recognition and honor for his loyal service to our country.