The Trains Stopped Running Here 50 Years Ago
“The greatest project envisioned by Austin Corbin was the plan to turn Fort Pond Bay at Montauk into a transoceanic port. Corbin was well aware that the prosperity that he brought to the Long Island Railroad would not last unless he could improve freight as well as passenger revenues,” writes Ron Ziel in Steel Rails to the Sunrise: A comprehensive history of the LIRR.
Corbin plays a major part in our story of the Rockaway branch. The raison d’être of the LIRR had been to bypass New York City in the route to New England. How different Long Island’s economy and culture might have been if Corbin’s dreams had been realized.
Unfortunately, these goals were never achieved. Corbin unexpectedly died on the eve of a critical Congressional vote that would have permitted dredging to create a port at Montauk. However, his successors had neither his skill nor his persistence so his dream died.
Before he died, it was owing to Corbin that the NYW&R was later leased to the LIRR and finally merged into the LIRR in the early 20th century, according to The Early History of the Long Island Railroad by Mildred H. Smith. But the line would go on to have some great years. And it could again, rail advocates today insist.
“The Rockaway Beach branch,” says civil engineer George Haikalis in an interview, “ultimately became the best, most popular branch of the LIRR. It was electrified before any other branch”, he says. Haikalis is part of the Regional Rail Working Group that wants to reactivate the line.
The group recently ran an opinion piece in the New York Daily News calling for the restoration of the line. That is a call that has already triggered considerable opposition from some elected officials in Southern Queens. They complain that reviving the line would ruin home values. Others say it would greatly improve Queens’ transportation network. Nevertheless, the Rockaway branch, in its glory days, was quite a line.
Actually, “the line was electrified in 1905, five years before Penn Station opened,” according to veteran hockey writer Stan Fischler’s Long Island Railroad. Fischler, who actually rode the line down to the Rockaways as a child, wrote that the line became “one of the most popular runs on the railroad”.
But, like other independent lines such as the South Side Railroad and the New York & Manhattan Beach Railroad, the NYWRR was swallowed by the Long Island Railroad.
The LIRR, at the end of the 19th century, was buying or leasing dozens of lines on Long Island. It would eventually consolidate them into one system, although several of the lines, or parts of the lines were discontinued. For instance, in the early part of the 20th century, a College Point branch was ended that today could have served LaGuardia Airport. But these kinds of decisions in the 20th century were made by corporate leaders who usually didn’t come from Long Island.
At the turn of the 20th century, the LIRR opted to give up its independence. It was sold to the Pennsylvania Railroad for some $6 million, according to Ziel. The mighty Pennsylvania Railroad, once the greatest railroad in the nation, provided a tunnel connection to Manhattan that opened in 1910.
That was a signal improvement in the ride to the city. Before the tunnel connection, riders would get off at Long Island City and take ferries to Manhattan.
Long Island City was actually once a city. It was an independent, but often corrupt, municipality that became part of New York City in 1898 as part of a consolidation plan that swallowed independent municipalities. These included the town of Flushing, which voted against consolidation, and the village of Richmond Hill, which includes Kew Gardens. Richmond Hill had been a well-run village in the 1890s with a better credit rating than the United States government.
See next week for continuation.