The Trains Stopped Running Here 50 Years Ago
Glance to the right from the window as you ride the train going east from Woodside and coming into Forest Hills. Look quick just after Rego Park at 63rd Drive as the train is slowing down to stop at Forest Hills.
Did you see the abandoned tracks with the weeds and trees growing all over them?
That’s calledWhitepot Junction.
Forest Hills was known as Whitepot in the 19th century. Legend has it that the name comes from when the land was secured by the trade of a white pot with the NativeAmericans.
Whitepot Junction, also known as Glendale Junction, is the place where 50 years ago this summer, the northern part of the LIRR Rockaway Branch was discontinued. It came as the result of declining ridership and cutbacks at many other Queens stations in the 1960s and 1970s.
Service at Rego Park, where passengers changed to go to the Rockaways, was also ended at the same time. Several other Queens stations would also go in the same general period, including Corona, Woodhaven and Elmhurst.
As I write this, there’s a movement to restore service at Elmhurst on the LIRR’s Port Washington branch.
Even after a half century of deterioration, one can still see remnants of the abandoned tracks, which were the northern half of the Rockaway line. Some of the stops were demolished. At others, nature is taking its course on what is left of the stations.
The first stop after Whitepot Junction at Forest Hills was Parkside, which is the same name of a nearby branch of the United States PostOffice onMetropolitanAvenue. The Parkside stop was on Metropolitan Avenue near Woodhaven Boulevard and the Trader Joe’s market. There is nothing remaining of the station .
The line continued on to Jamaica Avenue between 98th Street and 101st Street at the Woodhaven/Richmond Hill border. Here the stop was called Brooklyn Manor, which was about a mile east of the Brooklyn/Queens border. Again, there is no trace of the station. The branch then extended a quarter of a mile to the Woodhaven Junction station on Atlantic Avenue. It is one of the stops that still has part of a platformand a few broken lights left from its glory days.
That’s because this is where the Rockaway branch connectedwith the LIRR’sAtlanticAvenue service at its Woodhaven station. The trains were put below ground during World War II after decades of complaints about noisy, sooty locomotives running along Atlantic Avenue at all hours of the day and night.
This Atlantic Avenue branch, in the 1880s and 1890s, was the LIRR’s Main Line. There were stops every half mile. It was originally projected to go into New York City. Brooklyn was a separate city until 1898. It, along with a collection of Queens municipalities, gave up its independence. It voted to join New York City. At its height in the late 19th century, trains ran along Atlantic Avenue every 10 or fifteen minutes. Freight trains sometimes ran in off-peak hours.
The LIRR’s Atlantic Avenue branch is a shadow of what it once was. It has only a few stops remaining. It continues to function. But it no longer has a Woodhaven stop. The latter was discontinued in 1976.
Past Woodhaven Junction, the Rockaway line went on to Ozone Park. The stop is mentioned in one of the stories of the USA Trilogy by novelist John Dos Passos. From there the Rockaway line continued to Ozone Park. Today there is little of the station platform remaining.
The Ozone Park stop, or what’s left of it, can be observed from the Brooklyn bound A train coming from Lefferts Boulevard just after the 102nd Street stop. Look down from the window out of the right hand side of the car. It’s amess of weeds and dumped garbage. But there is part of two platforms left from the time when Dos Passos memorialized the station.
For almost a century this Rockaway line— now our neighborhood ghost railroad—served Central and Southern Queens. The southern half of the line was taken over by the New York City Transit Authority as the A train was extended to the Rockaways in 1956. The Rockaway line was originally not part of the LIRR, but was an independent railroad.
What became the Rockaway Beach branch of the LIRR was built as the New York, Woodhaven and Rockaway Railroad Company (NYW&R). The railroad was incorporated in 1877 under the leadership of James M. Oakley. He was a fairly successful Long Island politician. A civil war veteran, he would serve as a state assemblyman, state senator and Suffolk County sheriff. He lost a close race for the U.S. Congress.
Construction of the NYW&R took place in 1880. The line originally went from Glendale to Rockaway Park, according to Stocklobster.com. By 1881, the NYW&R linked up with the Long Island Railroad’s Atlantic Avenue branch atWoodhaven.
Those going on to the Rockaways transferred at Ozone Park. Just a half mile or so beyond Ozone Park, the service continued to Rockaway Park or on to the LIRR’s other branch on the peninsula, which terminated at Far Rockaway. That’s a LIRR branch that takes a less direct route to the Rockaways than did the NYW&R. The LIRR’s Far Rockaway branch continues to operate today.
The NYW&R was originally a vacation railroad. It targeted beachgoers and those who loved fishing in Jamaica Bay.
The NYW&R was one of numerous independent railways that served the Rockaways, Coney Island and Manhattan Beach. But the NYW&Rwas designed to offer a quicker route to the Rockaway peninsula than ferries or other railroads. Indeed, an 1883 NYW&R advertisement offered a 30 minute ride to the Rockaways. The route included four and half miles across Jamaica Bay.
The ad, which I found in the Brooklyn Library Central Collection, promised, “A most beautiful ride across Jamaica Bay on one of the longest bridges in the world to Rockaway Beach.”
Unfortunately, that was to be one of the recurring problems of the railroad. The wooden bridge had frequent fires and in the wintertime ice floes on Jamaica Bay often interfered with train traffic.
The NYW&R built a narrow gauge railroad and provided its own equipment. All of this added up to financial headaches for Oakley’s group within a decade of the line’s construction .
The railroad soon came “to fiscal embarrassment”, wrote E.B. Hinsdale in History of the Long Island Railroad, 1834-1898.
In 1887, The NYW&R was taken over by a group headed byAustin Corbin, who was a remarkable entrepreneur. He saw the potential of Rockaway and Coney Island as major vacation spots, which they became in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He owned property in Coney Island, including a vacation hotel.
Corbin became a dynamic president of the LIRR, which through much of its first years in the mid 19th century was a troubled line that might have died as did dozens of other lines on the island.
Yet he turned what had been a struggling road that was in receivership into a moneymaker in the 1880s and 1890s. The LIRR became a business that regularly paid dividends. Corbin had visions of turning the LIRR into a great regional railroad, whose business would go beyond Long Island to New England.
Corbin’s early death in 1896 had a profound effect on the development of Long Island. Corbin’s passion was to turn Eastern Long Island into a major port.
“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 improveQueens’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 SideRailroad and the New York & Manhattan Beach Railroad, theNYWRRwas 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.
With Corbin’s death, the LIRR was no longer going to provide the link to New England. The Pennsylvania Railroad tended to treat the LIRR as a backwater line. It never developed its freight capabilities, according to Ziel. Long Island executives were eventually weeded out in favor of Pennsy executives who dismissed the vision of Corbin, Ziel says.
So the LIRR was going to be what it has been for over a century and remains today: A commuter railroad that brings people to and from New York City, where most of the jobs are.
But still there was the heritage of Corbin’s purchase. The NYW&R railroad ran across Jamaica Bay on a trestle of wooden piles. The problems of the wooden bridge—fires and winter woes—were numerous. They finally led to the LIRR ceasing service about 60 years after Corbin’s group took control of the road.
The bridge eventually became so much of a problem that the southern part of the line was sold to the New York City Transit Authority. After a fire in May 1950, the LIRR no longer offered service south of Jamaica Bay. In 1955, the line was sold to the Transit Authority and subway service began on the southern half of the branch the following year.
The northern section, the section that begins at Whitepot Junction, was leased back to the LIRR, which ended service on June 8, 1962. However, in the last seven years there was very little service on the northern part.
Still, even after the transfer of the Rockaway end of the branch to the Transit Authority, the LIRR continued to operate what was left of the branch between Ozone Park and Whitepot Junction. However, the line was in its death throes. In the last few years, service was down to just a few trains a day.
And in the summer of 1962, New York state, which had taken over the bankrupt LIRR fromthe Pennsy when it walked away from the problem plagued LIRR in the 1950s, ended what was left of the railroad’s Rockaway Beach service.
Was this the end of the line for the northern half of Rockaway Beach branch?
The debate continues to this day. Advocates of reactivating the line have not given up.
Indeed, a recent independent study project authored by urban planner David Krulewitch noted that the Rockaway Beach Branch (RBB) eventually had become more than a vacation railroad. As Queens grew up in the early and mid 20th century, many of the communities in Southern Queens became densely populated, quasi-suburban communities. They grew quickly, he argued, because there was direct railroad access fromManhattan.
“They were railroad suburbs for commuters into Midtown,” according to Krulewitch in his GetMe to the Beach! Rockaway Beach Branch Reactivation study. Indeed, by the early 20th century service was frequent, he says. The population and vehicle traffic grew so much that in many communities the trains had to be elevated.
For instance, on Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills, by what was once the Parkside stop, there is a marking that says 1908. That’s not when the line was built. As we have seen it was built more than 20 years before that. That’s when the grade crossing elimination took place.
The line was elevated above traffic, which was increasing by leaps and bounds in the early 20th century. Queens’ population exploded, especially after “the Great War”, or the war we today know as World War I.
However, 50 years after when the trains stopped, Krulewitch writes that many of the neighborhoods “became isolated from transit, especially inGlendale, Woodhaven andOzone Park”. He contends that the neighborhood subway lines such as the J and A “were poor replacements for the RBB service”.
Reactivating the abandoned part of the Rockaway line has been discussed from time to time. The rationale of rail advocates is it would provide more train service from the growing Rockaways and Southern Queens to NewYork City.
Restoring the route was discussed when the Air Train proposal was under review several years ago. Likely, the unused Rockaway Beach route would have been much cheaper than building a new Air Train line since the LIRR still owns the right of way, according to rail advocates.
And Haikalis, the civil engineer, contends that because the route is generally straight, it would be relatively easy to reactivate the line.
Rockaway rail advocates also believe resurrecting the line would ease traffic demands on the overtaxed subway lines going through the center of the borough on Queens Boulevard.
Many Southern Queens residents now use these subway lines, then transfer to buses that serve parts of Woodhaven, Richmond Hill, Glendale and other Southern Queens communities.
But the reactivation plan always meets with considerable opposition. Some residents argue that would destroy their quality of life as well as the value of their homes.
It’s because the restored line would pass by the homes of hundreds of residents in Forest Hills, Glendale, Woodhaven, Richmond Hill and Ozone Park just as the LIRR’s Main Line from New York to Jamaica today passes by thousands of homes in Sunnyside, Forest Hills, Kew Gardens and Rego Park.
So, for the time being, the ghost trains will stay in their graves.
Gregory Bresiger is a business editor with Traders Magazine and its sister publication CQ&D. He also writes for the New York Post Sunday Business Section, Mises.com LewRockwell.com and Freedom Daily. He is also the author of the electronic book, “Personal Finance for People Who Hate Personal Finance.”