This originally appeared in the book "Long Island: Our Story," on Nov. 15, 1998.
In the 1850s, the Long Island Rail Road was the little train that couldn't.
The line had rolled into receivership after its reason for being - express train and steamboat service to Boston - vanished a few years after its birth. That happened in 1848 when the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad completed an all-land route along the southern New England coast.
While the LIRR had originally showed little interest in the real estate it crossed on its way to its last stop at Greenport, it was clear by the end of the Civil War that the line's only hope for getting back up to speed lay with serving future development on the Island.
After the war ended in April, 1865, a decade-long railroad building boom began with communities throughout Long Island pleading for train service.
By 1867, rails had been laid along the South Shore from Jamaica to Babylon. But unfortunately for the LIRR, the tracks belonged to another line - an upstart enterprise called the South Side Railroad. Also filling the vacuum left by the LIRR were other railroads, such as the Flushing and North Shore line and the Central Railroad of Long Island. At one point, passengers could embark at three separate terminals in Hempstead.
The tumultuous decade was marked by fevered construction, cutthroat competition, fare wars and duplication of service that left the competing railroads - including the LIRR - exhausted. Eventually, all would be amalgamated under the banner of the LIRR during the tenure of Austin Corbin, a land entrepreneur who ran the railroad until his death in an 1896 carriage accident.
Corbin was preceded by a cast of colorful characters. The most significant was Oliver Charlick, a former New York police chief who had briefly gone west during the California Gold Rush. There was also Conrad Poppenhusen, the tycoon who turned College Point into the rubber capital of the Northeast. And there was Alexander T. Stewart, the Manhattan department store mogul who built a railroad to serve Garden City, his model suburban community on the Hempstead Plains.
Charlick became the LIRR's 11th president when associates including former New York Mayor Henry Havemeyer assumed control in 1863. It became Charlick's task to rebuild the LIRR's customer base. Already suffering from the all-rail link to Boston, the line lost more riders when it was forced to abandon its Brooklyn terminal when the city outlawed its smoky steam locomotives in 1861. The LIRR relocated the terminal to Hunters Point in Long Island City.
Charlick reigned for 12 years as communities clamored for service, most vocally along the South Shore, where residents were forced to trek to the center of the Island to catch a train.
He was not a sympathetic listener. Elizur Hinsdale, who later became the LIRR secretary and general counsel, wrote in the first LIRR history, published in 1898, that "numerous negotiations and schemes were projected for building LIRR branches to the south, but for some reason Oliver Charlick and his associates failed to comprehend the growing importance of that section of the Island, nor did they believe it possible for it to escape from their control." That blind spot allowed the South Side to be built, but the newcomer lacked a route west of Jamaica.
So in 1867, representatives of the newly completed South Side Railroad met with Charlick. They tried to convince him that both lines would benefit if the LIRR allowed the South Side to share the Long Island City terminal.
After listening to his competitors, Hinsdale wrote, Charlick remained "obdurate." It wasn't the only time. Charlick became so upset when residents of Cold Spring Harbor pushed for an extension from Syosset through their community that he simply bypassed it. Cold Spring Harbor now has a station, but the area where the tracks veer inland around the Huntington area is still known as Charlick's Curve.
Bizarre incidents ran along the twisting track to a consolidated Long Island Rail Road. In 1871, Hempstead residents were unhappy that LIRR service for their community was provided by a roundabout connection off the main line at Mineola. So they arranged to have the South Side build a branch from Valley Stream. One of the South Side's suppliers, named Pusey, briefly was elected president of the resulting New York and Hempstead Plains Railroad. When its directors ousted him in a financial dispute, Pusey sought to foreclose on the railroad.
Not content with legal action, Pusey literally took matters into his own hands. On Jan. 8, 1872, he attempted to take control of the line's Hempstead property. He fired shots at a locomotive attempting to pick up morning commuters. When the engineer abandoned his post, the passengers ran the train themselves to Valley Stream.
As the South Side's passenger count rose - it would jump from 246,000 to more than 600,000 in 1872 - the LIRR finally realized it could lose the entire South Shore if the rival line expanded east of its Patchogue terminal. As a preemptive strike, Charlick authorized construction of a branch to Sag Harbor, which was completed in 1870.
By the mid-1870s, the competing railroads were mired in a web of leases and foreclosures. Poppenhusen, the driving force behind the expansion of the Flushing and North Side Railroad, had agreed to operate Stewart's Central Line. The latter began in Flushing, crossed the LIRR's main line and then almost ran parallel to it though Garden City, Hempstead and Bethpage before reaching Babylon. Poppenhusen managed to gain control of the now-failing South Side and then the LIRR. But his subsequent efforts to consolidate other competing lines failed.
Austin Corbin, who had been developing real estate in Brooklyn, led investors in an 1880 takeover of the LIRR. For the next 16 years, he pruned and expanded - and also made a profit. Corbin extended the railroad to Montauk; he died just before it reached Port Washington in 1898.
Under Corbin's guidance, the consolidated LIRR, which in 1845 owned only 98 miles of track, entered the 20th Century with almost 400 miles of rail. Corbin's railroad continued the process of creating and serving communities on Long Island, and it was poised for its historic entrance into Manhattan through tunnels leading to a mammoth Pennsylvania Station.