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Long IslandHistory

The coming of the iron horse

A diagram from about 1835 shows the type

A diagram from about 1835 shows the type of engine first used by the Long Island Rail Road. The LIRR's first two engines were named the Ariel and Post Boy, both built by the M.W. Baldwin Locomotive Works. Photo Credit: Nassau County Museum Collection,

To some, the idea seemed like an impossible dream.

Travelers who wanted to go from New York to Boston would no longer have to devote a minimum of 16 hours by steamer, or several days aboard an out-of-date 5-mph stagecoach. Instead, they would have breakfast in New York and get to Boston in just 11 hours, in time for supper.

The idea was for them to go by way of Long Island. Mostly by train.

As the plan was envisioned in 1834, passengers from Manhattan would catch the South Ferry to Brooklyn, where a train would take them 96 miles across the wilds of Long Island all the way to Greenport. There, a steamboat would ferry them across Long Island Sound to Stonington, Conn. In Stonington, a New York, Providence & Boston Co. train would be waiting to carry them to Boston.

The idea may have seemed simple, but it took 10 years to achieve.

Delayed by a national economic crisis in 1837 and by nervous investors wary of a new, untested technology, by competing interests and a shortage of funds, the Long Island Rail Road finally rumbled toward its destiny in the summer of 1844.

The LIRR's founders had hoped to tie the completion of the main line to the celebration of Independence Day, 1844. Instead, they had to settle for a later date to link Long Island's two extremities by rail. On Saturday, July 27, three trainloads of celebrants departed from Brooklyn at 8 a.m., and traveled at an average of 30 mph nonstop to Greenport - the first train arriving in an unheard-of three hours and 45 minutes.

It was still an era of lyrical prose even if life was beginning to speed up and the correspondent for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle - who was among the 500 celebrants gathered in Greenport to mark the railroad's completion - described the trip this way: "The interior of old Suffolk, which until that day, has been sacred to the gambols of wild deer ... has been disturbed only by the sharp crack of the huntsman's rifle, or the low rumble of the village coach as it plodded on at the rate of five miles an hour was saluted for the first time by the shrill whistle of the locomotive; and the iron horse with its lungs of brass and sinews of steel, came dashing along at a furious rate, puffing volumes of smoke and flame from its nostrils, and warning the people, who gazed in astonishment that . . . the prediction of the seers and prophets like [Robert] Fulton was accomplished.''

Leading the contingent of train riders to Greenport was the railroad's fourth president, George B. Fisk. Accounts of the day reported that James Sprague, mayor of Brooklyn, made the trip, and the mayor of New York was invited but was not on the train. Champagne and hyperbole flowed in Greenport that Saturday. John A. King of Jamaica, who would become New York's first Whig governor and was a founder of the LIRR's precursor, the 11-mile-long Brooklyn & Jamaica Railroad, toasted the occasion with champagne, saying, "Railroads and steam engines, the Promethean inventions of modern days.'' Another speaker, John McCoun, perhaps spoke more about the meaning of what had been accomplished: "The eastern extremity of Long Island, this day made a neighbor of New York and Brooklyn.''

Preston Raynor, a young man at the time, would write down his recollections years later in 1917. He had grown up in a house in Manorville near the place where the railroad made one of its two refueling stops. On the big day, Raynor worked with others cutting wood to fuel the train's locomotive. His brother Edgar crowded aboard the first or second train for the ride to Greenport. But Raynor's group, hoping to grab a space on the last of the three trains, missed out.

"When the third train came, it did not stop and I with the others got left,'' he reported. "That was the first and only train that did not stop at Manorville for the next 14 years.''

The refueling stop put Manorville - once called Punk's Hole, or the Manor of St. George - on the map, and historian Nathaniel Prime, writing in 1845, still found it amazing: "Had a man, 30 years ago, ventured to predict that this spot was destined to become a daily stopping place for the refreshment of hundreds of travelers between New York and Boston, he would have been considered a madman, and possibly might have been bound with cords, for fear he might do injury.''

Two days later, regular service began, and by August the profitable Boston route was operating.

An impossible dream had been realized. But in three short years a faster route that would take travelers all the way to Boston by train would make the LIRR's original purpose both obsolete and irrelevant.

Instead of being a long-distance hauler, the LIRR would be forced to look to Long Island for its business - traversing a route that would come to haunt its founders.

* * *

The Long Island Rail Road was organized at the dawn of the age of railroading. It was the seventh railroad chartered in the United States - conceived less than a decade after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, which made New York City the region's pre-eminent port. Other cities on the East Coast had to cope with "Erie Fever'' and one solution was a new transportation technology pioneered in England - the steam locomotive. In the first half of the 19th Century, railroads would gradually supplant canals, as it became apparent that they weren't subject to winter shutdowns.

By 1832, when the Brooklyn & Jamaica Railroad was begun, there were only 229 miles of track laid throughout the country. Because the technology of railroad building was still in its infancy, straight, flat routes were preferred. The route through Connecticut seemed unthinkable in the 1830s because of hilly terrain and because major rivers would need to be crossed. It was in this period that the Long Island Rail Road Co. was born. The route went straight through the Island's undeveloped center. It was a civil engineer's dream.

"It is entirely free from navigable rivers, without a bridge for a hundred miles and with grades of an average of less than 10 feet per mile, having six curves only in 80 miles, and with its eastern termination in one of the most beautiful harbors to the ocean,'' the railroad's engineer, James J. Shipman, wrote in a report to the board of directors.

Maj. David B. Douglass, the chief civil engineer of the Brooklyn & Jamaica Railroad, who was hired as a consultant for the new line, was equally encouraging: "... The public mind is quite familiar with speeds of 20-30 miles per hour and numerous locomotives in various parts of our country are wheeling daily over their respective tracks, at these rates, without a murmur of alarm or disapprobation ... only eleven and one half hours will be required for the entire journey from New York, or Brooklyn to Boston.''

The route began at water's edge in Brooklyn, at Atlantic Street (now Atlantic Avenue), and moved along an 11-mile right-of-way that extended from the village of Brooklyn through what it is now East New York, then crossed into Queens near the Union Race Course and continued to Jamaica.

The right-of-way was already in place - built by the Brooklyn & Jamaica Railroad, which was chartered by the state and empowered to raise $300,000 to finance its construction. The LIRR founders decided to lease Brooklyn & Jamaica tracks and two new locomotives and to extend the route another 85 miles to Greenport at a cost of $1.5 million. They stopped at a place just south of Jericho when the money ran out, and named the community Hicksville, after one of the railroad's founders, Valentine Hicks.

Hicks was a member of a historic Long Island family. His cousin Elias was a noted Quaker preacher who helped found the community of Jericho. Valentine Hicks, postmaster of Jericho from 1826 to 1839, had grown rich as a shipowner in New York. He also saw a chance to increase his wealth by having the railroad's route cross through the spine of Long Island, where he and relatives had large holdings, instead of following a much more northern route nearer the established communities of Long Island's North Shore.

Hicks became president of the railroad during the Panic of 1837, which dried up investment capital. It took four years before a successor, Brooklyn businessman George B. Fisk, was able to jump-start the railroad's construction beyond Hicksville.

It mattered that the men behind the railroad ranged from investors who saw the Boston route as a big profit-maker to people such as James Huggins Weeks, an Oyster Bay native who moved to Yaphank to manage family holdings, especially timber. Weeks saw the railroad as both a wood-buying customer and as a much cheaper way to ship to New York.

To get to Yaphank and beyond to Greenport, the LIRR had to borrow $100,000 from New York State. And it had to negotiate a reduction in the annual payment it was making to the Brooklyn & Jamaica line. Stockholders upset with what they saw as a lack of progress often held chaotic meetings. In a history of the railroad published in 1898, Elizur B. Hinsdale, a former general counsel of the line, wrote: "At almost every meeting of the board, resolutions were passed forfeiting the stock of stockholders for nonpayment of assessments.''

Nor trains exempt from accidents. One account of a famous early derailment appeared in the Long Island Democrat published on May 4, 1836.

"As the train of cars attached to the two locomotive engines on the Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad was passing Wyckoff's Lane, at a rapid rate, a cow standing across the track was caught under the wheels, which threw the engine off the rails, and the rear locomotive, not being able to stop in time, ran foul of the front cars causing considerable damage. The train was going to Brooklyn to bring up engaged passengers to the Union Course Races, which commenced yesterday. Persons to the number of about two thousand were thus disappointed in their ride to the sporting ground, and were compelled to 'foot it' or return to their homes greatly chagrined. Hundreds of disappointed pedestrians were seen plodding their way toward the `scene of merry strife' with violent imprecations on their tongues against the negligence or ignorance of the engineers.''

By 1840, when a Saturday snowstorm in December created service delays between Brooklyn and Jamaica, not only were passengers left waiting at the depot in Brooklyn, but they immediately organized what may have been the first commuter council to complain to the railroad's president.

The new line was learning to deal with problems that still confront it today - accidents, weather and time. Early schedules failed to show when trains would arrive at intermediate stops, but that changed. Eventually, a table of times would be required, since trains sharing the same track had to know precisely each other's locations.

By 1841, the railroad had reached 32 miles to Farmingdale, was charging 62 1/2 cents as its highest fare, and had revenues of about $60,000, according to its annual report.

A year later, the railroad had finally passed through Queens County, which included present-day Nassau, and arrived in Suffolk. It reached Deer Park in March and what is now Brentwood in June, 1842. A month later, the line reached Suffolk Station, now Central Islip.

It wasn't until June of 1844 that trains were steaming into Yaphank and work crews were rushing to finish the final miles of track to Greenport.

But another crisis arose - a shortage of rail. A shipment of English forged rails from Liverpool had been delayed. Just west of Punk's Hole, the railroad substituted about three miles of so-called snakehead rails - flat bars of iron, 3 inches by three-fourths inches, spiked to the timbers - until the forged rails arrived.

On July 27, 1844, champagne flowed in Greenport as the railroad made history.

A year after service to Greenport and Boston got under way, historian S. Prime, in his 1845 "History of Long Island,'' included a brief chapter on the LIRR: "It is impossible to divine the amazing changes, which this improvement will effect on both the intellectual and secular interests of the eastern parts of the island.'' Prime added: "The necessary consequence is that locomotion, at least to any distance from home, is almost unknown on Long Island. The writer has heard men sixty years of age say that they were never 20 miles from the spot on which they were born ... seclusion from distant parts instead of making them restless, seems to have confirmed the habit of staying at home.''

And then, commenting on the route, Prime wrote: "... The site of this road is through the most sterile and desolate parts of the island. After leaving Jamaica, you scarcely see a village or a farm of good land.''

It was almost as if Prime were prescient about the line's fate. The LIRR's original route - tied to the New York-Boston connection - would haunt the railroad. "The principal villages, as well as the best land, are to be found on the sides of the island,'' he wrote.

Railroad travel was still a novelty, as this 1847 account of a trip to Greenport makes clear in the Brooklyn Eagle: "At half past one o'clock yesterday afternoon, I started on the L.I. railroad from the South ferry on my way to the eastern section of 'old Nassau.' The usual splutter which precedes a start attended us, of course. Little boys with newspapers, friends taking leave, women uttering 'last words,' Emerald Ladies with peaches . . . and small fry with various wares, surrounded the cars; and these, with the assistance of the furious steam pipe, and certain obstreperous iron work that certes seemed to have some rickety disorder, made up a sceen that would make the fortune of a melo-drama, if brought in at the close of an act - but which I was glad enough to escape from, I assure you.''

But the novelty and excitement of railroad travel weren't enough in the end to save the line from facing financial disaster.

By the end of 1848, the Long Island Rail Road had been supplanted; what investors and engineers believed to be inconceivable in the 1830s became a reality with the opening of the New York, New Haven and Hartford link to Boston. The LIRR's fate was sealed when one its most famous investors, Cornelius Vanderbilt, realized that the future lay with the all-railroad route. Vanderbilt withheld his steamer from the Long Island connection; he also was an investor in the New Haven line. Built with a mission that no longer was profitable, the LIRR ended up a railroad that went nowhere.

Now the line would have to find its market on Long Island. Instead of taking people east on a route to Boston, it would evolve into the nation's largest commuter railroad - shuttling Long Island's population to and from New York City.

But that did not happen without a struggle. In March, 1850, the line went into receivership. In its "Report upon the Wild Lands of Long Island,'' a committee of the railroad ruefully noted: "When the Long Island Rail Road was constructed and completed in 1844, it traversed an almost unbroken wilderness, in which there was scarcely a dwelling and hence the name of 'the Long Island Barrens' was applied to this extensive territory.''

It would take a while for those wild lands to be tamed, and to this day, some remain almost as undeveloped as when the railroad first laid its tracks there.

By 1850, the LIRR was coping with nearly a lost market and debts of nearly $500,000. In its report to stockholders, several months before it went into receivership, the line pinned its hopes on the future growth of Long Island:

"The time is not far distant when all the advantages of healthfulness, proximity to the city, and convenience of access will increase the population of Long Island; the beneficial effects of which will be felt in the increased revenue of the railroad.''

And indeed it would. But it would not happen overnight.

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