On April 24, 1834, 12 men signed their names on a state charter establishing a new rail line stretching from Greenport “through or near the middle of Long Island to a point on the water’s edge in the village of Brooklyn.” The new corporation would be known as The Long Island Railroad Company.
Now, rail historians from across Long Island are celebrating the birthday Wednesday of the nation’s oldest railroad by looking back on some of the important milestones in the Long Island Rail Road's — the way it now spells its name — 185-year history, and looking ahead to one of the its most ambitious expansions since its inception.
“One hundred eighty five years is a long time, when you think about it,” said David Morrison, a former LIRR branch line manager who has authored several books on the railroad's history. “The Long Island Rail Road was around many decades before the airplane, before the automobile. It was around before telephones, photography. It even predated the telegraph.”
Morrison was among several self-professed “rail fans” who commemorated the anniversary of the LIRR at a West Babylon meeting Friday of the Long Island Sunrise Trail Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. The event included a guest appearance by one of the LIRR’s original “Mini Maids” — a team of miniskirt-wearing spokesmodels who were charged with greeting commuters at Penn Station in the 1960s and 1970s.
“A lot has changed” over the years, Morrison said of the railroad, which was conceived as a “bridge line” to move people and goods between New York and Boston, with the help of a ferry line across the Long Island Sound.
With advances in engineering and the creation of the direct rail link between New York and Connecticut, the LIRR’s original mission soon became obsolete, and its backers shifted its focus to transporting freight, including produce from North Fork farms to New York City, and manufactured goods from the city to Long Island.
Along the way, the LIRR acquired other failing railroads on Long Island and expanded its footprint. That included the South Side Railroad and the Flushing and North Side Railroad, which became, respectively, the LIRR’s Montauk and Port Washington branches.
“This is where people were putting their money,” said Don Fisher, president of the Riverhead Railroad Museum. “Everybody wanted to get into railroads. It was the new technology. It was the ‘dot com’ of the time.”
The Pennsylvania Railroad acquired the LIRR in the early 1900s, and, with the construction of Jamaica Station, Penn Station and the East River Tunnels, the railroad transitioned into the role it still has today — as a key mode of transportation for people commuting to and from jobs in Manhattan. Annual LIRR ridership reached nearly 130 million by the late 1920s.
But with cars and planes overtaking trains as a means of travel in the mid-1900s, the LIRR struggled to stay afloat, historians said. A lack of adequate investment contributed to serious reliability and safety problems, culminating with two separate train accidents in 1950 — in Rockville Centre and Kew Gardens — that, combined, killed more than 100 passengers.
“There were breakdowns every day,” said Stephen Quigley, president of the Long Island Sunrise Trail Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, who said commuter complaints about LIRR service today could not compare with those when he used to ride the railroad in the 1960s. “The conductors were given bungee cords during the summertime to hold the doors open because the air conditioning used to break down all the time.”
With the Pennsylvania Railroad on the brink of bankruptcy, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in 1965 had the state take over the LIRR under a new agency that would go on to become the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Backed by state funds — including bridge and toll revenue — the LIRR would undergo a gradual comeback that culminated with it moving 89 million people in 2018 — the most since 1949. But the surge in ridership coincided with a surge in service problems last year, when the railroad recorded its lowest on-time performance in nearly two decades.
“This has been a love-hate relationship between the people on Long Island and their railroad since the beginning. The complaints that we see today were happening 100 years ago,” said Fisher, who gets defensive when he hears commuters beat up on the LIRR. “I wish more people on the Island would celebrate the Long Island Rail Road for all its advancements over 185 years.”
Historians said some of the most important advancements are underway as part of a multibillion-dollar expansion state officials said will increase the railroad’s capacity by 50 percent. They include the recently completed Double Track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma, the planned Third Track between Floral Park and Hicksville, and the opening of a second Manhattan rail terminal for the LIRR as part of East Side Access by 2022.
“The flexibility that it will give the railroad will be just phenomenal,” said Quigley, adding that his 220-plus chapter members get nearly as excited talking about where the LIRR is going as they do talking about where it’s been. “We hope to still be around for the 200th anniversary of the railroad. We’re definitely going to celebrate it big time.”
LIRR president Phillip Eng said the railroad is focused on providing a “customer-centric experience” and “world-class railroad.”
“From its inception, the original Main Line across Long Island kicked off the start of nearly two centuries connecting people and places across our region, a history of which we are immensely proud," Eng said in a statement Tuesday. "The LIRR continued to grow and evolve as population in both Nassau and Suffolk counties surged, a railroad that now serves a modern record 89 million rides annually."
Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, wished the railroad a "happy birthday" on behalf of its 280,000 daily riders who "use the system every day to get to work, school and play, whether staying on the Island or passing through."
"The changes to Long Island over the last 185 years were unimaginable back then, and the LIRR has been a major part of those changes," Epstein said. "What changes will occur over the next 185 years, none of us know, but we owe it to future generations to properly invest in the LIRR now to ensure its place in that future."
LIRR THROUGH THE YEARS
- 1834: The New York State Legislature approves the charter establishing the Long Island Rail Road.
- 1836: The first steam-powered LIRR train operates between Jamaica and Brooklyn.
- 1844: The LIRR completes construction of its Main Line through Greenport.
- 1900: The Pennsylvania Railroad acquires the LIRR.
- 1905: Far Rockaway becomes the first LIRR branch to be electrified.
- 1910: Penn Station opens.
- 1950: Two separate train crashes, in Kew Gardens and in Rockville Centre, result in the death of more than 100 LIRR passengers.
- 1965: With the Pennsylvania Railroad on the brink of bankruptcy, New York State acquires the LIRR and forms what would go on to become the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
- 1981: The first MTA Capital Program is passed, providing a steady stream of funding for the LIRR’s infrastructure needs.
- 1993: Colin Ferguson opens fire inside a rush-hour train as it pulled into Merillon Avenue, killing six passengers and injuring 19 others.
- 2007: Heavy construction begins on East Side Acess, which will create a second Manhattan terminal for the LIRR via newly bored tunnels.
- 2018: The LIRR carries 89.8 million riders, the most since 1949, but also has its lowest on-time performance since 1999 — at 90.4 percent.
- The future: The LIRR says several infrastructure projects underway, including East Side Access and a Third Track between Floral Park and Hicksville, will increase its capacity by 50 percent.
SOURCES: Long Island historians/Long Island Rail Road