The Long Island Motor Parkway may be a 100-year-old pioneering breakthrough in highway engineering, but Sam Berliner III also recalls it as a boyhood thrill.
"I remember my father grabbed me and we jumped in the car and we went on a very swoopy ride," Berliner, 74, of Westbury, said of Easter Sunday in 1938. "It swooped up and down and over hill and dale and left and right and I was in the backseat standing up so I could see everything and hanging on for dear life."
The first segment of the reinforced-concrete road, which eventually stretched 44 miles from Fresh Meadows in Queens to Lake Ronkonkoma, opened Oct. 10, 1908, two weeks after Henry Ford began production of his Model T. It allowed its organizer, 29-year-old New York Central Railroad heir William K. Vanderbilt Jr., and fellow wealthy car owners a chance to indulge their passion for speed.
The parkway marked several highway firsts: its limited-access design with 65 bridges eliminated intersections; an E-ZPass-type annual placard for paying tolls; and banked curves, guardrails, nonskid pavement, landscaping and specially trained highway police.
"The safety features built into the roadway were pioneering," said Bill Withuhn, the Smithsonian Institution's curator of transportation history. "It was a foreshadowing of future roads, especially the ones Robert Moses built, such as the Northern State Parkway," said Chris McBride, community transportation specialist for AAA New York.
Before Vanderbilt's asphalt-over-concrete project, "the only areas on Long Island that were paved or cobblestone were the centers of communities," said Al Velocci of Manhasset Hills, co-author with Howard Kroplick of East Hills of "The Long Island Motor Parkway."
Northern Boulevard, Jericho Turnpike, Montauk Highway and local roads were dirt. In June 1908, 14,207 cars were registered in New York, compared with more than 10 million today.
The driving force behind the parkway was Vanderbilt's need for a safer course for his Vanderbilt Cup races. They had begun in 1904 on public roads and had resulted in accidents leading up to the death of a spectator on Jericho Turnpike during the 1906 race.
The Long Island Motor Parkway Inc. was incorporated Dec. 3, 1906, with Vanderbilt as president and Ford, August Belmont and John Jacob Astor in supporting roles.
"It has been the dream of every motorist to own a perfect car and to have a road without speed limit," Vanderbilt said an Automobile Club of America banquet five days later.
The groundbreaking was June 6, 1908, in what is now Bethpage. The roadway opened with a race in which the cars reached speeds approaching 90 mph. By the end of 1908, contractors had paved more than nine miles from East Meadow to Old Bethpage.
The pavement stretched 40 miles from Lake Success to Lake Ronkonkoma by 1912, when it was extended two miles west to near what is now Springfield Boulevard in Queens. And in 1928, it rolled another two miles west to just south of the Long Island Expressway south service road at 195th Street in Fresh Meadows. The last construction was a 2.1-mile spur in 1928 connecting Jericho Turnpike with Motor Parkway in Commack. Today it is Harned Road.
The original plan was for the parkway to reach Riverhead, but Vanderbilt could never acquire the needed land east of Lake Ronkonkoma. Vehicles entered the parkway at 15 entrances where more than 20 toll-collection structures were erected. Four of the larger toll lodges still exist as private homes with some alterations. The Garden City lodge has been moved from near the western edge of Roosevelt Field to Seventh Street and restored as the Chamber of Commerce office.
When the parkway reached Lake Ronkonkoma, Vanderbilt commissioned John Russell Pope to design a smaller version of the Petit Trianon at Versailles, France. There he hosted social functions and overnight guests. The Petit Trianon Inn operated for 15 years, later became a club and restaurant and was destroyed by fire in 1958.
The price of a round trip initially was $2, about $45 today. But by 1933, when the free Northern State Parkway opened and traffic on Motor Parkway plummeted, the toll was reduced to 40 cents.
Parts of the parkway
Vanderbilt and his associates never made a profit on their estimated $6 million investment. In its peak year, 1929, the parkway handled 175,000 motorists. But within a decade it was too narrow to compete with Moses' state-of-the-art parkways. So in 1938, Vanderbilt closed it and gave the land to Queens, Nassau and Suffolk counties to settle $80,000 in unpaid taxes.
But the parkway did not entirely vanish. Part of it was incorporated into the modern Long Island road system, including the 13 easternmost miles now called Motor Parkway or Vanderbilt Parkway. Most of the three miles of right-of-way in Queens is still accessible because Moses turned it into a bicycle and walking path. Other sections are used for utility lines. And patches of pavement, bridges and guardrail posts can be glimpsed in backyards and wooded enclaves.
The most dramatic view is a section of banked and curved pavement known originally as Deadman's Curve at the end of South Hermann Avenue in Bethpage.
The longest intact section, from Lake Success to Manhasset Hills, includes a graffiti-covered and crumbling original parkway overpass at Old Courthouse Road that LIMPers, as amateur historians such as Berliner call themselves, hope to have designated a landmark.
They also have been trying for several years to turn Motor Parkway's original route into a bike and hiking trail, which they feel would be fitting tribute to an important but mostly forgotten landmark.
Long Island Motor Parkway
OPENED: Oct. 10, 1908
LENGTH: 44 miles from Fresh Meadows, Queens, to Lake Ronkonkoma, plus 2.1-mile spur in Commack.
COST: Estimated $6 million
TOLL: $2 per car in 1908; 40 cents in 1933.
PEAK VOLUME: 175,000 motorists in 1929.
DESIGN: Nation's first limited-access automobile toll road incorporated firsts including 65 bridges that eliminated intersections; an E-ZPass-type annual placard for paying tolls; and banked curves, guardrails, nonskid pavement, landscaping and specially trained highway police.
LAST DAY OF OPERATION: Easter Sunday 1938. Long Island Expressway
OPENED: 6 westernmost miles in 1940, first Nassau section in 1958, first Suffolk segment in 1962 and completed in 1972. First lights installed, in Nassau, in 1980. First HOV lanes added from Deer Park to Hicksville in 1994.
LENGTH: 63 exits; 71 miles from Queens Midtown Tunnel to Riverhead.
COST: $280 million.
PLANNED CAPACITY: 80,000 cars per day. LIE now carries 210,000 vehicles per day in Queens, 190,000 in Nassau and 150,000 in western Suffolk.
MATERIALS: 500 billion pounds of cement, 5 billion pounds of gravel.
For more information, see www.vanderbiltcupraces.com and http://home.att.net/~berliner-ultrasonics/limtrpwy.html