Railroad Sights of Long Island: Hicksville, Oyster Bay, and Wantagh

Defined by, and developed because of, the Long Family Island Hack Railroad, the slender, almost fish-profiled tract of land originally called Paumanok by indigenous Indians and now bridge- and tunnel-appendaged to New York, owes much of its existence to it.

Earthly distances require means, speed, and sometimes intermodal connections to traverse so that miles, as measurements, can be reduced to hours and minutes. Untethered to the continental Untied States, and thus surrounded by water, Long Island itself sought solutions for the population which grew after the farmers were attracted there by the promise of sprouting crops. But not immediately.

“The century year of 1800 found Long Island to be a largely rural region of remote villages located along the shores,” according to Robert C. Sturm in his book, “The Long Island Rail Road Company: A History, 1834-1965” (Long Island-Sunrise Trail Chapter, National Railway Historical Society. 2014, p. 3). “The principle means of transpiration and communication were carriages and sailing vessels. The fact that travel was slow, arduous, and sometimes perilous meant that the average person rarely, if ever, traveled further than 20 miles from his or her place of birth.”

Integral to the seed that evolved into the Long Island Railroad and ultimately resolved this dilemma was the ten-mile Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad Company, whose April 25, 1832 incorporation was envisioned as the first step in a land-and-sea link to Boston, essentially bypassing Long Island itself, but reducing the primitive, three-day horse-drawn coach and 16-hour all-steamer methods to 11 hours.

The second segment of the intermodal journey became reality on April 24, 1834, when the Long Island Rail Road Company was chartered to operate from Brooklyn to Greenport on the North Fork. The third was the cross-sound ferry voyage to Stonington, Connecticut, whose hilly and river-interspersed southern shore otherwise eclipsed technological, track-laying capabilities, and the fourth was the continued and final rail link to Boston on the Norwich and Worcester.

Two years later, on April 18, or the very day that the Brooklyn and Jamaica was completed, the barren island began sprouting tracks, along with its crops, reaching Farmingdale in Suffolk County in 1841, Deer Park the following year, and Medford two years after that, and met the North Fork-originating, westward-laid rails by summer, although a shortage necessitated a temporary, two-mile, heavy timber and strap iron crowned insertion until the final section was delivered from Britain.

Inaugurating service on July 27, 1844, the fledgling, steam-powered railroad immediately demonstrated its capability, covering the 94 miles from Brooklyn to Greenport in three-and-a-half hours.

But the ground which supported it began to crumble after only a few years of operation, since the previously considered “impossible” southern Connecticut rail route was conquered by 1850, eliminating the need for the Long Island Railroad’s intermodal and inter-state purpose and leaving it to serve a sparsely populated farm community. Now, more than ever, it needed to grow branches that would cater to developing towns, after its initial, cross-island line spurred their development.

Today, tunnel-connected, beneath the East River, to Manhattan, the Long Island Railroad operates nine branches to 124 stations, covering more than 700 miles of track, and is both North America’s busiest commuter railroad, feeding and fielding the daily workforce, and the oldest one still operating under its original name. In 2009, it celebrated its 175th anniversary and six years later carried 87.6 million annual passengers.

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