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

General Article

1. Long Island Railroad Origins:

Defined by, and developed because of, the Long Island 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.

Its rich history can be gleaned through Long Island’s many railroad-related sights.

2. Hicksville and the John Bull Locomotive:

Located on the flat, barren, 60,000-acre Hempstead Plains–the largest such prairie in the eastern United States-Hicksville was first claimed by Welsh settler, Robert Williams, in 1648. But, despite the promise of population, it remained just as virgin for another two centuries, until Valentine Hicks, a Jericho businessman, acquired the site and formed a land association to establish a town on it in 1834.

Because the first 15 miles of track had reached the area three years later, in March, its then terminus status transformed it into a destination or, in the reverse direction, a gateway to Manhattan in the west, establishing a tether to a major city.

Not coincidentally, Hicks himself became a Long Island Railroad board member and its second president, while the station, ultimately located at the crossroads of the Main Line and the Port Jefferson branch, evolved into a hub.

But financial panic at the time of its inception ensured that it remained the terminus for four years, until the intermodal connection could regain its momentum and ever eastward-laid track could imprint the ground. In the meantime, however, the railroad transported people, who, in sedentary form, translated into population, and the once barren farmland took root as a town comprised of stores, businesses, residences, and hotels. Its “Hicksville” name, again not coincidentally, reflected its Valentine Hicks founder.

The Long Island Railroad’s first locomotive, the “Ariel” and the 19th constructed by Matthias W. Baldwin, was delivered in November of 1835 and, aside from providing motive power for the inaugural Hicksville service, was employed for some two decades.

“The original locomotives were of simple construction, comprising a five-tube boiler mounted on a frame that also accommodated a two-cylinder engine,” wrote Sturm in “The Long Island Rail Road Company: A History, 1834-1965” (p. 10). “Hand-cut pine, which was conveniently harvested from the Pine Barrens, was the fuel. Water was carried on the tender car, either in casks or (in) an iron tank. There were no brakes; coasting to the station and finally ‘plugging’ the engine (running it in reverse) was the only method used to stop the trains.”

Insignificant in size and primitive in construction, it nevertheless made a major impact. It lit the fire on the steam revolution, shrank distances, and served as the threshold to the industrial era.

Ordered by Robert Stevens, who needed propulsion for the Camden and Amboy Railroad he established, the very first such John Bull locomotive commenced its journey as a collection of crate-cradled parts in Liverpool, England, in 1831, arriving on this side of the Atlantic from the Robert Stephenson and Company factory marked “one locomotive steam engine.” Assembly, needless to say, was required.

But after it was, it inaugurated New Jersey’s first rail service, as its name implies, between Camden and South Amboy two years later and plied tracks with it or other companies for 35 years. It was not retired until 1866, at the end of the Civil War.

It was ultimately operated by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which took over the Camden and Amboy and later owned the Long Island Railroad.

Featuring a 14.9-foot length and 6.3-foot width, the ten-ton engine, with a 0-4-0 wheel configuration, had a 4.11-foot wheel base and four-foot, 8.5 inch gauge. It was equipped with a 10.07-square-foot firebox and a 6.9-foot-long boiler, which had a 2.6-foot diameter.

Power was transmitted to the driving axles by means of pistons mounted under the boiler between the two front wheels.

The initial ground-level Hicksville Station was served by several depots throughout its history, including the second, which opened in 1873 to replace the first, consumed by fire nine years earlier; the third, which replaced the second after it was moved to a private location in 1909; and the fourth, which was temporarily employed between 1962 and 1965 while the tracks were elevated. That $8.8 million project, which covered three miles, but involved 11 miles of track, eliminated five grade crossings on the Main Line and two on the Port Jefferson branch, and required the extension and relocation of Newbridge Road under a viaduct.

Not far from those elevated tracks is a full-sized, non-operating replica of the John Bull locomotive named “Valentine’s Dream” and located in Hicksville’s Kennedy Memorial Park. Constructed by Chamber of Commerce President James Pavone during a two-year period and based upon the original one from 1831, which ran on the Camden and Amboy Railroad, it served as the inspiration for Matthias W. Baldwin to build locomotives in this country, one of which, of course, was the Long Island Rail Road’s first locomotive, “the Ariel,” whose image graces the town’s welcome signs and banners.

Unveiled on May 17, 2008, the 350th anniversary of the founding of the central Long Island town, the “Valentine’s Dream” reproduction became Hicksville’s own icon.

3. Oyster Bay Railroad Museum:

Forever associated with Oyster Bay is President Theodore Roosevelt, who frequently traveled by rail and used the station as his threshold to other parts of the nation, since his Sagamore Hill home was located only a short distance from it. But the equally nearby, appropriately named Oyster Bay Railroad Museum was not created for that reason. Instead, it began in 1990, when the volunteer Locomotive #35 Restoration Committee, under the jurisdiction of the Nassau County Parks Commission, cleaned and painted the deteriorating steam engine displayed in Mitchel Park.

Subsequently incorporated as the Friends of Locomotive #35, the group sought funding for a full restoration and a location to showcase it, resulting in the 2006-established not-for-profit organization that planted its roots in Oyster Bay and acquired additional artifacts, railroad equipment, and rolling stock.

“The mission of the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum is to heighten public awareness, understanding, and appreciation of the railroad’s role in our heritage,” it self states, “and to increase public understanding of rail technology and its impact on Long Island life. (It) will collect, preserve, and interpret the railroad heritage of Long Island for future generations.”

Presently divided into an indoor visitor center and outdoor rolling stock display complex, it features photographs, artifacts, small railroad implements, a large-scale Hudson locomotive and tender, with a 4-6-4 wheel configuration, and a model train layout in the former, located at 102 Audrey Avenue. But much more is to be seen in the latter, a short drive away.

Here, locomotive #35, cornerstone of and catalyst to the museum, and historically significant because of its participation in the 1955 “End of Steam” ceremony in Hicksville, remains a sectioned, unassembled work-in-progress, and is under renovation at the Steam Operations Corporation in Birmingham, Alabama. Built in 1928 in the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Juniata, Pennsylvania, shops for operation by its then-subsidiary Long Island Railroad, the engine, with a 4-6-0 wheel configuration, gave faithful, high daily, multiple-stop service for 27 years before passing the torch to diesel technology. It was the last steam locomotive to operate on Long Island.

There are several other fully restored and assembled engines and cars here, however.

The first of these is actually a pair of 25-ton switchers. Constructed in 1958 by General Electric, these two 150-hp mini-locomotives were used to “switch” and move passenger and freight engines throughout the railroad’s Morris Park servicing and repair facility in Richmond Hill, Queens.

According to the museum, the affectionately called “dinkies” were “four-wheel, cabin-driven, 25-ton diesel locomotives that toiled away in the back shops of the Long Island Railroad from 1958 through the early-2000s.”

Not retired until 2006, engine #398 was purchased as far back as 1958 and #397 was acquired almost three decades later, in 1987, from the Naporana Iron and Metal Company.

Another engine-this time of diesel technology-is also on display-at least in spirit, if not in full physical form.

Built by the American Locomotive Company (Alco) in 1947 and designated FA-1 (for “Freight A” unit), it was operated by the New Haven Railroad, which numbered it 0402, until it returned it in 1963 after an accident. Separating the cab from the engine, Alco sold the former portion to the Long Island Railroad for display at the 1964-1965 World’s Fair, held in Flushing Meadows, whereafter it served as an interactive exhibit for children at the Tanglewood Day Damp in Malverne. The Oyster Bay Railroad Museum acquired it in 1999. The plaque commemorating its restoration is dated May 8, 2010.

Although the Long Island Railroad was never inceptionally envisioned as a commuter carrier connecting its namesake population with the metropolises of New York and Brooklyn and, to a lesser degree, to its own towns, it ultimately evolved into one, achieving its true purpose. Toward that end, steam- and, later, diesel locomotive-pulled cars were integral to the morning and evening traffic flows from and to the island through the East River tunnels. One of them is on display.

Constructed in 1923 by the American Car and Foundry Company and initially appendaged to steam engines, the P54 coach, a lightweight structure that replaced the all-wood and later hybrid steel frame and wood body ones which preceded it, is an expression of construction development.

Numbered 7433, it was the first all-steel passenger car. It was one of almost a thousand built for the Pennsylvania and Long Island railroads, and featured direction-changeable, “walk over” seats, and, in the case of the museum’s example, overhead fans mounted on their original ventilators.

Because the coach’s reduced weight subjected riders to a bouncing effect, it was often dubbed a “Ping Pong” car. Draped in several liveries and retrofitted with more modern lighting, flooring, seats, and luggage racks, #7433 provided a half-century of service and was not retired until 1974. It is one of the last of its type to remain.

Other museum exhibits include two divergent-era and -purpose cabooses, which, before the 1950s, traveled from end to end through Long Island’s still-abundant, potato- and cauliflower-sprouting farmland as the end themselves to elongated freight trains.

Built in February of 1927 by the American Car and Foundry Company at a $17,880 cost, caboose #12 consisted of mixed material construction, its frame, underbody, and trucks made of steel, but its upper body employing wood, and stretched 29.4 feet in length and weighed in at 35,430 pounds.

“The end of the train had many names: crummy, palace, shack, or caboose,” according to the museum. “It was home for the crew and an office, too. Bobbing along behind a string of freight cars, like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence, the caboose spoke loud and clear, saying, ‘I am the end. The train is complete.'”

As befitting all homes on wheels, it was outfitted with sleeping bunks, storage closets, a sink, a coal stove, and a toilet, and was occupied by a conductor, who was responsible for a train’s safe movement and upon whose directive the engineer relied, and a brakeman, who ensured that the hose extending from the locomotive to the caboose itself maintained the required level of air pressure.

Long Island produce often provided “complementary,” track-side “shopping” for crews until some farmers routinely bundled freshly picked crops and made them accessible to them.

Serving all branches of the Long Island Railroad, caboose #12 was not retired until 1961, whereafter it served as the sleeping quarters of Shore Line Trolley Museum restorers in East Haven, Connecticut, and was finally acquired by the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum in June of 2002. It own restoration occurred between 2008 and 2009.

Its other caboose, #50, was constructed by the International Railway Car Company in 1958. Designated a Class N-22 unit, it was one of the first all-steel ones to replace the preceding wooden ones. Although train visibility was either afforded by tall cupola or extended side bay window design features, this one offered neither, but nevertheless provided faithful utilitarian service until its 1993 retirement.

A later, 2011 museum addition is the quarter-length electric simulator, which appears identical to the actual car, and was employed to train and certify engineers on M1 and M3 equipment.

A State of New York contract, in conjunction with the Long Island Railroad’s new owner, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), was signed for 770 M1 electrified passenger coaches (numbers 9001 to 9770). Branded “Metropolitans” themselves and built between 1968 and 1973, they replaced the mixture of outdated equipment remnants from the Pennsylvania Railroad regime, except the 1950s-era, diesel-hauled Pullman Standard ones, which themselves were numbered 2700 to 2900.

The workhorse of the electrified fleet, the M1 cars were not retired until the early-21st century, when they were replaced by the advanced M7s.

Contrasting the old with the new, the museum’s turntable, of continuous girder design, was the second to have been used at the Oyster Bay Station and, along with the wye and the loop, served as one of three methods of reorienting a locomotive for its return trip.

“The turntable at the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum is actually the second at this location,” according to the museum. “The LIRR reached Oyster Bay in 1889, having been extended from Locust Valley. That turntable had been at that location since 1869 and, after 20 years, it was moved with expansion of the service to Oyster Bay.”

It was not the only early-railroad remnants once here, however.

“A four-stall engine house was built in 1889 and was located southeast of the turntable,” it continued. “In 1904, the old turntable was removed and a new 70-foot-long one was installed north of the engine house. It was originally powered by a pneumatic motor… In 1932, it was electrified and operated under that power source until taken out of service sometime in the 1970s.”

Beyond the fence is the Oyster Bay yard, cradling bi-level commuter cars, and beyond them is the railroad station depot, symbol of both the past and the future.

Designed by architect Bradford Lee Gilbert in the Tudor revival style, it was completed in the spring of 1889 to cater to the track extension from Locust Valley to Oyster Bay, but subsequently expanded in anticipation of increased travel spurred by Theodore Roosevelt’s 1901 election as US president. A rail enthusiast himself, he frequently covered the short distance from his Sagamore Hill home to the station and commenced his journey to Washington, D.C., among other destinations.

Subjected to modifications throughout its history, it lost its canopies during the 1940s, some of its doors and windows by brick-plugging during the 1960s, and was finally closed in 1999, after a 110-year utilization, when it was replaced by a new platform to the west to conform to the latest bi-level passenger cars.

Owned, along with the plaza, by the Town of Oyster Bay, it was subleased and is currently managed by the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum, and is both an Oyster Bay Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Its plaque reads, “Oyster Bay Railroad Station. Home train station of Theodore Roosevelt, President t of the United States, 1901-1909. July 2005 placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Plaque sponsored by Theodore Roosevelt Association and Oyster Bay Historical Society.”

Now under renovation, it will eventually replace the museum’s Audrey Avenue facility and house both exhibits and a visitor center, and will be linked, via a short walking path, through Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park to the outdoor rolling stock and turntable display yard.

4. Wantagh Railroad Station Museum:

Originally encompassing Wantagh, Seaford, and the southern portion of Levittown, the area, settled by Captain John Searman, Robert Jackson, and their families in 1644, was one of the earliest to have been claimed by the English in eastern Nassau County. Initially known as Jerusalem, it was one of many biblically named towns, along with Jericho and Bethpage.

A quiet village until the Searman, Jackson, and Birdsall families serving George Washington’s army occupied Jerusalem itself during the Revolutionary War, it harnessed the event as a post-conflict catalyst to growth in 1783.

Facilitated by the arrival of the railroad more than a century later, in 1867, its southern portion attracted considerable development and was renamed Ridgewood in order to distinguish it from its original roots in the north. But that distinction was further cemented only 24 years later when it adopted the present Wantagh designation, since confusion with the identically named Queens town was frequent. Chosen to honor Wyandance, the grand sachem of the Montauk Indians, it retains its name to the present day.

Integral to its development was the Wantagh Railroad Station. Constructed in 1865 at an $800 cost and located on Railroad Avenue, the originally-designated Ridgewood Station featured an enclosed ticket office, in which Emma Whitmore served as its first female employee, a telegraph office, a passenger waiting room, a baggage room, and open east and west ends. Heated by a potbelly stove in its center, it sports one very similar to its original today.

The platform consisted of wooden planks.

Because it was slated for demolition in 1966 when the street-level tracks were elevated to reduce vehicular traffic congestion, it was acquired by the prior-year established Wantagh Preservation Society and relocated to the present Wantagh Avenue site.

Restored to its 1904 appearance, it was opened as a public museum on May 16, 1982 and offers a look into turn-of-the-century life through vintage photographs and display cases that feature memorabilia from the area’s past.

Trains still await passengers outside. At least one car does. Identified by and the very symbol which brings the Wantagh Station to railroad life, is the red-liveried, track-supported passenger coach, “Jamaica.”

Manufactured by the American Car and Foundry Corporation in 1912 for the Long Island Railroad’s Long Island Parlor Car Company subsidiary, the 80-ton coach, measuring 80 feet long by 14 feet high, originally accommodated 26 passengers, but was subjected to a multiple-application history Redesignated “The Montauk” for Long Island Railroad business use in 1925, for example, it was subsequently rebuilt only five years later as an observation car, incorporating staterooms, a galley, a dining room, butler’s quarters, and open decks.

As an expansion of then-advanced technology, it featured its own power generator, was heated by coal stoves and pipe-circulating, baseboard-hidden hot water, and cooled by a fan that blew air over two 300-pound ice blocks, ensuring early air conditioning during its weekend travel suspensions in Montauk.

Eight years after its 1941 return to parent company Pennsylvania Railroad for modernization, it was repurchased for the sum of $26,434 and operated until 1957 as the “Jamaica,” once again reclassified as a passenger coach in 1962 and serving Long Island Railroad express train routes.

Retired six years later and donated to the Wantagh Preservation Society, it spent another four years in storage at Grumman’s Bethpage plant, before being moved to its present location on October 25, 1972. It was rededicated in 1996.

Today, it sits on original, hand-hewn ties and 80-pound rails, and features its original, hand-applied pin stripping in its interior.

Only a few feet away is another hark to Wantagh’s past: its post office. Once serving the rural town, which was then mostly populated by farmers, the tiny, ten- by twelve-foot wooden structure across from the railroad depot was built in 1907 and served as the area’s initial post office, located on the corner of Wantagh and Railroad avenues. Operated by a single person, who sorted the mail into slots, it witnessed the rise of postage from a former two to a current 49 cents for a two-ounce letter. Gertrude Ballem was the last person to work in it.

Together, the railroad station, the passenger coach, and the post office, maintained by the Wantagh Preservation Society, offer glimpses into early 20th-century Wantagh life.

The society itself, chartered by the New York State Board of Regents as a nonprofit educational corporation, was founded in 1965 for the purpose of saving the station’s Victorian architecture when plans for the elevated track crossing called for its removal, and Nassau County subsequently provided the present site at Wantagh and Emeric avenues for it.

In August of 1983, the station and the railroad car were placed on the State and National Register of Historic Places.