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QueensLine: LIRR’s expansion in 1904 created the Sunnyside Yards

On Jan. 31, 1904, the Long Island Rail Road made public the largest expansion program in its history. In an era of ambitious programs that revolutionized travel in and about the city — the subway was about to open and three bridges were planned for the East River — the railroad was determined to position itself to handle traffic for the newly expanded city of New York, which sprawled over five counties.

Backed by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which was determined to break the New York Central’s control of the New York market, the LIRR was about to make its debut in the big league.

But big ideas needed big money to sustain them and Manhattan’s Equitable Trust Co. was up to the task. It floated a $45 million bond issue for the railroad, taking what was at that time the largest mortgage in the borough’s history. The amount would be well in excess of one billion dollars in today’s currency.

Nearly 40 percent of this issue — $18 million — was to finance capital projects in Long Island City and Brooklyn over the next two years.

The railroad did nothing to quiet rumors that it was about to ring a good piece of the metropolitan region in steel rails. Emerging from the 34th Street Tunnel, the line was to reach Atlantic Avenue along the Manhattan Beach line, then from there double back to downtown Brooklyn, run past Flatbush Avenue, then Fulton Street and Joralemon Street, crossing under the East River back into Manhattan.

The scope of the program is amazing even after 100 years.

Although the five boroughs of modern New York only had half of today’s population, Manhattan and Brooklyn each still embraced nearly 1.5 million people. Queens was considered rural with nearly 300,000 people, but it would still rank near the top 10 cities in the country at that time.

Although the area was well built up, the railroad ambitiously planned for millions more and somehow managed to purchase well over 1,000 acres in Brooklyn and Queens. A contemporary Long Island Star article listed their transactions: 400 acres of Jamaica for a train yard and station, old grounds of the Brooklyn Baseball Club in East New York, property and buildings on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn and 600 acres in Long Island City for the future Sunnyside Yards.

Some 80 years later, Vincent Seyfried, in his “350 Years of Long Island City,” wrote about the development of the Sunnyside Yards:

“The Pennsylvania Railroad in 1901 had made the decision to build tunnels from Jersey to Manhattan and over to Long Island City and to lay out a vast railroad yard in the Sunnyside area. Beginning in September 1902 agents of the railroad began quietly buying up all the land and houses between Skillman Avenue on the south and Northern Boulevard on the north and from 21st Street as far east as 43rd Street near Woodside. At first, the purpose behind the boom in land sales was a well-kept secret but in June 1903, the railroad’s plan for a yard in Sunnyside became public.

“By 1903 many modern frame houses had been erected on the blocks from 32nd to 43rd Streets and between Skillman Avenue and Northern Boulevard. All these hundreds of properties plus the old colonial farms were bought out at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars by the Pennsylvania Railroad during 1903, 1904 and 1905. All the houses purchased were torn down and the plots leveled.

“In 1907 the railroad commenced the colossal task of leveling an entire 200 acre hill, 50 to 60 feet high (which stood at 34th-35th Streets) and then dumping the earth into the low-lying meadow land marking the ancient headwaters of Dutch Kills. This task consumed the whole of 1907 and 1908 and by the time it was completed, over 250 acres of former tidal marsh had been filled in to a depth of 10 to 30 feet. All but the mouth of the Dutch Kills stream was wiped off the map.

“The railroad calculated that by 1909 it had moved 2 1/2 million cubic yards of earth. During 1909 the viaduct bridges were constructed over the yards and the miles of track were put down. In November 1910 the Sunnyside Yards were officially thrown open to railroad traffic.”

For more information, call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit astorialic.org.

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