NEW YORK CITY is not a railroading town, certainly not in the league of Chicago or Denver, for example. Goods get in and out of New York City mainly by truck, even though there are dreams of a rail freight tunnel crossing Upper New York Bay that would help to alleviate NYC’s crushing truck traffic.
Freight railroading is not completely absent in New York, however, and recently we got a unique look at the New York Connecting Railroad, a freight-only railroad running through the heart of Queens.
The New York Connecting Railroad Society used to run a rail walk or railroad fantrip every year, as part of its annual festivities, and in 2004 the extravaganza was a walk along the NYCR, which runs from the Oak Point freight yards in Hunts Point, Bronx, southwest through Port Morris, south through Randalls Island, southeast across the Hell Gate Bridge, and then generally southerly through Steinway, Woodside, Elmhurst, Middle Village and Glendale, to Fresh Pond yards where it meets a junction with the LIRR and New York and Atlantic railroads. Canadian Pacific and CSX freights generally make this run during the week, though there are occasional runs by the Providence and Worcester as well. Some mail trains run late at night. Above we see locos laying up at Fresh Pond yards on Sunday awaiting weekly action. Our walk proceeded north from Fresh Pond yard.
“Bridge 35” taking the NYCR over the LIRR Montauk branch at Fresh Pond yards.
New York and Atlantic locos at Fresh Pond yards. NY&A freight runs travel on the LIRR Bay Ridge branch south and west to Sunset Park.
For a comprehensive look at the NY&A Bay Ridge Branch, see this FNY page.
A look west on the LIRR Montauk Branch reveals, in the foreground, a trestle carrying the BMT Nassau Street line (M) to its terminal at Metropolitan Avenue. It is the eastern point of the old Myrtle Avenue El, most of which was closed in 1969 and razed the following year; a section east of Broadway was kept as part of the BMT. The Empire State Building looms in the background.
Stone bridge labelled 1916 brings Metropolitan Avenue across the NYCR. It’s important to note that when the RR was constructed in the mid-teens, it was placed in an open cut or elevated so that no grade crossings interrupted traffic. The engineers of the NYCR acted presciently, since there was little to no automobile traffic in Queens at the time.NYCR Society Secretary Bill Thom narrated the tour.
NY&A trackage trails off to the southwest at Fresh Pond yards toward Bay Ridge.
Very occasionally (we mean very) fantrips have run via the Bay Ridge Branch using old LIRR diesels and MP units. With the abandonment of the MP units in 2000, it’s likely there won’t be another one. Regular passenger service on the Bay Ridge Branch ended in 1924!
While steam-powered locos plied the NYCR in its earliest days, the line was quickly converted to electric power via a catenary connection; several remains of catenary persist at intervals along the route, as seen above. For the past few decades, diesel locos have run the line; there has never been a third rail connection as there is on metropolitan passenger lines.
The NYCR was double-tracked for its entire length, but since the line sees little traffic, one of the tracks was removed north of Middle Village, at the so-called “swamp switch” named for the old Juniper Swamp which was drained in the 1930s and replaced with Juniper Valley Park. In the background is the 69th Street bridge.
Railfans walk along the NYCR. The line is ocasionally weedy, and under overpasses, garbage-strewn, because New Yorkers use railroad cuts as garbage dumps.
This Middle Village garden is technically on railroad property and could be removed, without permission of the homeowner, if the NYCR saw a reason to do so.
This rural-looking stretch is known as the Hempstead Cut, so-named by its proximity to the North Hempstead Plank Road, now named 57th Avenue. A host of old Queens roads bore the name Hempstead since they either went to that Nassau County town or were north of it. Northern Boulevard in some spots was named North Hempstead Turnpike, while Booth Memorial Avenue in southern Flushing was, confusingly, also called North Hempstead Turnpike until about 1957. It was named Booth Memorial Hospital, after William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. In the 1990s, Booth Memorial Avenue itself became outdated as the hospital changed its name to New York Hospital of Queens. Photo: Bernard Ente
We’ve said there has never been passenger service along the NYCR, but there have been some exceptions to the rule. Trains transporting troops to the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park have used this route via the Hell Gate Bridge and then Bay Ridge Branch, or via Jamaica and the Montauk branch (which would pass below the NYCR at Fresh Pond yard). One such troop train, on a sunny day in 1958, carried the King of Rock & Roll on his way to the terminal, and he may well have passed this way.
Passenger service does join the NYCR at Bowery Bay Junction in Astoria, where Amtrak trains running east from Penn Station through Sunnyside Yards hook up with the NYCR and travel over the Hell Gate Bridge. The junction is named for yet another old thoroughfare, Bowery Bay Road, now known as Hobart Street.
The NYCR crosses Calamus Avenue in Elmhurst and nearby, the LIRR main line, becoming elevated in the process.
Crossing 51st Avenue. BELOW: a view from the surface at 51st Avenue.
Crossing the LIRR Port Washington branch, looking west (left) and east. Just past the bend, the PW Branch unites with the main line at Woodside Junction. A railroad has run here since the 1860s.
The impressive Queens Boulevard NYCR viaduct, constructed around 1910, is best seen from ground level. It is intricately detailed and delicately wrought in stonework as three arches cross 9 lanes of traffic.
NYCR builders bridged (looking north) 44th, 43rd and Woodside Avenues with scenic arch bridges reminiscent of the Queens Boulevard arches (see above). Photo: Bernard Ente
At Roosevelt Avenue the NYCR is joined by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which parallels it as far as its junction with Grand Central Parkway in Astoria.
Roosevelt Avenue was built, along with the elevated that runs above it, in stages beginning in 1914. To extend it east in the late 1920s, it assumed the names of former Flushing streets such as Amity Street. The el was run jointly by the IRT and BMT until 1949, after which the IRT assumed operations.
At Broadway, our tour ended because just to the north, the NYCR joins with Amtrak and the route becomes quite busy with speeding trains. A new bridge was built spanning the BQE in 2002. Our online tour isn’t quite over, however.
As the NYCR prepares to cross the Hell Gate Bridge, it gradually rises and crosses Astoria streets via a series of truly impressive concrete arches.
An Amtrak bound for Penn Station crosses Steinway Street. Note the active catenary wire. The girders were painted maroon a few years ago; in some spots especially those usually in bright sun, the red has faded to pink.
Thanks to Bernard Ente, the New York Connecting Railroad Society and Christina Wilkinson for their help with this page. It was photographed in April and June 2004, with the composition completed on July 3, 2004. Bernie Ente passed away in 2011, a great loss to the western Queens trains and shipping photography worlds.