by Kevin Walsh

South Brooklyn Railway, a freight line owned by the MTA, trackage is shown here at 2nd Avenue and 39th Street, along a ramp for exiting traffic on the Gowanus Expressway.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the sight of a freight train rumbling down much-traveled Brooklyn thoroughfares wasn’t an unusual sight.

The South Brooklyn Railway is the NYC Transit Authority’s (now MTA’s) very own freight line; it used to run from the TA’s fright yard at 39th Street and 2nd Avenue west and south to the Coney Island Yards.

The line ran along 2nd Avenue, then shared tracks with the IND/BMT subways in an open cut/tunnel from 4th Avenue to the 9th Ave yards. It then ran at grade under the Culver Line all the way south to the Coney Island Yards, with the SBK running on McDonald Avenue from Cortelyou Road south to beyond Avenue X.

If they could talk, the SBK tracks would have a lot of stories to tell. According to NYC transit historian/hockey maven Stan Fischler…

• It was once attempted to haul a dead whale along the SBK to the Coney Island Yards, where it would be trucked to the Coney Island Aquarium. The whale had been killed and embalmed in the North Atlantic and shipped to the SBK yard. The whale was strapped onto a flatcar and a loco began to haul it along the SBK.

The whale got as far as the tunnel south of 4th Avenue, but wouldn’t fit in the tunnel. I suppose they had to ship it to the Aquarium.

• The SBK also hauled a downed Army plane that crashed in Pennsylvania to the Coney Yards and then the pieces were trucked over to Floyd Bennett Field on Flatbush Avenue for an inquiry.

• The SBK did a lot of business with the many Brooklyn breweries that flourished pre-Prohibition. It also did a good business hauling wine grapes for Brooklynites who flouted the law during Prohibition.

The South Brooklyn arose from one of the many different passenger and freight railroads that ran in Brooklyn before subway service arrived in the early 20th Century, the Prospect Park and Coney Island Railroad, which for much of its route ran along Gravesend (now McDonald) Avenue. For part of its route the SBK used trolley tracks on McDonald Avenue, making it the only line associated with the TA that used both subway and trolley tracks.

The bread and butter of the SBK in its heyday was the delivery of boxcars from all over North America to businesses that were situated close to the tracks along the Culver right of way. The freight would be floated on barges from Hoboken and then transferred onto cars at the 2nd Ave. yard where SBK locos would pull them to their destinations.

Business began to wind down for the SBK in the 70s. The final freight runs came in 1978, and while the tracks along 37th Street and McDonald Avenue were visible for years after, they were finally paved over in the 1980s. After 1978 the MTA simply had freight operations from the 2nd Ave yard moved onto the elevated Culver Line (F train) which also hooks up to the Coney yards.

More than you’ll ever want to know (make a sandwich, it’s lengthy) on Trainweb.


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