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Railways to the Rockaways

Rockaway is a Queens community located on the Rockaway Peninsula, which extends out from Far Rockaway to the East, all the way across the southern edge of Jamaica Bay. The land was originally inhabited by the native Lenape people, and the name Rockaway is a corruption of their original name, which is believed to have meant “place of the sands”.

Aerial view of the Rockaway Peninsula, seated below the opening to Jamaica Bay, facing the Atlantic Ocean.

Aerial view of the Rockaway Peninsula, seated below the opening to Jamaica Bay, facing the Atlantic Ocean.

Founded as a secluded sandy hermitage for the wealthy, the Rockaways became New York’s Playground in the early 20th century as the Long Island Rail Road and the MTA made the once inaccessible peninsula a destination. Amusement parks sprung up, Breezy Point became a summer bungalow hotspot, and later on the improvement of car traffic followed.  The waterfront community even pervaded mainstream culture with a popular (and impressively short) Ramones classic, “Rockaway Beach”.  But the railroad made the Rockaways what they are, and continue to be crucial to movement on and off the peninsula.

Here I’ll tell you a little of the storied history behind the Rockaway railroad line, and look at what happened to the community and railways during and after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Reaching the Rockaways by Rail
The Long Island Railroad (LIRR), currently the world’s largest commuter railroad by daily volume, had two points of access for much of the early 20th century: one to Far Rockaway, and one over the Jamaica Bay bridge from Broad Channel. Both were from the 1880s and though the railroads changed ownership and names often in those days they were both property of LIRR by 1921. Far Rockaway had long belonged to the LIRR, but the Rockaway Beach Branch with the bridge had changed hands, mostly belonging to the New York & Rockaway Beach Railroad, which was eventually folded into the LIRR.

It was 1930 when Robert Moses, the architect of much of Long Island’s southern shore, became the commissioner of parks. Moses’ work actually served to hurt the Rockaways as he developed Coney Island, Jones Beach State Park, and other attractions that drew tourists away from the Rockaways. By the 1950s the community had felt the full impact of its competition.

Through the ‘60s the effects of cheaper transportation, the construction of JFK airport, and the cultural changes in Queens made the Rockaways a far less desirable destination than it had been in its heyday. Rail service had continued since the lines were laid.

The MTA Takes the Tracks
With the Rockaways having become a far less exclusive destination, the LIRR no longer felt the need to continue its service over the bay on the Rockaway Beach Branch. The rail line from Broad Channel to the North crossed a bridge spanning the bay to reach the peninsula. Following finishing repairs from a 1950 fire on the bridge, the LIRR sold the rails of the Rockaway Beach Branch to the IND subway system of New York City and in 1952 the former-LIRR line joined the Rockaway Park Line (A line). A ‘forgotten spur’ of the LIRR track still exists in Brooklyn and that will be included in a later post on this blog, but the land could be profitable as park space and rail space.

By summer of 1956 the Rockaways were readily accessible to the residents of New York City. The first NYC Transit Authority Train crossed the bridge with a triumphant banner reading “Rockaway Here We Come!” and service has continued ever since.

Photographs of the first commuter A train crossing the bridge from Broad Channel to the Rockaways on the repaired bridge in 1956.

Photographs of the first commuter A train crossing the bridge from Broad Channel to the Rockaways on the repaired bridge in 1956.

The right of way from the LIRR connected all the way to where the Far Rockaway branch still runs today.

The right-of-way for the tracks between the LIRR (red) and the MTA A train (green) is occupied by the Far Rockaway Shopping Center.

The right-of-way for the tracks between the LIRR (red) and the MTA A train (green) is occupied by the Far Rockaway Shopping Center.

The Storm Comes – Hurricane Sandy
The Rockaways have borne an unbelievable brunt of insult in the last 15 years. A community recovering from 70 resident deaths in the 9/11 Attacks, the American Flight 587 crash, and a water-spout tornado in 2008, the Rockaways were absolutely devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Geographically, the Rockaways are a vulnerable spot.  In 1893, the barrier formation Hog Island was literally swept off the map just South of the peninsula in a tremendous hurricane. The geology of southern Long Island is such that most of the land is composed sand dunes and barriers laid out by currents. As such, the residents are very much surrounded by water and subject to the ocean’s power.

Perhaps the worst tragedy associated with Hurricane Sandy wasn’t the damage from the sheer force of the storm, nor even the suffering that came with the blizzard days later when residents had no power, but it was the freak fire ignited by sea-water shorting a power line which led to the destruction of 130 homes and the damaging of 50 more. It was a devastatingly unbearable second punch coming on the tail of the worst hurricane to ever strike the New York area.

The boardwalk on Rockaway beach was completely razed in Hurricane Sandy.

The boardwalk on Rockaway beach was completely razed in Hurricane Sandy.

The tragedy of Sandy is immense, but in the context of the railroad the MTA was completely cut off as most of the tracks were completely inundated and the bridge over the bay through Broad Channel was utterly eliminated.

The bridge over the bay was swept away in the storm surge.

The bridge over the bay was swept away in the storm surge.

Rebuilding

Rockaway5
The MTA had its hands full after Sandy. Several tunnels into Manhattan had flooded, tracks were damaged broadly, and Penn Station had suffered damage to some switches. But the large project of restoring service to the Rockaways had always been on the agenda. Construction took over a year but by May 2013 the bridge was rebuilt and service was restored.

A train running over the bridge in the 1970s, and over the new bridge in 2013.

A train running over the bridge in the 1970s, and over the new bridge in 2013.

In celebration of this event a railroad historical group commissioned a train to cross the bridge with a retired and restored A train car from the ‘50s bearing the banner “Rockaway Here We Come!” a fitting homage to the original train ran 57 years earlier, and a spirited defiance in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

A commemorative train ran across the bridge bearing a facsimile of the original banner borne in 1956.

A commemorative train ran across the bridge bearing a facsimile of the original banner borne in 1956.

However, the Rockaways are still reeling economically and as a community from the storm, and many feel the City has turned a deaf ear.  To compensate for the loss of rail access and other damages a Rockaway ferry was instituted to take commuters to Pier 11 in Manhattan.  But just this past Halloween Friday 2014 the city terminated ferry service citing excessive costs.  The restored A train and express buses still exist, but the ferry had cut travel time in half.  NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio felt the scorn of Rockaway residents but stood firm that the city could not afford the service, which has cost the city over $30 million already.

The trip from the city is still an easy one for beach-goers, but the community that once represented summer fun is now headed into another winter and residents fear that while the worst may be behind them, life in the Rockaways will be no walk on the beach any time soon.

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